In a recent post about the population changes at San Quentin, I wrote the line, “rehabilitative programming works,” and a friend who is familiar with my thoughts about self-help groups called me on it. So here are my thoughts on the self-help offered here. Spoiler alert: it’s complicated.
San Quentin has approximately 100 self-help groups. The vast majority of them rely upon Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as the model for rehabilitating their participants. To grossly oversimplify, CBT teaches its adherents to identify their thinking patterns and the actions they associate with those thinking patterns, disrupt the actions those patterns produce, and replace those actions with healthier actions.
My issue with CBT is this; it addresses rehabilitation through an individual lens, imagining a society where the primary causes for harmful behavior are thinking patterns developed through familial relations. CBT, as I’ve seen it taught here, completely ignores societal factors like governmental policies that favor the culture in power at the expense of cultures this society marginalizes and the variations of poverty-related trauma that spring from being raised in disenfranchised, under-supported communities.
Instead, CBT suggests that if you merely condition your responses to life’s challenges, you’ll fully assimilate into society and have a healthy, productive life. As a result, CBT is often successful at training its participants to reenter society, at least for a period of time. At the same time, CBT fails because it is not extensive enough to produce fully functioning citizens. Best case scenario, it partially prepares a person to reintegrate into the marginalized neighborhoods so many of us come from. But it fails to prepare us to deal with the systemic barriers that may prevent us from fulfilling careers, providing for our families, or the dysfunctional belief systems that saturate disenfranchised communities. In other words, CBT trains you to comply to society as it is, not transform it.
Still there is no denying that people here who are going through CBT based programs are better equipped to deal with society’s challenges, than they were prior to taking these programs. It them raises the question, why do so many people here seem so… what’s the word I often hear? Normal.
I believe that the true change agent at this facility are the the interactions we, incarcerated people, have with the dozens of civilian volunteers who line up to enter this prison every day. The volunteers themselves treat us a range of ways. Some see us and engage with us as fully functioning humans. Others treat us as projects to be saved. As a rule, the interactions are similar to ones we typically experience prior to entering prison, with one notable exception. Regardless of how the volunteers see us, whether they humanize us or objectify us, they do not still see us as the living embodiment of the crimes we committed. In turn, we feel validated, and develop a sense of ourselves that is not merely rooted in the people we were when we committed those crimes, but instead acknowledges the complex beings we are today. Due to our interactions with the volunteers, we begin to break free from identities cast from shameful frames based upon the harm we’ve caused. Somewhere along the line, it dawns on us, I have something to contribute. As our self-esteem grows, we begin to make healthier choices. It turns out, the greatest humanizer is treating us like humans. Not super-predators who need to be locked away for life, not victims of society who need to be infantized, rehabilitated, and restored as productive citizens. Not all good, not all bad.
Just human. When everything is stripped away, all that is left are traumatized people who would probably like to change if they only had an inkling that change is possible. When we invest in the most marginalized among us, we invest in our community, and ultimately in ourselves.
That’s what Restorative Justice is all about. Until rehabilitative programming allows for the ways class, race, gender, and orientation create different social realities for all of us, those programs will continue to fall short.
James King is a writer. Some of his influences are James Baldwin, Angela Davis, his hometown of Ferguson, Mo, and that all oppression must be eradicated. He writes to introduce marginalized perspectives, and he writes to feel whole. Read more about James.