Excerpt from You Can Change, Chapter 1
Ashanti Witherspoon had an unusual job. What wasn’t unusual was the CPR training he provided to community centers or his motivational lectures on the evils of drugs and violence he regularly presented to inner-city youth—a number of community organizers do that. What was unusual about Ashanti’s job was that after the end of his workday he would load his gear into his van and drive back to Angola, Louisiana, where he would pass through the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary and admit himself back into his cell, where he was serving a seventy-five-year sentence for armed robbery. Ashanti completed his job every day, and returned to prison every day, without a single guard accompanying him.
By the time he served twenty-five years in the maximum-security prison at Angola, Ashanti had advanced to such a position of responsibility that part of his job description was to go out into the community and try to be a positive influence on young men and women who still had a chance at a life of freedom. He said it was to “try to give something back.” This arrangement was so unusual that he was the subject of a documentary film. I can still remember how the camera captured him, standing in the parking lot of Bank One in downtown Baton Rouge, after one of his presentations. As he stood there with no chains, no orange jump-suit, and no armed guards around him, the documentary producer asked him the most logical question anyone could ask at that moment.
“Why don’t you try to get away?”
Ashanti calmly replied, “There wouldn’t be any problem for me to walk away. But the point is I’ve changed. The thing that I need to do is to be free. Escaping won’t give me any type of freedom. Escaping, I’m still on the run, and I’m still trapped, I’m still bound by the same things that I was bound by twenty-five years ago. I want real freedom. I want to be able to walk out of prison and actually say that I’m free.”
Within three years of making that statement, that is exactly what happened. George Ashanti Witherspoon was paroled and is now a free man—a very rare occurrence for those incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He was so obviously a changed person that the parole board had no problem releasing him back into society where he could continue doing good. And that is precisely what he is doing today. As his website, societyofservantleaders.com, notes, “Since his return to society he has owned several businesses, been an associate pastor for nine years, hosted his own talk show . . . and travels as an international speaker. He received his doctorate in Theology in January, 2013.” Ashanti’s story of personal change is amazing, especially for a man who lived almost twenty-eight years in a maximum-security prison.
Prisons: Where We Send People We Have Given Up On
The United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world—by far. We have more than two million people locked up, and we release about two thousand back into society every single day. Within three years, 66 percent of those will be reincarcerated. Sadly, it doesn’t look like very many of them are changed.
In most cases, prisons are horrible places. Generally, they are simply holding cells for people we don’t believe can change. To protect themselves from each other (and in some cases the guards), the prisoners form racial gangs, which offer some sort of control over the brutality and chaos. It’s really pretty simple. In order to survive, a prisoner must know immediately who has got his back when he arrives in prison. And the quickest way to sort out friend versus foe is to identify with your race. Black prisoners join black gangs, the Hispanic prisoners join Hispanic gangs, and white prisoners rush to the Aryan gangs—all in an effort simply to stay alive. Many people think that prisons are filled with gang members from street gangs, but actually most gangs outside of prisons were formed on the inside of prisons as a matter of survival. Then the gang culture was transmitted to the outside once they were released. After years of research on America’s prisons, journalist Alan Elsner concluded, “Without question, prisons are the most racially segregated as well as the most racist places in America.”
From my perspective as a psychologist, I determined that rehabilitation in America’s prisons is not failing—it is rarely even being attempted. When a person has committed a serious crime, we appear to have decided that change is not possible, so we lock that person away. Our Departments of Corrections aren’t trying to correct anything; they are simply punishing people for acting badly. It is possible to make a moral justification for that, but it isn’t even in the ballpark of trying to help people change.
Then I came across a documentary film, The Farm, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Director Jonathan Stack followed the lives of several inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and told their moving stories of personal transformation from lives of crime and murder to lives of service and compassion. These people, who had once been selfish criminals, were now dedicated to helping others with such optimism and hope that it was hard to comprehend it. This type of personal transformation was so incredible to me that I had to go and see it for myself. After a few months of a persuasive email campaign on my part, one of the assistant wardens, Cathy Fontenot, finally agreed to allow me to visit Angola. I could hardly believe what I found once I got there.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. It currently holds more than 6,200 inmates, 95 percent of whom will never leave. The vast majority of the prisoners are serving life sentences, and they will die in Angola, because they have committed murder, rape, or armed robbery. These men have done very bad things and have been condemned to die in prison because society does not believe they are capable of change.
