Those Who Try and Those Who Don’t      by    Ruth Utnage

I have taken a bunch of programs over my nine years in prison. In fact, I have nearly 70 awards and certificates. I know people that have been down since the early 80’s and don’t have a fraction of that. Certificates don’t change people but they are an indicator of effort and if you’re even trying.

I have come to realize that most folks don’t see that some inmates are determined to change themselves, at all costs. And, some just won’t. I don’t have the reasons why someone won’t, maybe maturity or rock bottom hasn’t come, maybe they enjoy being who they are? I don’t know but they aren’t all of us.

I recently had to adjust my thinking because I thought people recognized that not all inmates are the same. Especially volunteers and sponsors. That we are not from the same “lump”. Opportunity in prison is limited and interaction with the community is even more limited and nothing makes someones heart sink like watching a bunch of effort, effort that could be more effective elsewhere, go into someone who’s straight up hustling and lying. From my point of view though, what makes my heart sink is seeing that so many folks from the outside are okay with this behavior. They literally have no idea and instead of taking the time to understand our culture and work with us to overcome it, they remain blind despite our attempts to educate them. It’s like going to another country and flashing the American peace sign as a greeting but the locals only know that as a hostile act, when someone tries to inform you that you’re making a mistake you simply ignore them saying “but I can show them better”, completely missing the point.

We are so starved for meaningful relationships, remember, our punishment is banishment from the community, it’s maddening. It makes sense that some guys will do anything for a few seconds of face time with a community member, in fact, many inmates live for it. And that’s the problem.

What’s valuable to a free person is not valuable to an inmate. Remember, we are a different culture, living in conditions that are drastically different from yours. Like all people, we value things based on how they make us feel and their perceived scarcity. A reward for us is a 3 minute conversation with someone who is not in prison. The fact that volunteers don’t understand that is disheartening. What’s more disheartening is watching volunteers put effort into someone who as soon as the volunteer is out of view is already planning their next victim. They spend more time learning how not to get caught then they ever will on changing. Some try to change for the better and some don’t.

Some speak all the right things, tell all the stories that tug at heart strings, present themselves as a challenge to be fixed (but realistically that’s a tactic they learned to get women to begin investing in them emotionally, one they practice over and over again, I know, I watch them do it every day which is why it pisses me off when I see a volunteer entertaining it especially at the expense of someone else who has good intentions and is being overlooked) in an effort to get attention. They are masters at it. I am not willing to do such things.

The day is coming where I will be out of prison and I will spend the rest of my life shouting from the rooftops that those prisoners who are legitimately putting in work to change themselves, not for attention or face time with people, but because they want to leave here better people, should get more resources and more help than those who aren’t trying.

We all have the same choices in here. Choose to be better or don’t. Choose to try or don’t, but they are without excuse for examples because there are many, they simply choose to not put in the work. But hey, its your time and your resources, do with them what you want.

With Love
Ruth Utnage

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“A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, then by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.” (“Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire )

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