Cindy Sanford is a self-proclaimed "tough on crime" advocate whose accidental meeting with a juvenile lifer strengthened her faith and led her into prison ministry. She is a registered nurse and the wife of a retired law enforcement officer. Cindy and her husband Keith are both official visitors for the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
She is the author of Letters to a Lifer: The Boy 'Never to be Released.' Visit her website Letters2alifer.
More than 80,000 people are kept in isolation or solitary confinement in America's jails and prisons. Prisoners are isolated due to misbehavior, being a danger to others, or for their own protection.
Is this practice too commonplace? What if there were another way?
With 140 citations for misconduct, Xavier* was once one of the worst-behaved prisoners in Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections.
"Xavier's exploits were well-known before he was ever transferred to our prison," one of his former unit managers said. "No one wanted him. He created a huge headache for staff."
That negative viewpoint was echoed by the deputy superintendent at another prison where Xavier was once housed. He too had dealings with Xavier and was relieved when he was finally transferred to another facility.
"He's the last inmate I ever thought would change," he said.
Yet change Xavier did. In the space of a year and a half, he stopped all of his destructive behaviors. He stopped trashing his cell, he stopped shouting and gang-warring with other prisoners and staff, and he stopped his hunger strikes.
The huge file of his misbehaviors grew no more. Finally, after nine years in solitary, Xavier was successfully released to general population.
Seven months later he completed all of his required programs.
The same thing happened with Gino*.
When I first began to visit him several years ago, Gino had earned a reputation for serious misbehavior. He spent 11 years in solitary confinement for many of the same type of behaviors as Xavier, including numerous assaults on correctional officers.
Yet in the space of just two years, Gino, too, changed dramatically. Today he is a peer specialist tasked with helping men with mental illnesses. He gets along well with staff and has not been written up for misconduct in years.
Larry* is another prisoner who was struggling when he and I first met. Unlike the first two men, Larry never spent any extended time in solitary. But he was still having problems getting along with staff, who reported he was uncooperative at times and wrote numerous grievances against them.
Yet two years later, Larry was released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence. Within a couple months of his release, Larry secured a full-time job, was welcomed into an active, supportive church community, and made a successful reentry into society.
INVEST AND RESTORE
What caused the change in these three men?
It wasn't a harsher punishment. It wasn't additional time in the “hole” (solitary confinement). And it wasn't a medication change.
It was mentoring.
"I would still be in the hole today if it wasn't for the fact that someone finally cared about me," Xavier said. "For the first time in almost 10 years, I felt some hope. I wanted to change."
"When people believe in you and invest time in you, you don't want to let them down," Larry said. "Now that I am out of prison, I would never re-offend. I could never face again the people who cared about me if I did."
What all three of these men taught me is the incredible transformative power that genuine concern and mentoring can have on a human being. Judging from what I have witnessed during the past six years of prison visits, corrections departments across the country would be wise to create more opportunities for mentoring men like Xavier, Gino, and Larry.
In all three cases, it proved far more productive than years of harsh punishment, and it created a safer environment for staff as well.
*Names have been changed.