The Scarlet Letter “F”


In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictional setting of Boston in 1642, a woman named Hester Prynne must stand for three hours on a public scaffold wearing the scarlet “A” on her dress.  For what purpose?  So that she could be publicly shamed and humiliated for adultery!  For those not familiar with the classic novel The Scarlet Letter, adultery was against the law of the land and church but also an unforgivable sin whose sentence lived on until death.  Fast forward 375 years when adultery does not carry the same legal or societal stigma and where most surveys reveal that it is more common for husbands and wives to cheat than not over the course of their marriages.

Perhaps because adultery is so common, we have put the Scarlet “A” back into our pocket and now sew on a Scarlet “F”, as in felony, on every shirt lapel leaving prison.  Oh, we may not be as obvious about it in this politically sensitive world, but how we treat ex-felons, who have served time for their crime, speaks volume in what we think of these men and women.  Through our laws, community policies/practices and personal actions we have labeled these released prisoners (a.k.a. felons) with “F” as in “Failure.”   Did you know that when a prisoner is released from prison he gets the clothes on his back, $50, and a bus ticket to anywhere?  What is he supposed to do with those resources for his first night’s lodging and food?  Let’s get real.  What do you think happens next?  With no support he will likely connect with old friends who will help him back into illegal activity to put food in his mouth and a roof over his head.  And so the cycle begins again!  Statistics show that 50% of felons return to prison after 3 years and 75% after 5 years.  These are just the felons who get caught.  Why are these statistics so surprising?  They shouldn’t be.

What are the hurdles for the felons who want to legally re-integrate into community?  Well, he has difficulty finding a place to live, because he doesn’t own a home.  He can’t live in an apartment complex, because management discriminates against all felons regardless of the crime, and probably, he can’t stay with relatives where he has worn out his welcome long before his prison sentence.  He can’t get a job, because he doesn’t have any decent clothes for an interview, but if he Sandi 1 Class 27did, when he checked the felony box on the application he is immediately disqualified.  What would you do?  I expect you are saying to yourself, “Well, he shouldn’t have gotten himself involved in crime to begin with?” Honestly, there is a part of me that wants to sympathize with that statement, but the other part of me knows a different story.  My other half will suggest that the difference between you and an ex-felon can be the simple fact of just getting caught.  How many times have you had one too many drinks, been legally intoxicated, and yet chose to drive home?  For those who made it home safely, we breathe a sigh of relief—no one was hurt or killed.  If you didn’t make it home, you might be in prison for intoxicated manslaughter.

So, you may think, “I see your point; it could have been me, but it wasn’t. Felons are not my problem.”  My reply is, “If you live in this country, it is your problem, because incarceration affects each and every one of us.”  Did you know the average annual cost to hold an inmate exceeds $30,000?  Did you know the real cost to the taxpayer is multiples of that when you factor in lost tax revenue on wages, welfare and aid given to families of incarcerated men, and damages from crime.  For those who are killed or harmed during a criminal act, I cannot put an estimate to the value of life and limb, but at a minimum, lost wages, funeral expenses, and medical bills could be tallied in the total cost.

So what can be done about this problem?  Well, the solution is not by any means easy or short-lived, but we can start by building awareness of the issue, investing in effective transformational programs, and crushing the felon stereotype.   The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP, http://www.pep.org) is giving prisoners the opportunity to change their lives for the betterment of their families and communities.  PEP sees the value of these incarcerated men, and along with other business volunteers, they all come along side those prisoners who are doing the hard work to transform themselves.  This program initially focuses on building authentic manhood and servant leadership and follows with building skills and training in business entrepreneurship.  When program graduates are released from prison, they have access to transitional living and support to help integrate back into society.  Over the past 3 years I have been an executive PEP volunteer and have seen transformed lives and returned dignity in the men we serve.

