Season 3 Lessons Learned

What happens when belief systems, ideological worldviews, or long-held opinions you've defended as truth your entire life bump up against contradictions that prove those prior concepts as fallible? How do you deal with that tension? How do you explain it to yourself? These are just a few of the questions I tackle as I contemplate what each guest this season has taught me.
What a journey this season has been! Thank you so much for joining me, listening week in and week out. What a beautiful, teachable heart you all have. I've met so many interesting people I never would have had the opportunity to meet in the course of my ordinary life. Sometimes we have to go out of our way to meet people outside our spheres of influence. Today's episode will be a deep dive into what these past few months have taught me about the formerly incarcerated as well as the U.S criminal justice system. 

I'd like to start with a few statistics. According to the Pew Research Center, as of the end of 2019, there are over 2.1 million people incarcerated in the United States. According to the World Prison Brief, 10.3% of those prisoners are female and .2% are under 18. Generally, recidivism rates are over 70%. Keep in mind though, that each state has differing methods and metrics for determining these statistics. Different metrics tell different stories. For example, according to the Council on Criminal Justice, the severity of the original conviction offense is not indicative of recidivism risk nor do older people return to prison at the same rate as young people. I've included some helpful articles in the show notes for those of you who might like to go deeper on these topics. These recidivism rates matter when it comes to the people I've interviewed this season and to the work of Defy Ventures who boasts a less than 10% recidivism rate of EIT's (Entrepreneurs in Training) who have graduated from their program. What makes these people different? Why did they decide to "change their hustle" and others don't? I don't know the answer to that question. But I'm indebted to those kind, courageous, changed souls who let me glimpse into their hearts, lives, and minds and were willing to share their stories. 

What happens when belief systems, ideological worldviews, or long-held opinions you've defended as truth your entire life bump up against contradictions that prove those prior concepts as fallible? How do you deal with that tension? How do you explain it to yourself? Do you tighten your grip on your belief and become even more dogmatic because you fear what confronting it might mean? Do you justify your thoughts and actions because of tradition, authority, or moral superiority? It's the tough love approach to life. Or, do you let these new and different perspectives slowly seep into the fabric of your consciousness until you find yourself one day espousing a new belief? It's a slow process that eventually yields a new way of acting and thinking about others and the world around you. It ultimately changes how you live your life. Or, do you listen intently, lean in with caution, and face the fact that your supposed truths are evolving to an even larger, more inclusive level? You confront your mistaken beliefs, misplaced judgements, and misunderstood assumptions and use your newfound knowledge to transform your life and see yourself in the shared humanity around you.

During this season, I imagine you might have found yourself working through all three of these emotional and intellectual responses. Certain episodes might have been easier to digest than others. Sometimes you may have felt more judgement, others more compassion. We come to every new encounter with the lens of how we see the world based on our lived experience. When someone challenges that, at first it's offensive to us. But over time, we become softer the more stories we hear and people we meet. We begin to see that if we were in the other person's shoes, maybe we might have also made similar choices. How are we to know? Eventually, your default becomes an open heart right from the start. People no longer have to prove themselves to you. You let them be who they are, where they are. They are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have at this time in their lives, as are you, and you see yourself in them. This is love.

The themes I noticed this season and will discuss one by one are:
1) the need/desire to belong 
2) the importance of parenting 
3) the desire to go back to a simpler time
4) the power of second chances
5) giving back
6) personal responsibility
7) resilience

I wanted to learn more about the psychology of belonging and what drove so many of my guests this season into the accepting arms of gang life. So I studied Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It is a 5-tiered motivational theory of psychological human needs. Maslow supposits that the lower levels or "deficient" needs on the pyramid must be met before the higher level or "growth" needs. The levels from the bottom up are: Physiological, Safety, Love & Belonging, Esteem, Self-Actualization. These needs build on each other. If a lower need has not been satisfied, it is deficient, therefore, making it harder to progress and grow into higher level needs. However, this isn't a rigid progression. We do not move through the pyramid in a linear fashion, it seems to be more fluid based on our life experiences. So at its core, belonging means being part of a cohesive group with a shared identity. All humans have this social desire. Depending on the environment we grow up in, we achieve this psychological need in different ways. What I'm getting at is, it's much harder to look down on someone for choosing to join a gang when you can relate to the desire to want to be a part of a group bigger than yourself as well. Andy Lopez from Episode 13  speaks with authority on the topic of gang life and belonging….his words touch at the heart of the allure...a place to belong, be accepted, be loved, be family. He said something striking, "We're kids trying to be men in a world that we don't know nothing about." He had an almost parental sense of love and protection of the kids under him. Yet, the street code dictates that you solve all your problems with violence. It's a warped version of love and belonging.