Angola not only is the country’s largest maximum-security prison but was once the most brutal. Its eighteen thousand acres were formerly the site of a plantation maintained by a slave workforce; and the prison itself has such a long history of violence and a reputation for being so cruel that it was referred to as the site of modern-day slavery. The brutality was so notorious that criminals would weep when sentenced to Angola. It was well known throughout the South that no matter how tough you were, you did not want to end up here.
But then, in 1995, Burl Cain became the warden. He didn’t want the job. He remained for several years in his residence at the Dixon Correctional Institute, where he was serving as warden, hoping the Angola appointment would only be temporary. Cain was aware that none of his predecessors had lasted more than a few years in their attempts to reform Angola. But despite his reservations, he accepted the challenge because he had a different vision for how this could be done—and, most importantly, a belief that people could change. Unlike many in society who believed people who commit the crimes that send them to Angola should be locked away and forgotten, Cain believed everyone should be given the opportunity for rehabilitation. As a deeply spiritual person, he was convinced that, if we give people the proper setting and apply the proper principles, corrections could be done correctly. Angola did not have to be a place of punishment and retribution; it could be a place where people could correct their ways and be transformed. This was an extremely ambitious project, but Cain was convinced he had been called to the task.
When I first arrived at Angola in 2014, rather than finding the notoriously brutal penitentiary I had heard so much about, I was surprised to find one of the safest prisons in the country. The main prison yard is no longer a place of violence and fear but instead has become a community of opportunity and change. Guards perform their duties without guns, female visitors and staff walk freely around the prison without getting so much as a catcall, and the atmosphere within the prison is actually peaceful. Inmates work to improve themselves, help each other, and try to advance their station in life. Even though most of them will never leave Angola, they still endeavor to make better lives for themselves. As incredible as this might sound, it’s all true. I know—because I was there.
On my first visit inside the walls of Angola, I toured the prison with Warden Cain and his assistant, unaccompanied by any guards. Not even one. We walked freely from building to building, stopped and talked to inmates frequently, and never experienced a hint of anger or threat of violence of any kind. Quite the opposite, I watched as inmate after inmate came up to Cain and slipped him a handwritten note with a request of some kind. I admit I felt rather uncomfortable, because we were often surrounded by dozens of prisoners just milling around on the prison grounds. But it was Cain’s open-door policy to allow any inmate access to him. Throughout the prison I observed signs posted instructing staff to be “ASKable,” a term he coined to create an atmosphere of respect. If a prisoner had a question of any kind, it was the responsibility of every guard or staff member to stop and answer it, or to find someone who could. Anyone observing one of these signs would have one of the first principles of change I witnessed at Angola clearly recognizable right in front of them: treat people with respect, and they will want to be respectable.
As I stood there looking at this sign, I couldn’t help thinking that for the most part we all have it backwards. We think that if we punish ourselves, we will change. If I restrict my food intake, I will lose weight. It doesn’t work. If I force myself to stop my bad habits on New Year’s Day, I can change them. It doesn’t work. If we punish criminals for their misdeeds, they will give up a life of crime. That really doesn’t work. All this seems to do is to make people feel bad about themselves, and then what do they do? More bad stuff. What I have seen that does work is that treating people with respect changes them.
The opposite of punishing people is not rewarding them—it is treating them with respect. People don’t act badly because they need to be taught a lesson. Most of us already know how to act properly; we just can’t seem to get out of our own way to do it. One of the biggest obstacles to personal change for all people is a lack of self-respect. Without it, we get defensive and resist change. But if others take the time to communicate that they care about what we think or feel, then we begin to feel worthy of respect as people. One of the most powerful ways to develop self-respect is to have the people around us treat us as though we deserve it. Trying to get people to change through punishment and disrespect is just backwards.
Gangs for God
At one point during my first visit to Angola, I received a text from my wife. She was not thrilled with my plan to spend the weekend inside a maximum-security prison, but after agonizing over my safety with her sisters, she wanted to let me know how brave they all thought I was for being there. Just as I received her text, I was walking into the Catholic chapel in the middle of the prison. It was built and operated by inmates and, as I was becoming accustomed to, there wasn’t a guard in sight. What I didn’t expect to see, however, were about sixty middle school girls filing into the chapel for their confirmation class. This seemed surreal. The Catholic churches of Louisiana send over seventy confirmation classes annually to Angola as a regular part of their process of confirmation into the church. The kids were typical, giggling, unassuming teenagers eagerly awaiting spiritual instruction from what was most certainly an inmate serving a life sentence who had just stood up to speak. In that moment I couldn’t help thinking that, despite what my wife and her sisters might think, I was about as brave as a middle school girl showing up for confirmation.
