Jesse Wiese knows from firsthand experience what life is like behind bars—and what it takes to reenter society. He served seven-and-a-half years in prison for robbery before joining the organization Prison Fellowship and later graduating from law school.
Today, he is vice president of program design and evaluation at Prison Fellowship, where he oversees the Good Citizenship Model, a new approach that makes human flourishing the goal after serving time in prison.
Wiese joined “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the steps policymakers can take to improve America’s prisons and reduce the recidivism that’s contributing to today’s crime problems. Listen to the interview or read a lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: With crime and violence dominating the headlines and impacting several political campaigns, are we paying enough attention to the role of repeat offenders and the failures of prisons?
Jesse Wiese: You’re right. I mean, there’s a lot of conversation going on in this country around violent crime. Who we send to prison, how long we send them to prison, and … what happens to people once we send them to prison is one of the conversations that I really like to talk about the most because it’s one of the conversations that isn’t discussed the most.
I think in this country, we have an assumption that once a person goes to prison, they are going to come back out as a better person, or we just have a tendency of “out of sight, out of mind” approach. And that’s not how reality works.
I spent about eight years incarcerated myself. When I was in the prison system, there are very few hands reaching up to help you when you’re in the prison system, and I was fortunate enough to find them.
But as we see the conversations around this, political campaigns, a kind of a regression in my mind as we kind of go back to the ’90s tough-on-crime era, I think the conversation needs to really be shifting toward what happens in our prisons and how can we leverage our prison systems to increase public safety?
Bluey: How much of a factor is recidivism in the current crime wave affecting American cities?
Wiese: That’s a really good question. I think that when we think about how we measure the success of an organization or of an agency or of an institution, there are a lot of factors that come into play, a lot of data points that we consider.
When we look at the prison system or the criminal justice system as a whole in the United States, the only metric that we have to measure its success is a recidivism rate, which is essentially a failure rate. It’s a rate of return—that people who walk out of the system, that they come back. We define recidivism in multiple different ways, depending on what state you’re in. Essentially, it’s a three-year rate of return just for purposes of this conversation.
Basically, what is a failure rate becomes our success rate. I think that that is unfortunate at best. I actually think it perpetuates the problem that we have because ultimately, you get what you measure. You get the results that you’re measuring for.
As we look at the criminal justice system, I think we want more for people that are going into the system than to simply just not return. … We have a reductionist approach when it comes to the criminal justice system in the United States, meaning that we want people to reduce negative behaviors. We want them to stop being antisocial. In essence, we just want them to be better.
Just sending somebody into a prison setting and just expecting that something good is going to happen, that counters every kind of rule and law that we know that exists.
I mean, everything deteriorates without some intentionality. When we send people into the prison system, we have to be very intentional. We should be intentional about what happens in that system, inside the prison system, that can … contribute to them coming back to the system for sure.
But I think the question is, is not why do people commit crime, but I think the question is, why don’t people commit crime and start using that as a metric in this country versus just looking at a failure rate?
Bluey: Thank you for sharing that. According to a recent Fox News commentary that you wrote, you cited statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which showed that 62% of people released from state prisons are rearrested within three years. Certainly something that we need to consider and a reason for us to take a hard look at this. Before we go on, I’d like you to share more about your own experience and how your life was changed by serving time in prison.
Wiese: Yes, certainly. I kind of come from middle class. I grew up in suburbia and grew up going to private Christian schools, getting the best education that you could. But by the time I was 18, I really found myself wrestling with the wise of life.
I had this existential angst trying to figure out what kept me on the spinning globe and where was order and chaos and really went through this existential crisis, which ultimately led me to robbing a bank when I was 21 years old with a loaded .38 pistol.
Really looking at the values that I held to at that time were very, obviously, self-centered, I didn’t have a sense of community or responsibility to the community that I lived in or even valuing myself.
I had a duty. Is that related to living with other people?
Ultimately, when you see the outside of a prison, it’s not a very aesthetic setting. Ultimately, I think that really represented my internal condition, if you look at the outside of a prison.
I found myself kind of meandering through the prison system. I’d never been in the criminal justice system before. I spent about eight months in a jail setting, waiting to be sentenced. Was ultimately sentenced to 15 years in the state of Iowa and kind of found myself just meandering through the prison system with no hope, really no purpose or forward trajectory in my life.
