Truth and Consequences

Author: Katelin Cortney, Guest Writer

America has been experiencing a period of mass supervision, and it’s due time for a disruption.

As of December 31, 2016, 6.6 million adults were being supervised by the U.S. correctional system. With the highest incarceration rates in the world, it’s no wonder we are a global phenomenon to other nations. But what can research do to tackle one of the machines most supported by poverty in America?

Enter the latest in partnership with the Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) at the University of Notre Dame: The Transformative In-Prison Workgroup (TPW). TPW represents a statewide coalition of 85+ community-based organizations that offer trauma-informed, restorative/transformative healing programs in all of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prisons. These programs seek to shape outcomes, including mindfulness, prosocial behavior, and hope.

Mary Kate Batistich, assistant research professor at LEO, tells me that we don’t have enough evidence on the impacts of therapeutic programs for people while still incarcerated. “We are hoping to test their impact in a concrete way through reports of behavioral incidents in the facilities, and ultimately through recidivism,” she says.


Kenneth Hartman Headshot
Ken Hartman

Ken Hartman is the director of advocacy at TPW. He got out of prison himself in 2017 and personally benefitted from the arts and alternatives to violence programs during his 38 years of incarceration. Borrowing from the ‘credible messenger’ idea, TPW’s leadership is comprised of many formerly incarcerated individuals so they can center the voices of the people who have lived experiences—a value LEO prioritizes as well.

“I like being a disruptor,” says Ken. His work negates what he calls a terrible zeitgeist America latched onto called the “Nothing Works” doctrine. In Ken’s view, this very non-academic, not properly researched doctrine purported that there were no effective interventions with prisoners, that the only solution was containment. LEO hopes to unleash proven solutions that are backed by evidence.

Among the over 85 providers in the TPW network, three are included in LEO’s latest cohort to study the effectiveness of these interventions on the outcomes of the prisoners involved.

“We are measuring to see if these programs cause a reduction in reports of behavioral incidents, what’s known in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as Rules Violation Reports, among other outcomes that we hope to collect through survey data,” says Mary Kate.

While many participants will still have years left on their sentences, LEO is hoping to see whether these programs impact recidivism rates in the longer term. Each program is targeting changes in criminogenic thinking and behavior, but they are working through different pathways to get a better understanding of the distinct mechanisms operating in each therapeutic method. All three providers are interested in instilling hope in the participants, which LEO also plans to capture by survey.

“This kind of research is so important for funding and support, and for changing the way we look at people,” says Ken. “I committed terrible crimes, but I am still a human being and better than my worst moments. I hope this research shows that is true for the millions of Americans still in prison today.”

The Boundless Freedom Project, one of the three TPW providers taking part in the cohort, is working with LEO to understand the impact of Mindful Prisons on outcomes such as reductions in behavioral incidents, increased prosocial behavior, a reduction in stress, and successful parole hearings. Offered in seven California prisons, volunteers for the Boundless Freedom Project go into institutions with mindfulness programs to help the mind and body. It changed Eric’s life.

“I was sentenced to life without parole; I had accepted that I would never get out of prison,” says Eric Clark, program administrator at Boundless Freedom Project. “Prison will break you if you don’t fight back. Far too many people succumb to the hardships. We buy into the negative stigma about who we are, who we are told we are. We are isolated and closed off because the conditions tell us we have to be. I accepted that I would die in there. So, I had to become the monster everyone said I was because I was in prison.”

“But,” he pauses, “all the while there is a fleeting—however small—belief that there is hope for something better. That’s the humanity in all of us, even if we don’t know how to achieve it.”


Eric In The Capital 1
Eric Clark

Eric started with a yoga practice in 2011. It was part of his physical therapy requirement to help with sciatic nerve pain. He found that it greatly relieved his pain and improved his mobility, but more so, that the 45 minutes of meditation that followed allowed him to have a clarity that he had maybe never experienced before. He was able to realize that his environment does not define who he is.


“I got to a place where prison was no longer something I despised or hated being in. It became an academic and learning environment. I was able to see that I could gain knowledge about things most people in society will never learn. When you have the tools provided from the Boundless Freedom Project and other like-minded programs, you can stop labeling conditions as good or bad, and instead view all of your life as an opportunity, which is a much greater power.”

Boundless Freedom Project knows that those incarcerated have negative thoughts that arise outside of one’s control. But it’s what a person does in response to those thoughts that can change the trajectory in their life. After 28 years in prison, Eric got out in 2020. Four months later, he was asked to come work at the very program that had saved him.

Eric got back recently from LEO’s latest spring workshop for new partners.

“To be included as one of the heroes in the adventures, that’s exactly how it feels,” he says of his time on campus during workshop 1—one of the first steps in LEO’s partnership process designed to prepare partners for intensive research. “Sitting in a room and sharing a space with so many people doing such amazing work to help others, and knowing that LEO is the reason we are all there to prove our models and allowing others to get behind what we are doing makes it feel like we are embarking on something very significant.”

