Prisoner Re-Entry, Marketing, and the Mousetrap Theory

| July 15, 2009 | 0 Comments

By Willie Davis

There is serious prison overcrowding and recidivism is still unacceptably high – everywhere! The Monday morning penal quarterbacks who tried to transform prisoners into hard-working, law-abiding citizens are as jumpy as a virgin in a prison rodeo. They need more answers.

Re-entry is one answer…but they will not allocate enough marketing money to influence the multiple segments that need to get on board…plus they’ll fail in their initial communication efforts with the ex-offenders because they don’t understand the two and three dimensional conflict inherent in prisons.

I use a Shawshank Redemption movie clip to demonstrate…

…before the Quakers, prison was a place criminals were held UNTIL their punishment – beheading, hanging, etc… Once these humanitarians came along, they got the ball rolling on prison reform and argued that jail WAS the punishment.

Since then there have been a deluge of Monday morning penal quarterbacks trying to figure out how to transform a lost soul into a hard-working, law-abiding citizen.

We’ve run the gamut, from idealistic rehabilitation to the overwhelmingly punitive, all under the umbrella of societal protection. As the monetary, social and moral debates heat up, the fact remains that the United States has a larger percentage of its population in prison than most police states – with many prisons run by for-profit companies.

The zealous prosecutions of drug offenders, mandatory sentencing laws and “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” judicial decisions of these past decades have caused prison overcrowding.  Our armchair penal quarterbacks are as jumpy as a virgin in a prison rodeo.

What are we to do?

Prisons are overcrowded and overwhelmed with a deluge of prisoners. Even after being released, they return to prison faster than lottery winners make new friends. And, politically speaking, spending money to build new prisons is about as safe as being a cow in a stockyard.

Federal, state and local problem solvers must find workable solutions to slow the revolving doors of recidivism. Our national mentality seems to be stuck on the punitive instead of the preventative. Plus, I’m not sure that throwing more money at the culprits of crime, poverty and education, will solve the problem.

Pssst. It’s Re-entry.

Re-entry is a decade-old hot button that is getting hotter by the day. The Council for State Governments and the Bureau of Justice Center, in their 2008 report “A Guide for States, Faith-Based and Community Organizations” lay the groundwork for government and local initiatives to reduce recidivism and help people return home to lead productive law-abiding lives.

State Departments of Correction and County Courts are keeping their ear to the national and state re-entry ground. Community organizations are in a frenzy aligning their housing, employment training, substance abuse, case management and other services to mesh with legislators’ hearts, minds and pockets.

This zip-zoom pace is not a mix of silly and stupid.

There are a lot of smart people attempting to tackle a serious problem head-on. There are passionate re-entry activists nationwide and they are gnawing on re-entry like a dog gnaws on a bone. When all outside influences are sorted out and those in it for the wrong reasons are unmasked, the truly committed will rise to the top and get this momentous re-entry train moving in the right direction.

However, herein lays the problem. Most of these passionate movers and shakers build their re-entry framework and truly believe that “the world will beat a path to their re-entry mousetrap,” alluded to so gracefully by Ralph Waldo Emerson before the Civil War.

The underlying belief is that re-entry will sell itself because of its inherent worth to everyone. Large crowds will hold re-entry rallies. Prisoners will line up like kids at an ice cream truck. Businesses will welcome felons fresh out of prison, their criminal records in tow. That is not going to happen!

It is a false hope to assume that recognition and support will come to the re-entry movement just because it’s a good cause.

My anxiety is that the re-entry architects who build the re-entry mousetrap will forget about the cheese that attracts the mice – marketing! In their rush to alleviate prison pressures, prime movers will not earmark enough marketing resources to entrench a new way of thought in the people whose support they need.

There are several audiences in the re-entry movement to be persuaded. The prisoner/ex-offender, the State Departments of Corrections and Federal Department of Justice, the business community, the financial backers, the re-entry industry employees – all these people and organizations must be addressed and kept in the loop at all times.

In marketing terminology, these “target markets” will not respond to the same communication approach. The language that influences each one of these groups will need to be as different as water skiing is to water boarding.

Let’s examine just one of these “target markets.”

Prisoners are just like us: they think in three-dimensional realities. Unfortunately, their three-dimensional thinking inside prison doesn’t jive with ours on the streets, nor with the two dimensional reality of their incarceration. This creates conflict while still in prison and post-release. Stay with me on this.

If a prisoner’s right brain were a movie theatre, it would be a multi-screen cinemaplex, a 360-degree panorama with chaotic surround sound above, below and all around. In this right brain cinemaplex, a prisoner fantasizes worlds they want to inhabit. After all, everything starts with an idea.

It is here, in their right brain, where they extend the three physical dimensions of height, width, and depth to include emotional concepts such as their family’s love, hope,and freedom, with an emphasis on freedom.

Democritus stated, “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space. Everything else is opinion.” Prisoners’ perceptual reality is formed when their life experiences meet their imagination in the theatres of their mind. Most prisoners get through their day by fantasizing in their right brain theatre. It’s one way they escape their mortal enemy, time.

Unfortunately, their physical existence is carried out in the dismal two-dimensional movie screen world of their left brain – their prison. Two-dimensional realities speak of opposites; up-down, addition-subtraction, positive-negative, inhaling-exhaling, liberalism-conservatism.

A prison culture is chock-full of two-dimensional realities.

They are called rules. In-out, right-wrong, up-down, good-bad, black-white, lights on-lights out. Day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, second after second, a prisoner’s life is controlled and society is protected, one rule at a time.

Fantasizing in a three-dimensional world to help pass time in a two-dimensional prison is par for the course. Conflicts with correctional officers inside prison walls are nothing more than three-dimensional thinking butting heads in a two-dimensional world. One of the causes of recidivism is the ex-offender’s failure to energize their three-dimensional prison fantasies upon being released from prison.

Successful re-entry marketing shouldn’t start with a tri-fold brochure of a prisoner playing ping-pong with two- and three-dimensional realities. Successful re-entry marketing should start by helping prisoners disconnect from the unreal and connect with the real.

One of the roles of re-entry marketing should be to develop communication strategies that would help realign the prisoners’ three-dimensional thinking, pegging the impossible and electrifying the possible.

It is true that people don’t do anything without first playing it out in their mind. The objective of human persuasion, whether in free society or inside prison, is to influence people to imagine doing what you want them to do.

Marketing is all about doing this in a language that is meaningful to the audience. I believe it’s a big part of the re-entry mousetrap and should not be overlooked.

Now, what about those other constituencies we need to persuade?

PS: Here’s a little demonstration of a three dimensional prison reality conflicting with a two dimensional prison world – from The Shawshank Redemption.

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