Some of my guests this season admitted they had great parents but still screwed up anyways - they were determined to take their own path. Others had tragic home lives. But in all the cases, there was a disconnect somewhere that caused them to feel a lack of care, support, love, or acceptance from a parent. I think the deeper issue that needs to be addressed is what is happening at home where kids don't feel valued, aren't taught who they are, or how to be a contributing member of society - the supreme role that parents and/or caregivers play in the lives of their kids. Could we stop the flow of kids seeking out gangs by teaching parents how to be better parents? As posited by British psychologist John Bowlby, “Childrens’ disturbed behavior is a response to actual experience of neglect, brutality, separation. We learn self-care from the way we are cared for. The skill of self-regulation is dependent on how harmonious our early interactions with caregivers are. Children whose parents are reliable sources of comfort and strength have a lifetime advantage.” Darlene, from episode 12  understands this and sees the importance in her role as a parent in ensuring a healthy mindset and self esteem in her kids. She's walked the road of poor coping skills and low self-esteem. She knows what she lacked and is doing everything in her power to change that narrative for her kids.

The third theme was that of "simpler times." I was honestly surprised that when my guests were given a choice of any time or place in history or the present to visit, most of them answered with a variation of "a simpler time." I find that truly intriguing. I can relate to that desire as well. But I also think we tend to idealize times in the past which in turn makes us feel they were simpler. Plus, if that past involved any time in childhood, we were still blissfully ignorant of the ways of the world: the pressures that would one day encompass us, the stress that would beat us down, the burden of finances and responsibility, the eventual loss of relationships, and the demands of societal peer pressure. It seems that aging slowly erodes our childhood dreams, simplicity, excitement, innocence, surprise, and delight only to replace it with the sobering reality of endless work, hard choices, cynicism, and heartache. All of us wish for a "do over" at some point. Sometimes I want to rewind my day and start all over. I can only imagine how much more intense that desire must be for those who have spent time imprisoned for choices they wish they could take back. No amount of punishment will stop the mind from replaying that wretched day on repeat in your brain. No wonder the simplicity of childhood or antiquity are alluring. Having the opportunity to erase the temptation would be a nice escape, I imagine.

Which segways perfectly into the fourth theme of second chances. This concept of grace...being given something we don't deserve, is overwhelming, humbling, and redemptive. Every formerly incarcerated guest desired to prove that they could and would do better if just given another chance. Hope. I think that's what the real gift of a second chance is. Hope that you can right your wrongs. Hope that you can make a better choice next time. Hope that you really can be a good, caring, helpful, contributing member of society. Hope that you achieve your dreams and goals. Kathy Heinzel in episode 7 expressed this feeling with the words, "I'm just thankful to have a second chance and make the world a better place." But many people feel that grace is not an option for the incarcerated. If someone has done something against society, we want that person to be locked up and never see the light of day again. But as Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative says, "simply punishing the broken--walking away from them or hiding them from sight--only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity."  Punishment doesn't usually yield change. Education does. Getting to the root of the problem through therapy and counseling does.  I think Jose's analogy from episode 9 expresses the gift these prison education programs, such as Defy, are to the incarcerated. He mentioned that with every in-prison program he took, it was like peeling off layers of an onion. He was discovering more about himself a little more each time. As we have listened to the stories this season, these people didn't just decide one day to commit a crime, it was a gradual progression down a slippery slope that eventually led to a tragic choice. Healing takes time, acknowledging past traumas, learning coping mechanisms, gaining tools for handling anger, depression, and fear. It seems that there are many positive programs inside prisons trying to offer this type of hope, this type of second chance.

Speaking of second chances, once you've been given one, you certainly don't want to squander it. I'm super impressed that almost all of my guests have the insatiable desire to give society, to other inmates, to those who helped them make it through, to their victims, to their families. It's the natural outpouring of gratitude for the gift of grace bestowed on them. It's a beautiful thing to witness people turning around and helping those coming up behind them. It seems that those who have experienced undeserved grace, turn around and lavish it on those around them much more freely than someone who has never experienced a second chance. I think Laura from episode 14 expresses this idea the best:  "I want people to have a little more compassion, empathy, understanding, mercy. Give each other grace to be wrong sometimes, just to make mistakes. But also, give them the grace to learn from those mistakes."

Every person I interviewed this season with incarceration experience took complete ownership of their actions. This 6th theme, the idea of personal responsibility, took a while to sink in for some people. Several guests said they continued their previous lifestyle in prison for several years. But once they took ownership for their behaviors and the negative consequences it created for all those around them including the victim, the victim's family, as well as their own family and friends, that is when you can tell there was a heart change. What sparks this self awareness in some prisoners and not in others?  I don't know the answer to that but it seems unique to each individual. Quan touched on that at the very beginning of the season. He seemed to come to the acceptance of his fate even if he never left the prison, he knew he could still be free mentally and continue to grow, learn, and better himself while on the inside. It all comes down to a mindset change. The early 20th century philosopher, Martin Buber says, "Everything depends on inner change; when this has taken place, then, and only then does the world change." Transformation. That is what has happened to this amazing people. And this transformation infects every area of their lives...their thinking, their choices, their actions.  Doing the internal work is hard, so hard in fact that most of us do anything we can to avoid, ignore, or deny it. Self-reflection causes you to see your demons, admit they are there, and deal with them. Gone are the days of living with self-delusions, of propping up an ego that can no longer be maintained, of lying to ourselves. But once you choose personal responsibility, you are taking ownership of the bad and the good. You are no longer the victim. You are no longer held captive by a false sense of who you are. You know the truth. You know you have the capacity for both good and evil and you have the power to choose. This is the gift of personal responsibility.