But I came across one of those hands that was reaching up, which are very few and hard to find, and I was fortunate to find several. One of those hands being Prison Fellowship, which is the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners and their families in this country, and got involved with the academy program at the time and just radically changed my life in the sense of it provided me an opportunity to live with a group of men who were trying to change their life and wanting to do the “right thing.” Prison Fellowship staff provided the support necessary to help us move in that direction.
I finally came to the realization that there was a God and it wasn’t me, and that just led me down a longer trajectory of change. But ultimately, I found myself trying to help people versus just trying to serve myself.
I left prison with a belief that I could contribute at the level that I was designed and with the potential that I had been given and that I could serve my community at that level. I refused to be relegated to the margins with a felony record.
Obviously, the act that I had committed was a serious one and I deserved to be punished for that. But when I left, I really wanted to leave all of that behind and really pursue a future and a hope that had meaning and had impact for other people.
I left the prison system when I was 29 years old. Spent the majority of my 20s inside. I remember studying for the law school admission test on my prison bunk, thinking I’ll run for governor one day. I just left with that kind of tenacity, but most people don’t leave prison with that tenacity.
The reason why I think that I did was because I was in a culture that encouraged, that saw the potential that I had and nurtured that potential. And then I actually believed it, which is a very dangerous thing.
I left the prison system. Ultimately, it took me about 10 years to become a lawyer, but I eventually did become one.
I guess in reflecting on that entire time in prison, I just think that it has formed my belief that prison culture matters. Prisons are a program in and of themselves. If we just send people to prison without actually understanding and setting certain metrics for our prison system in the United States, we’re going to continue to see people return to prison, and we’re going to continue to see the headlines that we see now around an uptick in crime.
Bluey: First of all, thank you for serving as a role model. I think your experience certainly, in many cases, I hope motivates others to take steps along the lines of what you were able to do and to lead a better life after serving time in prison.
I mentioned in the introduction the Good Citizenship Model, and I know that Prison Fellowship has many people who are doing some great work to help individuals after they serve their time. Can you tell us more about that example and the human flourishing aspect that you yourself are trying to live and you hope others will as well?
Wiese: The Good Citizenship Model is really just a new lens for looking at change in the prison system. It’s really asserting that prison culture is a catalyst for the outcomes that we want to see.
If we want to measure recidivism, well, prison culture—and what I mean by prison culture, we think about organizational culture. Current prison culture is very toxic. For example, if I’m in prison, there is a general rule that you don’t talk to people who work in corrections or correctional officers. There is a general rule that if you do, you’re going to be either targeted as a snitch or it’s going to put you in potential danger. There is no communication, no open communication. There is no trust.
Other examples of current prison culture are you don’t shake hands. You don’t look people in the eye. You don’t talk to people that you don’t associate with or who you don’t know. If you do any of those things, you’re actually putting yourself in physical danger.
And if we think about applying those same kind of cultural norms outside of the prison context, we can see how it would not quite—you’re not going to move forward in your life as you would hope. In order for you to actually be successful, you need to look people in the eye, shake hands. You need to be able to act in a prosocial way.
Unfortunately, these fundamental norms that exist inside of a prison cultural setting, they do not assist in a person’s success on the outside. If you think about someone who spent, like myself, 10 years living in that kind of culture, and then all of a sudden the prison gate opens and you’re going to walk out, and I think we have this concept that some kind of magical fairy dust gets sprinkled on a person, and all of a sudden they’re going to leave all those cultural norms behind.
I’ve visited hundreds of prisons since I’ve been out of prison. I tell people every time I go, “If you act like you’re allowed to act inside prison outside of prison, there’s only one place you’re going to go, and that’s back in prison, because that’s the only place in this country you’re able to act that way and not have any consequences.”
The Good Citizenship Model is really just asking two essential questions. No. 1 is, the people that we’re sending into prison, are they being equipped with the values to be good citizens and to flourish in life?
It’s not just about a reduction of these negative attributes, but it is a replacing of those negative attributes with what we call the values of good citizenship, which are values like community, affirmation, productivity, responsibility, restoration, and integrity. These types of values that we all know and believe as Americans that are good values. If we live by those values, we’ll be a “good citizen, a good neighbor.”
We also believe that if people who practice those values, they’re more likely to thrive or flourish in life, which is what we want to see out of the criminal justice system. We don’t want to just see people not returning to prison.
Because I can tell you countless stories of people who have left the criminal justice system, left the prison system, never came back and are still on drugs, are homeless. They’re not paying taxes. They’re not contributing to society. They are still detracting and they’re still taking from society.
