When he walked into my office, I was surprised to see how tall he was. He wore a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt, his hair slicked back in a ponytail. He had headphones on, and the music was loud enough that I could hear it – heavy metal, full blast. I had read his application that he had filled out in the waiting room, so I knew he was only 23 years old, that he had lived his whole life on the Tohono O’odham reservation until he went to prison at age 19, time served for possession with intent to sell. Yet these were the only things I gleaned from his application, because the lines under the questions I had crafted to get a sense of what I could help him with, What hobbies do you have? What were your favorite subjects in school? If you could describe an ideal Saturday, what would it be?, were filled in with just one word, over and over again: No. No. No.
I was only a few years older than he was, but his height and demeanor belied his young age. I asked him to remove his headphones, which he did, begrudgingly. What unfolded afterwards was, at the time, what I considered my first failure at my job. I had worked as a Mentoring Associate for over a year, matching volunteer mentors with individuals who had just been released from prison – some re-entering after a year, some after two decades. Yet after dozens of clients, he was the first I felt helpless about, the first I couldn’t imagine a positive future for. In contrast to him, most of the men and women I met in my office were excited. Our introductions came within 24 hours of their release, and they spent our first meetings revealing their enthusiasm about starting over, staying clean, changing for good this time. I supported this self-affirming ritual. As they explained their job prospects, the support of their sponsors, and their general optimism about starting anew, I responded with “What you did was in the past, you did your time. This felony isn’t your identity. It’s just an obstacle that you can overcome.”
But with him, the young man with the heavy metal music, there was none of this unbridled self-motivation. Monosyllabism was his forte, until I became frustrated enough that I finally broke my thus-strained professionalism.
I spewed, “Do you even want to do this program? It’s not required, you know.”
“I just want to go back to prison,” he said, his first multi-word sentence since his arrival.
Less than a day after he got out, this was what he wanted. He had no hopes of a better future in Tucson, no dreams about picking himself up by his bootstraps. He wanted back in. I asked him why, and silence filled the room. I shifted in my seat. I didn’t want to fill the pregnant pause with my motivational interviewing techniques. I only wanted to begin to understand.
Finally, he muttered, “I want to go back because I know people in there. I don’t know shit out here. I sat at the bus stop to come to this appointment and a lady didn’t want to sit next to me. I don’t want to be outside. People are mean to me out here.”
He picked up his earbuds and pressed play on his cd player, as if our time together was over. And it was. I let him go.