Can Offenders be Involved with Their Own Freedom?

In 1988, a researcher and former prison educator named Mark Hamm called Seventh Step the prototype or basis for all peer support groups for offenders that followed it. His article, “Current perspectives on the prisoner self-help movement” was written approximately half-way between 1963, when Seventh Step was formed by Bill Sands and Rev. James Post, and today. The question that needs to be asked, then, is whether Seventh Step still has a message for offenders and ex-offenders today.

To answer that question, it is worth looking at whether the formal correctional system can offer offenders being released from prison today the chance to be involved in their own freedom. It is also important to see whether offenders have changed in basic ways since the time in which Bill Sands was living.

These questions may best be answered, both of them, by Sands himself and by a corrections official who helped him start his first group in 1963. On the issue of help provided by correctional systems, Sands had this to say: “Huge sums of money are spent to find a criminal, arrest him, try him, convict him, help him adjust to prison life, and then support him through years of incarceration. No money is spent to help him adjust to the free world.” He also suggested that men and women who have spent years of their lives in prison have a difficult time opening up to people who have not shared their experiences: “Convicts may listen politely to educated free men, but they do not answer back. They are not polite at Seventh Step meetings and they do answer back – because they are deeply involved. The movement is their own.”

The second question, on whether offenders have changed, may seem to have a ring of truth. It is not unusual to hear people comment that offenders now are not like those of the 1960s when Seventh Step was being created: there are gangs on the street and in prison; there are more drugs; there is less identification with being ‘solid’, less honour. What is interesting is that the warden of Kansas State Prison where Sands was forming the first group said much the same thing in 1963; he said, “Nowadays the inmates are largely punks and stool pigeons, and the prison population surges back and forward, thinking one way today and another tomorrow.”

 

So, it seems like offenders may be more alike the prisoners of the 1960s than they are different: they want to be respected; they want to be heard; they want to be free. And, as Sands said, most become habitual criminals because they cannot get rid of resentments. If that is the case, then Seventh Step has as important a message today as it did in the 1960s: that thinking realistically, accepting the truth about oneself, and getting rid of resentments  can become the start to maintaining freedom.

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