Thoughts on “Accepting Responsibility”

Prisoner rehabilitation and self improvement are critically important goals. In fact, I would go one very big step past most people and say that rehabilitation and self improvement are the primary purpose of incarceration.

Many would argue that incarceration is punishment, and nothing more. Yet, I think punishment is pretty much pointless (not to mention terribly expensive) if there is no personal growth and long term self improvement on the part of the prisoner. Think about it. If you punish a child for not obeying, what you’re really looking for is a change in the child’s behavior, not some kind of momentary twisted pleasure knowing you are scaring the child or causing the child to cry.

I guess one of the reasons I am so committed to the ideal of positive change and real rehabilitation is simply pragmatism. After all, the vast majority of prisoners will be released on parole or mandatory supervision at some point. When the system sends a person home, society as a whole, not to mention the prisoner himself, and his loved ones are all far better off if he is a much better version of himself on the way out than he was on the way in.

The idea of accepting responsibility for mistakes is the critically important first step towards meaningful change. But it really is just the first step. Meaningful change will never occur when a person refuses to examine past choices and behaviors objectively.

The inquiry into past mistakes is an important part of my interview with prisoners prior to becoming their parole attorney and representing them before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.  I listen carefully to how the prisoner describes the crime or series of crimes, as well as how they talk about the reason(s) the criminal behavior occurred in the first place. Even the inmate’s description of their life circumstances that existed around the time they got into trouble can reveal the degree to which they have reflected on their mistakes and accepted responsibility.


It is a fascinating process to observe the varying degree of self deception that can sometimes take place inside people’s minds. For example, I once interviewed an inmate who had stormed into a convenient store at 1 in the morning with another guy, then pointed a gun at the head of a female store clerk, threatening to kill her. Fortunately, the gun didn’t even have any bullets in it, but the poor store clerk did not know that.

He kept downplaying the situation.  He told me more than once that he wasn’t really going to hurt the girl, he reminded me several times that the gun was not loaded, and finally, he qualified everything by telling me that he was high at the time of the incident and barely remembered what took place.

In the above interview, after getting the man to readily agree with me that what he had done was wrong, I asked the man to tell me all the reasons he felt he was behaving in such an inappropriate manner.  His reply demonstrated his utter failure to reflect upon everything carefully. He said, “Man, I was high, and it was really all my friend’s idea, so it’s not like I would go doing something like that under normal circumstances”.

One thing I have always thought was unfair about the parole guidelines is that they have no way to measure the degree to which a prisoner has looked carefully at past mistakes, how much sincere remorse he feels, and how much effort he has already expended in his quest to become a better man. To me, that counts far more than “offense severity class” or “age at first incarceration” or any of the other supposedly important variables that go into the magic parole guidelines formula.

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