Running Toward a Different Goal

Tim Montgomery has always been fast. A track legend in his hometown of Gaffney, South Carolina, Montgomery established himself as a sprinter from an early age. In college, he ran a sub-10-second 100 meters, only missing out on setting a world junior record when it was discovered the track was three centimeters too short. He competed in two Olympics, winning a silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta for the 4×100 meter relay, and following that with a gold medal in the same event in Sy

Solving the Recidivism Puzzle

There is little debate remaining that the United States has a significant problem with the recidivism of former prisoners. Department of Justice statistics show that one-third of released prisoners are rearrested in their first year outside prison walls. Within three years, that number jumps to 50 percent, and then to 75 percent over five years. But while identifying the problem is easy, it is a more difficult challenge to determine what the primary causes are for these recidivism rates, and ev

Corrections Officials and Depression

Prison can be a dark, lonely place. The isolation; the ever-present threat of violence; the cold, bare walls and heavy iron bars—it’s not surprising that some of those inside corrections facilities struggle with maintaining their emotional and mental health. And that struggle is not just limited to prisoners. A recent study commissioned by Michigan Corrections Organization has found that more than a third of correction officials in that state suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) o

If ...

The question is a simple one, yet full of profundity. It is nearly universal in application—who among us doesn’t have a past decision that we lament?  A choice that changed our future path and the lives of those around us?  And how could things have been different if someone close to us had advised us to go a different way? In her work as a detective of the Seattle Police Department, Kim Bogucki has seen firsthand the results of poor decisions based on bad or non-existent advice. While working

A Night in Prison

By the time Sgt. Joseph Serna left his position in the Special Forces, he had completed four combat tours in over two decades in Afghanistan. He had nearly been killed on three separate occasions, and received three Purple Heart awards, along with several other commendations for bravery and valor. Unfortunately, when Serna left the battlefield, the battlefield didn’t completely leave him. Serna has struggled with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. One evening, after choosing to figh

Forgiveness for the Infamous

He’s one of the most notorious men in recent history.  When Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon outside the Dakota apartment building on a cold December evening in Manhattan in 1980, his name was added to a list of infamy:  Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Sihran Sihran, John Hinckley. Chapman is currently serving a life sentence for second degree murder at the Wende Correctional Facility outside of Buffalo.  He has been considered for—and denied—parole eight separate times since 2

Forgiveness for the Infamous

He’s one of the most notorious men in recent history.  When Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon outside the Dakota apartment building on a cold December evening in Manhattan in 1980, his name was added to a list of infamy:  Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Sihran Sihran, John Hinckley. Chapman is currently serving a life sentence for second degree murder at the Wende Correctional Facility outside of Buffalo.  He has been considered for—and denied—parole eight separate times since 2

Stranger in a Strange Land

Imagine being transported 50 years into the future.  Things that were once commonplace have disappeared, or have become quaint relics of an earlier time.  In their place are new items and technologies that you don’t understand and can’t use.  The food people eat and the clothes they wear are different than you remember, and at a much higher cost than before.  Even the way people interact with one another has changed. Otis Johnson doesn’t have to imagine such a scenario—it’s his reality. Convic

The Freedom of Advent

“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes―and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer In case anyone might have missed it, we have entered headlong into the holiday season.  Neighborhoods are once again filled with houses adorned with festive lights (ranging from understated to garish), nonstop seasonal advertising assaults the senses, and songs about reindeer, sleigh rides, and snowme

Enemies to Allies

For years, Jacob Maclin was the bane of the Milwaukee police force.  A gang member and drug dealer, Maclin had been arrested so many times that a collection of his mugshots could serve as a timeline of his troubled past.  His enmity toward law enforcement was real and deep, but was particularly focused on one man, a hard-nosed, old school cop named Ray Robakowski. The feeling of disgust between the two men was mutual. “I wasn’t a social worker, I was a police officer,” officer Ray Robakowski s

