The Secret to Rehabilitating Prisoners

The Secret to Rehabilitating Prisoners

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This post was originally published on April 1, 2014.

There was an article in the Daily Mail about an alternative treatment program happening in the UK where drug addicted prisoners are being provided with holistic care to help them break free from their addictions. Their holistic treatment includes yoga, acupuncture, deep tissue massage and other relaxation techniques. They’re also receiving intensive support and motivational enhancement therapies like creative writing, all within a therapeutic atmosphere. To me, this is happy news.

I know that some people think those convicted of crimes are dirty and bad and deserving of punishment—not deserving of such treats as sunlight and air, let alone yoga and journals. Obviously, I am not one of them. According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, as many as 85 percent of inmates in the US have substance abuse issues or histories of addiction and were under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time they committed their crimes, committed their crimes to get money to buy drugs or were incarcerated for an alcohol or drug violation.

Yes, addiction can lead to crime but the very government that punishes people for their addiction-related crimes also recognizes that addiction is a disease. This truly baffles me. Would we punish someone for having any other kind of illness?

We want these offenders to change their behavior and yet most experts say that rehabilitation is a more effective strategy than simple punitive social control. For drug users in particular, there’s a strong argument to be made that punishment simply doesn’t work. In fact, there’s serious concern that traditional prisons just make sick people sicker. According to psychologists, convicts released from the typical prison re-enter society more anxious, depressed and “sadistic” than when they went in.

Certainly, prisons—like any environment—have the power to shape behavior. This influence could be for the better but when a prison provides little educational or therapeutic intervention, it’s oftentimes for the worse. It’s no wonder our nation’s recidivism rate is so high.

In 2010, I co-facilitated a meditation group in a NYC shelter for women who were both homeless and mentally ill, many of whom also suffered from drug and alcohol dependency. It was my first experience providing holistic or “enrichment services” to people who were decidedly “not rich.” I was four years sober at the time and a total stranger myself to meditation. I was pretty shitty at it, actually—I could barely sit still, let alone quiet my mind. This was pretty humbling, considering the way most of the women around me responded to the treatment. Unable to keep my eyes closed, I’d watch the others as their bodies softened, amazed at how sometimes they’d even allow themselves to cry—something I, myself, rarely could do (ahem, I’ve since become an expert).

Afterwards, I’d listen to them describe the feelings that the practice had allowed them to release, as well as the pleasant memories that the guided mediation had encouraged them to experience. I wasn’t much of a meditator then but I was a writer as well as an alcoholic; I had used creative writing, along with other traditional methods, as a means of recovery—and so I understood. I know that when you feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to make positive choices, including the choice to abstain from alcohol and drugs or surrender to treatment if necessary. Programs like this restore a person’s dignity, rather than the opposite. They really do work.

There is no easy fix for addiction or the criminal behavior that sometimes follows but simply locking the person away won’t solve it. Reminding them of their personhood just might.

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Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.