Category Archives: ex-offender psychology

What you have the power to do

“The most common way  people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”        

             Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple”

I love this quote.  It reminds me of something I’ve struggled with on occasion.  Like say, last week when I was having a career-related ” poor me”  party, and forgot that I wasn’t completely at the mercy of events;  that there were some steps I could take to on my own behalf.

Yes, I was guilty of giving my power away.

If you’re starting over with a criminal record, you might also feel you have little power.  That’s okay.   It’s perfectly  understandable to worry about taking charge of your life again, particularly if you’ve served time and had most of your daily movements proscribed. 

But you do have more power than you realize, and even if you don’t feel it now, you can reclaim it.  Here are some of the most common areas where people with criminal records (and even those without them)  tend to give up power and strategies on how to get it back.            

 Job Search

  • Signs and Symptoms:    Thinking no one will hire you because you have a criminal record, thinking you’re turned down for jobs because of your past or because there’s something wrong with you.  Giving up prematurely on an employment search, getting overly nervous in interviews because you’re afraid you won’t get the job. 
  • Remedies: Assessing your strengths and weaknesses so you know what you have to offer an employer and how to sell yourself.  Being upfront about  your background and how you’ve changed and moved beyond it.  Acknowledging you understand why an employer might have concerns, but emphasizing how you will work to the best of your ability to prove yourself.  Realizing that everyone gets turned down for jobs, particularly in this market, and persisting in your search for as long as it takes. 

Relationships

  • Signs and Symptoms: Staying in a relationship where you are unable to be your best self, or one that is abusive or otherwise unhealthy.  Can include romantic relationships or friendships where you are encouraged to engage in behavior that is not in your best interest. Becoming involved in a relationship where you feel you must sacrifice your dreams or desires in order to make someone else happy.   Carrying grudges or anger from slights or hurts in the past.
  • Remedies:  Learning to value your own wants and needs as much as other people’s.   Making sure you do not have to sacrifice who you are to maintain a friendship or relationship.  Seeking out alliances with individuals you admire who are living the kind of life that you aspire to. Leaving relationships that are abusive or otherwise unhealthy.  Dedicating yourself to developing your own strengths and reaching your own goals.  Letting go of blame for past hurts and moving on with your own life.

Addiction

  • Signs and Symptoms:  Usually obvious and unhealthy attachment to substances or practices that are destructive and ultimately take over your life; drugs, alcohol, gambling, thrill-seeking, sex, etc.
  • Remedies:  Acceptance, treatment and support.

Dealings with Law Enforcement:  

  • Signs and Symptoms:   Unnatural or exaggerated fear that even though you have served your time, police or local law enforcement (sometimes even probation officers are included here) are out to get you.
  • Remedies:  Realization that you have control over your actions.   As long as you choose to abide by the conditions of your release and become a law-abiding citizen, you should not be in trouble again.  Realizing the people, places and things that can get you in trouble and avoiding those can go a long way towards helping you stay on the right path. 

Readers, how about you?   Have you ever struggled to hold onto your power?   Have you ever given it away and regretted it?   And if so, how have you gotten it back?

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The humility challenge

A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.

— writer and feminist Gloria Steinem

The student was a young woman, not long out of high school.  And she seemed extremely sure of herself, which might have been why she was struggling with this particular job interview question.

“But I don’t have any weaknesses.”  She looked me straight in the eye.

In previous classes, we’d discussed the reason employers often ask about what you consider your strengths and weaknesses during interviews.  We’d talked about how everyone has weaknesses and how bosses often look for a measure of self-knowledge and maturity in your responses.  The key to answering this question, according to most career experts, is using it to highlight an area or trait you know you need to improve, and hopefully to demonstrate how you’ve either worked to correct it, or learned to compensate for your shortcomings.

A classmate, for example, had offered that she had struggled on occasion to learn things from manuals.  “But I’m very hands-on and I’ve demonstrated repeatedly that I learn quickly by doing.”