We want people to be contributors. I mean, we already know that we lose billions of dollars in [gross domestic product] because we don’t allow people with a criminal record to actually manifest their potential. We already know that we’re stealing from ourselves, in essence, but we want to provide people the opportunity to flourish. And that needs to happen inside of prison, not just when they walk out.
If you spend any time inside prisons, you’re always going to hear people talking about what they’re going to do when they get out: “When I get out, I’m going to do this. When I get out, I’m going to do that.” I always tell people, “Well, what are you going to do tomorrow?” And that’s what we need to really start looking at and providing opportunities in our prison system for people to do something today in the system that is going to contribute to their enhancement or adoption of the values of good citizenship.
Bluey: I’m curious, follow-up question to that, how do old habits contribute to the recidivism problem in our country, such as returning to an old neighborhood, maybe reuniting with troublesome friends, things like that that may have happened that led them down this path? If they return to that environment, are they more likely to be repeat offenders or are there ways for them to overcome some of those habits?
Wiese: There are criminogenic risk factors. There’s eight of them, which are essentially factors that have been researched that show that if you reduce these factors, a person is less likely to come back into contact with a criminal justice system.
One of those factors is associations, so who they associate with. Obviously, if you show me your friends, I’ll show you your future. That is a categorical truth and it applies to people in prison, as well as it does to people outside of prison. But the truth is, for people coming out of the criminal justice system, the options are very limited.
But part of that reason is because the viewpoint that that person has is very limited because nobody has spent the time, energy, or effort to show them that there is a broader perspective and there are more options for them than what they think.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a young man. He was about to get out of prison. I was still in prison at the time. He shared with me, “Man, when I get out, I can’t wait. I’m about to get out. I’m going to go live with my mom.” I said, “Well, weren’t you and your mom cooking methamphetamine together?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, why would you go live with your mother?” “Because she’s my mom,” was his answer.
I felt bad for him because that’s all he knew. Nobody had spent the time and painted a bigger picture for him so that he could make better decisions.
Part of that has to happen inside the prison system when you create a culture that provides opportunities for you to be exposed to things that you’ve never been exposed to, which, the majority of the issues in prison is not necessarily reentry, they’re entry issues, which means most people in prison, we’ve never talked about what it means to be a good citizen to begin with and what opportunities that affords that individual in the accomplishment of their goals and just their overall human flourishing.
I’ve seen it time and time again that when you paint that picture and you provide that opportunity and you change the culture in an institution, it changes the trajectory of an individual and it does change their decisions, which in effect changes the trajectory of their life.
Bluey: I want to shift to public policy for a moment. A new poll out from NBC News gives Republicans a 45% to 22% advantage over Democrats in the issue of crime. As you know, there’s a lot of chatter on the campaign trail about this issue. What advice do you have for policymakers as they perhaps look for solutions either in Washington, D.C., or their state capitals?
Wiese: We’ve learned a lot from the 1990s. I know at Prison Fellowship, we are a mission-driven organization and we work across the aisle. I think what we tell our policy partners is that, let’s not be reactionary, let’s be responsive.
We have a tendency when it comes to crime to be reactionary, to just have a knee-jerk reaction, when we should sit down at the table and really have an in-depth conversation about what are the driving factors. There are a lot of reasons, a lot of variables as to why crime is up and there’s even more variables as to how we can adequately respond to that.
But one of the things that I will say is a constant conversation is something that we have not yet looked at, is, what is the culture of our prisons in the United States? How do we assess that culture? How do we rate that culture so that we know that when we send people, in essence, through the prison program, that that program is going to get good results? That is something that we can certainly start to do at the public policy level.
It’s something that we here at Prison Fellowship are designing a new prison culture assessment to assess the culture of our prisons so that we can then begin to shift and move prisons toward a conduit that we know once people kind of go through the front door and they go through the back door, the likelihood of them coming back in the front door is reduced.
Bluey: Finally, how can people get involved with Prison Fellowship either as a volunteer or to support your work?
Wiese: Yes. Please visit us at PrisonFellowship.org.
Bluey: Thank you so much for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast” and sharing your story and some of the solutions that you have as this issue clearly resonates with so many Americans and there’s concerns on the part of individuals about the crime in their own neighborhood. I think you’ve presented some ideas for us to consider here in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country when it comes to prisons and the reforms that are needed. Jesse, thanks so much for joining us.
Wiese: Thank you.