Returning Citizens: Immigrants From Our Own Country
Date:  06-15-2016

Prison volunteer Dick Sederquist reflects on newly released people seeking the American Dream
Immigrants from Our Own Country: Returning Citizens and Reentry Survivors Pre and Post Re-entry Training and Support

by Dick Sederquist, Author

Politically, the left and the right have woken up to the fact that we have an internal immigration challenge involving our own citizens, the need to focus our financial resources on the training of our prison inmate population for reintegration into society rather than warehousing them. Still to be recognized is that to be truly effective, the retraining efforts on the inside have to be matched with the community support and re-entry resources provided on the outside. The analogy is going to all the trouble of starting a business and then expecting it to run by itself. There has to be continuity extending through re-entry training on the inside and continuing support and reinforcement from both community and “appointed" support groups and mentors after release. If the federal government, states and departments of correction expect to be successful in their reintegration efforts, then they must be financially invested in what happens after release. Otherwise, it’s like creating a business and neglecting to run it. It will fail. You have to protect your investment. You can’t wash your hands after release. You have to accept responsibility and be invested in the long term.

I just finished my fifteenth volunteer 8-session workshop “Life Change Discussion Group” motivational prison program. Up to this point, all my programs have been for those in medium security facilities. This time, I conducted my program forindividuals in a small minimum-security facility. These men are normally close to release, probation or transfer to a halfway house or facilities that offer specific advanced rehabilitation programs for drug and alcohol addiction, etc. Incarceration rates in the U.S. are an order of magnitude higher than other civilized countries (like those in Europe) particularly because of the failed war on drugs in the U.S. Addiction is a treatable, not a punishable disease. This mass incarceration has been disproportionally unfair to minorities and devastating to the families of people in prison and urban neighborhoods. One of my students once made the prophetic statement, “I am considered a POW of the war on drugs!”

Fortunately, there is a growing enlightened view of the need for rehabilitation over punishment. Emulating the European system, the principle focus of incarceration should be on preparing these individuals for reintegration back into society. I am happy that my program over the last six years has always focused on preparing people in prison for re-entry. By analogy, I was incarcerated by my depression. I am a depression survivor. Most of these individuals are motivated to survive their confinement and successfully re-enter society. The goal of my program is to develop life coping strategies and improve verbal communication skills. These individuals have a story to tell, need to be able to express their needs, and effectively tell others (like future employers) how they can help them. With training on the inside and continued help and support on the outside, they can become successful re-entry survivors.

Last year after my fourteenth program, I wrote the essay below. It’s called “Old Dog, New Dog”. Consider that my students have effectively been locked up in an internment camp, locked up behind razor wire, locked up and frozen in a time machine, awaiting a new life and a new freedom. They seek re-entry back into their native country. They have gone through much scrutiny and vetting throughout the process of their incarceration. They are immigrants from the prisons we have created and want amnesty from their past mistakes. They want to be taken back and given the opportunity to work, study, play, and raise their families. Are we going to deny our own immigrants, our fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters, even our children the chance of achieving the American dream? They need community support and a welcome home. Like any immigrant, they need our acceptance and help, particularly after immigration into our country. The tide is turning. Both conservatives and liberals agree on this one. It also makes good economic sense. Rehabilitation costs less than incarceration. Beyond that, we are creating human potential, capital and resources, future contributors to society, and even future taxpayers.

Old Dog, New Dog – Reflections on My Volunteer Prison Ministry

New people in your life can make a real difference in your attitude. Whether it’s reentering society after prison or surviving depression, we can all use a tour guide when we are negotiating new and difficult terrains in our lives.

I just finished my fourteenth volunteer “Life Change Discussion Group” prison program. About 200 people who were incarcerated have passed through my eight-session program over the last five years. With each new class of 15 to 18 individuals, it takes a few sessions for me to get their names straight. Physical features like freckles, big, small, wild hair, or behavioral traits like passive, outgoing, fidgety, etc. all help. All my participants are well behaved. I shouldn’t complain that a few talk too much. The talkers actually act as a catalyst and get the rest of the group going.