Lastly, I'd like to take a bit to talk about the final theme this season: resiliency. I absolutely love how social psychologist Adam Grant speaks of resiliency. He says, " I think of resilience as the strength and speed of our response to adversity. So when something bad happens, big or small, how much are we able to overcome it, or how well do we persevere in the face of it? It’s a skill set that we work on throughout our lives. It’s something that we can build long before we face any kind of tragedy or difficulty. It’s really about learning what does it take for me to find strength in a tough situation? And then being able to apply those skills when they’re most needed. We can build resilience over time by changing how we process negative events." This explanation applied to the stories we've heard this season helps explain why some people succeed and change their mindset, while others do not. It's a choice. It's a muscle we build. It's a learned response. Life gives each of us endless opportunities to learn resilience. Elizabeth from episode 19 expresses her understanding of resilience in her life motto: there is no such thing as a problem, only an opportunity to succeed. This type of attitude is forged out of hardships and challenges and not succumbing to them, rather, overcoming them. The price of resiliency is time, pain, and effort. But the ensuing result is far greater than the is a lifetime of deeper character, lives touched, and opportunities taken. 

As for what I learned about the criminal justice system through the lens of those who have been through it and work is a much more complex problem than I ever knew. I think the majority of us who never have a need to interact with the system, can't and don't understand the impact it has on millions of families. Many of my guests admitted that there must be a prison system. It's necessary to punish those who have committed crimes against society. But the system needs a massive overhaul. Many feel sentences are too long to justify the crime. I have to agree with that assessment. Some people mentioned positive interactions with COs, but many had intense, negative experiences with the guards. Is the system rehabilitating the inmates or creating even more problems? All I know is that throwing someone in "the hole" until they shape up fixes nothing. It is not getting at the root of the bad behavior that brought them to that point. Then there's the school to prison pipeline we barely touched on. This is a topic that deserves an entire season of it's own. I greatly appreciated each guest sharing their opinion of the system they experienced. It showed me there's no easy answer, but there are many similarities. It is a hot button issue to be sure and one we must take the time to have hard discussions about. 

The tagline of this podcast is:  There is no them, just us. I deliberately chose this as a reminder. When you can see yourself in the "other," you tend not to judge as harshly or as critically. When you can relate to a struggle, a situation, or a feeling that someone you've never met has experienced, this shared commonality suddenly links you. Should a person be forced to relive their bad choice over and over again for the rest of their life until you feel they have shown adequate remorse? If it was you, would you want to? How do we determine who gets a second chance and who doesn't? We like to pretend we're nothing like these "criminals" but that's not true. We have a shared humanity. Each of us  carry the same capacity for good as well as  evil inside us.  Philosopher and author, David Steindl Rast says, "The moment that you divide people with they and us, you’re always on the right side and they are always on the wrong side, and I find that makes communication very, very difficult." I think that's worth spending some time meditating on.

I'm quite envious of the Defy Community...someone is always there for you. And you are always there for someone. It's so reciprocal. It's full of compassion, grace, and understanding. All while assisting with re-entry and teaching entrepreneurial skills with the help of the community. They believe in and live redemption. Everyone has value and worth. They believe in you. These people love and accept you despite knowing you at your worst. This is a beautiful place to belong to. My guests this season willingly let me into their lives to witness their pain, sorrow, regrets, joys, dreams, and hopes. I am honored they trusted me. I gained new friends and perspectives. And as Sithy encouraged us in episode 16 , I  also learned to dance with fear. If you take away nothing else from what I've said this entire season, please let this be the last thing you remember: being incarcerated doesn't lower your value as a human. I'd like to close with something my friend Chris from episode 2 said that rings true for all of us despite where we find ourselves in life. He said, "If the dissonance hits hard enough, you'll push past the shame into reconstruction." May we all find the courage to push past our shame, doubt, shortcomings, and fears and reconstruct our views, as well as learn to give others the benefit of the doubt more often than not.

Defy Ventures


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Why People Join Gangs

Recidivism Rates in America

Recidivism Rates by Country

Incarceration Rates by Country

U.S vs The World Prison Population

Council On Criminal Justice - Recidivism Rates

World Prison Brief Data

Pew Research Center - Incarceration Rates

The Importance of Resilience with Adam Grant

What Makes Us Resilient

Excellent Documentary by Ken Barns on PBS about College Behind Bars

Join our newsletter

checkmark Got it. You're on the list!
Copyright ©2020