The Hard Road to “Normal”

Life is hard! This thought came to my mind again after watching an insightful documentary on PBS called Beyond the Wall. It is part of the America Reframed series, now in its sixth season. I am not going to critique the film; instead, I will give my impressions of the thoughts and feelings that were raised for me while viewing the documentary.

It was a way for me to see the lives of a group of men who had been incarcerated for various felonies. Once they were released, the story traced how they had fashioned a new life from the disorder and chaos of their former lives. According to the film, 65% of the inmates were substance abusers when they entered prison.

The film centered on a counselor and his interactions with several of the former inmates. The counselor had previously been an inmate convicted of violent crimes, and a drug user as well. However, with a great deal of difficulty, he had reformed and found he had skills in helping fellow users and felons to sort out their lives. He became credentialed as a counselor, and now he felt it was his calling to help inmates make the painful and difficult transition from their former lives to “normal” lives without drug use, crime, and violence.

I was struck by the fact that many of the former prisoners proudly identified with their past violent acts. One man had tattooed practically his whole body with marks of violent acts, past conquests, and times he had defied death. His status as a young man was wrapped up in violence, drug use, and having “fun.” During the interview, he clearly articulated that living the normal life of hard work and attachment to family was nearly impossible, since he didn’t have any status in that world. He realized he never would be able to attain status in a normal world—the kind of status and respect he had in his former criminal life. After a time of getting straight, guided by the counselor, he returned to his drug abuse and died of an overdose at the age of 32.Inmates

Another former inmate was determined to live a normal life and care for his six children. He got a job at a restaurant, and for a while he worked hard and inched his way up the pay scale. He had dreams of becoming a chef and providing a living for his children. But after several weeks of work, it seemed he was having a difficult time living the normal life. He said the job and home life were boring, and the confidence in his voice that he was going to beat the pull of chaos and disorder was fading. At the end of the film, he was appearing in front of a judge for violence against his wife and children. The judge issued a restraining order, restricting his contact with his children and wife. He later returned to prison.

It struck me that as humans, we have often been tempted by the latest pleasures and stimulations, without regard for the consequences. But in our long history, if one succumbed to these temptations, one’s life would be short lived. Since women have traditionally cared for the children, and have needed help in doing so, out of necessity it has been incumbent upon men to help provide for their children. Although not all men complied, and some women found themselves in dire straits, it has worked well enough to see an exploding human population.

But our society has shifted. What struck me after watching the documentary is that while the state has taken over the responsibility of keeping children alive, the temptations enticing men away from family and community have skyrocketed. The number of drugs has escalated, to the point that users can be in a perpetual state of ecstasy, if they wish. They need to worry only about finding enough funds to keep them in their drug-induced stupor. Shorn of responsibility for their children and obligations to their community, what do these men actually have to live for?

No responsibilities and endless temptations, plus many other factors, have led to a perfect storm for these men of repeated incarcerations, fatherless families, and torn-apart communities. What are the solutions? I think the counselor in the film, who lives this drama out day to day, made some remarks that get to the crux of the issue. He first stated that a deep spiritual connection immensely helps the former inmate in the transition process.  Without it, according to him, most fail. Reframing one’s mind from immediate self-gratification to obtaining satisfaction and worth from helping others is a huge and difficult step.Free Rehab Center, Long Beach, CA

The counselor had at his fingertips a number of halfway houses and detox centers that were readily available for the ex-prisoners. They just had to commit to wanting to go there. That commitment, as evidenced in numerous scenes in the film, was very difficult for them to make. He also said that going outside of oneself to blame someone else or an external entity was a sign that someone was not ready for the hard transformation. One former inmate angrily shouted as he was making another trip back to prison, “They never give you a handbook for what it is like in the outside world.”

I would highly recommend watching this intriguing documentary. We must talk and act sensibly about the complicated issues of incarceration, drug policy, and the breakdown of community. This documentary clearly shows that these intractable problems need a multifaceted solution. Those on the left, who generally favor social programs, and those on the right, who generally advocate for personal responsibility, need to come together. Both of their viewpoints and all of their ideas are needed to help those who are the most vulnerable citizens of our country.


Questions for Educators

  1. Have you ever experienced what it is like to drastically change a behavior or behaviors? Was it difficult for you?

Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator and president of the nonprofit Center for Global Awareness. The Center for Global Awareness develops books and materials with a holistic, global focus for adult learners and educators. The CGA recently launched Gather, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection. In this unique program, adult learners form small study groups to launch conversations about pressing global issues. The simple acts of talking and listening allow us to see different perspectives, transcend deep political and cultural divides, and engage with others to create positive change. Please email or visit for more information.

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