Corrections: The Consequence of A Missed Adolescence


Trauma and Missed Adolescence

For over thirty years I have been involved in corrections as a volunteer, but also as a paid consultant, a community organizer and in the role of chaplain. I’ve been to prisons in the US, Canada and Mexico and have friends who are involved in corrections in India, Africa and Europe—both on the juvenile and adult side of the equation. In all those years, the life experience common to all of the inmates I’ve encountered is that they have missed the opportunity to be adolescents because of the trauma they have endured either as children or during their teen years.

The other thing I’ve experienced is that adults can make up that stage of life, if our society is clear about what outcomes we expect from Corrections Systems (beyond punishment and isolation). Once past age 25, the brain is not as malleable as it was during adolescence (that’s right, neuroscientists now believe that adolescence starts around 10 and ends around 25), however the brain still has a great deal of plasticity (ability to learn) into latter adulthood, if kept active.

The adage that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” is false, however what is true is that you can’t teach new tricks to an old dog who doesn’t want to learn (closed mindset). The key is providing incentives the old dog wants.

Engagement = Relevance x Trust

The greatest incentive is relevance. Everyone can find a relevant reason to learn to grow. In our outreaches we tap into this on the first session by asking participants to identify younger people in their lives to whom they will dedicate the course.

This is a moving reflection that achieves two goals; 1) increasing relevance, thus motivation and 2) releasing the hormone, oxytocin, which is the key element of building trust.

Once trust and relevance are built we can move on to the curriculum; accomplishing the three critical tasks of adolescence.

Critical Task #1: Values-Based-Decision-Making

The first critical task is Values-Based-Decision-Making. Too often people are incarcerated because they make decisions they think will please their peers (or older relatives) rather than making decisions based upon personal values. Of course, it doesn’t just work to sit a group of people down and say, “What are your values.” If you do, expect to hear either grumbles or at best, “I dunno’s…”

Since we learn what we value from who values us, our curriculum uses a process that encourages inmates to examine their lives for healthy relationships—or even healthy relational experiences. This narrative has a lot to do with the trauma experienced in a person’s life but also can lead to resolving that trauma.1

Once values are identified, they need to be articulated (put into a tangible form). The purpose of this is so inmates can prepare for their day ahead by reflecting on the values they’ve identified as critical, then review their day using their values as a measurement and “guiding star.” They can also begin to share those values with others, beginning with those around them and eventually including their family or other important relationships. Sharing your values with people is a way of telling them, “These are the behaviors I am growing, will you support me in this endeavor?”

Critical Task #2: Impulse Control

The Second Critical Task of Adolescence is Impulse Control. Delaying gratification (impulse control) is a learned behavior and takes time to develop. Being able to move beyond immediate gratification is built through a process called “Scaffolding.”

Scaffolding focuses on helping someone develop both relevant and challenging goals then encouraging them to put in the effort to pursue those goals. The emphasis is on “doing well,” not just “feeling good,” because you don’t really feel good about yourself if you are not doing well.2 Again the key to staying motivated is relevance—to the learner. It doesn’t matter if the goals are relevant to me as teacher (or as society). No one can stay motivated long without relevance. The Gates Foundation would say, rigor follows relevance and relevance follows relationship.3 Relevance and trust are the keys to helping anyone of any age build impulse control.

Critical Task #3: Social Capital

Healthy, mature adults are surrounded by a network (community) of people who will help them live by their values and pursue their goals. Notice I did not say, “achieve” their goals. If the goals are truly challenging some may not be reached and this is fine as long as the person is in a supportive environment. Failure in a supportive environment is the key element of grit. These networks are not just centered around career goals, but also include culture, community development, hobbies, relationships, spirituality and values; anything that builds meaning and provides a sense of living for something “larger than self.”

It should be the primary work of Correction Systems to help people develop these social networks prior to release. Without these networks every paroled individual is bound to be another checkmark in the recidivism column.

We ask the people in our programs to name the three top areas they want to grow in their lives. The majority of areas people choose to focus on are: Sobriety, Relationships and Spirituality. Our program finds people in the community who have mastered these areas and helps inmates connect with those people prior to release.  We focus on “brokering the relationships” and helping the participants to write compelling letters that will draw a response from people in the community who have demonstrated mastery in realms of interest to the inmate. I find these letters and the values cards to be very moving, they not only help our inmates connect to people in the community, but it also helps the community connect to our inmates.

The bottom line is that the poor are over-represented in our correction systems. It’s almost as if our legal system is as good as you can afford (this I’ve found is more apparent in the US System than any others I’ve seen). Breaking this cycle, we must recognize that poverty is not just a lack of resources, but also a lack of relationships. Sadly, my experience is that if you can afford an attorney you either serve far less time or no time at all, regardless of race.

There is a great deal of frustration and pre-judgment in our society surrounding incarceration and inmates. Prejudice is fostered by a lack of relationship, building these “crossable bridges” is critical to the health of our society. In fact, if I could persuade every pastor, politician or community leader in North America to do one thing, it would be this, “Form meaningful relationships between those who have and those who do not.”

Supporting Documents

1 On the efficacy of Narrative Exposure Therapy: a reply to Mundt et al, Frank Neuner, Maggie Schauer & Thomas Elbert, 

2 Martin P. Seligman, Ph.D., Learned Optimism; How to change your mind and your life, © 2006 Martin E.P. Seligman, First Vintage Book Editions

3 Bill Gates, National Education Summit on High Schools, 2005,


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