Friday, October 07, 2022

I enjoy helping clients in my private practice and conducting mental health seminars in the community in my part-time work. In my full-time job, I’m a psychologist at a New Jersey State prison for men. It makes for great conversation at kiddushim and weddings (perhaps not so appropriate at bar and bat mitzvahs and children’s parties).

The prison is in Newark, across from Newark Airport; if you’ve ever flown in and out of the airport, you’ve gone past our barbed wire. I’d invite you to stop by next time and say hi, but it really isn’t the sort of place you want to visit. Prison is everything and nothing like it is depicted in Hollywood. My particular prison houses men who’ve committed all sorts of crimes, from relatively mild to the most horrific.

There is a variety of misconceptions of what prison is like and the type of people incarcerated within. It’s easy to develop the wrong impression. Most people (hopefully) will never know what it’s like to be incarcerated or even to work in a prison. As with anything, when we don’t have firsthand experience with something, we inevitably make assumptions about it based on what we hear and see second-hand (or third-hand, etc.).

Perhaps one of the bigger misconceptions is that everyone in prison is a terrible person without redeeming qualities. Many years ago, when I first started out at the prison, I evaluated an older man (we’ll call him Mr. Fell Lon) who already had been incarcerated for over 20 years for murder. When I asked Mr. Lon to describe his crime to me, he explained he had killed someone “in cold blood” at a local bar. Rather than offer a justification or excuse for this heinous act, he proclaimed, “I was a monster.” There was genuine remorse and an admission of guilt there that went beyond the superficial.

Over the course of his incarceration, he spent many years in self-reflection and came to understand how terrible his criminal behavior was. Such insight took time to develop. Initially, Mr. Lon resented his incarceration and raged against all that was out of his control. Eventually, he came to accept he had no control over his predicament and turned his efforts toward self-improvement. He has also been a positive influence on other inmates, helping to guide them toward better behavior and emotional health.

You may wonder why I’m sharing this with you. It’s partly because I find it fascinating, but also because I’ve learned a lot from the men I’ve treated in prison. I really believe we all can learn something from everyone, regardless of education level, financial status, or whether or not they’re in prison for murder. Sometimes, what we learn is profound and new to us. Other times, it’s just a reminder of something we already know, but may forget to be mindful of.

Another time, also many years ago, I treated a man who was housed in the psychiatric inpatient unit. This unit is for inmates who have a significant mental illness and, because of their illness, are unable to function properly in the general prison population (think of a psychiatric inpatient unit in a hospital, only everyone is wearing khaki prison outfits and there are correctional officers with mace if things should ever get dangerous). This particular inmate (let’s call him Mr. In Mate) had terrible personal hygiene that was starting to offend the noses of the other inmates on the unit. Mr. Mate also had a strong personality disorder and below-average intelligence which, in combination, made it very difficult to reason with him as to why it was in his and everyone’s best interest for him to bathe more regularly.

After numerous unsuccessful efforts by several mental health staff members and correctional officers to get him to bathe, Mr. Mate blew up in frustration. After he calmed down from his verbal outburst, we approached him to discuss the matter. Mr. Mate said something witty and also rather poignant. He exclaimed in exasperation, “This is the Department of Corrections, not Perfections. Stop trying to make me perfect.”

How many times have we felt our spouse was trying to “make me perfect” and we resented what felt like constant badgering? How often do our children feel exasperated in response to our well-intentioned parenting efforts to, say, get them to be more interested in school, develop more friendships, or participate more actively in extracurricular activities? We want the best for the people we love and care about. So, naturally, we try to encourage them to improve the things we find, shall we say, lacking. No one can fault our intentions, but pure intentions sometimes fall victim to misguided efforts. Sometimes, what concerns us isn’t a concern for the other person. Other times, both parties are concerned and want it to change. Either way, we sometimes forget to take a step back and accept that the other person may not be quite ready to make the change that we (or even they) want.

It’s a very humbling experience when we find we have little control over a problem. Try as we might, there are some problems that elude us despite our best efforts to fix them. It’s in these moments that we have a decision to make, whether to relinquish our need for control and “go with the flow” or to go kicking and screaming. Every now and then, I meet someone in prison, such as Mr. Fell Lon, who reminds me of this important lesson because they’ve achieved this understanding and are learning to finally let go.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710, or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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