Every day, when I went to work, it felt like I was in a prison. Well, it was because I actually was.
It was my very first job after graduating from college at ECU. A degree majoring in Corrections and Social Work didn’t open up too many work possibilities. So I ended up working as a Program Assistant at a small prison unit in Williamston. The Martin County Prison Unit was an old facility built like the old prison unit here in Clinton. The office where I worked was a small building just outside the main unit, but inside the barbed wire fence that enclosed the prison.
Looking back, I’m not sure why I majored in Corrections. To be honest, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, and I just wanted to somehow graduate. A Corrections and Social Work degree required little math. I disliked math and math disliked me. So, a Corrections major was the way to go. (It’s funny that later I would work in a career for thirty years dealing with math and numbers almost every day.)
The Martin County Prison Unit was a male youthful offender’s prison. Most of the inmates there were young, in their late teens and early twenties. Part of my job was to evaluate the inmates and track their progress. I could make recommendations as to possible training and educational programs for the inmates. I also could recommend additional privileges for them, such as weekend home passes.
Being right out of college with a degree in Corrections, I thought I was ready. I had been taught all about the theories for committing criminal acts. How environment, society, economic injustice, etc. led to criminal acts. How treatments, like behavior modification, can help reform individuals. I thought I was prepared. I soon learned I wasn’t.
I soon learned that the first three letters in convict are “con.” And those inmates were good at it. They almost never did the crime in which they were in prison for. If they did actually did admit to their crime, they would quickly point out that it wasn’t their fault. The reason they stole, beat up that person, and so on, was because of how their parents raised them, who they hung around with, where they lived, etc. After a few months, I realized that much of that criminology degree wasn’t that applicable in the real world.
It seemed like none of the inmates were willing to accept responsibility for their own action. But one day that changed. It was so unusual that I can still remember the inmate’s name.
Herbie was around twenty years old. I believe he was at the Martin Co. Unit for stealing. His sentence was not too long, probably for a couple of years. When talking to me, he would give the usual reasons for his crime – a poor family situation, lack of money, running around with the wrong crowd, etc. Finally, after hearing all his excuses for his crime, I asked him, “Herbie, be straight with me. Why did you do it?”
He looked at me with a slight grin and responded, “Because I wanted to.”
I had read Herbie’s file. He didn’t come from the best of family situations. They were by no means well off. And his peer group was not a most positive influence. While those elements may had been contributing factors, Herbie knew he had a choice. Herbie knew he had a choice between doing right and breaking the law. In his heart, Herbie knew the primary reason he did wrong was “because I wanted to.”
That same year, 1977, psychologists, Dr. Stanton Samenow and Samuel Yochelson, published the results of a seventeen year study, entitled “Crime and the Human Nature.” They were surprised to find that their results did not fit the conventional thinking of that time. (Or of today.) They discovered that the cause of crime cannot be directly traced back to environment, poverty or oppression. Instead, crime is the result of individuals making, in their words, wrong moral choices. So, they concluded that the answer to crime is a “conversion of the wrong-doer to a more responsible lifestyle.”
Criminals make wrong moral choices. What a discovery! Of course, outside influences can have an effect on behavior. But we’ve all seen kids from bad environments turn out good, and the opposite from kids raised in the best of environments. It still ultimately comes down to their moral choices.
It’s been many years since that short time I worked at the prison. I don’t have any idea what happened to Herbie once he had served his time. I hope he went on to live a productive life, whatever he did. I hope he started making the right moral choices. And that he did it because he wanted to.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.