On April 1, 2016 I honorably participated in a kickoff session for another PEP class who were entering the authentic manhood segment of the program.  Today I received a batch of photos with thank you cards from those men with whom I had the privilege of spending the day in prison.  Yes, they teach these men how to write handwritten thank you cards, a much appreciated and overlook form of business etiquette.  When you see how hard these men work for their future, you can’t help but be inspired to partner with them in their walk.  If yoThank you cardu were wondering whether this program works, recidivism is < 7% after 3 years for those graduating from this program. For the fifth consecutive year 100% of the graduates secured their first job within 90 days.  Since PEP’s launch in 2010, 211 businesses were started with 6 businesses now generating over $1 million/year revenue.  That’s not failure—that spells S-U-C-C-E-S-S!

PEP is a non-profit organization operating only through donations and no government financial assistance.  The local Texas state correctional facilities welcome this program, because it works!  We can only hope that one day, the federal and state governments may fund and incorporate these concepts into the prison system as a whole.  You may not be in a position to volunteer your time or talents or to donate to this worthwhile program, but you can change the way you think about a felon.  You can start to break the felony stigma. Don’t rush to pin the “F” letter on a felon’s collar.  Ask questions.  Learn his story.  Offer support in a meaningful way.  Even the act of listening and empathizing shows compassion and can make one feel valued as a human being.  Like every one of us who has made a mistake, we hope to be judged not for who we were but for who we are actively working to be!  Embrace the PEP Revolution!


About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business, life, and marital coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership.  She now coaches others in how to develop and execute their life plans, develop successful businesses, and build better relationships by identifying and living their personal values, enhancing skills and competencies, and being held accountable for executing their defined goals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Judge or Not to Judge?

cropped-shinecrossings_mainlogo.pngWho likes to judge or be the judge?  How often do you find yourself judging?  To whatever frequency you just admitted, I bet if you thoughtfully played back those daily rituals in your mind, you would surprise yourself in how much more judging you do than first thought.  You probably judge the taste of your cup of java (“ah, so good” or “ugh, that’s bitter”), your reflection back in the morning mirror (“yikes, look at those bags and dark circles under my eyes”), and those other drivers on the road (“pay attention, what an idiot”).  What are some of your thoughts when you arrive at work?  How about the casual assessment of your colleague’s work (“that sucks, he should have been fired a long time ago”), the choice of your coworker’s attire (“what was she thinking”), and how about the leadership of your boss (“I could do better with half a brain”).   Some of these judgments may be extreme, but you have to admit not uncommon.  As humans we are so quick to judge without much thought, as if our judgment is fed from our five senses fueling our emotions which override our thinking brain, and in some cases, just barely stops at the tip of our tongues.  How did it hear, look, taste, smell and feel?  Did our ability to make quick judgment stem from our humanistic need for survival—the ability to make a quick threat assessment and spring into action to protect ourselves and ensure our safety.  God made humans with this beautiful part of the brain called the “pre-frontal cortex” which gives us some incredible abilities that surpass all other living creatures on earth.  Our pre-frontal cortex gifts us with the ability not to act on impulse or innate reflexes but to use reason and logic in assessing our living situations.  So why don’t we seem use it more?  Why is it so easy for us to pass judgment with hardly giving it a second thought?  Could it be that we have not been burned badly enough by our quick conclusions to exert more cortex capacity?  Humans can be conditioned!

So what does it feel like to be judged?  When I ask this question, I am sure you can immediately conjure up a few examples that bring a twinge of pain even today after many years.  Are you having a bit of an emotional rise?  Unpleasant at best, maybe a bit angry at worst.   As you dwell on some of these painful memories, some thoughts you may have are “but I just didn’t have a choice,” “I was young, stupid and didn’t get any slack,” and “if only they could walk in my shoes they would understand why I did what I did.”  You may be right.  If I walked in your shoes at that moment, I may have done exactly what you did and have more compassion for you today.   You were judged, convicted and sentenced!  Welcome to prison!  You may not be incarcerated, but you are still a prisoner in your own mind.  You cannot erase that memory or pain of how you were judged.  Perhaps you feel you served your sentence by making amends, but why does it feel like the punishment is still life imprisonment?   Being on the receiving end of judgment can be painful and leave scars for a lifetime.  So if we can agree that being judged is unpleasant at best, why do we continue to give out what we hate to receive?