Typically, people who sign up have gone through a pre-selection process just by volunteering for my program. Even so, I see a wide range of personality and attitude types. If you were to draw a bell shaped attitude distribution curve, you would find a small number of individuals at one end who are not ready for change. They feel like victims of the criminal justice system. On the other end, there are a small number of (maybe over confident) individuals who see incarceration as a small blip in their lives. They have a fully rehearsed plan of what they will do upon release. The bulk of my students reside in the middle of this bell shaped curve. Although they all desire change and are appreciative of any help they can get, their attitude and confidence levels range all over the map. Some feel lost, vulnerable, and greatly fear the future. Others express humility, are reflective, are hopeful, but still unsure of the future. Still others are proactive and determined to change. They have been through the swinging door of release and re-incarceration (recidivism) too many times. This may be their last chance.

Toward the end of their incarceration, those who are soon to be released are offered reentry training classes, preparing them for immersion in the outside world and the resources available to them. These individuals have been locked up in a time machine, the world passing them by during their incarceration. It strikes me that their ability to absorb and utilize this information varies greatly with the individual and their motivation. One size of training will not fit all. The highly motivated are capable of retaining this information and also remain proactive and not discouraged during the reentry process. Some are very fragile and vulnerable. Many need extra help and guidance during reentry training, but even more after release in an unstructured social environment.

Many of those released are under supervision (parole). Somebody is monitoring them and hopefully helping them access the resources available to them on the outside. Many others have completed their sentence (end of sentence) and are not supervised. Unless highly motivated, they may not access those resources available to them. There has to be a safety net (like a tour guide) after release for “end of sentence” individuals to help them safely and successfully negotiate the reentry process. I’m the oldest guy in the room. By the time I make it to 300 more participants passing through my program, I will be 80 years old. In the eighth and final session of my program we talk about “Rules for Survival” on strategies we will use to get through the rest of our lives. I wrote my original “rules” on behavior modification strategies for surviving depression. In one of my final sessions on the “rules”, a participant asked me if I had one magic secret for improving the rest of his life. I felt a little on the spot. I’m a discussion facilitator but not a therapist or minister. I joke that I have a PhD in depression. My ministry is secular. The participant had no real job skills other than the street, no high school diploma, and was very fearful of the future. Fumbling, I talked about him getting his GED high school equivalent. He said he wasn’t ready, maybe later. I wasn’t getting anywhere. I thought about me in a room full of guys whose average age is in the mid 30’s. What could this old guy say that would make a difference?

Then it struck me, a rule I’ve been following all my life, “Old Dog, New Dog”. You have an old dog. It’s arthritic and can hardly get to the dog dish. You buy a puppy to keep the old dog company. The puppy harasses the old dog, biting its tail, driving the old dog crazy. Next thing you know, the old dog has come to life, forgotten its arthritis and is chasing the puppy. The lesson, I tell my friend, is continue to make new and younger friends to keep you young. Your old friends will die off as you age. You don’t want to be left alone. You want to have new and stimulating conversations, learn new things, have children around to challenge your old arthritic bones, find new challenges in life, someone new to listen to your old stories.

My new friend’s eyes lit up. He said that was a fantastic idea. It was like I had given him a Christmas present, a shot of vitamin B-12. His shoulders, which had been sagging up to now, lifted up. He said the GED sounded like a good idea. My new friend had moved over a notch in confidence level on my bell curve. I, this old guy, had made a new younger friend. I know why I go to prison. It makes me young again.

If you spent as many hours behind bars as I have as a volunteer, you would recognize that these are real people inside these walls just like you and me. They deserve a chance to prove themselves. In my advocacy, I have met many from the inside who have proven themselves and who thank those on the outside who had confidence in them.

Dick Sederquist, Greater Bridgeport Reentry Collaborative

From my January 2, 2016, BLOG on at “My Prison Ministry.”