When Dr. James Gilligan started work as a prison psychiatrist in a medium-security facility in Massachusetts, he took with him a pre-formed perspective on the men he would be treating.
“I had been taught up to that point that violent criminals were untreatable sociopaths, that they would manipulate you,” he remembers.
He would soon come to a very different conclusion.
Practically everything I’d been taught was at best a half-truth,” Gilligan says in a story for TakePart.com. “The people [in the prison] were eager for a chance to talk with somebody who showed an interest in them, who would try to help them understand themselves better.”
Gilligan’s experience in that Massachusetts prison was the beginning of what has been a nearly 50-year quest to seek rehabilitation for those convicted of violent offenses. The key, he says, is making rehabilitation programming, including mental health programs, available to all prisoners.
Most of the proposed criminal reform efforts have focused on non-violent offenders. This makes sense—legislators are less inclined to support proposals that might be perceived as “soft on crime” at best, and potentially putting the welfare of law-abiding citizens at risk. However, with over half of the nation’s state prison populations consisting of individuals convicted of a violent crime, most of whom will be released at some time, any real and lasting reform is going to have to examine how these men and women are being rehabilitated.
After leaving the Massachusetts state prison system, Gilligan set up a violence prevention program in San Francisco that immersed a cell block of 60 men in intensive, 12-hours-a-day programming, which included group therapy, meeting with victims of crime, and theater and writing classes. The result? Those participating in the program showed a significant reduction in recidivism rates when compared to those who did not participate.
“The most effective way to turn a nonviolent person into a violent one is to send them to prison,” says Gilligan. “Whether or not a person is mentally ill, prisons provoke violence.”
Ronald Day understands the importance of effective in-prison programming. A former school dropout, Day began immersing himself in educational programs while spending 15 years in prison for attempted murder. He is now in his fourth year of a Ph.D program in criminal justice, and serves as vice president of The Fortune Society, which seeks to support those returning to society from prison and advocates for alternatives to incarceration.
“We say we’re a country that believes in science,” Day tells TakePart.com, “[and there is] social science research that supports the notion that people do change, people are not incorrigible. To have a system that is purely retributive is a problem.”
For Christians, this is also true from a spiritual perspective. Redemption is available to all—even those who have committed violent crimes. For 40 years, Prison Fellowship has been going into correctional facilities around the country, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, His forgiveness, and the promise of a transformed life. Prison Fellowship seeks to meet both the spiritual and mental needs of prisoners, offering Bible studies and spiritual mentorship, as well as leadership training and classes to prepare men and women for release.