How to Use Guilt and Shame in Federal Prison
During a federal prison term, prisoners are required to take certain classes to assist them in the reentry process. The required classes are specified by the prisoner’s case manager. Some of the classes are boring and have dubious value. Others can be quite beneficial. Last week, I was in a reentry class and the discussion turned to guilt and shame and its role in the reentry process. The speaker suggested that prisons are full of people who experience and deal with guilt and shame in many different ways. First, there are are plenty of folks in prison who simply do not feel any guilt or shame for what they have done. These folks tend to be self-centered and have little respect or empathy for others. Prisoners who do not feel guilt or shame have a much higher rate of recidivism. Next, there are people who feel tremendous guilt and shame for what they have done. They allow themselves to be overwhelmed by their guilt and they are incapable of separating themselves from it. They feel that they will never be forgiven, nor can they forgive themselves. As a result, they simply live in their guilt and shame and have no real hope for the future. In essence, their guilt consumes them and prevents them from moving forward in life. Finally, there are prisoners who feel guilt and shame and use it to motivate themselves to do better in the future, to avoid making the same poor choices that they made in the past. These prisoners have hope for the future and refuse to be defined by the worst actions or moments of their lives. That is the true purpose of guilt, to motivate, educate and promote change. I must confess that when I entered prison, I was consumed by my guilt and shame. I wallowed in it. I could not see a light at the end of the tunnel. I had no real hope for my future. Those negative feelings have slowly changed. I have emerged from a depressive funk that had hung over me for an extended period of time. I realize that I have skills and value that I can offer to others. I have a family to care for. I have moved past my current situation and I look forward to being healthy and productive again. When I leave here, I will still feel guilt and shame. However, it will not define me. It will motivate me to be a better person.