Mahmoud has served a bit more than half of his 15-year sentence at the Oregon State Penitentiary. He is there for being an accessory to murder. He has agreed to let me share part of his journey. At the time of the offense, he was in his first year at Portland Community College. He traveled to Portland from his home in Saudi Arabia. As he tells it, he grew up believing that the United States was a land of unparalleled opportunity, and he jumped at the chance to join a friend to attend college abroad.
Once in Portland, his social opportunities were limited to those who spoke his mother tongue, Arabic. The only such group he could find turned out to include a few who trafficked in drugs. Afraid of losing status in his social circle, Mahmoud became an accessory to various marijuana deals. One time, a friend asked Mahmoud for a ride to the home of another dealer to engage in a robbery. That robbery resulted in the murder for which Mahmoud received his sentence.
Since his confinement, Mahmoud has sought to address his culpability and tried to atone for his mistakes. He tries to confront the harm he caused in the most honest and responsible manner that he can — by recognizing that what he did was wrong, that the person he hurt had moral worth, and that the apology that flows from his contrition must be followed by so much more. “Words alone,” in his view, “are not gonna cut it.”
“There’s gotta be some follow-up action,” Mahmoud added. “If you say sorry and you’re willing to take some steps to repair the harm that you did, then you need to physically take those steps. And those steps can be in the form of doing something positive around you. So there’s something positive that the universe gains from a person who offended to recognize the wrong in their ways and being sorry for their actions. It might not be necessarily directed to that person that you hurt, but it’s gonna be felt by those around you. Because there’s a paradigm shift within yourself that causes you to think twice and recognize the moral worth of people.”
Mahmoud is hardly the only person in prison attempting such a paradigm shift. The American system of punishment removes from public view the introspective transformation that so many who have committed harm undergo — imprisoned or not. That his and other stories of atonement are rarely heard is one of the many features of mass incarceration.
The American system of punishment removes from public view the introspective transformation that so many who have committed harm undergo — imprisoned or not. That his and other stories of atonement are rarely heard is one of the many features of mass incarceration.
To help address this silence, I recently produced and released an eight-part podcast series, Making Amends, where Mahmoud and other participants wrestled with their own journeys of finding atonement. For the podcast, I taught and audio-recorded a weekly class on the process of how we can atone for wrongs we commit. In the class, we explored the nature of wrongs, the emotions that emerge when wrongs occur — on the part of both the perpetrator and the victim — and how we can repair the damage our wrongs create. I also recorded multiple interviews with each participant so that I could understand their individual stories in greater depth. All of these discussions, portions of which can be found throughout this essay, revealed how these men are grappling earnestly with the harms they caused, and doing what they can to improve themselves and those whom they encounter.
We have a lot of evidence that many people who are incarcerated try in this way to atone for their mistakes. In the words of Shadd Maruna, many of them try to “make good.” To do this, they use their crimes as a turning point, as a motivation to prove to themselves and others that they will not be defined by their worst act. As my own research on people sentenced to life in prison has shown, there is a common process through which this transformation occurs. An individual comes to appreciate how their actions have harmed other people. This includes not just their victims, but also those close to them, such as members of their family. Tired of experiencing themselves as a negative influence, they strive instead to lift themselves up and those around them.
For example, one of the members of my podcast group, Cameron, told me a story about a stint he did in solitary confinement. He was celled next to someone who was excited for his impending release from prison, and his intense desire to be a better father once outside. Yet, as Cameron tells it, his neighbor soon learned of Cameron’s reputation as a member of a violence-focused prison crew. After that, his neighbor’s disposition hardened, and their conversations shifted in a way that prompted some serious self-reflection. “And I realized, this guy was on some positive stuff and then, because of who I am, I literally brought out the worst in him,” Cameron told me. “Like all of the worst negative tendencies he had, I brought out. And that was just a terrible feeling. And that’s when I decided that all this negativity, all this hatred and stuff I’ve spread, it’s not good for me. It’s not good for the community. It’s not good for my loved ones. It’s not good for this guy next to me, you know. I gotta do something different.”
