Let me first off start out by saying that I’m not one of these prisoners who thinks that prisoners are awesome or that most are really just misunderstood. I’ve grown up in prison, lived around other prisoners for half my life since I was 15, but while I give a shit about a few of them, these are not “my people.” Some are people. Others, I’m not even convinced about that.
I was asked to write a piece about rehabilitation. Our American society is a complicated mechanism full of complicated organisms that somehow manages to function surprisingly well despite the simplicity we attempt to force upon it. Barring differences in duration, petty thieves and serial killers are sentenced to the exact same circumstances and living conditions, and to the extent that any rehabilitative services are offered to the latter, they receive nearly the exact same ones. Rehabilitation is a complicated term applied in a very simple way, usually as a question (“Is he/s he…? Can they be…? Is _____ possible?”).
So first, not every prisoner is exactly the same. Rapists have different motivations than drug dealers; murderers are different than petty thieves. The thing is, most of these people (between 95-99%) will get out, and unless we want to convert to a Soviet gulag-style of criminal justice system, this will continue. Now my personal opinion, and no one will probably ever listen to it, is that child molesters need to get more time, as do almost all sex offenders (I say “almost”, because public urination in Michigan is considered a sexual offense, but honestly I stop short of advocating for the need to punish them further than a fine), as most people don’t realize that the violation of property, which is burglary, is almost always punished much more severely than the violation of an actual child. Prisons are places of punishment, but 95-99% of these punishments eventually end. The question therefore becomes one of severity, how the person changed while inside, and a follow-up of how they will act on the outside. This is how I’ll define rehabilitation.
Every prisoner can use rehabilitative services. Unfortunately, different prisoners need different services. Different ones are deserving of more help. Different ones are deserving of less time. The benefit isn’t just for them. If they are going to get out, an investment in helping the burglar learn some job skills (which he will have to perform eventually if there’s any hope of him not burglarizing) issues a large payoff for society. If we’re ever going to let out the senior in high school who slept with his Freshman or Sophomore girlfriend and came to prison with statutory rape instead of executing him, an investment to encourage him not to turn into a monster while exposed to actual monsters Is one well spent.
But even better, and this is just my opinion, would be to discern between the people who commit different types of crimes (or their reasons for it: arson isn’t just arson… it’s arson to defraud insurance, or it’s arson to injure somebody, mirroring two different personalities) needing different treatments In addition to sentences. Having lived around convicts my whole life, I advocate separating them based upon intent (Are they predatory? Was it a crime-of- passion? Was it drug related?) and then by severity of crime. Then it becomes pretty simple and cheaper for taxpayers to determine what abilities they possess that can be encouraged, and what opportunities/help they need and figure out what kind of treatment is necessary. It also becomes easier to identify the most dangerous individuals and those likely to re-offend, making the community safer.
Who deserves the chance the most, who can be helped by them more than anyone else? My vote is for children incarcerated as adults. Without diminishing responsibility for their actions, “Youthful Adult Offenders” (Y/O’s) were more susceptible to influence, and less an autonomous entity than adults are. When an adult commits a crime, there is an unspoken breaking of the societal agreement: I have a life, and an opportunity to achieve any life I strive for, and I’m risking it for this. A child knows only of society what he or she is taught and allowed. There is no bond with, or necessarily a connection to, society as a whole at all unless one was instilled in them. An adult who lives the street life chooses to live the street life… as the villain Negan said in the seventh season of The Walking Dead: “He made a choice, I can’t help it if he made dumbass one.” But my friend Tony, who, when he asked his step-father (his own father was 12 when his mother, also 12, gave birth to him) for money, was given some marijuana and told to go earn it, was habilitated that selling drugs is the right and responsible thing to do. Another friend, Cedric, at 14, was taught by his older brother that when a man has a problem, the right thing to do is settle it, and so he went with him to a man’s house who had supposedly stolen some items from his older brother and stood around as his older brother shot the man in the leg. My former student Dre, who was 14 when I tutored him in GED math, told me that only cowards don’t rob others, and that cowards are the biggest problem with society (it would seemingly therefore follow, in his mind, that law- abiding citizens would be the greatest threat to society. My friend J. was shot by his own mother with a 9mm. on purpose. God only knows what in his mind he’s come to believe is right and wrong; what he should or shouldn’t do.
I want to be clear that I’m not making excuses for Y/O’s like these, and I’m not saying that when they do something horrible to someone else or violate someone else’s rights they shouldn’t be punished. Any parent for the past few millennia has known that discipline (and an inherent amount of punishment) for a child is necessary for their own well-being and that of society. Punishment, to a degree and when done correctly, makes a child into a better person and paves the way for a better adult.
So I’m not saying not to punish these kids. I could write another piece on the severity of the punishment given to some of them, but I want to focus on rehabilitation, because just as correction is needed in addition to punishment in disciplining a child, rehabilitation is necessary when disciplining these young teenagers that come to prison; but very little of it happens. Rehabilitate implies a “habilitation” into society that many of these children never had or experience. There is a lack of correction in many of the “Departments of Correction” across the country. Many offer some basic classes, but still do very little except remind them constantly of the wrongs done to a society that they never felt a part of.
