Let’s Focus on Helping Criminals Change!


The 1960s was a watershed decade in the United States, and maybe worldwide, and particularly the year 1968. For example, in 1961, voters elected John F. Kennedy as the nation’s first president who was also a Catholic. That was the same year that Barack Obama was born on April 4 in Hawaii. On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King gave his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. On Nov. 22 that same year President Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade in downtown Dallas, Texas. Soon thereafter, Dallas police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, subsequently charging him with the gunshot death of a Dallas police officer, J.D. Tippit, and the Kennedy assassination as well. Two days later Jack Ruby, a Dallas businessman, gunned Oswald down as he was being transferred from the police headquarters to the Dallas County jail. “”The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub.L. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241, July 2, 1964) was a landmark legislation in the United States that outlawed segregation in the US schools and public places. First conceived to help African Americans, the bill was amended prior to passage to protect women in courts, and explicitly included white people for the first time. It also started the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In order to circumvent limitations on the federal use of the Equal Protection Clause handed down by the Civil Rights Cases, the law was passed under the Commerce Clause. Once it was implemented, its effects were far reaching and had tremendous long-term impacts on the whole country. It prohibited discrimination in public facilities, in government, and in employment, invalidating the Jim Crow laws in the southern US. It became illegal to compel segregation of the races in schools, housing, or hiring. Powers given to enforce the bill were initially weak, but were supplemented during later years.”(From Wikipedia).The National Voting Rights Act of 1965 (United States Code” outlawed the requirement that would-be voters in the United States take literacy tests to qualify to register to vote, and it provided for federal registration of voters in areas that had less than 50% of eligible minority voters registered. The Act also provided for Department of Justice oversight to registration, and the Department’s approval for any change in voting law in districts that had used a “device” to limit voting and in which less than 50% of the population was registered to vote in 1964.” (From Wikipedia)On April 4, 1968, a gunman assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King as he stood on the balcony outside his room in the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, and 61 days later, June 5, 1968, a gunman shot presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy as he left a speaking engagement at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Kennedy died the next day.The 1960s was a watershed decade for me personally. Convicted for the first time on Dec. 17, 1959, I spent most of the 1960s in and out of prison. I was released for the first time in May 1962 and was back in prison in August 1963. Released on parole in December 1965, I returned to prison in July 1966. My final release came on Dec. 9, 1968.The nearly four decades since 1968 has been a watershed time in this country as well.During the early 1970s, the nation’s prison population was less than 250,000 inmates, but between 1970 and 2005, the number of prisoners ballooned eight-fold to more than 2.2 million incarcerated individuals. A report released in February 2008 by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that the number of prisoners will increase by 192,000 between now and 2012. This prison population growth could cost taxpayers another 27.5 billion.In 1976, Charles Colson, a former aide to former President Richard M. Nixon, launched Prison Fellowship Ministries, now one of the oldest and largest efforts in the nation to reduce prison populations. Another such group, though not particularly faith-based, is a public policy organization in Washington, DC called C.U.R.E. (Citizens United (for the) Rehabilitation (of) Errants. This organization began in 1972 in Texas, and now operates internationally from its headquarters in Washington, DC. Just for transparency purposes, I am working to launch a C.U.R.E. chapter in North Carolina.Here’s a sampling of prison ministries, anti-recidivism programs and reentry efforts operating around the country. The year these programs launched is in parenthesis: (1893) Wheeler Mission Ministries, Indianapolis; (1954) St. Leonard’s Ministries, Chicago; (1958) Teen Challenge International, Missouri; (1972) C.U.R.E., Washington, DC; (1976) Prison Fellowship, Washington, DC; (1992) New Horizons Ministries, Colorado, Islamic Health and Human Services, Detroit; (1993) Helping