Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Tales from a Jail: Part 3

By Rebecca F. Owen

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Over the past two days I have shared some of my experiences as a Decisional Trainer at the Hampshire County Jail in Northampton. I’ve written about what it was like to work one-on-one with an inmate, what it was like to tour the jail and how my confidence grew during my time there until I was no longer afraid of the jail or the inmates I’d met.

Yesterday, I wrote about criminal justice issues that I came across during my time as a jail volunteer. I mentioned some of the hardships inmates face and that despite a wish to stay out of jail, 2.3 million people in the U.S. are in jail each year, more than any other nation in the world. While inmates are incarcerated our economy loses their productivity, income tax and their incarcerations actually cost the U.S. more than $47, 000 per inmate annually. My reaction to this is that we, society, may have failed these jailed men and women.

Over the years, the field of criminal psychology has offered many theories to explain why people commit crimes. Simplified, biological perspectives suggest our susceptibility to acting illegally is affected by our genes and brain processes. Psychodynamic theories generally say that criminal behavior comes from latent delinquency (unconscious and unresolved issues from childhood). Social theories tend to argue self-fulfilling prophecies (if you believe you’re bad, you will be bad) and family history of criminality create fewer inhibitions to anti-social behavior. And learning theories often claim criminal behavior comes from social learning and reinforcements. This list is by no means exhaustive, but gives a basic idea of criminal theories.

But despite any psychological theory, when it comes down to it, the convicted individual’s decision to pull out a knife when an argument got heated, follow a friend’s lead to steal two plasma TVs from Best Buy or any number of similar scenarios is what landed him or her in jail. From the stories I heard while volunteering in the jail, individuals convicted of a low-impact crime (in which the victim was not seriously injured) often explain their decisions by saying they were caught up in the moment, or that they simply had the misfortune to get caught. When asked, they usually agree that in the seconds in which they committed the crime, they weren’t thinking about how they wanted to go to college someday, or how their relationships with loved ones might change or how they might not get to see their child for the years they’re in jail.

Almost always, criminal intent and behavior does not arise spontaneously. It is marked by hyperactivity, lying, stealing, non-compliance, aggression and other destructive behaviors during childhood, adolescence or young adulthood. When an individual perpetually has disruptive behavioral patterns, there is a higher risk of future legal trouble.

Since the 1970s in the U.S. some prisons have offered rehabilitation services to inmates. The basis of these services was, and is, to intervene in disruptive behavior patterns of convicted individuals while they are incarcerated. In the best case scenarios, these programs prevent inmates from committing further criminal acts upon their release. Still, the programs don’t prevent individuals from committing criminal acts in the first place.

Accordingly, we can assume that Western society’s main response to criminal behavior is reactive. But as Ralph Banay writes in his book, “We Call Them Criminals,” “prisons have failed; they do not reform the vicious and they do corrupt the otherwise redeemable.” Even having volunteered just 10 hours in a jail one semester, this statement rings true to me. I think that if an individual labels himself or herself as a “criminal,” and in a sense admits to belonging in a jail community, he or she can easily lose hope for self-improvement. In the Decisional Training program at the Hampshire County Jail, created in 1978, volunteers work to help inmates create possibilities for a better, more hopeful future.

After an intense two-day orientation sitting in one room for about 14 hours collectively and learning about the prescribed decisional training material, volunteers are essentially set loose to work with their assigned inmate.

According to the Decisional Training course, there are five steps in good decision making. The first is to see the situation clearly; to isolate and define situations, separate external events from internal feelings. The second is to know what you want; to find a direction or specific goal you want to work toward. The third is to expand possibilities; to identify alternative solutions to a problem and alternative ways of reacting. The fourth is to evaluate and decide; to consider the risks, probabilities of success and desirability of each option. The fifth is to act; to monitor progress towards one’s goal. Each of the 10 total sessions is structured to teach these skills to participating inmates and help them apply the skills in their own lives through use of worksheets and planned conversations.

At outset, the Decisional Training Program seemed wonderful to me. It would allow me, an undergraduate, to act as a professional counselor for my inmate. And for the first two sessions, I did follow the training material I had been given. But after a couple of weeks, I was less interested in drilling the five steps into my inmates head, and instead, I took a more flexible, individualized approach. While teaching my inmate about Decisional Training, I gave him a space where he could process events going on in the jail, think aloud about a better future and explore what he really wanted from life. It saddens me to think that most inmates don’t get a chance to have this sort of emotional space while in jail, presumably the time when they need it most. Only about 15 inmates participate in the Decisional Training program each semester, for reasons unknown to me.

My change in approach working with my inmate reminded me of what Banay said about prisons not reforming the vicious. Although I cannot know if my more flexible approach to Decisional Training benefited the man I worked with, there is also no public data to prove that the Decisional Training program works at all. There are strict rules around using prisoners as research participants for ethical reasons, due to the fact that these individuals may not feel free to make a purely voluntary decision to participate or to not participate.

