The Kafkaesque World of Prison ‘Rehabilitation’

Credit: chaiyapruek2520

Idle hands, idle minds

I’d say maybe 80%, and that may be a serious underestimation, of prisoners in Housing Unit B-2 are unemployed, with no engagement in rehabilitative programming. There simply aren’t enough jobs to employ every prisoner and the few programs USP Big Sandy offers have waiting lists of six months to a year. You could say that the promotion of gangbanging, a nihilistic way of living centered around the belief that “it’s better to be feared than loved,” is the largest and most available “program” in the FBOP. That, and manufacturing shanks (knives).

Lost in translation

Since the class started at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the entire prison was on modified lockdown, we were allowed out of our cells for just an hour and a half three times a week — a total of 18 hours a month. I was grateful to be included in any program that allowed me out of my cell for an extra hour once or twice. But after about the fourth session, I began to notice that the drug treatment specialist who led the classes was out of her depths. The middle-aged white woman from rural Kentucky couldn’t effectively communicate with the young Black men in the group, most of whom were from the hip-hop generation and have their own slang to communicate. She shard that not even one African-American had attended her public schools when she was growing up. And before coming to work in the BOP, she had zero interactions with African-Americans. Not only was I becoming bored with it all, it also was becoming clear to me that the specialist’s only exposure to Black culture had come via Black-exploitation movies like Monster Ball, the Green Mile and White Chicks. She couldn’t relate to us; therefore, she could not teach. Her regurgitation of textbook analysis was useless in this prison setting, not to mention the fact her fondness for spouting Margaret Sanger-caliber eugenic theories regarding the offspring of parents who abused drugs:

Credit: mladenbalinovac

The center of prison programming: the Challenge program

Then we have the creme da la creme of the psychology courses offered by the bureau, called the Challenge Program. This nine-month program’s day-to-day operations are overseen at USP Big Sandy by the prison’s head resident psychologist. For my personal safety, we will refer to the psychologist as Dr. Seuss. Of the 12 housing units on the prison compound, only one offers the Challenge Program. Unlike the rest of the bland, gray-and-tan colored, overcrowded housing units, the walls of this one are as colorful as a preschool classroom, with large, vibrant murals of prisoners huddled around camp fires and an assortment of motivational slogans painted on the wall’s. The program was allegedly designed to help prisoners in high-security facilities unlearn their self-destructive criminal value system and thought processes, assist them with kicking their drug addiction and keep them out of the SHU (special housing unit, or “hole”).



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More Than Our Crimes

More Than Our Crimes

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 26 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at