I had the most fulfilling experience the other day. One of my mentees in the DC jail’s Young Men Emerging (YME) community thanked me for giving him Nathan McCall’s book “Makes Me Wanna Holler” to read. The point that most stuck with him is how a person can’t be rehabilitated without first being “habilitated.” It brought home to him just why he has been back and forth to jail his whole life. He had never been habilitated!
The definition of “habilitate” is “to make fit or capable.” Most people I have met since being incarcerated have yet to receive mental health treatment to help them work through problems that stem directly from their traumatic childhoods. They grew up in poverty-stricken, violent/volatile environments, where they witnessed daily conflict and drug sales from their sidewalks and front porches; were verbally, sexually, physically or mentally abused (usually by their immediate care givers); and/or were left by absent parents to fend for themselves, including figuring out the source of their next meal.
The question I want you to ponder is: How can you rehabilitate someone who has never been habilitated to begin with? How can we classify a person as fit or suitable when he or she is stunted by such early, traumatic experiences? And has not been offered the opportunity to heal? We can’t! This nation’s approach to criminal “justice” — its lack of empathy and a deep understanding of root causes — is the reason for a national recidivism rate of nearly 68% within three years of release.
It is our usual practice to punish people for what they did to “correct” their conduct, instead of first trying to figure out what caused them to act as they did, then helping them deal with those “demons.” This lack of intervention starts well before a person first encounters the criminal justice system. It usually stems back to how they were treated at home or in school as early the elementary years. Imagine this: A boy is raised by his drug-addicted mother and must vie with drugs and men to get her attention. The only time he feels as though he can win this battle is when he acts out enough to disrupt her drug high or sufficiently get on her nerves. When he succeeds, she cusses him out, she hollers at him, beats him and tells him to get the hell outside and play. In other words, she sees him. This is how he learns to earn her “love.”
But when the boy tries the same tactics in school, such as by disrespecting the teacher or fighting, he is labeled a “troublemaker” and punished as such. This is the point that James Foreman Jr. articulated in “Rethinking Race and Criminal Justice,” in which he writes about how being a public defender for juveniles enabled him to learn about “the wholeness of people and how they are more than just a single moment (mistake) in their lives.”
“You learn about their families, about their life stories, about their struggles, about trauma that they were exposed to as children, addiction that they were raised into, and so you know them as fully human,” he wrote. “And it forever changes how you view them. Because now, you have the whole story.”
This is the level of empathy we need among the stakeholders in our schools and criminal justice systems if we are to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in our country and the myriad ripple effects it causes.
How do you rehabilitate a person who has never been habilitated? You approach him or her with respect, empathy, understanding — and treatment. This is the beautiful thing about the DC jail’s Young Men Emerging community, a specially designed unit for young adults 18 to 25 that seeks to create a therapeutic environment. I am a mentor for these young men, the way I wish I had been treated when I was first incarcerated 24 years ago. For the first time in many of our lives, we have been placed in a holistic environment where we feel as though we can just take a deep breath and “be.” We do not have to worry about protecting ourselves from violence or about our immediate survival; we are at “peace.” And it is this peaceful state that affords us the opportunity to focus on what it is that we need to do to become our best selves.
Combine this feeling with how we are treated by community members who interact with us (officers, speakers and administrative staff), and you have a recipe for habilitation. We are given the opportunity to receive mental health treatment, to further our education, to build people skills, and to envision a better life. We even had a Family Reunification Day on February 29 to help rebuild relationships, including bonds between fathers and newborn children. This is still a carceral space, but family members sat at picnic-style tables eating together, and fathers held their children in their arms — hugging, kissing and simply loving them. Sons danced with their mothers, kids played games with their parents and everybody mingled like one big family.
It was a joyous occasion and one of the best days of my life — the first in my life when I was able to be with my mother, son, family and friends all at the same time without any interruptions. For a moment, I was transported out of jail. This is habilitation, which leads to real rehabilitation. Institutions all over the country need to try it.
Note from Pam, Rob’s collaborator: Later this month, a judge will consider a petition to allow him to stay in the DC jail, rather than ship him back to the Florida federal prison where he had been locked up previously. Since DC does not have its own prison, Rob was transferred back home only while his petition for early release was heard. How ironic: DC leads the nation with YME and the Georgetown Prison Scholars program, yet after “teasing” inmates like Rob, it sends them into a system where it knows its work will be undone. Isn’t it time to change this?
A note about how this blog is possible: Incarcerated people have no access to the internet. Thus, I am partnering with journalist/storyteller Pam Bailey, who acts as my editor when needed and posts all of my updates. You may contact her at email@example.com.