Rebooting Brains

As the nurse wrapped the rubber tube around my arm, she saw my ID badge.
“You work at the Center?” she said. She tapped my inner arm to make the veins stand out.

“Yes, I do,” I answered. I was grateful for the distraction. I hate getting my blood drawn.

“Well God bless you. You people saved my husband’s life.”

She then told me her story. Her husband had gone through our program as well as our halfway house. He had used what my facility (for legal reasons I’ll call it the Center) taught him to stop using drugs and alcohol, get a job, and marry the woman who was now collecting my blood. He had gone through the Center prior to my starting there, but it was good to hear of his success. This scene was seven years ago and I have been fortunate to witness many more success stories.

When people ask what we do at my facility, I tell them we teach people how to stop being stupid. It’s a flippant remark but essentially true. Unlike regular prisons that often just warehouse felons, we use research-based approaches to change thinking patterns and thereby change behavior. We fail at a higher rate than we succeed, but our ultimate goal is to make prisons obsolete. And in spite of failures, programs like ours have been shown to significantly reduce recidivism.

Many people, and almost all criminals and drug users, engage in patterns of thought that are anti-social and self-destructive. When these thoughts lead to illegal behavior, people end up in prison. Especially if they are a minority, poor, or both. There is a lot of bipartisan talk about criminal justice reform these days. And people are beginning to question why we need a “Prison Industry.”

If you are like most people, you give little thought to jails or prisons. You probably think that people who are incarcerated deserve it. But if you care about your tax dollars, and if you want to reduce criminal activity then you should pay attention. The facts have been public for decades. Prison does little to change criminal/addictive thinking patterns. Without interventions like our program, incarcerated criminals and addicts (who are often one and the same) continue to hurt innocent people as soon as they hit the streets. Jails and prisons house many of society’s mentally ill because there are no other places for them. Mental health and substance abuse programs are much cheaper and more effective than prison, but taxpayers insist on paying for failure.

On top of everything, there is little justice in the criminal justice system. Exhibit A is a felon I knew who worked as a law clerk. He got eighteen years for stealing a truck from the auto dealer where he worked. Dumb thing to do, I know. But eighteen years? Meanwhile, Ethan Couch stole a truck, killed four people, paralyzed another, and never served a day in jail because “he was too rich to understand right from wrong.” Except for keeping people locked up, our prison system is a massive failure by any measure. That may be enough for some people, but it is a waste of tax dollars and often creates worse and more violent criminals.

History is not going to be kind to us on this issue. Just as we look at debtor’s prisons and insane asylums from the past with horror and disbelief, our descendants will look at us as completely devoid of reason, knowledge, or compassion. Regular incarceration treats felons as bad people who need to be punished by all available means. Rehabilitation programs treat offenders as troubled products of their genes and environment who need help rebooting their brains.

For those of you who think that free will is a fact and that everyone can and should be held accountable for their actions, I offer Manuel. Manuel (not his real name) is a Colorado native. His father, most of his siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins are gang members. His earliest memories are of carrying drugs and/or guns so his father wouldn’t get arrested for possession. Manuel was beat into the gang when he was eight years old. Please explain to me how Manuel ever had the chance to be a productive law abiding member of society. While with us, his sister was killed in a drive-by shooting. His reaction to her death spoke volumes about the changes he had achieved in his thinking while in our program. He didn’t want revenge. He didn’t want to get out and kill someone. He told us that there’s been enough killing. He just wanted to take care of his mother, wife, and children. He wanted to move them away from the gang neighborhood.

Seven years later he is doing just that and has stayed out of trouble. We don’t know how to reboot everyone’s brain, and there are certainly people who should probably stay behind bars permanently. But current research says that the way a brain is wired and the chemical environment it operates in determines behavior. And while we can’t go Clockwork Orange on anybody right now, that day is coming. Just as in education, we will soon know how the human brain operates and how to fix it when it doesn’t work properly by societal standards. The sooner we put our time, energy, and tax dollars into changing people instead of just punishing them, the safer we all will be.