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Gratitude is the Best Medicine

With Thanksgiving only a day away, gratitude is sure to be on the minds of many. As I reflect on the importance of the holiday, I’ve become painfully aware of the comforts and luxuries I fail to appreciate the other 364 days a year.

Unfortunately, this is something we’re all guilty of to some degree. We live in a fast-paced, consumer society, often far removed from the troubles of the less fortunate.

Amid the holiday cheer, Thanksgiving serves as a reminder that gratitude should be practiced year-round—not simply on the fourth Thursday of every November.

Gratitude gives us perspective; it opens our eyes to all the helping hands we’ve received along the way. More than that, it’s a stabilizing force in our lives when we’re engulfed by frustration, isolation and despondency.

Perhaps nowhere are those feelings more pervasive than in our nation’s jails and prisons.

Confined and cut off from loved ones, it’s not difficult to understand why inmates struggle emotionally and mentally this time of year. But even for those spending this Thanksgiving on the inside, showing gratitude can boost mental and emotional wellness.

Take it from Keri Blakinger. A former-inmate-turned-journalist, she thinks back fondly to one particular Thanksgiving she spent in incarceration.

That day, the officer assigned to her unit wanted everyone to experience the closest possible thing to a traditional Thanksgiving meal. He made sure it happened.

With his permission, the women pooled their commissary items and prepared an enviable feast. In her personal narrative for The Marshall Project, she writes, “It was only one day, and then everything went back to how it was. But this is how change happens, one day at a time.”

For inmates, the incremental change Blakinger refers to is what it takes for—pardon the cliché—an attitude of gratitude to blossom. Such moments can act as a catalyst for practicing gratitude now and in the future.

Now, it’s not as simple as flipping a switch and voilà, you have gratitude! Rather, it’s about making the effort to practice it on a frequent basis.

A growing body of research suggests that one of the best ways to do that is by putting your blessings on paper. Consider a study published in Greater Good Magazine.

Three hundred participants were divided into three groups. One group wrote about negative experiences they’d had, another wrote gratitude letters and the third wrote nothing at all.

Interestingly, the group that wrote gratitude letters to people in their lives self-reported discernible improvements in their emotional well-being. Researchers Joshua Brown and Joel Wong theorize that when “negative emotion words” were avoided, the toxic emotional weight the words carry was as well.

Another study worth highlighting examined the effects of “gratitude training” on juveniles in detention who exhibited depressive behaviors. Participants were asked to put expressions of gratitude in writing. In addition, researchers introduced gratitude-themed games for the participants to play in a group environment.

The results?

The participants had not only become more aware of what it meant to be grateful, but they scored lower on depression tests.

Having once worked in youth corrections myself, I saw displays of gratitude around Thanksgiving a few times. But instead of through letters, it was written on the juveniles’ faces.

As we drew closer to the big day, the kids would rush to the wall where meal menus were posted. Some of them would even read the Thanksgiving menu items aloud.

And at dinnertime on that fourth Thursday of November, they were offered seconds—a rare treat when we had few unfilled beds. Their faces beaming, they’d thank us enthusiastically.

Like the food, there was enough gratitude in the facility to go around.

This Thanksgiving, I’ll remember those kids and the gratitude they felt for something those of us on the outside take for granted.

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Articles Correctional Insights Recidivism Tips & Facts

Three Words to Live by: Knowledge is Power

I’ve always had a profound love of sayings and proverbs in language. Few are as to-the-point and thought-provoking as this one: Knowledge is power.

The pursuit of knowledge opens so many doors. It gives us power over our lives and futures, the ability to learn from the past, the ability to learn about others and the world around us and the opportunity to pass on what we’ve learned to others.

On top of that, knowledge (to be more precise, education) staves off stagnation and helps break cycles that impede individual progress.

One of the most crippling and vicious cycles facing our nation is recidivism. Unfortunately, our jails and prisons bear the brunt of this, as they house millions of reoffenders each year.

We know that the temptations for inmates to continue engaging in behavior that put them behind bars in the first place are strong. But we also know that empowering inmates with the means to education counteracts those temptations, making the road to rehabilitation smoother.

Education and rehabilitation are practically one and the same; it’s tough to imagine one without the other. And in their darkest hour, unfettered access to information and academic literature provides inmates with a beacon of hope.

Frankly, the collective effort to combat recidivism starts from within—specifically, within the walls of our correctional facilities.

Three brothers—Cole, James and Robert Younger—recognized that knowledge is power as far back as 1887. Thanks to the Youngers, that year saw the birth of America’s oldest active prison newspaper, The Prison Mirror. Their story is nothing short of remarkable.

Just 10 years earlier, the trio led lives of crime alongside fellow outlaw Jesse James (Maybe you’ve heard of him). Together, they formed the James-Younger Gang. After their involvement in an armed bank robbery that went awry, the Younger brothers were tracked down and jailed.

