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Working with campers

Pre-release for Federal Prison Camp

I’ve been in a lot of “camping” scenarios over the years. This seems to be part of the fabric here in Minnesota, and the camping experience comes in many forms. As a youngster, I spent time in a northern part of the state we now call the BWCA fishing and camping with my uncles. I became familiar with terms like portage, rucksack, Rapala, etc. As an adult, I continued to enjoy the camping experience with canoe trips, fishing, and family camps. The camping experience I’m referring to here in this article is on a whole different level – pre-release for Federal Prison Camp inmates.

The majority of my work inside of Minnesota prisons for the past 30 years (yep, I'm an old dude) has been in medium and minimum security facilities as individuals get ready for release, and this has been on the state side of the system. A federal prison camp is something entirely different in my experience, and once again I find myself energized by the challenge. Here are a few of the peculiarities…

The FPC (Federal Prison Camp) in Duluth does not really have what we would call a traditional prison fence. The security is there, and if you walk away (abscond, escape), it will bring a world of hurt your way. At this point, your custody level has dropped for a reason, and there's too much to lose for those guys that have worked their way down the chain from a penitentiary all the way to this relaxed facility. Now mix in the white collar guys that have never experienced "real prison," and you end up with a fascinating mix. All the little things that would get you hurt in a penitentiary are now excused and chalked up to ignorance and context. This sort of stuff is helpful to know when you’re addressing the need to put up with what is interpreted as high-level rudeness on the outside in the free world. White collar guys tend to learn from others just how close they came to doing some serious time with some serious people. Watching these two groups put up with each other as they try to stay focused on what's happening (release) is fascinating from both a social and institutional perspective.

One major challenge is trying to bridge this gap when you’re facilitating a class on reentry. We chose to talk about integrity because it’s a pathway to address pseudo-integrity. When you ask a group to define integrity there seems always to be two standard answers, not lying is number one and what you do when no one's watching is number two. These answers are excellent, but they are only components of what integrity is. Integrity comes from the word integer which all math nerds know is a term for a whole number or a thing that is complete in itself. A life of integrity implies that your life is whole and not fractioned up or compartmentalized. No need to hide activity or information from everybody. Pseudo-integrity is the stupid stuff we tell ourselves to justify all that energy we put into lying and maintaining a fractured life. “I steal, but only from businesses and companies because they have insurance…” or “I walked out with that trade secret when they fired me because I didn't deserve to be treated that way." Asking for more examples from the group usually helps to bridge the gap and get us closer to dealing with some real stuff.

Another gap that exists is this mentality that white collar guys have about themselves. It is common to hear things like "I'm not like these other guys here." That may be true when it comes to criminal history, how many times you've been in, etc. but the fact is, you share the same address right now and you are facing similar challenges upon release. Best we get to work on these things, or you might be catching up in a few of the categories.

So when I tell people I’m working with campers I usually wait a bit and let their mind conjure up all kinds of images. After I explain the context I get a blank stare, people need time to replace the BWCA image of camping with…. well, they really don't know what to replace it with. Hopefully, I can help with that, and we can move the public a little closer to understanding the context and the challenge. Happy camping!

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