Let me clarify one point that typically comes into the discussion on judgment.  Many people use discernment and judgment interchangeably, especially in the Christian world.  Aren’t those the same?  Not exactly.  Discernment assesses value and typically leads to action whereas judgment just labels.  Discernment is wisdom and understanding whereas judgment is an assessment of right or wrong, good versus bad.  You can have discernment that a situation is unsafe, then take appropriate action to ensure your safety.  Judgment would describe a situation as unsafe but not necessarily imply action.  As humans we need discernment, but judgment does not serve ourselves or others as well.  Remember that old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  Not true!  Hurtful, judgmental words cut deeper than any knife could, and many of those internal wounds may never heal.  How many kids on the playground may have shouted those words in return to judgmental statements such as “You can’t hit the ball.  I don’t want you on my team,” or  “You’re wearing flood pants, did you borrow them from your baby brother?” Yes, I was a victim then.  I now know that those cruel words left the mouth of babes because their immature pre-frontal cortex, yet you know, as  a teacher supervising that playground, you might have thought those same words.  Of course, you kept your mouth shut. If everyone understood the eternal, faithful love that God has for us, no one would be able to hurt us with words or actions, because we would understand that our identity and self-worth only reside in our loving God.  Unfortunately, we do not live in this perfect world; therefore, work, possessions and human relationships have a heavy influence on people’s sense of self-worth and ability to feel loved and valued.

I will stipulate that judgment and subsequent consequences are completely appropriate and necessary in our law system.  However, I will be honest that my heart breaks for those who have made mistakes, served their prison sentence, but have walls to climb in order to integrate back into community despite their deep desire to contribute to society.  In the best of circumstances, think about those adults who have been convicted of a minor “F”elony, never harmed another individual, and only served probation.  I have one of those friends who was convicted of drug possession, sentenced to probation for his first offense, but has to wear the “F” on his shirt like a scarlet letter.  With his felony status he cannot live in any apartment complex, has few job opportunities, and is constantly judged unworthy.  He is trying to do better but the system and community are both intentionally and unintentionally working against him.  Sometimes the difference between a felony is only one person getting caught and the other not.   We are all human, have weakness and possible addictions.  Maybe he had too much dependence on marijuana which got him into trouble. Addiction is addiction and can manifest itself differently with each individual.  Hoarding, alcohol, food, spending money, exercise and pornography can all become addictions if the behavior is taken to extreme, yet we typically judge people who have these additions differently.  Why?  Because those addictions happen to be legal, whereas in most states marijuana is still illegal.

Can we not have more compassion for those who are trying to help themselves in the moment?  Can we stop labeling people as good or bad and start labeling people as hurt and in need or healthy and blessed?  My heart hurts for those who are suffering under the heavy weight of judgment.  I cannot change the world, but I can call it out with the hope that people will have greater pause and hopefully more awareness of their judgment.  Instead of judging, why not lend a helping hand, or extend a kind word or gesture.  Lift a human brother or sister up with words of affirmation versus tearing them down.  But you may say, “I don’t say anything.  I keep my thoughts to myself.  My thoughts can’t hurt anyone.”  I would disagree; those negative thoughts are carried in your body language and manifest themselves in choices of behavior towards others whether you are conscious of it or not.

And for those of you who made it to this point and thought, “Isn’t she judging?”  My reply is, “Yes I am! I admit it. I’m judging with a purpose.”   Am I suggesting that as humans we will suspend all judgment?  Of course not, we all fall short of perfection.  As sinners we can only challenge ourselves to do better!  We should take the plank out of our own eye, before trying to remove the speck out of our brother’s, as our own sin blinds us to the truth of the situation.  My hope is you will be more thoughtful every time you catch yourself judging.   Might this be one of those times where you make a different assessment or choice and change a life with words of encouragement or actions of a loving hand up?  I pray that you do!  I leave you with this final thought:  Your judgment may say more about you than it does about the person you judge!