Environment for development?


A prison is not the ideal environment for learning skills and knowledge. That is, when we are talking about the skills and knowledge needed to function in the outside world with a legal job and citizenship.

My facilitator friend shared with me his views on day to day life in prison:

“Picture a full grown male running down a hallway naked, screaming “help they are trying to rape me, help!” and things all around carry on as if nothing has happened. You’re sitting in the chow hall at a table,and there’s four people to a table. As you are sitting there, all of a sudden the table behind you and the three prisoners at your table out of the blue erupt into violence. Knives appear as if by magic,and within 5-seconds there’s blood everywhere. Guards are running in to try to stop a possible murder. Well it had become such a part of my world, I would merely lift my tray and move to another table. My only concern being they don’t knock my tray of food over – nothing more, because it’s none of my business. Just like the guy running down the hall screaming rape. It’s all none of my business. Now say the blood got on my shirt, while they were stabbing that guy – now they have just made it my business, and someone would have to pay for the cleaning of my shirt. You see it’s madness, and you either go along with the madness as long as it doesn’t hurt you. I follow my own rules. I realized if you have a problems you deal with them hard, fast, quick and in a hurry.”

As you can imagine, an environment where violence can erupt at the drop of a hat, requires constant vigilance. This prevents people from focusing on their learning content.  Compare this with Japan, where every evening an hour mandatory study in a one person cell is imposed on foreign prisoners. (Japanese study with 4 cellmates in a larger cell)

Although prisoners have a cell they share with someone else, this is not necessarily the environment one can learn in. As one inmate put it “I feel there is not enough air in my cell for two persons, so everybody goes out into the dayroom.” Since the dayroom is crowded, this is also not an area for professional development.

I do hope the focus in incarceration will shift towards rehabilitation instead of locking people away. They do develop, but in the direction of a more hardened and professional criminal. That is not the society one wants to live in.


The end of the tunnel

We focus in this blog on the personal development of inmates. Yet when you have a life sentence, and no way of getting out, it is not hard to imagine that the despair of having to spend ones’ life behind bars gets control.

This is the story of an inmate who at some point in life didn’t see a way out and wanted to end it all. He was discovered in time, but his story is a very impressive one.

“Have you ever had one weeks where absolutely nothing went right? Well it was one of those prison days like any other, except this was the day I had decided to check out of this life for whatever was next. I had finally reach the point of no return. I’m in segregation for the ump-teenth time; I’m in a borderline depression and it is almost Christmas.

I’m looking out of the window at thumb size snow flakes falling, covering everything very quickly. All of a sudden I feel like crying, and as I see my reflection in the window pane I can see tears running down and I feel an overwhelming need to do something, anything at all.  It’s not really clear what this need is, but it’s such a strong feeling that it takes me out of the window,and I find myself looking all around this 12-by 16 room with this feeling of a such a strong overwhelming need that i’m looking in every corner and every nook and cranny. I’m searching the shadows so I am not missing anything as I look from top to bottom; brick by brick until I’ve searched the entire room, and the only thing my eyes keep coming back to is weeks worth of old newspapers piled high sitting in a corner of the room. My eyes finally come to rest on these newspapers and I’m wondering if its article there is something I’m suppose to read that I had forgotten to read.

I find myself all at once thinking,”I do not want to live another day!!!!”WHAT”??? “What, are you crazy? What do you mean,”you do not want to live another day? what does that mean? A flash through my subconscious,like a bolt of lighting,”BOOM”…I ask myself ‘what does this mean?’ (just what I said!)”I DO NOTWANTTOLIVEANOTHER”!!!!but what about,(STOP IT).what about what?? This is only about you, its almost Christmas,and I’m so very alone and I just can’t stand the thought of another Christmas alone in this world;”BUT I’M AFRAID to die, !! GOOD. You know the thing I’ve learn about fear over the years? “WHAT”, “You can only be afraid once,”after that there’s nothing to fear but fear ITSELF!!! I remember getting up (as if I was in a trance) gathering the newspapers, ripping them up in shreds, and piling them in front of the door. At this point I’m moving as if I’m in a trance,a zombie,..I look up and I see the razor sitting on the sink calling my name. I get up and over to the razor and I place it on the floor, step on it and break it open. I pick it up just as if this is part of the big plan. I walk back across the room to the bed and look at the blade in my hand. All of a sudden it all becomes clear as if I just woke-up from a dream. I walk over to the shredded newspapers and know just what I must do! I start to set it all on fire – as if I am being guided by a something that I did not know.

