In Puritan America, a married woman’s illicit affair with a minister landed her in jail. After her release, Hester Prynne was sentenced to forever wear a big red “A” on her dress. 

Nearly 375 years later, the U.S. continues to be scandalized, tantalized and perplexed by sex, especially about sex offenders. Tough on crime, we’re still struggling to learn: 

  • Why domestic violence and incest are so under-reported by victims? 
  • Why most people think every sexual offender is a serial rapist? 
  • Why, even among therapists, many continue to believe sex-offenders to be untreatable? 
  • Why supervision after offenders’ release tends to-wards punitive rather than restorative? 

It’s time to bring the subject of sex crime out of the dark ages, time to help victims shed the shame and trauma of their experience. It’s also time to allow offenders an opportunity to show they can change, make amends and start to earn back trust and acceptance from society.

Prisoners Can Transform Lives Even Before They Get Out

I've been a volunteer at a medium-security state prison in Salem, Oregon, for more than 15 years. I lead three different groups each week, and though it is not called therapy or treatment, the groups are often therapeutic. 

So what's therapeutic? First, the men come there voluntarily and have a thirst to belong, to learn and to contribute to others' growth. In that way, they are creating their own therapeutic environment. These groups offer a sense of emotional safety, trust, and confidentiality - items in very small supply in prisons...(and what a shame about that...other countries offer more humane and effective models of incarceration but the US is lagging far behind in that respect.)

The state of Oregon has no sex offender treatment available in its prisons. My groups include sex offenders and those convicted of other grave personal crimes. Some are lifers, with no chance for release. Facing that reality sends some inmates into depression, rebellion and early death. With others, including many in my group, they choose to spend their life becoming the men society always wanted them to be: honest, accountable, hard working, respectful and, yes, even loving. They do their own personal work. They provide a mirror for others making behavioral changes. And they demonstrate the capacity to see one another for who they are, not for the mistakes they have made. 

I'd like to paint two images for you, to illustrate how these men give back, even while they're locked up. First, imagine a circle of men discussing their week, their personal hardships or worries, while crocheting. Yes, there are some fine artists in prison, crocheters among them. Each year, these men donate hundreds of colorful caps, booties and blankets to the local hospital and emergency shelters as gifts to families. The crocheting is also symbolic, creating warmth and comfort from hands that once knew plenty of violence. Giving back, even in these small ways, is a symbol of each man's dedication to show remorse and ask for another chance.

And here's the other image: at least twice a year, I escort a busload of seniors to the prison, where we meet and talk with the men in my groups. The men prepare and deliver a meal, then sit down with us and just talk, or listen. Breaking bread with those who broke the law is healing - for them and for us. The men are hungry for human contact from outside the walls. In fact, research has shown that such visits help prisoners cope, establishing hope, inspiration and peaceful behavior. Out of those gatherings comes real human connection - both mental and emotional. 

When we so-called "normal" people see each prisoner as another human being, that is also therapeutic. Seniors I've talked to, even months later, say that their prison visit made a lasting impression. They begin to question their bias against those imprisoned. They tell me things like, "I had no idea that they might be so smart, so funny, so caring, such good listeners." Visitors discover that there's very little difference between us, despite our experiences and our situation. And while most will never forget their visit, some are return visitors. After an experience like that, they become ambassadors (at least in a quiet way) for reforming criminal justice in our country.

The Value of Peer-to-Peer Treatment

The Value of Peer-to-Peer Treatment

Medical Neglect in Prison is Abusive, and Counter to International Laws

Medical Neglect in Prison is Abusive, and Counter to International Laws