As such, even throughout the nearly 40 years this program has been in existence, I’ve been told it has not been scientifically tested.

Theoretically speaking, who’s to say, then, that the Decisional Training program is not harmful to inmates? Is there a reason UMass students are among, if not the, only undergraduates to be earning course credit for counseling in the U.S.? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I have no evidence to discredit the Decisional Training program. It seems like a worthy organization. Yet as a psychology student, the fact that no research has been published on it bothers me.

Studies have been done, however, on how to best keep individuals out of jail. Research shows that one of the most effective ways to keep young adults, the age group most likely to end up in jail, out of trouble is to keep them in school. Being in school gets kids off the streets for seven hours five days a week, and longer, if they do their homework. But also, school can encourage hope, goals and motivation for the future, qualities that are not often associated with criminal behavior.

Individuals who graduate from high school without an otherwise thought are often immune to the difficulty it takes to keep someone not academically motivated from dropping out. But why endure high school if you don’t see yourself going to college, if you’re failing your math class, if you feel better smoking outside than sitting through classes with sports jocks? Even the act of dropping out of school can be enough to lessen the self-worth felt by an individual, making them more at risk for criminality.

Preventive programs across the U.S. have developed over the past 20 years to help students graduate from high school. In many school systems, academic tutors and mentors are welcomed to work with struggling students, in the hope that their academic performance will improve and their interest in education will increase. Success stories boast that with help, even the least academically focused student can graduate.

It’s not that getting kids to graduate high school will solve our jails’ overpopulation issues. But for me at least, it’s an area in which I feel we, society, can make the most difference. The Decisional Training program at the Hampshire County Jail is potentially great. But I would rather see crime rates decrease because of preventive programs than intervention programs.

In a time of economic turmoil and international crisis, I know that domestic crime issues are on the back burner. Should the U.S. have the decency and good sense, though, to notice and act on its responsibility in reducing criminal activity without overpopulating jails, we might see not only safer communities, but a decrease in money spent keeping prisoners healthy and securely locked away. It’s true that the “criminal” was the one who made the decision to commit a crime, but society was the one to let it happen. An ancient African proverb says that “it takes a village” to raise a child. Doesn’t it take a nation to raise a young adult?

This is the end of a three day series. For more information, please contact the author at [email protected], or through her website,


3 Responses to “Tales from a Jail: Part 3”

  1. mason on April 12th, 2012 6:43 pm

    This is an interesting article, the author went beyond simply arguing her conviction in an essay or discussing it among her friends, she took her belief and supported it with action and than wrote about her experience

    Although it is interesting she lists the various theories of criminal psychology and sees them as disparate yet they all rest on an underlying cause and that is those who commit crime exclusive of the ones with antisocial tendencies , do so because of their poor executive functioning. This is further alluded to their lapse of reasoning when they’re committed a crime, their lack of judgement and control.
    Many individuals who are in jail are because of petty crimes that arise out of poor executive control, poverty or concurrently both. In fact even the “Decisional Training program” may be an indication of this as I would surmise like any most attempts, it is simply an attempt to reinforce to the prisoner what he should do, what is right, what the consequences of improper behavior is and how to correct it and how to ensure that mistake is not repeated.
    However the criminal is most likely aware of this as we all are and his failure to heed what is already known does not rest in his lack of knowledge or how to apply it; but in those moments a lack of control. So I think this should be recognized so if you want to prevent crime and similarly prevent recidivism you will need better methods.
    Also aside from executive functioning the other problem facing those who commit crimes is because of the communities that they live in and it would be important to look at crime not as simply an individual action but one that stems from community problems. This is best stated in the theory “ecology of crime”.
    However to a certain extent this is recognized but it’s recognized poorly. People think that community centers or silly community police relationships or other ways to motivate members in the community to “be good” essentially fail, they have been tried in a variety in forms and hundreds of millions dollars have been spent on these program the past two decades. They are ineffective.
    Also it’s not really a political problem, being more accepting towards criminals or conversely being more strict with harsher sentencing is only addressing policy and those who execute that policy after the fact, it does not address the root cause. Most investigation and resources needs to be dedicated to the cause and once that cause is determined, than can you correctly apply methods of reducing crime, perhaps even abolishing crime.


  2. Karen Banta on April 13th, 2012 2:58 pm

    As the Coordinator of this program, I must correct Ms. Owens’ assumption that she was “essentially set loose” following the Training Weekend. In fact, both the volunteer and the inmate, at the first session, sign an agreement: the volunteer to teach skills, and the inmate to participate. Further, it is a serious misrepresentation of Decisional Training to write, “It would allow me, an undergraduate, to act as a professional counselor for my inmate.” Decisional Training is at core a teaching program. When we use the helping process with another person, naturally there is some overlap with counseling. However, no Decisional Trainer is a “professional counselor.” Thank you, Karen Banta, Coordinator, Decisional Training Volunteers


  3. mason on April 14th, 2012 2:13 am

    I forgot to mention, I think the author did an excellent job with the series and props to her for have for having the courage to do this. Great job!


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