Up Mission–Spiritual Recovery Program, Baltimore, Detroit Transition of Prisoners (a PFM initiative); (1994) Prodigal Ministries, Kentucky; (1995) Conquest Offender Reintergration Ministries, Washington, DC, Inner-City Muslim Action Network, Chicago; (1996) Women At The Well House Ministries, Texas; (1997) Project Blanket, Pennsylvania; (1999) Episcopal Social Services–Network Program, New York; (2000) Amachi, Pennslyvania; (2001) Keystone Ministries, Mississippi, Men of Valor, California; (2002) Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency–Faith Community Partnership, Washington, DC. This sampling represents just the tip of an iceberg of various efforts designed to help criminals to become contributing citizens.As you can clearly see, these various efforts–this reentry movement–as my good friend Joe Williams terms it– have launched during the spectacular eight-fold growth of the prison population in the United States.With that background, let’s consider the central questions of this article: 1) Why have prison populations increased more than eightfold during the past 40 years, despite the gargantuan efforts of anti-recidivism programs and various other re-entry strategies? 2) Why have I managed to stay away from crime and prison for the past 40 years?As I have observed, even worked alongside several of the anti-recidivism and reentry programs over the years, including some work with Prison Fellowship during the 1990s, I have concluded that far too many programs, ministries, etc. focus on changing the system, rather than helping criminals to change. I am certainly not denying that much about our failed criminal justice system needs changing. Rather, I contend that in order to move progressively along the Change Continuum, criminals must change whether the system does or not.About 40 years ago, when I got out of prison, the deck was stacked high against a former criminal and prison inmate who was released and wanted to change. For example, I tried to enroll in two business schools in Durham, NC during 1969. Both turned me down. I knew, though, that I needed to become better educated, not because academic credentials would make my trek from crime to contribution any easier, but because I needed the knowledge and the understanding to continue my progress toward personal transformation. Therefore, I mapped my own educational program, learning to conquer challenges as they appeared before me. By contrast, I got my first job after prison just two weeks following my release–Dec. 24, 1968. I worked as a member of the janitorial crew at the long since defunct Jack Tar Hotel in Durham.Now as I reflect on 40 years of the following four trends, I see a clear conclusion. Before I share the conclusion, consider the four trends: 1) the eight-fold growth of prison populations; 2) the roller coaster like increase and decline of crime rates; 3) the steady growth of anti-recidivism and reentry programs; 4) my personal transformation from criminal to contributing citizen. Now the conclusion: I have succeeded in the arduous trek from crime to contribution because I changed, whether systems improved or not.For the remainder of this article, I share with you my personal change process. I recommend it highly for anyone who wants to successfully negotiate the Change Continuum.Near the beginning of my transformation process, I adopted a personal mission statement that I have refined and expanded several times since adopting this core value: “My personal mission in life is to win the war of self by learning to fully live in the seven freedoms that Jesus, the Christ, purchased for us with His death on the cross millennia ago. In this context, I define “self” as the residue impact of my sinful nature that remains primarily in my memory, following my miraculous new birth as a child of God. The seven freedoms are as follows: 1) Freedom to live fully in the Word of God; 2) Freedom to live fully by faith; 3) Freedom to live fully, trusting in the hope of the gospel; 4) Freedom to live fully according to the principles of love; 5) Time freedom; 6) Financial freedom; and 7) Debt freedom.During the 40 years of my personal transformation, I’ve learned to build my new life on the foundation of a set of core values that I’ve termed the 40 Powerful Principles of Transformation. I learned to organize these 40 principles into the following seven categories: 1) The thinking and perspective principles; 2) The effectiveness principles; 3) the planning principles; 4) the continual action principles; 5) the daily application principles; 6) the C.A.R.E. principles; 7) the T.E.A.M principles.I am working on an E-book that explains these principles in detail. I plan to have it ready by my 40th anniversary–Dec. 9, 2008. In summary, it all boils down to this: let’s teach criminals how to change, whether systems change or not. I have learned that I can live successfully, even when surrounded daily by people who fail.