The Marks of Jesus

To go into prison is to be marked for life.  Regardless of the time spent, the lessons learned, and the changes made, these men and women will forever be identified as prisoners—a “scarlet letter” firmly affixed upon them, and readily visible to all.  Future employers, landlords, and even co-congregants will identify them first and foremost as “ex-cons,” and suspicion will guide their interactions. And in some cases, these marks are more than metaphorical. “Freedom Tattoos”—a program created b

Dignity and the Moral Rehabilitation of Prisoners

Much has been written in this blog about Warden Burl Cain.  (See here, here, and here for examples).  During his nearly two decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the prison has shed its reputation as the “bloodiest prison in America,” and has become a model for other prisons seeking to reduce violent assaults among prisoners. In an article for First Things, Peter Leithart seeks to find the reason for the prison’s transformation.  While he notes several programs that have been i

No Laughing Matter

Humor is a very powerful thing.  It has the ability to entertain.  It can connect people who otherwise might have very little in common and allow old friends to revisit happy times and places.  A well-timed joke can relieve tension, foster conversation, encourage, bring cheer, and alleviate melancholy. It can also inform, elucidate, and raise awareness of serious issues – sometimes in ways a simple recitation of facts cannot. On his “Last Week Tonight” program, comedian John Oliver delivers a

But for the Grace of God ...

What advice would you give to a younger you?  If you could give yourself a warning, or point a juvenile version of you in a particular direction, what would you say?  Would it make a difference? The question became painfully real to Trent Bell, an architectural photographer in Maine, when a longtime family friend was convicted of a crime and sentenced to over 30 years in prison.  He wondered what his friend would have told himself if he had the opportunity.  He also wondered what stories other

The Architecture of Restoration

When the word “prison” is mentioned, a some very common images come to mind – cold, gray bars set against drab, colorless walls; small, dark cells intended to isolate and punish rather than to reform or rehabilitate.  Acres of razor wire surrounding these facilities bespeak the philosophy that those on the inside are to be set apart, not to be connected in any meaningful way to society at large. A new approach is gaining support among those who design and build prisons.  In contrast to earlier

The Cost(s) of Incarceration

When one thinks of exclusive addresses in New York City, the first thing that likely comes to mind is a penthouse overlooking Central Park, or perhaps an historic brownstone in a trendy part of town.  But when it comes to expensive living quarters, those addresses have nothing on the more spartan surroundings in the middle of the East River. A recent study performed by the Independent Budget Office in New York City reveals the staggering amount being spent to house inmates our nation’s largest

The Power to Forgive

“How do people forgive a crime like murder?”  The headline from a BBC News Magazine story asks a question that most of us hope we never have to answer, but it is a question that we would all be wise to ponder. The BBC article interviews Bill Pelke.  In 1985, Pelke’s grandmother was brutally killed by four teenaged girls in her home in northwest Indiana.  Fifteen-year-old Paula Cooper, viewed by prosecutors as the leader of the group, was convicted of murder for the stabbing death of the 78-year

Shining a Light Through Art

Sandow Birk is an artist specializing in 19th Century landscapes, particularly of his native California.  For a recent exhibition, however, Birk has turned his attention from bucolic vineyards and peaceful coastlines to a somewhat unexpected subject – the landscapes of the state’s prisons. Geographies of Detention, currently taking place at the California Museum of Photography, looks at prison spaces, both from the outside and within, and examines what those spaces say about our attitudes and p

"Amazing Grace" and Personal Prisons

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see. The words are, no doubt, familiar to many of us who learned to sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” at a young age.  The tune might be even more familiar – you don’t have to be religious to recognize a song that seems omnipresent in movies or on TV; at private funerals or public memorial services.  We hear it played in grandeur on a stately pipe organ, or by solitary trump

Who's My Neighbor?

On January 30, three young brothers were canoeing the Salmon Creek in Washington state.  The river current was strong that day, swollen by a week’s worth of rain, and the boys found themselves unable to control their small craft in the rushing water.  The boat capsized, sending the three boys—the youngest of which was eight—into the icy cold water. On shore, Nelson Pettis heard the screams of help from the frightened youngsters.  He quickly scanned the creek, and saw three heads bobbing in the
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