Jails and Justice

My daughter, Emily, asked me a great question the other day:

“How did your work in jail rehab inform your work with executives?” My answer: It was the best training I could have ever had.

Why? Because the same principal applies to both: to get out of jail you need to move up the scale. Here’s the context and explanation.

After returning from Vietnam, I spent 8 years in jail (1970-1978)—fortunately, not as an inmate, but as the Director of Rehabilitation for the Kalamazoo County Jail. It was a “lock them up and throw away the key” consciousness then, the same one that essentially prevails today: three strikes and you are out.

The impetus for the program was a million dollar clean-up bill to repair all the damage from angry inmates. From the county’s point of view, if we were able clean up the mess and prevent further destruction, “Rehab” would be considered a success. From their perspective, the goal was to rehabilitate the jail independent of any benefit to the inmates.

Victoria Pickering, https://www.flickr.com/photos/vpickering/
“The Eastern States Penitentiary was the first penitentiary in America, designed to reform criminals rather than punish them, through solitary confinement and labor. It was an the most modern building in America when it first opened in 1842. The prison operated until 1971, and now is a ruin.” (Image Title: “Eastern States Penitentiary” | Author: Victoria Pickering | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2.3 million adults are currently incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails. Additionally, almost 5 million adults are on probation or on parole, a total of almost 3% of adults in the U.S. resident population. These statistics give the U.S. the glorious distinction of having the highest documented incarceration rate in the world (743 per 100,000 population). Russia has the second highest rate (577 per 100,000), followed by Rwanda (561 per 100,000). In short, the U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population and over 23% of the world’s prison and jail population (adult inmates).

By comparison, the incarceration rate in Norway is about 71 inmates per 100,000; in the Netherlands about 94 per 100,000; and in Australia about 133 per 100,000. Not coincidentally, all three of those countries invest more heavily in inmate rehabilitation and provide much more humane treatment to people in jail. It is the length of sentences, however, that truly distinguishes American prison policy. American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher. About 1 in 5 inmates are locked up for non-violent drug offenses. 40% of the prison population is black even though blacks only account for 13% of the U.S. population. You get the picture.

In the Kalamazoo County Jail Rehabilitation program, we reduced recidivism by over 50% over a three-year period based on re-arrest.

How? We focused first on the correctional officers in the jail, then on the cops in the streets, and finally on businessmen in the community who hired the same inmates who had stolen from them in the past, but who had demonstrated such significant improvements from the rehabilitation program that the business folks decided to take a chance. And, of course, we had a laser focus on developing new skills and behaviors for the inmates.

We drilled home the message to inmates that their past career choice (crime) had already resulted in failure. They got caught and they were in jail. It only made sense to learn the skills required to pursue other options. We helped them get their GEDs and improve their reading and writing skills. We taught them interpersonal skills so that they could build more constructive relationships with the correctional officers, their families, their peers, and their future employers. We offered them Transcendental Meditation to help them stay calm in a crisis and make better choices. And we shaped them up physically. They became more conscious and intentional about their behaviors. Over time, inmates learned the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual skills required for them to re-integrate with society and function as productive citizens.

But to get back to Emily’s question: how did that work inform my work with executives in large corporations? As I said, the principle is the same: move up the scale to get out of jail.

The biggest difference between inmates and executives is that inmates can’t deny they are in jail, and executives can’t recognize the jails they are in.

Due to the relentless requirements and daunting demands of corporate life, most executives are so focused on meeting deadlines that they deaden their senses. Most of the executives I coach work at least 70 hours a week and spend a good share of their “vacations” either thinking about work or working remotely. They have the same developmental challenges as inmates. Physically, they don’t have time to exercise so they become depleted and drained over time. Emotionally, they don’t have time to relate fully to their families, so they become disconnected and depressed. Intellectually, they are so consumed by their jobs they have little time to read or pursue outside interests. Spiritually, most are so driven to make more money that they lose track of meaning. While people who end up in jail typically have too much time on their hands, executives have too little. Both, however, need to grow as multi-dimensional persons. And both are in jails of their own making.

