So It's Christmas and I'm Poor. Why shouldn't I go back?

by Joseph A. Grillo, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist

Christmas Behind Bars by ileend_cb ( a forensic mental health professional, I have been fortunate to work with individuals that have encountered the legal system from many points along the continuum, ranging from initial arrest to probation. One area that continues to interest me is re-entry. Currently, as the State and Federal correctional systems experience fiscal pressure, and as more incarcerated individuals are being released to economically depressed communities, there are ongoing concerns that gaining employment may be an even greater problem than in past years.

In working with those returning "to the street,” it is not uncommon for me to hear statements like:

"Why shouldn’t I go back…at least, there I had three hots and a cot, and did not have to deal with this shit like I have to deal with out here…no one wants to hire an ex-felon, and I was told that I could get a job, and they didn’t tell me it was so bad out here…I can just go back and wait for the economy to get better…I’ll just violate and go back for a while and wrap it up.

Sounds logical, right? It is a hard argument to counter.

In my clinical/forensic practice (on both sides of the wall) I have always worked from an "inmate/client centered” perspective. The dialogue that I work on with the person who poses this line of reasoning is based on the following: the Concept of Time, Doing Time, Meaning, and the Self.

Specifically, a common dialogue that I would use to counter the above statements could go something like this:

"So let me get this straight, you want to actually prove the screws (old time prison term for correctional officers) right? I mean, that you couldn’t make it on the outside? I mean, all I remember from when I worked behind the wall was that, if I continued to work there, all of us had job security. Do you want to prove them right?


"What are the commonalities and differences on doing time on this side of the wall (the free world)?”


"Were you able to do time on the outside before you went in? Why can’t you do it now?”


"Look at how little you had when you were behind the wall, why do you think you need so much out here? Doing time out here is different, don’t you remember? Could this be how you got in trouble in the first place?

If you have a good therapeutic relationship with your folks, you may find that such a dialogue is an interesting one. I have found that individuals can relate to how they "survived” behind the wall and, quite frankly, they are quite prepared to go with very little during these economic times on this side of the wall. Some, one could argue, would do better than some executives that are currently unemployed. As Janis Joplin said, "When you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose.”

In my clinical work with all different types of individuals, I can say that I have truly been fortunate to work with those that have been incarcerated. I continue to write and develop workshops based on themes that have arisen in working with those that live under extreme conditions. I have learned that if mental health professionals can remove "judgment” from their forensic work, and see these forensic populations objectively, they may find that as humans there may be less than we believe we actually need to live in this world. There is a difference between "needs and wants.”

Dr. Grillo is an MHCC Board Member and will be presenting a preconference workshop at the 2012 conference. Be sure to check out "Doing Time on THIS Side of the Wall: Ways to Assist Offenders with Reentry."

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