I go  back to the bed and sit down,and look and listen at the popping as it climbs higher up the door. I pick up the razor, and slash my wrist, straight-up and down the arm. I can feel the heat from the fire and hear it roaring with a force beyond anything I have ever dreamed. I remember looking at the blood pumping out of my wrist with every beat of my heart and it seems to get louder the more I watch. It is banging in my ears so loud that  I am forced to look away and that’s when I notice people at the door screaming something bang bang bang before I black out, finally feeling free for the first time in my life..

Virtual Therapy for aggressive forensic patients (VRAPT)


There is a group of inmates in the US that belongs in a psychiatric hospital instead of prison. They are a danger to themselves and others, because of their aggressive and irrational tendencies. When I read about a study in the Netherlands where these patients were treated in a virtual reality setting, my interest was piqued. This offers a therapist a controlled way to expose patients to different settings where they normally have difficulty to react properly. The computer does not replace the therapist/trainer, but it allows for a controlled environment to learn and excercise safe behavior in situations perceived as disrespectful or threatening by the client.

Psychiatric forensic inpatients are frequently victim of aggressive behaviour by fellow patients, as well as perpetrators of aggression. Standard aggression regulation training (TAU) follows a cognitive behavioural therapy approach. Effects in forensic settings are small, because possibilities for controlled exposure to real-life provocation and practising new behaviour are limited.


In this study, a Virtual Reality Aggression Prevention Training (VRAPT) is developed. VRAPT offers an interactive three-dimensional virtual ‘real-life’ world in which social situations and interactions can be experienced and practiced. The patients have to interact with avatars in a virtual world. To make the experience real and increase presence, the avatar has to respond appropriately and fast. This is facilitated by two main components: behaviour recognition and behaviour generation. Multiple modalities are used for the behaviour recognition component, such as audio, kinect and physiological data, to predict negative arousal and aggressive tendencies. Special scenarios are developed and the procedure is guided by a therapist. In a cluster randomized controlled trial, the effect of VRAPT compared to TAU is investigated. The system will be tested with patients of two Dutch forensic clinics, to check the efficiency of the VR treatment. The project is funded by NWO under project number 432-13-802 ‘Virtual Reality Aggression Prevention Training for reducing victimization in forensic clinics’.

Interesting developments that allow real development of effective and appropriate behavior. I am looking forward to the results. It can open up a whole new world of treatment for all kinds of groups, both inside and out.

Pull up your pants!

According to my facilitator friend there is a difference in attitude between prisoners ‘old style’ (usually in a cell with another inmate) and the so-called ‘warehousing prisoners’ sleeping in a giant dorm. The latter seem to do as they please (as long as they adhere to the rules of their racial area). My friend witnessed a situation where an old school prisoner asked a youngster to pull his pants up, as he didn’t want to see his butt around all the time.

The ‘old school’ guy asked it twice. The third time the youngster was caught by surprise and found himself stabbed multiple times by  a shank of the old school prisoner. Three strikes and he was out. An example of learning the rules the hard way.

There could be more attention to making new prisoners aware of the code of conduct on how to behave in prison. One might wonder whether they would listen to that, as the  former attempts to make them care about codes of conduct have failed. Still it would be a start to teach people to care about the effect of their behavior unto others and the consequences that come with it.

Prison Aerobics in Peru

An inmate in Peru, Nunez del Arco, found a way to improve the health and welbeing of Peruvian inmates in the Lurigancho prison in Lima. Notorious for its violence and agression between inmates.

“From the moment I recognized I had made a mistake,I wanted to do something about it”. His daughter is one of the motivators to do this for. “I want her to be proud of me when she sees me on television.”