Having barely dodged a death sentence and serving life in the then-Minnesota State Prison, they sought to redefine their legacy. Each of them worked their way up and obtained resume-building jobs in the prison. Eventually, this led to a love of literature and a desire to launch a newspaper.

While others had a hand in The Prison Mirror, it was the Youngers’ name recognition and funding that made the publication possible. It’s believed that one thing convinced them most: The lion’s share of the profits would be put back into the Minnesota State Prison’s library.

The rest, as they say, is history.

This revolutionary idea came at a time when inmates were underserved and often ignored. Today, the need for education in our correctional system is just as pressing. We at Encartele have highlighted the importance of prison libraries in encouraging intellectual curiosity among inmates in past articles.

When we think of structures that exist to educate, we automatically think of schools and public libraries. We attend schools and visit libraries to advance our job prospects and expand our knowledge.

If rehabilitation of inmates is the ultimate goal, why shouldn’t they be afforded that same right?

In “Books beyond bars: the transformative potential of prison libraries”, author Lisa Krolak asks that very question. She argues that prison libraries should functionally be no different than any other library.

Krolak explains, “It is important that the prison library is a special space, separate from the rest of the prison, where inmates can experience an inspiring, creative atmosphere different to their everyday cell life.”

How tangible is the impact when education is emphasized in correctional settings?

One study cited in “Books beyond bars” revealed that inmates provided with an opportunity for sustained learning were 43 percent less likely to wind up back behind bars.

For perspective, a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that nearly 45 percent of former inmates are arrested no more than a year after release.  

The evidence suggests that as access to informational resources for inmates goes up, recidivism goes down. And if that’s the case, it’s about time the phrase “knowledge is power” echoes in every hall and housing unit of jails and prisons across the country.

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Articles Correctional Insights

What’s the Scariest Part About Being a Corrections Officer?

Ask any corrections professional. They’ll tell you that the scariest part about being a corrections officer is when safety and security hangs in the balance.

Still, that’s a one-size-fits-all answer to a complex question. Many factors play a part in the dangers faced by a particular facility. If you asked those same corrections professionals to elaborate, each one would offer a fresh insight.

One such insight came from Jail Administrator Jeremiah Harmon. He’s in charge of the Adams County Jail in Hastings, Nebraska. He points to a noticeable rise in methamphetamine use in the state. This has caused a Jekyll and Hyde effect among inmates who are no strangers to the Adams County Jail.

“Before, they came in calm, cooperative and respectful,” he says. And now that meth use has gone up? “It’s the exact opposite. They want to fight and are agitated.”

That makes an already unpredictable situation even less predictable, putting officers directly in harm’s way. Of course, this is not some new phenomenon corrections workers are dealing with. However, they are now fighting a battle on two fronts.

This past July, The Marshall Project published a story, detailing the worsening issue of inmates dying from drug overdoses. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of deaths resulting from overdoses in jails and prisons has shot up 207 percent. Looking at the numbers over the last 17 years, the death toll increased by a staggering 611 percent.  

Pretty scary stuff.

That’s not the only corrections-related trend that is possibly the scariest part about being a corrections officer. Jails and prisons everywhere are grappling with an exodus of corrections officers, leading to largely unresolved staff shortages. Even a glance at research on corrections staffing shows that the problem grows increasingly dire each year.  

Take North Carolina, for example. In 2018, state records revealed that $45,553,818 was paid to corrections staff just to cover overtime hours. It’s worth noting that this was also prior to the pandemic. For added context, North Carolina prison officers earned $31,621,107 in overtime pay a year earlier—a 45 percent increase.

And that’s a very small snapshot of the unfolding crisis. Look anywhere—Nebraska, Texas, or Florida, just to name a few others—and you’ll find a familiar trend.

More than the financial strain put on state governments, a corrections crisis of this magnitude invites a host of other concerns. The most obvious among them is the threat to safety and security. Unsurprisingly, violence within the walls of jails and prisons has reached a fever pitch, with many turning to non-corrections workers to fill in.

According to a recent report from The Associated Press, some facilities have enlisted the help of cooks, nurses and teachers to pick up the slack. This has not only created a scary situation for non-corrections staff, but for corrections professionals as well. It begs the question of whether these staff members have received restraint training or have been trained to respond to correctional emergencies.   

Chronic staffing shortages have also taken a toll on new hires and experienced officers determined to remain at their post. Most are scheduled for 12-hour (sometimes 16-hour) shifts, leaving them with extreme fatigue and unable to stay sharp on the job.

As this crisis accelerates, a “chicken-or-the-egg” situation has developed. Veteran officers continue to quit en masse as corrections leaders struggle to adequately staff their facilities.

Are they leaving due to low retention and pay?

Or do jails and prisons have low retention because reliable, experienced professionals are leaving?