“I tend to take on too much responsibility,” said another.  “But over time I’ve become much better at delegating some of that work to others.”

This particular student, however, was stymied.

“There must be some area where you’d like to improve,” I offered.

She thought for a moment, then smiled slightly.   “I’m too competitive,” she said.  “I just always have to be the best.”

It wasn’t necessarily a bad answer, particularly in a society that loves victory as much as ours.  So just to see where she’d go with it, I asked her — as a recruiter no doubt would — how her competitiveness had hurt her.

Again, she looked perplexed.

“What about times when you couldn’t be the best,” I suggested.  “How have you handled that? ” What about academics?  Had she excelled there and been competitive too? Or had that been an area where she had a harder time?

“Grades didn’t matter,” she said.  “I didn’t go half the time.  That’s how it was if you were an athlete.”

Say what you will about this answer, she was honest at least.  And hardly alone in her attitude.  One of the challenges of revealing your weaknesses is that there’s seemingly no upside to it. Our culture doesn’t just love winners, we worship them.   We put them on a pedestal where they can do no wrong. We make allowances.  We go out of our way to revere “specialness” and ignore anything that might smack of less than perfect.

Then we expect that somewhere along the way, the same people that we’ve elevated are going to become introspective and acquire some humility. We expect the kids who look up to them to understand this.  At the same time, we seldom teach it, we don’t emphasize it.  Yet as a character trait, humility is as essential as perseverance — for all of us, but particularly for those looking to start their lives over.

For one, a sense of entitlement, lack of humility, feeling that you don’t have to play by society’s rules — spin it as you will — is often a direct contributor to criminal activity.  Researchers  long ago identified a distorted feeling of being “special” or above the law as a critical component of the criminal mindset.

Secondly, explaining your past to the general public is a humbling experience, as countless ex-offenders will attest.  As a former felon you may be forced to take a job you consider beneath your abilities because it’s the only way to feed your family.  You may be denied jobs for which you’d be perfect.  People may doubt what you say and question your character.

Dealing with this is going to require not only an ability to accept your situation and persevere, but as James Walker noted so eloquently in his recent guest post, the humility to acknowledge your mistakes, and yes, your weaknesses.

Otherwise, as Gloria Steinem observed, you do risk trading one prison for another, don’t you?

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Remembering the battles soldiers fight — away and at home

On this Memorial Day, I find myself thinking about a couple of people I know.  These particular folks not only served their country — in some cases with much distinction — but in a twist that’s become all too familiar, they also served time in prison or jail.

Sadly, the longer America has been at war, the more common this scenario  has become.   So common, in fact, that the prevalence of combat veterans who get  in trouble with the law after they return has been well-documented — In stories like this one from the Salt Lake City Tribune. Or  in the “The Wounded Platoon” , a television documentary airing earlier this month, which opened with a tale of how three army combat buddies had killed a fourth after a night of drinking in Colorado Springs.

As these reports note, it’s difficult to find hard statistics on incarcerated veterans, let alone the whys behind their offenses.  This oft-cited special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics looked at the ex-military population in prisons and jails in 1998 and found a preponderance of Vietnam War vets, higher-levels of education and people who were more likely to be addicted to alcohol than drugs.

But new wars have brought new challenges.  “The Wounded Platoon,” depicts how the need for troops prompted the military to accept recruits with criminal and juvenile records who might have been rejected in the past.  Faced with a spike in post-traumatic stress disorder during IED-laden guerrilla wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military also began to allow soldiers in combat to take prescription drugs, among them antidepressants and Ambien. Some believe this may account for higher incidences of  post-war drug and alcohol abuse.

Given the difficulties of readjusting to life outside a war zone — and the little support available  —  it’s not a big leap to imagine how a combination of substance abuse and psychological disorders could lead a veteran to cross the line. Granted, many in the service had problems before they ever put on a uniform.  As one commenter noted on the story in the Salt Lake City Tribune, some “would have committed a crime regardless.”  Still, the 2000 BOJ report found that veterans were more likely to be serving a sentence for a violent offense than those who had never served.  They were also more likely to be older and first-time offenders.

