Prison Stories: A Good Apology


A Good Apology

One of the most important lessons I learned from my students in prison was the value—the necessity—of making mistakes. We all make mistakes. All the time. We are not designed to be perfect. In fact, I’ve noticed that perfect people—and people who have all the answers—seldom win popularity contests or find many close friends. Being open, vulnerable and willing to admit what we do wrong does connect us in far more genuine ways.

I learned to ask my students,”Who made a good mistake?” We defined that as one that teaches us something. Learning requires confidence, but a healthy dose of humility is required too. Mistakes help us learn more than doing things perfectly. Lessons learned from mistakes stick with us longer. People in prison are intimately aware of their own mistakes—and, I might add, fairly observant of other people’s missteps, especially those of elected officials. People who live behind bars develop a sharp sense of justice, often because justice has been denied them.

My students and I tossed a lot of these issues around in civics class as we were all learning how to be better citizens by resolving conflicts, shoring up relationships and building community. Many of the men I knew had been hurt—and had hurt others. Many felt betrayed by people who were supposed to care about them:  their school systems, the police and the larger community. Questions about forgiveness and apologies rose up. At a particularly difficult, painful and contentious time in our American life together, I’ve watched people in power apologize. They could have used some lessons from the men I knew behind bars.

We talked about what makes “a good apology,” what to do and what not to do. My students roll played, talked in small groups and thought about the apologies they had experienced. We concluded that most people usually know when they’ve hurt someone else. Together, my students and I came up with a few basics:

      1. Be careful of timing. Don’t wait too long, but avoid trying to apologize when people are still angry and not able to hear clearly.
      2. Some soul searching is sometimes necessary to figure out what we’ve done wrong. Asking the person you’ve hurt how they feel helps too. Validate their feelings. For example: “When I shared something after you told me not to, you must feel hurt and betrayed.”
      3. Acknowledge your regret for your behavior and ask if the other person can think of a way to repair the damage.
      4. Announce that you will try very hard to never repeat the behavior.
      5. Recognize that it often takes time to re-establish trust.

Behaviors that make things even worse are:

      1. Not apologizing directly to the person you’ve hurt.
      2. Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
      3. Pulling in a 3rd person without permission from the person you’ve wronged. “Triangles” usually complicate things.
      4. Saying, “So and so does it too!” or “So and so does it far worse than me!”

Ironically, owning our own behavior and apologizing gives us more freedom. It makes us human. It connects us to people. It can go a long way toward healing the brokenness between and among us.

Erick Erickson: The GOP After Donald Trump, an article and a video from the New York Times on October 14, 2016 about a RedState gathering of Never Trump Republicans, shows how upset and unsure people are about the future of the GOP. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I don’t agree with most of their stances on issues, but I wish I could sit down and talk to people who do not agree with me.  No one party has all the answers. I know that for a healthy democracy to work well, we need a healthy party (or parties) on the other side. I love the idea that truth—and often the solution to problems—comes out of both sides listening carefully. Compromise is essential. Our elected officials used to do this in the chambers of Congress, but our deep divisions and the demonizing that is happening in our current politics is poisoning the air and making progress almost impossible.

As citizens in what is supposed to be a participatory democratic system, we cannot let ourselves off the hook by pointing at “corrupt politicians” or constantly demonize people on the other side. Both liberals and conservatives do it, along with shouting and name calling. Our elected officials reflect who we are, and we need to do the work of mending and moving forward. We also need to realize that there are 535 people in Congress, and many still try hard to reach across the aisle and work things out with creative, respectful,  bi-partisan cooperation. They need our support.

I am so moved and impressed by the Republicans in this video who are stopping to ask what responsibility they’ve had in creating the deep divisions. Katie Pavlich from Fox News says she feels demonized by the left for her beliefs. She also says we care about the same issues. I think so too. Glenn Beck says he has been doing some painful soul searching about his part in the great divides. He is wanting to do more listening and says we must start talking to each other and chart a new course. We can all do that! We can listen and own our part in the brokenness and bitterness.

Krista Tippett’s Civil Conversations Project on has a place to start. With two people holding opposing views, her questions are: 1) What in your own position makes you uncomfortable? 2) What do you admire about the people and positions on the other side?

Part of the problem is our geographic divisions and the difficulty of meeting and knowing people who are different and hold very different ideas. After growing up in northern Michigan with people very much like me, one of my life’s greatest gifts was having the privilege of teaching in a federal prison. Almost no one shared a background like mine. My students challenged me, made me squirm, and made me change my mind about the country I live in. They also nurtured me for twenty-five years. I owe them, and writing my book is one way to give them a voice. Now in this painful and difficult time, I want to meet and talk to people on the other side of the political fence—listen carefully and own my part of the problem. Good apologies are a good place to start and go a long way toward pulling us together again.