No matter which corrections crisis we’re talking about, questions need to be answered and solutions reached. It’s hard to imagine safety and security remaining at the forefront given the circumstances.

And as someone who’s served in a correctional setting, that’s a scary thought.

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Articles Correctional Insights Recidivism

Connection Prevents Inmates from Developing a Criminal Identity – Here’s Why

Any student of history knows that functioning societies and verbal communication are inextricably linked. Whether we’re talking about skyscrapers or social bonds, without verbal communication, humans would have never succeeded in building anything.

Our ability to communicate is an integral part of our identity. However, in the absence of communication, a criminal identity can take the place of a functional identity.

Thanks to our ever-growing digital landscape, more traditional forms of communication have been taken for granted. Why make a phone call when it’s more convenient to share the same information via text, email or social media?

Technological progress has made it possible for us to communicate in ways that don’t involve a true vocal exchange. The consequence of which is a dramatic social shift that has forever changed human interaction.

Nevertheless, the most tried-and-true method for getting a message across, resolving conflict or reinforcing social ties is speaking face to face or by phone. Take the workplace for example.

A 2020 study done by SocialChorus revealed that 73 percent of survey respondents believe effective workplace communication promotes a healthier culture, inevitably leading to stronger worker mental health.

Meaningful communication gives us a sense of belonging and validation. It’s vital to our emotional, mental and social wellness. Though many of us don’t think about it, the same is true for inmates in our jail and prison systems.

Countless studies have shown that regular contact with loved ones, whether through visitation or phone calls, creates positive stimulation for those behind bars.

Picture of an inmate being lent a hand to make a connection. That connection, in the form of familial contact, will help preempt the development of criminal identity.

The upshot of this is inmates are less likely to violate rules while serving their sentence or, more importantly, reoffend at some point. Encouraging inmates to maintain communication with their families leads to positive short-term and long-term effects.

In the short term, correctional environments are safer and in the long term, reintegration is often smoother. As researchers Michael Rocque, David Bierie, and Doris MacKenzie put it, socialization lowers the chances inmates will develop a criminal identity while confined.

Conversely, an inmate who’s unable to speak frequently with loved ones is liable to smuggle contraband into the facility—namely, cellphones. And as technology continues to progress, illicit access to mobile phones will be considerably easier for inmates.

An inmate who introduces contraband to a correctional environment is likely to continue this behavior, thereby taking on a criminal identity.

Along with facilitating communication between inmates and their families, the need for modernized options is fundamental to rehabilitation efforts as well.

With the increased push towards virtual and online services, correctional institutions will need to keep pace. Ensuring security and making every effort not to disrupt existing family ties should be a top priority.

Picture of an inmate making a connection. That connection, in the form of familial contact, will help preempt the development of a criminal identity.

Not only does this apply to telephonic modernization, but it should also include a less burdensome and arbitrary approach to visitation. A 2011 study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice found that inmates’ family members cited unreasonably long waits and unclear rules as reasons they wouldn’t visit again.

The physical distance between family and inmates coupled with the stringent nature of visitation procedures makes contact by phone all the more important. Greater access and an emphasis on adapting to evolving telecommunications will be the challenge for correctional facilities going forward.

But, as we’ve seen across multiple studies for decades, providing inmates the opportunity to maintain familial connections helps lower recidivism and aids successful rehabilitation.

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Articles Recidivism

Former Inmates are Critical to Reforming Criminal Justice

“Within 3 years of release, 2 out of 3 people are rearrested and more than 50% are reincarcerated,” as noted by healthypeople.gov. This troubling statistic is evidence that our criminal justice system is broken, and while the causes for this are many, the input and participation of former inmates could be the key to unlocking better outcomes for inmates in the US.

Those inmates who legally escape the corrections system have something to offer: Perspective. They’ve seen the system from the inside-out, and they’re among the best to offer opinions to solve its problems. After a lengthy stint of incarceration, a former inmate has already lived through what’s right and wrong with the system, which should be invaluable material for policy-makers.

Former inmates can also do a wealth of good for the people who are still incarcerated in their former institution. Take for example, the story of Pastor Ron Smith. He was incarcerated for 6 and a half years before eventually turning his life around to become a preacher. Now, he returns to offer counseling and guidance to the young men who are in the same place where he used to be.

However, Ron can only visit so many correctional facilities. Former inmates may have valuable insights for the currently incarcerated, but they need a metaphorical megaphone for their message to truly have an effect. That’s where a technology like digital signage comes in. With digital signage, many facilities can easily disperse content to their inmates on a regular basis.

Imagine if this message from former inmate Tim Hurley was broadcast across jails nationwide: “The No. 1 ingredient required to make it is humility. When humble, I am teachable.” These are the kinds of messages that need to be amplified, and we can get more of them if we just listened to former inmates more often.

Encartele believes that inmates need to hear messages like this, so we regularly produce free rehabilitative materials for public use.

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