Can a prisoner chart a successful life course after a lengthy incarceration? Can someone find redemption after committing a serious crime?
These are amongst the questions explored in a recent radio documentary that involved LSJ Professor Katherine Beckett, current and former LSJ students, and two Canadian journalists. The radio program, Cited, tells the story of Jeff Coats, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison at the age of 14 after he was convicted of robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, kidnapping, conspiracy to commit murder, and attempted murder.
Coats and two accomplices stole a car, and locked the car’s owner in the trunk. The car owner managed to escape and avoided physical injury.
The podcast, entitled “Superpredators Revisited” (http://citedpodcast.com/superpredator/) is part of the Rethinking Punishment Radio Project. According to Prof. Beckett, the project seeks to break down stereotypes of people who are convicted of serious crimes and show that people can and do change despite current prison conditions.
The project originated after a discussion that Prof. Beckett had with members of the Concerned Lifers Organization at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. The prisoners expressed the view that all the general population hears about are people who are released from prison and commit another crime, then come back to prison. Yet many people get out of prison and live successful lives, although their stories are rarely told.
“We are trying to use storytelling – which for many people is a really compelling way to take in information — to illustrate the proposition that people who you may never expect to grow often do so under adverse circumstances,” Prof. Beckett said. “We think it’s important to tell those stories of change because many of our policies are based on the premise that people can’t change.”
Coats, for example, has been very successful since his release from prison. According to Prof. Beckett, his story also raises interesting and important questions about the criminal justice system, such as whether a 14-year-old should go to an adult prison.
Beckett and others involved in the project spent an entire day with Coats traveling to scenes important to his story, including his childhood home, and the juvenile detention center where he spent nine months.
“It was intense,” Beckett said. “I mean this guy has an unbelievable life. We went to his childhood home. He grew up in a trailer, and lived with an extremely abusive step father and a mother who didn’t protect him in any way. It was just so vivid. It made it a very intense experience emotionally.”
LSJ major Bryce Ellis, who got involved in the project after taking Professor Herbert’s mixed enrollment class at the Washington State Reformatory [a link to the mixed enrollment story here?], says the experience challenged him to reevaluate his opinions and discourses on prisons, prisoners and their experiences, the rehabilitation process, and the idea of forgiveness.
“Having the chance to confront the painful realities of our criminal justice system, the crimes that place people in this system, the impact this system has on those people, and how they work to overcome and change their lives has meant a lot to me, and given me a deep belief in humans' capacity for positive growth and change,” Ellis said. A number of other LSJ students and alumni, including James Coatsworth, Anu Sidhu, Mariah Ogden and Laura Dietz, also helped with the project.
The podcast plans to air two more episodes. Meanwhile Ellis and others involved will continue their work with Professor Beckett in effort to maintain a dialogue surrounding prisoner’s capacity to change.
“Yes, it is true that a significant population of formerly incarcerated individuals do reoffend,” Ellis said. “However, the stories about their reoffending are not necessarily told in full, and yet still even more importantly there are formerly incarcerated individuals who go on to lead highly successful lives after reentering society. I believe that this story has the potential to truly impact this dialogue and challenge listeners to think more about how we should be structuring our criminal justice system and also how we evaluate and accept prisoners’ attempting to reenter society.”
Kate Clark | Student Communications Assistant