The benefits of a full body workout on music are well known. Stress and anxiety relief, a better condition, and a benefits for the  function of the brain are a couple of the benefits. Learning is easier after a workout.

Maybe a suggestion for other prisons?


The struggle to get a GED

GED for dummies

Over time I have spoken to inmates about getting their GED. One was a highly intelligent prisoner, who taught inmates the content to get their GED. He felt that most of his students were not interested in learning. Others were not able to grasp the material. So he was very proud when students eventually did pass their exams. His view is that inmates need to be intensely educated in order to prevent them from re-offending.

Another inmate I penpalled with, was working for years to get his GED. Based on his writing I assumed he had some issues related to learning, like reading difficulties and maths. To help him with his GED I did send out some books on learning for people with dyslexia and dyscalculia. He finally did pass his English test (-just-) but math continued to be very difficult.

However, what he liked most was his job in prison. He assisted in a welding class, helping others to learn how to weld. And he was good at it himself, making garden ornaments that were ordered by prison staff. He loved to be able to do that and watch his students gain confidence in the art of welding. Being in his 50s, he was a bit older and felt he needed to show the youngsters the way to an honest profession.

His crime was drug related. He had a drugs problem, and one could wonder how long it would take after he got out when he would return to his destructive habit. I think that a welding job in a close community, far away from his former dealers, would be his best shot.

Without any announcement he was transferred to another prison: the Huntsville Unit in Texas. He lost his former job, and was back to dishwashing in the kitchen. A horrible environment,  he told me. He hated his job and missed welding so much. Education was not good for him there. He couldn’t get his GED and gave up. Shortly after, the mails stopped coming. I tried for a while but there was not much I could tell him anymore, especially since I didn’t know what he was doing.

I am afraid his prospects are bleak. His dream was to start his own welding business. Yet without reading and calculation, this may prove to be difficult. Chances are that he will return to his old ways when the future looks desperate. Drugs can be powerful.

What could be done to prevent this outcome? Given his personality I feel he would do best with a welding job and a close knit community where he has a mentor and a social group that would accept him and encourage him to stay on the right track. For a 50 year old, the chances are bleak to find such a role and a community.

I don’t have the solution for this. Yet I feel sad, that some people are more or less forced to fall through the cracks.

Who is your hero?


When we grow up, we want to become the people who we admire. Not literally, of course, but the role models around us (whether they be in our direct environment or more in other areas) form the frame upon which we base our expectations and dreams. Many people who end up in prison have in early life already the expectation to end up in prison, just like their dad, granddad, stepdad, cousin, nephew, neighbor, etcetera.

In their eyes prison has its disadvantages (you are not free)  but you have a roof over your head and you are in with your mates. The ambition somehow does not surpass prison. Prison as final destination is not something that is seen as evil. When you have fear of carrying responsibility for your income, food, healthcare and housing, it may be easier to succumb to the reality of prison.

Of course this does not apply to everybody, but according to my facilitator friend there is a substantial group who thinks this way. The lack of positive role models in the direct environment is playing a part in this.

Some kids come from mainly single parent families with a low income, where the parent is responsible for earning a meagre income. The kids are left without sufficient guidance and do as they please and hang out with their friends, or they are being ‘watched’ by the television.

Since most of the young prisoners have dropped out of school they have hardly any perspective when they return after prison into society. It is therefore important to get education to this group in a form that relates to their way of learning. It is unknown to me whether there has been any research on the learning challenges of juvenile delinquents. It must be possible with the current state of technology to develop programs that can be tailormade to the individual learning profile of the delinquent (without adding extra staff: the tailoring is done by the computer). In an ideal world there is a mentor to help the delinquent to apply the learnings in practice. That would be a positive rolemodel with an understanding of the ways of the world, who can guide them towards a job or the next education.

In doing so there is a shift from spending money in locking people behind bars, towards guiding and enouraging people to education and work.

Will everybody be ‘saved’ by this approach? That would be a naive conclusion. However it would be interesting to compare the return on investment when one compares money spent on incarceration with money spent on education and mentoring.

Who wants to try?