I’m not saying those who have broken the law should be exempt from punishment because of their military service.  It just seems that perhaps military service needs to be factored in more.  This was brought home to me earlier this year when I met an offender whose profile didn’t make sense to me.  This woman had spent nearly a decade in the service, fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and received commendations and assignments that required a high level of security.   The incident that got her in trouble was alcohol-fueled and happened shortly after her return to the U.S.   Obviously, I don’t know all the details because I wasn’t there, but the idea that the crime warranted time in jail as opposed to some other sort of psychological or substance abuse treatment seemed bizarre.

This is not just an issue in the U.S., by the way.   Veterans in Prison, an organization founded by a group of British ex-soldiers tracks similar problems in the UK.  In 2008, for example, a report found that 1 in 11 people serving time in British jails was a former member of the armed forces.

What can we do?  That’s a good question.  Fortunately, as more soldiers reenter civilian life, there seems to be a growing  awareness of the challenges they face.   This was reflected in a California ruling  last year in a case involving a former Army Ranger accused of  breaking into two pharmacies to fuel his prescription drug addiction. Although he was facing up to 12 years in prison, he was given treatment as opposed to jail upon appeal.

I’m hoping to see more of this.  How about you?

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On an administrative note:  Alas, today is the official end of the WordCount Blogathon 2010. Yesterday, I reflected on what a long, often challenging, but rewarding trip it’s been.   Unfortunately, (or fortunately, for those of you who were tired of me nattering on) this means that I’ll no longer be posting daily.  But thanks to some new followers, some great ideas and lots of inspiration, I”m hoping to be able to use the longer lead time between posts to tackle some stories I’ve been meaning to get to — like ban the box and other pressing issues.

So thanks again for sticking with me for a month’s worth of posts and blog-discovery.  And a final shout-out to Michelle Rafter, who made this whole event not just possible, but loads of fun.

I hope you’ll stay tuned…..

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Filed under addiction and recovery, alternatives to incarceration, breaking the law, criminal records, ex-offender psychology, homelessness

More inspiration…blogathon style

I’m having a hard time believing that Wordcount Blogathon 2010 ends tomorrow.  I’ve  blogged for 30 straight days, something I wasn’t sure I could do when I agreed to take part in this crazy thing.  Looking back now, it feels like the time just flew by.

It’s amazing what 100 writers urging each other on can accomplish in just a month.  As odd as it seems, I may actually miss it.  The blogathon generated it’s own kind of energy, as well as, a camaraderie often missing in the solitary life of a writer.  I got  ideas from my fellow bloggers and was  encouraged to stretch in ways I might not have otherwise. (Haiku, anyone?)  And while I found new readers,  it also led me to some fascinating work that others are doing.

On weekends during the blogathon, I’ve been posting poems or inspirational stories that might be of interest to ex-offenders and those who help them.  Today, I’d like to single out some newly discovered sites that really inspired me.

1.  First, a  shout out to Prison Photography for leading me to this great graphic on the number of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. by state.  It was created by the Pew Center for the States.   It’s designed so that you can click on the state and automatically find out how many are people are in prison or jail there.   It’s also color coded so you can automatically see where the high concentrations of inmates fall.   Blog author Pete Brook is a Brit who lives in Seattle and describes himself as an amateur photographer.  His blog features fascinating prison photos from photographers around the world.  His ultimate goal, he says is to “prick people’s curiosity about the prison systems that exist within their societies.”  How much do you know about yours?

2.    Correctional Nurse.net Lorry Schoenly is a registered nurse who works in corrections.  She’s also a writer and educator.   I just discovered her site this week and haven’t been able to scratch the surface in terms of all the information she has there.  Some of her recent posts include advice on dealing with the fallout from pepper spray, how to help prevent suicides in prison and jail and how correctional staff can identify and deal with alcohol withdrawal.  I can tell this is a blog I’ll be coming back to again and again.