The next day, the warden and I attended a church service in one of the prison’s eight chapels. Each chapel is run by a prison church, with a prison pastor, ministering to a prison population. As we sat there, with no guard in sight (are you getting the picture?), I thought that if these 150 inmates decided to take us hostage, there would be nothing we could do about it. They had all done bad things to other people to wind up here—what if one of them decided to do bad things to us, just because he could? Later, I shared this slightly paranoid thought with the warden’s assistant. He laughed and calmly said, “Well, if one of those guys had attempted to do you harm, 149 other guys would have stopped him.”
The prisoners didn’t need guards threatening them with clubs, tear gas, or guns. They were holding each other accountable. Again, this felt surreal.
As I sat there in this chapel, right in the middle of a maximum-security prison (I find myself having to repeat this incredible fact), I looked around. Behind me to my right was a well-dressed woman obviously sitting with her husband attending her Sunday-morning church service just like any other Christian wife would want to do. And over to my left was a neatly dressed black inmate (there are no orange jumpsuits in Angola—the warden doesn’t believe in them) wheeling in an elderly white inmate who was obviously too infirm to get to the service on his own. I observed him carefully lift his friend out of his wheelchair and gently place him into the second pew. This stereotype-shattering image of compassion went against everything I had heard about typical race-based prison behavior. He seemed genuinely concerned about the man in his care, in a way that made it clear that both of these people very much wanted to be in church that morning. As I looked around, I could see that they all did.
A prison minister named Jarail gave the sermon that morning on the passage in the Bible about Barabbas, the prisoner on death row with whom Jesus was imprisoned just before his crucifixion. Following the Passover custom at the time, Pilate, the governor of Judea, was to pardon someone on death row based upon the popular vote of the people. Surprisingly, the people clamored for Barabbas over Jesus. Pilate was uncomfortable with this choice, given the disparity in the severity of the crimes committed between the two, but when the crowd said “Let his blood be upon us and our children,” he agreed. Jarail, himself imprisoned for decades, was spellbinding. His point was that God can come alongside of anyone, anywhere, and pardon that person of their sins. No one is beyond the reach of God’s transforming forgiveness, and God is willing to take away any person’s eternal punishment if we allow it. No pastor from the outside world, no world-renowned speaker, no one other than a prisoner such as Jarail could have delivered that sermon with as much credibility. God used a death row inmate to fulfill his purposes then, and he is still doing that today—at the largest maximum-security prison in America. I can’t remember having heard a better sermon anywhere.
At one point Jarail confessed that he had committed every single crime on his rap sheet, and that he too deserved punishment. But because he had confessed his guilt and received forgiveness from God, he was now willing to spend the rest of his life trying to do only good toward everyone he knew, wherever he was, even if it was right there in Angola. When, at the end of the sermon, Jarail invited his listeners to join him in a life of doing good, almost everyone in the room went forward. These people wanted transformation. Despite their circumstances, every one of these convicted criminals wanted to change and become better people.
As the warden and I left the service, I commented how powerful an experience it had been listening to Jarail. Cain calmly said, “So, you see how it is in here? Out there, they all had gangs. And in here they have them, too. But for men like Jarail, they have gangs for God. Everybody needs an identity. If you help them, they can find identities in doing good.” Brilliant, I thought. Simply brilliant. Jarail and his gang were on a mission. It was a mission to enlist as many people as they could to do good, and they were doing good like their lives depended upon it. They discouraged violence, forgave offenses, and held each other accountable for their behavior. That same day, another prisoner told me they used to call an inmate who reported someone else’s bad behavior a “rat,” and that inmate would very likely be killed for it. Today, inmates think of each other as good citizens for reporting bad behavior to the authorities, just like people in the outside world who care about their neighborhoods do. Angola doesn’t need guards forcing people to stop doing bad things to each other; it has gangs for God helping them to do good. And they are.
My experience listening to Pastor Jarail that morning moved me to tears. The genuineness of his sermon and the passion with which he and his people came together was gripping. These people wanted transformation, and Jarail was telling them exactly how they could achieve it. The lesson for me that morning was crystal clear. It was as if a floodlight was turned on the most powerful principle for personal change that I observed at Angola: God changes people.
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