How to Break the Prison Cycle- PT. 1 with James Ackerman

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

It’s been estimated that a staggering 77% of inmates will be arrested for a new crime within five years of being released from prison. James Ackerman, CEO of Prison Fellowship, has found that through his program, the rate drops all the way down to 17%. In this episode of The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen speak with James about how his fellowship’s 4 pillars help to turn people’s lives around for good.


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Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. Here we teach you how to win the fight for your brain to defeat anxiety, depression, memory loss, ADHD, and addictions.

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Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome everybody. We have a very special podcast for you today. We have a new friend, James Ackerman, who is the CEO and president of Prison Fellowship, and James and I spent a good bit of time talking about what they do and I was so impressed that I just had to share with you.

Tana Amen: That's really interesting so welcome.

James Ackerman: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

Dr Daniel Amen: So, you've been the CEO and president of Prison Fellowship for 20 months?

James Ackerman: 20 months, yeah, and 12 years before that I became a volunteer with Prison Fellowship starting by counseling and mentoring men in prison and then later on teaching life skills to men coming up for parole consideration.

Tana Amen: Now, this was a big switch for you though, correct? You were like CEO, you were more in business and the entertainment industry, is that correct?

James Ackerman: Yeah, I've spent my entire career in the media and entertainment industry. But in 2004, my wife, Martha, sent our son and I on a father son retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains. At the time, I was the CEO of a publicly traded company called "Open TV" and as God would have at our cabin mates on that father son retreat were a guy named Dick Paulson and his son, Jeff, and Dick was the development director for Prison Fellowship on the west coast at the time. And I told him I was fascinated with their work in prison and the story of Chuck Colson and I said that I'd never made the time to go visit a prison. And he said "I can fix that." So, I went and saw a program, a Prison Fellowship program, intensive program they have in a prison in Iowa and I was just absolutely hooked.

Tana Amen: That's fascinating, really interesting.

Dr Daniel Amen: And Prison Fellowship was started, you told me, by Chuck Colson.

James Ackerman: It was. So, Chuck went to prison for a crime related to Watergate. He was Nixon's special counsel and while he was in, he became a Christian before he went to prison, but while he was in prison, he discovered that incarcerated men and women are amongst the most marginalized in society and he made the decision to start this organization after he got out and that was a 41 years ago.

Dr Daniel Amen: Wow and so, Prison Fellowship is, you said, in 27 states?

James Ackerman: So, Prison Fellowship actually has ministry in all 50 states but our most intensive program is something called "The Prison Fellowship Academy." We have 78 academies in 27 states today and it's our hope by 2026 to have academies in every single state in at least one men's and women's prison.

Dr Daniel Amen: And one of the statistics you told me just blew me away. So, recidivism, that means if you go to prison and get out what's the percentage of time you go back, is somewhere between 60 and 70 percent.

James Ackerman: That's right.

Tana Amen: And that's because you sort of learn the culture and the behavior, correct? And you lose hope in ever sort of being put that, working in a normal functioning society.

James Ackerman: Well, there's so many factors that contribute to recidivism but, to your point, recidivism is about two thirds of people who get out of prison will return to prison within a three to five year period.

Dr Daniel Amen: Except, people who go through your academy which is a year long.

James Ackerman: Yes.

Dr Daniel Amen: Remember? Year long in mastery for Brain Warrior's Way.

Tana Amen: We agree with that.

Dr Daniel Amen: Seventeen percent.

Tana Amen: That's amazing.

James Ackerman: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: Unbelievable difference. What are the components of the academy? What do people learn? And you said it's completely voluntary.

James Ackerman: It's completely voluntary. You apply to get into the academy. We accept people of any faith or no faith background at all into the academy but all of our curriculum is grounded in a biblical world view, right? And the primary goal of the academy is to address the criminogenic thinking and behavior of men and women in prison.

Dr Daniel Amen: So, I want to make sure everybody hears that because the first time I heard that, I'm like, what does that mean? Crime? Agenic? Criminigenic which means thinking that makes it more likely but not just thinking and we would also add brain health that makes it more likely for you to make decisions where you can't live at home anymore. Where you have to be incarcerated, right?