As with every research study LEO embarks on, the core element is the belief that the research will lead to learnings and outcomes that will ultimately disrupt the cycle of poverty.

Ken tells me that when we are thinking about the relationship between crime and poverty, so much of it can be explained by Social Disorganization Theory. This theory suggests that where you live, and your environment, can create conditions that are conducive to crime. That crime isn’t an inherent flaw, but rather a natural response to something that is broken. And the thing that is broken is the cycle of poverty and a lack of investment and access to resources.

“It’s a system that deeply and disproportionately affects people of color, causes a high recidivism rate, and doesn’t get good outcomes,” says Ken.

“The prison-industrial complex is waging a war on the impoverished population,” says Eric. “People do not just come out of the womb this way. They are struggling to get their basic needs met, then are being patrolled and arrested in higher volume for sometimes nominal crimes, and it changes the course of their life. And what’s at stake is the divide between the rich and the poor, the non-Black and the Black communities, and the future of millions of people.”

Mary Kate doubles down on this point by sharing that we are all shaped by our past experiences. Criminal behavior doesn’t happen by random chance—people with criminal tendencies are dealing with hardships they have faced throughout their lives, as early as birth. These things may include poverty, unsafe home environments, abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence, or incarcerated parents, among other events. According to the Compassion Prison Project, nearly all people in prison experienced adverse events during their childhood (known as ACEs)—whether it was abuse, neglect, or something else.

“Given that many people enter the system having already been suffering from these problems, the disruption caused by being imprisoned is likely to make these problems worse,” says Mary Kate. “Particularly when people are in prison for many years, their ability to navigate the world outside diminishes and their social networks dissolve. To make it worse, culture and technology evolve while they are incarcerated and they are no longer entering the world that they left. Once they exit, we don’t have processes in place for people to reacclimate to society such as finding housing, jobs, healthcare, transportation. One example of a missing link is that people often exit with an expired or missing driver’s license, which may bar them from securing benefits or signing a lease. Their criminal histories often precede them, reducing their chances with potential employers or landlords. They often have unpaid debt as well.”

This is why Eric tells me that the practices from programs like the Boundless Freedom Project are almost needed more when you get out than when you are inside. “In prison, time is controlled by things outside of you; outside of prison, responsibility and obligation is so much higher,” he says.

There is an indelible tie, then, between poverty and criminal justice interactions. Mary Kate shares that formerly incarcerated individuals are nearly 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population. In a recent survey of the California homeless population, more than 1 in 3 people (37%) experiencing homelessness have spent time in prison, and 4 out of 5 (79%) have spent time in either jail or prison.

“Entire communities have been decimated by people being incarcerated. After incarceration has disrupted an individual or a family’s life, the future odds of them getting the help they need, a job, healthcare, and education decrease exponentially. It kicks off a tragic cycle of intergenerational poverty. These things are absolutely central for people having good and healthy lives,” says Ken.

“Entire communities have been decimated by people being incarcerated. After incarceration has disrupted an individual or a family’s life, the future odds of them getting the help they need, a job, healthcare, and education decrease exponentially. It kicks off a tragic cycle of intergenerational poverty. These things are absolutely central for people having good and healthy lives,” says Ken.

“Prison is not set up to provide services to make whole these individuals so they can be released with a healthy mindset and find productive and solid employment,” says Eric. “Prison is not set up to fix or solve anything. It simply removes challenges to societal goals. And the challenges are the people.”

That’s where Boundless Freedom Project aims to enhance and heal incarcerated individuals to change these patterns for good both inside and outside of prison.

When I asked, Eric told me he hopes to learn that Boundless Freedom Project’s work doesn’t show a flat return, or worse, harm. “To have no impact would be gut wrenching,” he says. But his voice turns and he chimes in with, “I don’t believe that, though. We’re doing good stuff, we want to do better. We just need to know how and on what scale.”

As for the future of LEO’s work within the criminal justice realm, Mary Kate shares that “with incarceration rates still high, we are also turning to the after-effects of incarceration. So, this means that our focus in LEO on rehabilitation programs and re-entry programs are really important. We are continuing to look for evidence on intensive interventions as well as novel, innovative interventions to break the mold.”

Both Ken and Eric plan to use the anticipated evidence to influence policymakers, responsibly use funds to provide more programs in more prisons, and to hire more qualified people to run the interventions.

“I knew I was capable of being better than my worst moments,” says Ken, “that’s what LEO is working to prove for so many others just like me. We need this research as much as we need to see the bigger picture and humanize those who are incarcerated. We can disrupt the status quo of the entire prison system in America with this kind of work."

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