Photo by Ross Findon via Unsplash

In prison, there are those who do time pursuing their own aims, irrespective of regulations and what others think about them. Some get stuck by competing motivations, unable to choose a definitive path. Others reinvent better versions of themselves. They become committed to values, positions and issues connected to their own evolving humanity and recognize their prospective roles as citizens. They are, in other words, on a path to rehabilitation.

The success of the last group is the reason New York managed to reduce its prison population by almost half, from 70,000 in 2000 to around 39,000 today, according to official reports. They are supported in part by the diverse array of programming in New York state prisons. These opportunities are academic and vocational as well as therapeutic, religious, ethnic, social and charitable. Many model outside institutions in pursuit of communal civics inside the walls. And some are run by the New York state prisons themselves. State-run mandatory classes are supervised by a civilian offender rehabilitation coordinator but managed day-to-day by an incarcerated person called an Inmate Program Associate (IPA). Here at Sing Sing that IPA for the Phase III program is Salahuddin Tayden Townsley.

Townsley has been incarcerated for just over 26 years of a 42-and-a-half-years to-life sentence for murder and assault. His charge stands in sharp contrast to the engaging and caring human I’ve come to know. For the better part of 20 years, he has served his community, assisting with appeals in the Law Library, advocating for incarcerated persons with mental health diagnoses, and preparing others for reentry.

Townsley runs Phase III programming in the prison’s Resource Center. It’s the size of a small public school classroom. Its walls are adorned with posters offering reentry services and encouragement. Ten desk-chair combinations sit socially distanced in blue taped squares. Rarely are all the seats filled. Sing Sing is a Max A facility; there are a lot of long sentences here. During class hours the room is inhabited by men aged 21 through 70. The restless energy is palpable, often heavy with anxiety about an impending parole board appearance or release.

Townsley enters class with an air of confidence. He is a 45-year-old African American of medium brown complexion, whose salt and pepper hair betrays his youthful good looks. His smile consumes his face, and his class delivery is packaged in self-assured, measured tones. Sometimes he shares a humorous, self-deprecating anecdote about his day. Other times he distills the collective tension about a new rule or incident, much in the way an adult in the free world processes and compartmentalizes a news item in the paper. I sat with Townsley over several days in the Resource Center, discussing his insights on rehabilitation. Here’s what he had to say:

RS: How old were you when you came to prison?

Townsley: I was 20 when I was sentenced and transferred to state prison. I was 19 when I was arrested.

RS: Damn, you were just a kid. What was that like?

Townsley: Initially, I was numb. It was an out-of-body experience. I never anticipated anything like that happening to me. I was the one everyone expected to succeed. I was the good kid. Coming to prison was extremely strange to me. I heard many stories about prison but I never expected to be living it out myself.

RS: What kind of person were you when you were19?

Townsley: I was young, rebellious and a bit jaded when I entered the prison system. I was hurt and ashamed. I never expected to be here. I disappointed a lot of people, as well as myself. Growing up I experienced many abuses, both in and out of the home — physical, sexual and substance abuse. I became an introvert. Back in the mid 90s, communities across America suffered from two things: drugs and violence. Ultimately, I became a victim and perpetrator of both. As a child and adolescent, I was engulfed in a world of confusion. Today, at 45, I see things for what they were and are.

RS: What does rehabilitation mean to you?

Townsley: I don’t remember hearing the word “rehabilitation” until I came to prison. When I first heard it, it was said that we — meaning poor, Black people — were never habilitated. It meant that incarcerated persons were not taught or not prepared to live in a way society deemed normal.

We came from dysfunctional households and communities where we lacked the tools to develop as our White counterparts are assumed to have developed. We suffered from a host of traumas including poverty, violence and a whole range of abuses, all affecting our psyches. We received no therapy or anything to help us resolve those external and internal conflicts.

For many of us, the whole of our lives have been abnormal and we didn’t know what normal looked like. Many children who grow up in single-parent households, with drug addicted parents, end up in foster care and juvenile detention, where they suffer more trauma. Then they simply graduate to prison.

I give this backdrop to explain where I’m coming from when I speak about rehabilitation. We must go back to the start of what led many of us to prison, which are those childhood traumas. Rehabilitation requires the resolution of both the external and internal conflicts. We weren’t born thieves, robbers, rapists, drug dealers or murders. So, where did these behaviors come from? How did they develop? Rehabilitation means we have to go back and address the core issues if we are seriously looking to help people effectively reintegrate into society as normal people, leading normal lives. If society expects to approach rehabilitation with any real effectiveness then we need to understand that we can’t just look at the crime the person committed, but we have to look at how they got there.

RS: What does rehabilitation look like in your life after two-and-a-half decades?