Let me explain what I mean. Mark Dawson is a juvenile-lifer friend of mine who’s been incarcerated for 40 years, since he was 17. Mark’s spent most of his time believing he was going to die in prison. But as he maintained and developed relationships with those on the outside, as he grew up and (despite being in prison) connected to society as a whole, he started wanting to give back, wanting to make a positive difference in others instead of living a life of a criminal, even though there was no purely selfish incentive for him to do so. He crochets blankets that he donates to charity, donates his hair to charity and builds furniture and parts of houses for Habitat for Humanity.
As for me, I was sentenced to 25 years, which at 15 I was sure was life and that I was going to die before reaching it. I honestly felt nothing for American society when I came in. In fact, I had grown up in a house I was terrified of more than anything else and developed a delusional belief that I had a moral imperative to commit my crime. But as I grew up, as I made more connections to the outside world while inside prison than I had growing up on the outside, I started to want better… not just for me, but for others. I have more people willing or wanting to visit me, including my victim’s family, than I’m allowed to have on my visitor’s list. The first time in my life I held hands with someone out of love was in prison. The first time I ever told a girl I loved her, and the first time a girl ever told me she loved me, was while I was in prison. All of these people, all of these things, all of these connections… I want to maintain, I want to continue, I want to improve on and increase. My connection to society is through love, I have a “stake in the game” that I don’t want to throw, and there’s nothing in the world that would make me want to. And because of that connection, I understand, I care about, and I would do anything to change the hurt that I’ve caused by my actions.
But… Mark and I had a lot (A LOT) of support from others. Mark’s had his parents, siblings, and a wife… I’ve had my father, sister, aunt and uncle, grandparents, cousins, two girlfriends over the years, and an essentially adoptive mother and sister there for me. I knew an acquaintance that grew up less than a mile away from the prison —everyone he had ever known lived within easy walking-distance— and never received a visit in 5 years. One thing I ask some of me young-teenage gang members I’ve worked with is “Where has your “family” been while you’ve been in here?”
Truthfully, I’m not about to theorize on what, if any, could be a state-run substitute for love… but, there is another aspect of rehabilitation for Y/O’s that is perhaps just as important. When a 40 year old stock-broker commits fraud, assuming he’s released (and usually he will be in much less time than a teenage burglar), he has numerous job skills he can fall back on to make it relatively easy to live a legitimate, productive, and probably successful life after prison. A teenage burglar arrested as a freshman, will likely end up serving a longer sentence (than the stock-broker) and STILL have the same prospects as a freshman in high school (which, to anyone who has kids or remembers being a kid, are pretty limited).
I’m not advocating turning prisons into free colleges. I can already hear people saying, “I don’t want my tax dollars going to coddle a bunch of rapists and murderers, whatever their age.” First, most Y/O’s (teens sentenced as adults to adult prison for usually longer sentences proportionately than served by actual more culpable adults who committed the same crime) are not serving sentences for rape and murder… two-thirds are serving less than five years, reflecting sentences mainly for drug-related burglaries, auto thefts, or other robberies. Many of those with “Criminal Sexual Conduct”‘ charges (while not all) are serving time for having consensual sex with someone who went to the same school as them. Secondly, education in basic mathematics and useful trades doesn’t make prison “easier”. Being away from and deprived of love and kindness is never easy. Education doesn’t coddle imitates, especially kids who need it. It’s merely a continuation of the “habilitation” that was supposed to have taken place in their childhood, a childhood which didn’t stop upon coming to prison. Too often, however, it’s delayed, and so 30 and 40 year olds who came in as juveniles have fallen through the cracks and receive nothing. I’m nearly 30 years old and have no idea what taxes I’ll have to pay or how to go about paying them, I don’t know how to drive, and I’ve never been to the grocery store on my own (though the last one I believe I could figure out).
My first job was in prison. I went from using a stove and oven for the first time in my life, in prison, at age 22, to becoming a chef with a job offer out in the real world despite the end of my sentence still being 12 years away. Mark is an artist when it comes to carpentry and crocheting. And I believe I speak for us both when I say that we desire and will work to stay in society given the chance. Not only is crime not worth it, I think neither of us legitimately wants to commit another or has any desire to.
But I’ve seen too many of the Y/O’s I’ve known over the years come back to prison or die out there. I’ve met them during their punishment for their own actions. But I want to see them encouraged more, and provided with merely the same opportunities others get, to want the same things that I want myself. I want to see more mere “habilitation,” in addition to more rehabilitation, together, forming the second aspect of discipline, given to the children sentenced to the same environment that society’s worst adult criminals face,. I’m not going to use this piece to advocate for lesser sentences for kids who hurt others. But I am going to use it to advocate that because they are kids they should be given the opportunity to learn how to become better adults.
Chris Dankovich is serving 25-37 years in Michigan for murdering his mother when he was 15 years old.
Chris Dankovich #595904
Thumb Corr Facility
3225 John Conley Dr
Lapeer, MI 48446