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What Changed My Mind About Criminals

May 6, 2010

By Brittany Daniels
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – I used to think all criminals were guilty of being too lazy to try to live better lives. I thought criminals were criminals simply because they wanted to be – leeches who ruined life for the rest of us. I didn’t care about their “reasons” or “excuses” for what they did.

I don’t harbor those misconceptions any more – thanks to a prison literature course at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Until I signed up for the class, I had no idea why people committed crimes or why I should care. Now that I’ve completed the course, I have been exposed to several autobiographical works by ex-offenders – and I’ve personally met recently released prisoners. Those experiences have revealed several compelling and devastating reasons why people commit crimes.

From reading such books as A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca, True Notebooks by Mark Salzman and Couldn’t Keep it to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution, Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters, I have unearthed information about criminals from different backgrounds: male and female, young and old.

Most of the criminals I read about had poor family lives. They were unwanted by their parents (if indeed they had parents around). They were physically or sexually abused. Some had to quit school to work to support their families.

Women were impregnated by their fathers or were raped by grandfathers, family friends or other relatives. Children lost parents at a young age and were raised by older siblings already in gangs. Some were from rich families in good neighborhoods while others were not. Some people lived normal lives and had good jobs and merely suffered psychotic breaks brought on by being reminded of a traumatic event in their past.

Every criminal had a different story, but the root was always the same: At a critical time in their lives, they were betrayed.

A requirement of the class is to perform a service involving imprisoned or released convicts. For my project, a classmate, Josie Varnier, and I cook meals and conduct a writing workshop at a faith-based after-care home for non-violent offenders in Richmond.

Leading up to this project, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the men I would be working with; part of me was scared to meet them because they had spent time in prison, and another part of me was so excited to move forward with the workshop.

For the first night we went to the house, Josie and I prepared ribs, salad and macaroni and cheese for the men, ready to bond over a good meal.

When we arrived at the house, we met the men living there, our professor and several people from a church who often stop by for fellowship.

After dinner, my professor introduced Josie and me to the group and then led us all in our first writing assignment: to describe a time when you taught someone something or when you learned something from someone.

One of the men who lived in the house prefaced his piece by saying he had never taught a person something he was proud of. His essay was about teaching three boys how to sell crack cocaine and how dealing drugs got the youths sent to prison for a dozen years or more, or got them killed.

In the final line of his essay, the man said he had not taught these boys life but had taught them death.

While I was at the house that first night, this man showed me a flower garden he planted and told me his plans to plant a vegetable garden in the backyard as well. He said he spends his time going to school and studying at the library. He has the opportunity to work construction on weekends.

One of the other men revealed that before his incarceration, he held an executive job, earned a six-figure salary and had two college degrees. At some point, he made a mistake that sent him to prison. Now, he is trying to put his life back together: He has a job and a fiancé and is working on an autobiography.

The third man, and newest resident, has written about the changes between living in prison and living in the free world. He wrote that it is hard to get accustomed to eating and sleeping when he wants. Technology has advanced so much in the past few years that he feels completely lost.

The workshop that Josie and I conducted at this house helped these recently released convicts understand the reasons behind the crimes they committed, realize their strengths and weaknesses, and reform themselves for the free world.

Because the house is operated by a faith-based organization, the men also participate in Christian fellowship and prayer meetings. The men continue to grow because of their new or renewed faith in God.

Each man is allowed to stay in the house for six months while looking for employment and a permanent place to stay.

Main Story: For Ex-Cons, Re-entering Society is Daunting