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An industrial sewing machine in a sewing workshop.
Photo by AllaSerebrina on Depositphotos

I grew up in rural Montana and had a rocky childhood. I never found my identity, and by the time I graduated high school I still had no idea what to do with my life. Instead of finding a career, I found myself in trouble with the law. Now I’m in prison, confined to a concrete cage, and I still don’t know who I am.

Most incarcerated people I know have similar stories of turbulent childhoods fraught with instability and poverty. Almost all of them, in other words, lacked opportunity before they were incarcerated. 

And many of us locked up in the Missouri Department of Corrections (MODOC) still do. That’s because many Missouri prisons lack consistent and substantive treatment and vocational rehabilitation programs. 

I’ve been to three prisons so far. None of them have easy and open access to rehabilitative programming. One prison, Jefferson City Correctional Center (JCCC), had several programs that were substance abuse-related, but they were run by offenders themselves, with little oversight. In my experience, in one of the groups, this dynamic led to manipulation of the system by program facilitators to benefit themselves over the participants. 

JCCC also had a “Puppies for Parole” program to train inmates to be dog handlers. When I attempted to join, I learned that inmates in the program had significant say in who was allowed to enter the program. In some cases, this led to an exclusive, friends-only admissions process.

Those incarcerated at JCCC could also work for the Missouri Vocational Enterprises factory, which produced clothing, furniture, highway signs and engraving products. They advertised the program as “vocational jobs training.” I worked for the clothing factory, but I never received any safety training or any comprehensive training of any kind. I was simply shown how to operate a sewing machine and sew collars on shirts. 

I cannot say I learned much of anything. I was paid 30 cents an hour, working 40-hour weeks. It felt more like a sweatshop than a vocational school.

Inconsistent and insufficient programming from prison to prison is a common theme in Missouri. 

The prison where I currently reside only has a Missouri Vocational Enterprises toilet paper factory, employing a handful of inmates. There are a handful of vocational classes. But other than Alcoholics Anonymous and a court-ordered program for sex offenders, there are no treatment programs.

And even if there is a program at another prison we want to take, it can be nearly impossible to get a transfer. This means our ease of access to rehabilitative programming depends on the luck of the draw. Where we serve our sentence determines our opportunities for rehabilitation.

In my opinion, the key to successful rehabilitation lies in giving offenders opportunities. Even if an offender wants to change, he cannot if he’s returned to the same situation as before. 

America has an enormous prison population and high rates of recidivism. Taxpayer dollars pay for the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of criminals. Shouldn’t we try our best to make sure a person has every opportunity to not offend again? 

Clearly, our current system doesn’t work, and the world knows. Recently, I read a Wall Street Journal article about WikiLeaks co-founder, Julian Assange, which discussed how the U.K. was hesitant to extradite Assange to the U.S. The article said that the British officials were concerned for his mental health and believed that the harsh conditions at a maximum-security prison in Colorado could exacerbate his risk of suicide.

In my last four years of incarceration, the single most common catalyst for change I’ve observed has been religion. Whether it’s Islam, Christianity or another faith, it doesn’t seem to matter. The change was obvious. Men, who a year ago wouldn’t hesitate to rob someone at gunpoint, suddenly became more likely to give away their belongings. Murderers, rapists, drug dealers and gang members were suddenly happier, more at peace. This is evidence that people can change.

But finding religion is not enough.

In the three prisons I’ve been at, violence is rampant and drugs are ridiculously easy to find. The vast majority of inmates simply maintain their status quo, which is part of what led to their lockup in the first place. 

These are the individuals being released back into society, some of whom have never held a real job. 

If people can change, then rehabilitation and release back to society is imperative because we must be equipped with the tools to be successful when we re-enter society. Our will is not enough.

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.

Ray K. is a writer incarcerated in Missouri.