Lessons from the Field: A Prisoner’s Voice and Choice

I met Ralph, age 38, after he volunteered to be part of a group of prisoners at the State penitentiary who were participating in wraparound. Ralph taught me a lot about listening. After 11 years of incarceration, he was heading home. He had entered prison at age 18 years old, and been in and out of prisons several times prior to his last conviction. He typically lasted just a few months on the outside before committing the crimes which would bring him back to prison. The state where Ralph lives had pioneered the use of the wraparound process as a way to reduce recidivism, and had excellent outcomes. In prison wraparound, inmates self-select into wraparound and have support from prison Wraparound Facilitators, most of whom were former guards. Six months prior to release, the prisoners are engaged, the strengths, needs and culture discovery is done, including all the steps of typical wraparound.

In previous releases, Ralph was always given a discharge plan written by a prison case manager, but it wasn’t his plan and he had no commitment to it. This time, it would be his plan. The prison wraparound staff were concerned about housing, finding a job and ongoing mental health treatment. When Ralph prioritized his needs for the first team meeting, he said he wanted to focus on how to keep his 15 year old daughter in high school. She was going to drop out on her upcoming 16th birthday when she could legally leave high school.  He felt that she was following his old path and he feared she would end up right where he did. Although the first meeting was not easy, the team Ralph had chosen brainstormed options which ended up working. When his daughter knew that this was her Dad’s biggest worry, she took his request seriously and with support from relatives, ended up not dropping out.  As Ralph worked with his team to achieve his vision he came to understand he would need to be there to support his daughter. The terms of his probation required him to have a steady job. He added this as a goal, not because the probation officer told him to but because he knew he had to do it to support his daughter He also added goals to help him be a better father.   At 34 months after release from prison, Ralph was still in his community, he was crime-free, and his daughter had graduated high school.  I learned from Ralph that even someone who had been in prison for most of his adult life had strengths, hopes, and dreams and that focusing on what was important to him could lead to success.

Why did wraparound work for him? A big part of it was that first meeting, and that skilled wraparound staff who took his lead from Ralph’s voice and choice about what he needed. When Ralph came home, he came home to a daughter who knew he cared. He came home with a plan to heal some of the wounds caused by his criminal behavior. It was his plan, he prioritized his needs, and the staff and team listened.

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