For the men in my podcast, this turn away from their past was a decisive and important one. For Terrence, who knifed someone to death as a part of an attempted robbery, his decision to change occurred after he reviewed photos of the crime scene. When he saw the aftermath of his violence, he truly confronted his culpability. “You understand exactly what it is that you caused — the pain, the hurt, taking his future, and his dreams, and his hopes,” Terrence said. “I mean, I have no idea the plans his mom and dad had for him, but I took those away.”
This embrace of accountability for their actions was not something that necessarily occurred right away. In fact, the harsh sentences that are now common in the United States deterred such accountability. Both Anthony and Theron committed murder while still in their teens. As a consequence, they were staring at potential life sentences. They felt they had little choice but to try to fight their cases as hard as possible, immersing themselves in a denial of accountability both inside and outside the legal system. People facing prosecution may choose to fight their cases for a variety of reasons, but the coercive nature of the system has a counterproductive impact on those who might genuinely wish to pursue a path of accountability and healing. “Taking responsibility . . . you’re actually punished for it as a consequence,” Anthony said. “So even if I had the capacity back then to stand up and be like, you know, what I did, it was wrong, I get punished for that, because the state turns around and says, We got you.” Added Theron: “Even if you feel this guilt, even if you want to empathize with this victim, you can’t tell the truth.”
People facing prosecution may choose to fight their cases for a variety of reasons, but the coercive nature of the system has a counterproductive impact on those who might genuinely wish to pursue a path of accountability and healing.
The experiences of Anthony and Theron highlight the tension between the penal system and atonement — for those who commit harm and those who are harmed. Indeed, our penal system is predicated on coercion and punishment. The activist Mariame Kaba underscored this dynamic when she noted that accountability cannot be coerced.
The men in my podcast group, along with untold others across the American penal system, eventually did try to come to terms with their pasts, and to seek a new direction. By their own account, this is not easy, particularly in a prison environment that both prizes violence and demeans the emotional vulnerability that personal change often requires. Another participant, Steve, noted that the prison world is laden with what he called toxic masculinity. When asked to elaborate on that term, he said, “Just trying to puff your chest out and trying to be somebody … it’s not willing to step back and admit any of your faults, not willing to say, Okay, I did that, my bad.” When I asked Steve what a less toxic masculinity might look like, he replied, “It’s just being more open to the other person’s side — being empathetic to what their needs are. You know if somebody is over there saying, Hey man, you really hurt my feelings with that, you say, My bad. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. That’s something a lot of people in here don’t know how to do.”
To try to attempt personal change is thus difficult because it requires one to buck the masculine codes that structure much of prison life. It also requires self-reflection about one’s past transgressions and the harm that resulted from them. This can be excruciating. “Examining them things is like legitimately painful,” Cameron explained. “You know, the fact that I feel like I’m a good person but I did all these bad things, you know, and trying to meld the two is a hard thing to go through. And my paradigm shift, it’s like it was painful. It was literally painful having those thoughts.”
This process, if painful, can also yield notable benefits. Each of the men uncovered a compassion that the masculinist culture of prison had previously suppressed. Terrence became an active mentor for those younger inmates who needed to be more self-reflective. Mahmoud began tutoring in the education wing. Steve recruited people to join him in the metal shop and the photography studio. All of them saw helping others as a key means by which they could atone.
And all of them spoke of the need to never forget their victims. They recognized the obligations they possessed because of their wrongdoing. Mahmoud used the metaphor of a spider web to characterize the consequences of his actions. “The community can be portrayed as something like a spider web,” he said. “And each connection between the members of the community constitutes a strand in that web. So when you hurt a person, you break that connection. And you have to re-connect, so to speak. So when you violate a trust, when you violate a person, when you violate a moral code, you are thereby obligated to make right. And if you’re really in touch with your humanity, that’s the conclusion that you’re going to reach — that what you did was wrong and you have to make right to the most degree possible.”