Notes on a Wonderful Conversation: Who We Want to Become Beyond the New Jim Crow


Krista Tippet’s interview on NPR’s OnBeing with Michelle Alexander, who wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is full of insight and wisdom for us all. Alexander has an ability to transform our thinking with new perceptions and knowledge that is harder to see from a white perspective. These two women have taught me so much, and I continue to look to them for understanding and guidance about the country I live in. Among the many good points made about our criminal justice system and who we want to become were these:

      1. When jobs disappeared 30 and 40 years ago, the people in inner cities were experiencing grief and trauma. Instead of going to them with care and concern, we waged a war on them.
      2. Civil rights are meaningless unless people have basic human rights: enough food and adequate housing, a safe and secure place to live, a decent education and sustainable employment.
      3. Given the way we lock up so many people and then make it so difficult for people to put their lives together after they leave prison, we have become a “nation of stone-throwers,” unwilling to forgive people even after they’ve served their sentences.
      4. We need to be in touch with the “criminality in each of us.” We have all broken laws, but those of us who experience privilege rarely do time in prison. We also need to be in touch with our culpability and complicity about mass incarceration, because we’ve let this purely punitive system develop and flourish.
      5. Alexander makes the point that white people have also been swept up by the War of Drugs, and they and their families and communities are suffering too.
      6. Asked by Krista Tippett where she found hope, Alexander pointed to the work being done by formerly-incarcerated people as they find and add their voices and experience to the hard work of criminal justice reform.
      7. Democracy is about our own humanity, and unless we understand that all people matter and need to be cared for, our democracy may not succeed.

Both an unedited and edited version for broadcast are available as podcasts.

I had the privilege of proximity as I taught my students in prison, learning from them and about their backgrounds and experience. I never would have known them otherwise. The majority of my students came from the inner cities in the Midwest, from schools that were not adequately funded, from neighborhoods that weren’t safe and from families who were struggling to make ends meet. Many of the men I knew had relatives in prison, and many had grown up without their fathers. I saw men shut down, put their heads in the crook of their arms and zone out. I saw that some of them were dealing with traumas in their backgrounds, and some were simply overwhelmed by being in school. Dropping out does not lead to confidence, and people needed time to find their strengths as students. Many reported experiences of homelessness as children. The majority of them had been sentenced for drug crimes, occasionally for as many as thirty-three years. More than one person reported, “No one cares about us.”

Going out the door of a prison is a risky experience. The world has grown and changed. Technology feels overwhelming. It is tricky, often painful and confusing, to re-connect to families, especially to children who have grown up without their dads around. In addition, we make it really difficult to find housing, and many barriers to re-integrating are legal. President Clinton made sure that formerly-incarcerated people would be denied Section 8 housing. Public assistance and help for food are difficult to secure. Professional licenses are denied. It broke my heart to hear men talk about wanting to be teachers and nurses or return to being barbers and know it would be difficult if not impossible to get or renew a license. Many states deny people the right to vote. The recent backlash against Virginia’s governor for giving formerly-incarcerated people the right to vote is an example of how difficult it is for some people to forgive returning citizens who have already served their sentences.

I am intrigued with Alexander’s language that we all need to be in touch with “our own criminality.” She says in The New Jim Crow:

“The notion that a vast gulf exists between “criminals” and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about “them.” The reality though, is that all of us have done wrong. As noted earlier, studies suggest that most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetime. Indeed, most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives.” 1

We all need hope to address the tragedies inherent in mass incarceration. I am familiar with the work of JustLeadershipUSA from my friend Ron Simpson-Bey, who works in this organization as an alumni associate. He joins a group of people who have all served time and now believe that “the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” He has recently written,

“Adjusting language in no way means condoning criminal or delinquent behavior. Those who commit crimes must be held accountable. But accountability requires making amends, an objective that is much harder to achieve when a person is denied the chance to move forward. The people who leave our correctional facilities every year have paid their debts to society and they all deserve a chance to rebuild their lives.”

JustLeadershipUSA builds leadership skills for community building, advocacy and policy-making, organizational management and communication. They are committed to reducing the prison population by half by 2030. Michelle Alexander serves on their board and says this:

“I believe that the launching of JustLeadershipUSA will be viewed, one day, by historians and advocates alike as a true game changer: the moment in the emerging movement when formerly-incarcerated people finally had a chance to be heard, to organize, and to influence policy in many ways—even though many of them still lack the right to vote.”

Informed and active citizens can help change the perceptions about who lives in our prisons and what can be done for them—and for us. It is about who we want to become. Our very democracy is at stake.

1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (The New Press, New York, 2010, 2012), 216.