So, in my work with executives, I don’t just focus on positioning, performance, and purpose, I also help them improve their health, relationships, outside interests, and sense of connection to something larger than themselves or their respective organizations. I help them break free from the jails they have created for themselves.

In the jail rehabilitation program, we found the most effective aspects of the program were 1) the creation of jail culture that supported inmate growth, and 2) community connections that linked inmates to the social services they needed after release. The same is true for executive development. Corporate culture and sense of community are the critical success factors for successful and sustainable change.

If correctional officers treat inmates with dignity and respect, inmates are more likely to act more respectfully themselves. If corporate policies support family leave, sabbaticals, and personal development, then employees are more likely to be committed and pursue a healthy lifestyle.

If inmates are more connected to social service agencies, then they are more likely to see themselves as a part of the community instead of alienated from it.   If executives and employees feel more connected to the communities in which they live and work, they are more likely to act interdependently and unselfishly.

Yes, Emily, the lessons learned in a county jail apply directly to Fortune 500 firms, but in some ways, change is more difficult in large corporations than in small correctional institutions.

Inmates know they are in jail. The shock of the experience motivates them to find a different way. Employees and executives are less likely to recognize how their handcuffs are tightening and their worlds are shrinking. The path to destruction is just more insidious for executives than for inmates.

OK, but what is this notion of move up the scale to get out of jail? Aha, that’s the real message in this post. A scale gives a person a range of possible outcomes for their behavior and an assessment tool to analyze their current state. For example, a scale for an inmate might be:

  • 5.0:      Fully employed and contributing to the community.
  • 4.0:      Learning, working, and living in a healthy community
  • 3.0:      Living independently, drug free, and crime free
  • 2.0:      Out of jail, struggling to survive, dependent on others
  • 1.0:     Under the influence of the criminal and/or drug culture in or out of jail

A scale for an executive might be:

  • 5.0:      Living, learning and working interdependently
  • 4.0:      Working collaboratively to create healthy, innovative environments
  • 3.0:      Working independently and balancing work and family
  • 2.0:      Working competitively with others unaware of being in jail
  • 1.0:      Working outrageous hours and deteriorating in all dimensions of life

No matter what jail we are in, we need to be able to describe the conditions and find the keys to unlock the doors. Scales enable us to assess where we are and set goals for where we want to be. Closing the gap may require the assistance of a jail rehab counselor or an executive coach, but we need to be clear how to get from where we are to where we want and need to be.

In regard to inmates, there can be little doubt that we have a mass incarceration problem in America.

One major cause of that problem is that we don’t have a functional justice system; we have a dysfunctional legal system.

We give big punishments to the little guys and little punishments to the big guys. There is no justice in that. And more jails won’t help.

We need to use jails as the last resort in the criminal justice system; and when we choose that option, we need to provide comprehensive training programs that give offenders a chance to re-integrate into society.

In regard to executives and employees, there is no question that corporations can be jails of a more subtle nature. People feel trapped and/or handcuffed depending upon their rung on the corporate ladder. Yes, executive compensation is way out of control, but most of these executives are in jail and don’t even know it. They need a rehab program as much as inmates do. In a recent New York Times article[1], David Brooks suggested that we need to get out of our elitist, “solipsistic bubbles” and get in touch with how the vast majority of people on this planet live. It sounds like a step in the right direction. And one that could lead to more justice and fewer jails.

Jail cultures and corporate cultures both need to change.

Prison culture needs to become progress-oriented instead of punishment-oriented.

It needs to invest in programs that not only teach inmates productive skills, but also link them up to community resources that can help them transition positively to a new life.

The corporate culture needs to be more balanced than brutal.

It needs to support positive health practices and put policies in place to foster more diversity and development.

So Emily, let me end with a poem:

We are all in jail
And we all need a scale
To see our way out of the mess we are in
Some may require bail
And some may need to fail
To see what’s possible if we begin again


References: [1] David Brooks, “The Anti-Party Men: Trump, Carson, Sanders and Corbyn,” New York Timeshttp://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/08/opinion/the-anti-party-men-trump-carson-sanders-and-corbyn.html?_r=0.

Also published on Medium.

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