Townsley: My life hasn’t been a fairytale. I didn’t grow up in one big leap. Growth and maturity are progressive. People go through life and learn the lessons of their experiences. So for me, prison was tough — is tough. I came in very young. I had to accept some hard realities about myself in order to make progress. One of the things I learned about myself is that I resorted to violence when I needed to resolve conflict. I continued to make bad decisions. I had to develop a means of thinking before acting and consider the consequences of my actions, so I don’t hurt myself and others.

What was also beneficial to me, I always had the support of my family. I met some good men throughout my incarceration who impacted my life in very positive ways. Some lessons I learned from staff. During the really tough times, I used isolation to reflect. During those times I would revisit my experiences and wonder what I could’ve done differently to make better outcomes for myself. I made bad decisions because I was never taught how to make good ones.

There is also my faith. I’m a Muslim. The tenets of my faith require me to conduct myself in a peaceful way. It requires me to be kind to others, recognize the humanity in others and display my own humanity at all times. I remember why I’m in prison and consider how my victims and their families may be struggling. Reflection has been most impactful because it allowed me to take a look at myself and the world around me. I focus on what I have, and not on what I don’t.

RS: Are you rehabilitated?

Townsley: If you mean am I ready to reenter society as a productive citizen, by far, yes. When I was young I made some impulsive and bad decisions. I needed to go through the process of maturing to deal with those deeper issues resulting from the traumas I experienced to become a better decision maker. Today, 26 years later, this is who I am.

RS: How long have you worked in a helping capacity?

Townsley: I’ve worked in service of others almost the entire time in prison.

RS: It is so easy to chase selfish pursuits, as many of us do here. What is your motivation to continue your work with and for others, when so many you serve lack the motivation to do for themselves?

Townsley: I watched my father. He was a pastor and community activist and it greatly influenced me to pursue this kind of work. When I think about why I’m in prison, I’m motivated to help others. I cannot explain the gravity of what I feel. It’s spiritual, it’s psychological. When I think about the fact that I’m here for taking someone’s life. I can never give back the life I took. I’m motivated to do my best and help, improve and save as many lives as I can.

RS: What is your take on the program offerings today? Are they worse, better or the same as when you first came to prison?

Townsley: The department’s programs are superficial. Vocational programs only train up to basic levels and teach antiquated methods. Some vocational programs are pretty much useless, like small engine repair, for someone entering the job market, trying to build a career. However, other trades like vocational and plumbing provide the foundation for building a career.

As for therapeutic programs, they only scratch the surface. For example, Anger Replacement Training (ART) is a program to address violence. It uses a cognitive behavioral approach, but it only addresses the immediate thought process or behavior. The goal is to change a person’s violent behaviors. To do that you have to provide alternative beliefs and values in order to change how people think and behave. The proof of what I’m saying is demonstrated in the high number of people who relapse into violence during and after taking the program. We have to go back to the “why” a person behaves a particular way as opposed to the behavior or act. The “why” is the missing element of the department’s programs.

RS: We’ve talked about traumas many times off the record. How does trauma impact crime and punishment?

Townsley: Most people in prison are here as a result of some anti-social or dysfunctional behavior. The behavior is usually an extension of a conditioning and/or trauma we’ve experienced that has taken place over the course of a lifetime. Typically, that person has never received therapy for the problem and often does not know he has a problem. I was the victim of child abuse as well as being traumatized by the murders of my brother and cousin. I’ve identified the cause, at least in part, to the violence visited upon me and how it led me to taking a life. I accept responsibility for the taking of another’s life, irrespective of my traumas. I own it. I also know that if I didn’t identify what caused me to act violently and get at the root of it, I would never be “rehabilitated” and possibly continue to be violent.

RS: Seems you have some crystal insights about the events in your life that impacted you early on. What should mental health services look like behind the wall?

Townsley: Wow! That’s a difficult question to answer. We have to be careful about cookie cutter approaches to mental health. If we’re sincere about helping people in prison with mental health issues, the state needs to provide adequate mental health resources. More support staff is needed. Offender rehabilitation coordinators are overwhelmed and the New York Office of Mental Health has only a skeletal staff presence in facilities. Staff and incarcerated persons need to be educated about mental health in order to dispel the stigmas of mental health diseases. There needs to be more counselors and therapists available to all incarcerated persons.

RS: Last question. How do your insights on trauma inform the approaches you use when working with others?

Townsley: With any group I facilitate I pay attention. I’m open and I’m honest. I set the tone from the beginning to get people to open up. I look to do the hard work. That’s what we call it, hard work. It takes some digging to unearth the traumas and pain buried long ago underneath drug addiction and violence. We’re always looking to escape and hide from the pain we suffer. The irony, the only way to escape the pain is to face it. I try to be savvy in my approach so as not to run people away, instead encourage them to open up and face their traumas. I try to show a correlation between trauma and behavior, how it contributes to their incarceration. There’s a saying that goes, “If you knew better, you’d do better.” So, I look to both learn and teach.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Reginald Stephen

Reginald Stephen is a contributing writer for the Prison Journalism Project and currently incarcerated in New York.