By Kevin Mines, Lifers Inc. President
It is no secret that impoverished communities in urban centers throughout the US have become incubators for crime and violence. Generations of youth raised in these communities are being inculcated with anti-social, life negating values and beliefs. The mass-incarceration of hundreds of thousands of people in those communities has done little to alter the socioeconomic, political, and racial realities underlying the crime and violence. Only a nationwide public safety initiative accompanied by a seismic paradigm shift in our approach to criminal justice reform will deliver healthy hope for a better future.
The Lifers Public Safety Initiative (PSI), a prisoner led program of the SCI-Graterford/Phoenix LIFERS Incorporated inmate organization, has conceived a new model for advancing public safety efforts. Formally established in 2003, for the past seventeen years men serving life sentences in Pennsylvania have been engaged in a variety of activities designed to significantly reduce crime and violence within prison and free world communities.
After years of watching news media reports of countless numbers of senseless crimes, deaths, and innocent children being gunned down, we took a stand for ending the culture that breeds such violent acts. Our public safety initiative was born out of a series of discussions to generate ideas on how we could contribute to efforts to reduce the insane crime and violence that we, as we as the majority of incarcerated men, had inculcated certain values and beliefs that caused hypersensitive attitudes about manhood, respect, and instant gratification. We realized that the adoption of those beliefs and values had caused us to become morally handicapped with distorted perceptions of reality that reinforced counter productive ideas about how to deal with life’s challenges. Those discussions gave rise to the concept of what we have theoretically identified as a pervasive “Culture of Street Crime” and strategy for ending it.
PSI Operates on the premise that “Ending the Culture of Street Crime” can be achieved by fostering a radical change in the thinking of its members, a cognitive transformation through positive peer intervention. Our commitment to ending the culture of street crime is essentially a self-liberating freedom movement.
We endeavor to liberate members of the culture from the self and community destructive beliefs, values, and behaviors that inevitably lead to long-term incarceration, crippling injuries, or death. It stands to reason that reducing crime by fostering pro-social changes in the thinking of chronic offenders is a much more practical and economically sustainable public safety strategy than mass-incarceration.
It is our conviction that any meaningful reduction in the wanton crime and violence in urban communities mandates the elimination of the culture of street crime utilizing “Transformed” former members of that cultured. We employ a multi-directional approach to public safety that hinges on fostering a “Cognitive Transformation” in those immersed in the culture through “Positive Peer Intervention” of former members of the culture. However, initiating a cognitive transformation within members of the street crime culture on a nationwide scale will require a “Collective Transformation” of society at large.
Collective transformation refers to the need for society to alter the general perception of public offenders as irredeemable liabilities. Some have argued that America’s treatment of its incarcerated and formerly incarcerated citizens reflects an unwillingness to see people convicted of serious crime as fully human. The reality is that many transformed incarcerated and formerly incarcerated citizens have historically proven to be invaluable assets as positive change agents in both prison and free world communities nationwide. If we are serious about criminal justice reform aimed at increasing public safety, it is imperative that we shift our focus from punishment to helping offenders realize their potential for positive change. Extending belief in the human capacity for change to convicted offenders would pave the way for criminal justice policy reforms that would provide access to a huge untapped public safety resource.
Looking beyond the anti-social bad behavior, we have found that the vast majority of offenders are actually good human beings at their core. Determined to see the value in all human beings, at their core. Determined to see the value in all human beings, members of PSI are motivated by the belief that even those who habitually commit crimes have a latent desire to make a difference in the the world and need their lives to be of some significance, Our transformation model has the potential to be a highly effective crime reduction strategy for one simple reason. Transformed former members of the street crime culture generally possess the street credibility that makes current members receptive to being persuaded to see the futility in continuing a life of crime. Moreover, combined with ongoing interactive dialogue between current and former members of the street-crime culture, community service is an essential component of our transformation model.
Community service operates as a catalyst that inspires, nurtures, and empowers individuals with a spirit of social activism that facilitates, and often accelerates the process of cognitive transformation. Another major aspect of our multi-directional approach to ending the culture of street crime is the creation of diverse programs and projects that serve as vehicles to carry members towards positive changes in self perception. Participation in PSI programs and projects provides participants with opportunities for personal growth and development in areas such as leadership, interpersonal communication, cooperative learning, and creative expression. More importantly, it empowers them with an enhanced sense of purpose and self worth by providing opportunities to make meaningful contributions to public safety efforts.
Finally, the most crucial aspect of our multi-directional approach entails the establishment of collaborative partnerships with a plexus of public safety stakeholders working in concert to to transform crime-infested communities into safe and healthy places to live and raise families. Collective transformation can only occur if there is a societal embracement of what renowned criminologist Shadd Maruna and others in academia call “Redemptive Truth”, the observation that “nearly all offenders eventually grow out of crime” (Shadd Maruna, Et Al., “The Prisoner’s Beatitude”, Relational Justice, Issue 14, May 2001). PSI’s “Positive Peer Intervention Model has evidenced the ability of transformed incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women to accelerate the aging out process via the promotion of intervention strategies that can foster a sense of generativity in offenders of all age groups.
For nearly two decades, PSI has functioned as a catalyst that placed hundreds of prisoners on the path of self transformation via a process involving intense dialectical engagement. In collaborative partnerships with a plethora of public safety stakeholders that include academics, representatives of social service agencies, grassroots organizations, the clergy, prison administrators, law enforcement representatives, government officials, and others, we have had phenomenal success in our efforts to encourage members of the culture in prison and free-world communities to join us on the path of transformation.
In addition to hosting a number of workshops and events for the prison population, over the years PSI has organized several outreach programs, projects, and events in the city of Philadelphia that has profound impact on the lives of thousands of school age youth and residents throughout the city. Moreover, we have inspired the creation of several prisoner led programs at SCI Graterford/Phoenix that are having positive impacts on literally thousands of residents. In essence, if implemented on a national scale, PSI’s Transformation Model has the potential to save thousands of lives and dramatically reduce the US prison population.