Scott is a big man, with hands that could crush a coconut. His soft-spoken demeanor belies his past. He joined a gang with his cousins in his early teenage years for protection, and then in a fight over the mistreatment of a girl, he fired a shot into the chest of one of those cousins. Scott was 17. He was convicted of manslaughter and spent the next 13 years in prison. “I always believed in God,” he says. “But I had this dual life, go to church and then have to fight to survive.” Prison mostly separated Scott from the gang life. He spent long hours in “the kennel” or isolation. It’s there that he read scriptures, earned his GED, and prayed, a lot. “There’s not a lot to do, and you’re left alone to talk to God. It changed me.”
According to Prison Policy.org, the United States locks up more people per capita than any other nation — 2.3 million people. Based on a combination of incarceration rates, recidivism, equality in jailing and sexual violence in prisons, U.S. News and World Report ranks Utah as the 6th best corrections facility in the country — mostly due to low incarceration percentages per population.
In Utah, there are opportunities to earn high school diplomas and technical certificates, there’s even a yoga instructor certification program. There are also 1,500 church volunteers from 20 different denominations serving at corrections facilities in Utah. Talk to them and they’ll tell you how rewarding it is, and how difficult. “It’s hard for people to change. And these are some people who have done some very bad things,” says one volunteer. “We try to focus on understanding God and on the forgiveness of Christ.”
Inmates gather on Sundays for religious instruction, to sing hymns and to pray. Ecclesiastical leaders do cell visits. “It was hard for me,” says Scott, because I could only visit with them when I was out of isolation, so it was kind of hit or miss.” Still, he kept up his studies. But moving into more contact with other prisoners was tense. There are rival gangs, and there was a gang associate of the man Scott killed. “He made it known that he was coming for me,” Scott says. “I tried to avoid it, but you can’t be weak in prison. So we went at it. That rage came back. It’s something I’ve battled with since I was a little boy, the anger. It didn’t look good on my record.”
Adopting a new moral hierarchy is perhaps the hardest change we can make. When the top of your hierarchy is to survive, it’s difficult to supplant that with a belief in God. Psychologist Carl Jung teaches that the top spot on our moral hierarchy is what determines behavior. So if it is survival, you can see how every action would be to ensure that, no matter what the law or the conscience dictates. When a belief in God transcends survival, then behavior softens, decisions are based on what God would have you do. That’s a tall order to face alone.
Our corrections people and all those volunteers deserve our appreciation and admiration. But they also deserve our help. When Scott was released, he struggled to assimilate. He had a domestic violence scuffle and was caught selling marijuana. “I had no other way to make money,” he says. There’s that survival need rising back to the top of the moral hierarchy. He spent another five years in prison.
For those of us on the outside looking in, it’s easy to judge, requiring bad people to change or stay locked up forever. But behavioral change relies on a lot of factors, and even if you learn to center your life on God, you still carry past experiences around that try to inform your decisions. You have to consciously override them by enlisting peers to help, changing your environment and constantly reminding yourself of who you want to become.
A good example of this is the GIs returning from World War ll. Many came back from the Pacific theater addicted to opium. The military worried that they would have a huge problem with addicts. Turns out most kicked the habit. They were in a new environment, with supportive peers and a track to success provided by the GI Bill. They had all the right influences in their lives to help them change.1 comment on this story
Scott has been out for the second time now for four months. “I work a lot,” he says. “I don’t do drugs or alcohol. I read my scriptures every day. I go to church.” According to a Pew Research Center study in 2012 of all 50 states, 73 percent of prison chaplains consider “religion-related programs in prison to be ‘absolutely critical’ to successful rehabilitation of inmates.” The rehabilitation shouldn’t end when an inmate is released. And it shouldn’t be limited to programs and assigned volunteers. The change belongs to all of us.
Certainly not every person released from prison is going to make it. Recidivism rates in Utah are about the same as the national average, just under 40 percent. We can help improve that number by helping people like Scott find and keep a job, include him in our Sunday worship and guide him to environments that don’t conjure up past behaviors. After all, if God is at the top of our moral hierarchy, then how we treat our fellow man should be influenced by how God would have us act.