News: Leaving the Cell

Program helps ex-offenders and those who care for them

Nov 28, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Getting out of jail is as hard as going in — it's a dramatic change in what makes up "normal" daily life. Understanding social norms and figuring out how to avoid the behaviors that resulted in a conviction are essential, according to Khalil Osiris, a former inmate who did time for 20 years and is now director of business development and presenter for Strengthening, Overcoming, Achieving, Recovering (SOAR) Development Corp. (

"The constant sense of rage which led to the occurrences of violence — with me a perpetrator and victim in prison — that mindset, that way of thinking, those emotions were normalized in that environment," he says. "I stayed out for three years and nothing had changed fundamentally in my thinking. So, even though I was physically released, I was still in. Within three years I was back physically in prison for robbery and forgery."

Helping the formerly incarcerated break the cycle of recidivism is what "Psychology of Incarceration" training is all about. In addition to being an undergraduate course at Wright State University, it's a continuing-education course for those in the community who help former prisoners, such as social workers and parole officers, and is a re-entry program for inmates recognized by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections as a means to help prepare men and women for their release.

Lucasville and Auschwitz
A former inmate of Lucasville before the 1993 riot, Osiris had an opportunity to earn a bachelor's and a master's degree while incarcerated in Maryland.

He says most inmates don't have the luxury of earning the kind of education that helped him stay out of prison. To help those on the outside learn the prison norm, the course materials include interviews and journal entries from prisoners. The goal is to create a "visceral experience" for those who have never been in prison so they begin to understand.

Consider a statement from a prisoner called Tony Sr. about an experience in 1994.

"I remember the C/O's calling me down to the office on a Sunday afternoon; and before I could get into the office, some inmate says that it had to do with my son being shot," he said. "The C/O told me very gently and respectfully that my son was in the hospital and I needed to call a number. I called the number and my daughter, Melissa, answered crying as she pleaded with me not to go back to my old ways. Then she told me that my son had been shot and he was in surgery at that very moment.

"I wanted to find that inmate and beat him down for finding so much enjoyment in relaying the message that my son had been shot. I wanted to beat someone, anyone, down so that I wouldn't feel so guilty, so worthless, so powerless, so useless."

That kind of experience is "normal" in prison. To understand the context, the course frequently refers to the book, Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, a former prisoner of a concentration camp.

"One has to understand that in Nazi Germany, however much we see them as a victim today, (Jews) were labeled criminals," Osiris explains. "A concentration camp was fundamentally a prison. There are innumerable examples of how European Jews of that period internalized those concepts about themselves. The whole process of labeling and internalizing the label — that is the way one comes to perceive themselves, and their sense of personal power or lack thereof has many parallels to the individual we find in prisons today.

"For many men and women who are in prison, that while they have committed an offense, they also see themselves as victims. The idea of victimhood is an idea that must be addressed if there's to be meaningful change on the part of the offender. There has to be a feeling of absolute personal accountability that's born of a recognition that, no matter who's to blame for one's situation — that is, growing up poor in a community where you're in the projects absent a father, a drug addicted parent ... no matter those conditions, one has a responsibility to hold themselves accountable for how one responds to those conditions."

Acceptable offenses
The fundamental challenge posed by Frankl is that, in the midst of our suffering, we are able to find meaning that reflects the dignity and worth of every human life. Whether a family member or a social worker, learning how to help a former prisoner do that begins with identifying our own preconceived notions.

"Incarceration is a metaphor for self-imposed limitations," Osiris says. "The majority of people who are incarcerated will never see the inside of a jail or a prison because we engage in socially sanctioned forms of self-imposed limitations. For example, I can dislike someone for no other reason than the color of their skin, and I will never, ever go to jail for that. I can think that, for no other reason than I am a man, I should have the final say in any relationship that I have with a woman.

"In the first case we're talking about racism, in the later case we're talking about patriarchy or sexism. I say that they're socially sanctioned because they have been normalized in the larger culture to the degree that no one finds this criminal, even though the consequences of this kind of thinking, for most people who are impacted by it, are devastating."

Surrounding ourselves with like-minded friends and associates or being in a home environment where these "isms" are familiar — and therefore comfortable — make all of these distortions feel normal.

"We say this is an example of a distortion of mental health, of human well-being," Osiris says. "The distortion is rooted in our own thinking. For the people who do land in jail or prisons, the thinking that it would take to produce those conditions is generally already embedded before they get there. If we want to find out how we are able to make the transformation, the first thing is to recognize that we have engaged in distortion, that we have internalized distortions of our own well-being."

We can undo that work by internalizing healthy thinking that will improve our well-being. A parole officer who is jaded — thinking all ex-cons are just in a revolving door on their way back in after they get out — and a prisoner who sees any cop as always on the lookout for her next illegal activity to send her back in can work together to eliminate that "inevitable" outcome.

We have choices. Returning to the challenge set down by Frankl, Osiris believes we can move beyond our choices, upbringing and other conditions that have resulted in our current condition.

"Before you go judging someone else about theirs, the first responsibility we have is to recognize how our self-imposed limitations led to a form of incarceration in our lives," he says. "It is through that realization that we are able to move beyond our own biases, our own prejudices, our own distortions and put ourselves in a position to be more effective ... in the work that we have to do." ©