Mahmoud’s use of the spider web analogy, which echoes concepts of community accountability put forth by organizers, has meaning for those of us on the outside, as well. Although much of the public may wish to forget those who are warehoused in America’s carceral institutions, prisoners remain part of our wider social fabric. That means that the rest of us have obligations to them, including an obligation to recognize any work that they do to atone for their past mistakes.
Although much of the public may wish to forget those who are warehoused in America’s carceral institutions, prisoners remain part of our wider social fabric. That means that the rest of us have obligations to them, including an obligation to recognize any work that they do to atone for their past mistakes.
Linda Radzik, a moral philosopher at Texas A&M, has shown in her work that moral transgressions require the wrongdoer to atone, to repair the damage that they have created. But when a wrongdoer does perform acts of atonement, then that must be recognized as well. “If you have a moral obligation and I prevent you from fulfilling it, then I’ve blocked your being able to act the way a moral agent should,” she told me in one podcast episode. “I’ve limited you in a way that damages your moral character, your being a moral being. Our interest in being able to fulfill our obligations are the core of what it is to be a human being. So to limit someone from making amends is to do a serious type of wrong to them.”
In one of my conversations with him, Theron made much the same point: that the healing process suffers when efforts to atone for one’s wrongdoing are rebuffed or go unrecognized. “If we’re not received by the community that we’ve harmed and we’re genuinely trying to repair that harm and then we’re rejected by the community that we’re trying to get back into, it sets us back,” Theron said.
Sadly, the practice of American punishment makes it harder for prisoners to earn recognition for their transformations. And its punitiveness bears no meaningful relationship to where people might be on the spectrum of healing themselves or those around them. While any form of punishment should not necessarily be predicated on requiring accountability or transformation — indeed, coercion typically frustrates the goals of transformation — acknowledging the healing of those who have chosen that path is vital. Parole in most states was made harder to attain in the raft of legislation that created mass incarceration, in part through the widespread adoption of fixed sentences. And the grant of clemency has become harder still. Particularly for those convicted of violent crimes, the certainty of a long sentence provides them no opportunity to share their transformations with their communities.
As you might imagine, Mahmoud wishes the wider world knew of his and others’ dedication to making amends. “We’re sitting here knowing that the people that we hurt are mad and upset and hurt and they think that we’re never gonna change and they think that we’re just bad people and they think that there’s nothing good that can come out of us,” Mahmoud said. “That’s not the reality, that’s not the truth. We might have done something wrong in our life but that does not reflect who we are as a person. That’s been a long time ago and most of us have made changes, but they don’t know that. Like if they look up any of our names, none of the things that we have accomplished are going to be mentioned. The only thing that’s going to be mentioned is the most negative thing about us, you know.”
A key component of efforts to end mass incarceration lies with the need to acknowledge the stories of transformation that are being written in the daily actions of thousands of those behind bars.
A key component of efforts to end mass incarceration lies with the need to acknowledge the stories of transformation that are being written in the daily actions of thousands of those behind bars. It is impossible to know just how many prisoners are working to make amends, but that number is surely large enough to prompt, at the very least, reconsideration of the unyielding terms of confinement to which too many are condemned. More broadly, it would benefit us all to engage in meaningful inquiry into the relationship of our penal system to true healing and restoration, and into how to create broader societal change that maximizes human potential and promotes genuine safety in our communities. The process of making amends demands recognition of the types of transformations that are occurring in American prisons. And it should inspire our collective imagination to generate the types of systemic change that can genuinely reduce harms for everyone. When we don’t allow space for journeys toward genuine atonement, let alone recognize them, we all lose.
Image: Simeon Jacobson/Unsplash