My name is Nathan and I work with some of the most misunderstood people in the Chippewa Valley. My job is not an easy one and very few people choose the path that I have taken. I am a helper and love what I am doing; however, many individuals who work in the jail for many years become hardened to those they serve. While some days may be challenging, I am passionate about what I do within the jail and I’m excited about helping others change their paths when put in difficult positions.
My parents raised me to be non-judgmental which has helped me greatly when working in the setting because I don’t let the stigma of crime influence my judgments about a person. I believe it’s not my job to judge but help where I can. Often times I see and hear generation after generation come in with the same “bullshit.” The people I work with are ordinary people, who are often times related to others within the system, that are at a crossroads in their life given the task to choose the better path. I work alone with these people, giving them a taste of freedom and the trust and respect they desire. My overall goal is to help those in jail obtain useful tools, information, and motivation to help guide them down a brighter path.
Within my program, I facilitate classes that range from learning about healthy living and relationships to coping skills and thinking for a change. When I facilitate these classes, I hope to leave a big enough impact on the attendee to ensure they do not return to the jail. The class sizes are not too large, as I interview each person who signs up in order to get a grasp on why they really want to take my class. The interview process weeds out individuals who are simply trying to get out of their block, and accepts those who actually want to learn and change their behaviors.
Often times my job can be discouraging when looking at sheer numbers. There are 300 inmates in the jail, while only twenty may sign up for a certain class. Of those twenty I may only be able to accept eight and only two may graduate from the class. I am not teaching the inmates anything they do not already know. They all know that drugs and their lifestyles are bad for them and do not need to be reminded that they should stop; I help them find their motivation to change. For some, making these changes is very challenging and scary. It’s like climbing a mountain to get to the wise man at the top who knows answer to life; you climb the mountain with all of your momentum, hopes, and dreams to reach the top, only to realize there are more mountains to climb and you no longer know where the wise man is. Inmates get tired of dealing with the same old “bullshit” day after day, then eventually decide they want to make a change; this is where I come into play.
The thought of such a large change can be daunting so I am there to help motivate and support them through the change and break through barriers. Inmates need to learn how to approach situations and think in different ways with support. Without a support group, this can be nearly impossible. If you are working out and someone tells you that you are getting fat, it can really deflate your motivation to work out, whereas if someone is telling you are doing “good” or “you are on the right path” you are more willing to continue working out. This is the same for the inmates; if someone close to them is not supportive of their progress, it is hard to push forward and keep making changes. Thus, once they leave the jail, they know they should not be around friends and family who are negative influences; however, many inmates continue to do so anyways because it is what they know.
One man in particular described it as lying down next to a dog with fleas and hoping that you don’t get fleas. When these individuals leave jail, many of them have nothing waiting for them. Most have no home, no job, no money, and are now expected to leave their family and friends behind as well. Even if they are able to change in light of these things, they end up in a halfway house or a homeless shelter where drugs and negative influences are still present which can lead them down the same path right back to the dogs and the fleas.
These adults are vulnerable; as rough and tough as they may seem, they are easily influenced, and need guidance and help. Probation officers serve to be this guidance. They have the ability to find homes and aid in getting jobs, but there are simply not enough resources. Each officer has a list of cases to work with and as awful as it may seem, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. The person with the direst need for assistance is going to get the most attention, trumping those who just need a little guidance. The remainder of the probation officer’s time is split between those who need less attention which proves there is an enormous issue regarding the lack of resources.
Not only is the lack of staffing an issue, but the lack of treatment resources is just as great. Often times even those in dire need do not receive resources they desperately need. If relapse occurs, those on probation can be sent to the Fahrmen Center, an inpatient treatment facility, but from my understanding, the beds are always full so they get sent back to the jail to wait. They lie back down where the dogs and fleas are waiting for them. I know of one man who waited three months to get treatment. Can you imagine how hard it would be to maintain the positive changes you have made when surrounded by all of that negative influence?
I personally believe some of the best resources present are JONAH and EXPO. Former inmates are able to meet others just like them who were able to “beat the system” and be successful. These positive role models are definitely needed as well as connections with people who do not share those similar experiences, in order to remind them that they are still humans who have simply made a mistake.
“I am not changing a person; I’m changing a generation.”
As told to Breanna L. S. and Sierra J.
This story originally appeared in Behind the Faces of Criminal Justice in the Chippewa Valley, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.