3.  Ed Pilolla Ed is a fellow-blogathoner and journalist who used his 30 days to continue composing love letters he plans to  publish in a book soon.  Each daily post brought a new letter and another lesson for me in evocative and exquisite writing.  In his free time, Ed also was  kind enough to stop by this blog to offer comments and encouragement.

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Who hires violent offenders? You’d be surprised.

Their crimes aren’t easy to stomach.

VASAVOR job developer Mouly Aloumouati

Murder. Rape. Armed Robbery. Aggravated Assault.  But when they come to Mouly Aloumouati, they’ve done their time and have one thing in common.

They want a job and they want to start over.

Aloumouati does his best to accommodate.  A business developer at SkillSource Center, (a One Stop Career Center operator in Virginia), he also manages  the VASAVOR (Virginia’s Serious and Violent Offender Reentry) program in conjunction with re-entry organization OAR.  Over the past seven years, he estimates he’s dealt with some 400 violent offenders and found jobs for more than 75 percent of them.

“I’ve got a recidivism rate of 5 percent,”  he says, which isn’t bad, when you consider that nationally nearly two thirds of offenders return to prison or jail within two years.

Affable and approachable, Aloumouati’s secret is a mixture of practicality, doggedness and a willingness to do what it takes to help get his people placed.  When he started, he  had no experience with offenders, but over time he’s developed an acute understanding of the challenges they face and the way to overcome these.

I was fortunate to catch up with Aloumouati two weeks ago when I stopped by the local Career One Stop Center in Falls Church, VA.  Here’s some of what he had to say about how he works and what he’s learned:

On the biggest challenge the violent offender faces:

Some would call it the “fear” factor.   “I would say the hardest thing is getting over the stigma.  But I try to show the people I work with that the stigma is not the end of the world.  You can get past it, if you’re willing to work hard and be persistent.”  The important thing, he adds, is how you come across and whether you are employable.  This means do you have your IDs, do you know how to conduct yourself in a workplace, have you taken responsibility for your actions or are you in denial…otherwise I’m wasting my time because you’re not ready.”  The first step he takes with people who come to him is to do an employment assessment to see where they are.

On what kind of jobs serious offenders can get:

Aloumouati has placed offenders in the labor and construction industries, administrative and clerical jobs, the trades, transportation and food service, among other areas.  Many of these positions are entry-level, but he’s also helped individuals find more advanced positions in the medical and other professional fields.

On how the ex-offender should present himself:

“I tell people I work with you spend 10 seconds explaining your record in an interview, then you spend 10 minutes telling the employer what you can do for him.

On his job hunt secrets:

Aloumouati keeps a file on every employer who’s ever hired one of his clients.  Any reentry organization can develop a similar list by going to case files for the past three to four years and looking at where the offenders they worked with got jobs, he says.  Everywhere he goes, he brings business cards and makes sure he gets them from any employer he meets.  He scans the want-ads and Craig’s List regularly and follows up immediately.  “Youve got to get to the job before the non-criminals do to make your case,” he says.  In fact, he’s been known to drive offenders to an interview to take advantage of a hot lead right away.   Even if the job doesn’t work out — he keeps track of the employer so he can check back periodically and find out about new openings before they’re advertised.

On getting professional jobs:

Aloumouati has worked with former doctors, lawyers, police, judges, military, engineers and plenty of others with impressive credentials.  Sometimes these individuals will no longer be able to work in their field because of their crimes or licensing requirements. Nonetheless he has still been able to help many find very good jobs.  “I have five clients right now, who are making more than $85,000,” he says.

On his advice to an offender who can no longer work in his/her field:

You need to be very creative and change direction. “I tell the people I work with they have to dig deep in their souls and brains to bring me other industries where they can work.”  A medical doctor may never be a doctor again with a felony, but he can work with or for a doctor.  People may lose security clearances, but not the knowledge and experience they had previously.   I have a number of engineers and people in IT that I’ve been able to place in good jobs in the industry.  They may not be doing exactly what they were doing before, but they’re still using their skills.

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How law-abiding are you? Take 2

Back at the beginning of the month, I invited readers to take a brief poll that asked two questions:

  1. Have you ever committed a crime?
  2. If so, were you arrested or did you get away with it?

The purpose of the exercise was to show that, in many cases, the poor judgment and casual morality we attribute to offenders may be shared by plenty of others who have never served time.  In fact,  a full 90 percent of the poll respondents admitted to breaking the law.  Of those, only 21 percent were actually arrested, and 58 percent said they got away with what they did completely.

Not surprisingly, these unscientific results dovetail with actual research.   Generally only a small percentage, even of violent crimes, result in arrests.

In fact, in a 1995 report on interpreting crime statistics,  Delbert S. Elliott, the director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of  Violence noted:

The probability of arrest for these very serious violent  offenses is very low, even when self-reported offenses were restricted to those involving a weapon or injury. For males, less than 10 arrests per 100 self-reported robberies and less than five arrests per 100 aggravated assaults.

Now ultimately, if a person commits enough crimes, the probability of arrest goes up.  But the point I’m trying to make here is that the mere absence of a record doesn’t mean someone is a “safer” choice for an employer to hire.   As I’ve written in the past, using arrest and convictions records to screen out candidates for jobs and to make decisions about individuals isn’t foolproof.

As these statistics show:  you’re not necessarily getting people with better judgment.  In some cases, you’re merely getting people with better luck.

Yesterday in answering questions for ex-offenders, Jail to Job’s Eric Mayo recommended an offender “look at a criminal record as a handicap he has to overcome.”   I think that’s pretty good advice for society, as well.  When employers consider a job candidate, the smartest ones look at any disability or shortcomings  in terms of how this impacts the measure of the whole person.  Can he or she still meet the requirements of the job?   How does she present herself?  Based on what I’ve seen of this person  do I feel that I can trust him?  Does this individual seem to have taken responsibility and learned from his/her mistakes and shortcomings?

In many ways, the answers to these questions will tell you much more about a person than his or her record.

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A story of recovery and defying the odds

On weekends during the WordCount 2010 Blogathon, I’ve been trying to publish inspirational stories or newsy bits that might help ex-offenders, their families and those who are interested in assisting folks trying to start over.

I came across this story Friday.   It’s written by a woman named Paula who suffers from schizophrenia.   She began hearing voices at four and was told at a very young age that she would never leave a mental hospital.    But Paula didn’t want to believe it.  So she sought help and over time, with the assistance of compassionate therapists, her mother and friends, she completed her college degree in psychology and has gone on to live a very productive life.   She now works at an agency that helps homeless and mentally ill individuals get the assistance they need.  When an interviewing panel for the case management job she was applying for askedwhy they should hire her, she was honest:

I said because I was mentally ill, I could relate to the clients better than other candidates. Boy, what a risk I was taking, but the boss — who was a visionary —  gave me a chance and I proved myself .

It’s a  remarkable story, and worth noting, since so many individuals with mental illnesses end up caught up in the justice system.  Paula didn’t, because she had support, but too many people like her do.  In fact,  nearly 16 percent of jail  and state prison inmates have mental illnesses.   In another recent study, nearly 50 percent of people in prison reported that they suffered from some sort of psychological issue.  Data compiled by the David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, shows that incarcerated individuals with mental health issues were also more likely to have suffered from contributing factors like homelessness, alcoholism, abuse, unemployment, job or school trouble than their fellow prisoners.

It was inspiring for me to see all the work the Bazelon Center is doing on behalf of the mentally ill, to protect and advocate for their legal rights.  If you’ve never heard of this organization, check it out here. There are many ways you can help.

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