James Ackerman: Right. Exactly. And so, there are four pillars to the academy and they are, very quickly, unpacking the gospel to help you understand, we use a program called "Alpha" to do that. We want people to look at their lives differently, that God created you for a purpose, that he has a plan for your life, and God wants you to be able to live out your full potential. The second pillar of the academy is what I call the "addressing the first cousins of one's criminal history", which are things like anger management issues and addiction issues and so, we introduce celebrate recovery into all of our academies.

Tana Amen: We personally know a lot of people who have gone through celebrate recovery program.

Dr Daniel Amen: Celebrate recovery is a program developed by Saddleback Church that helps address addictions. But I love the term "first cousins" because for sure, at least in my mind, it's also head trauma, it's brain infections like lyme disease, it's post post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, that's never been diagnosed, it's people with bipolar disorder all of those things that are contributing to why people go to jail.

James Ackerman: And those first cousins are often the greatest contributor to recidivism as well. People get out of prison, go back to the old neighborhood, and start using the same drugs again. Right? Or haven't been trained or haven't dealt with anger management issues that they haven't treated.

Tana Amen: Exactly.

James Ackerman: Exactly. The third pillar is all about relationships. The majority of men in prison grew up in a household with no father or an unhealthy father figure and for women it's even worse. Over eighty percent of women have suffered abuse at the hands of a man. So, what healthy relationships look like and we unpack that with them. And the last is training folks in practical life skills. How do you manage money? How do you go about building a household budget? How do you go about looking for a job and all of those things? Again, the academies are, they begin by, you apply to get in, there's a graduation at the end. Eighty five percent of the graduates of a Prison Fellowship academy are due to get out of prison within the next 24 months. So, this was kind of the, the pre entry to a reentry program.

Tana Amen: So interesting. So, I love what you're doing. It takes a very special person to do what you're doing and to really see people differently, have that empathy, create a program to really help these people. As I'm listening to sort of the profile of what are some of the statistics of what creates this recidivism and actually what causes people to go to prison to begin with, that was sort of my life growing up. That was me. That was my profile and so for purposes of this podcast, we're not going to be able to cover why do some people go to prison, the wolves versus the sheepdog type of mentality, probably my mother, I don't know, but we're not going be able to get into all of that for today. But what I do want to ask you about, I love that you're working on the mindset of the people in prison. I have a question and it's based on a personal reasons. What do you do about the mindset of people in society about having more empathy in accepting people back in? Because that's part of the recidivism I would think.

James Ackerman: Yeah, you ask a very good question. So, last year in 2017, we worked with 60 other organizations who are as diverse as the Charles Koch Institute and the Heritage Foundation, from NAACP and ACLU to campaign with US Senate to declare April as Second Chance month and we were successful. But the declaration came through at the end of the month. So, this year we're going big with Second Chance month. Right as we speak, we have over 115 partners who are working with us to get the word out to give people a second chance. People who have paid their debt to society, who are prepared to live as productive citizens, give them an opportunity to do so. So, for example, you've heard about the Ban the Box initiative, which is not asking on an employment application if you have a felony conviction in your background. We ban the box, we don't ask people if they have a felony conviction. So, we give people an opportunity to get to the interview and then we'll have that conversation and figure it out. But if you can move from being represented on a piece of paper to getting that interview and hopefully have an opportunity to convince that employer that whatever was your problem that led to you going to prison in the first place is no longer your problem, then the employer can conclude it's not going to become my problem.

Tana Amen: Right. And it's not an easy thing to do.

James Ackerman: No.

Tana Amen: So, I know Daniel told you a little bit about when we worked with the Salvation Army. So, we did a big program where we volunteered to help the Salvation Army clean up their food and get the food really clean and this was their largest chemical addiction recovery program that they have and it was 185 beds. It was a great program and I wanted to help the leader of the group, I really did want to help her, but when she asked me to actually get hands on, roll up my sleeves, get involved down sort of at the granular level, and come work with the people that were court ordered to be there and they had some pretty serious crimes, I found myself suddenly not liking myself very much.

I had this just visceral reaction and I didn't even really understand why at first but then it was connected to my upbringing. It was connected to how I was raised, where I was raised, and it was not an easy life growing up And so, all of a sudden I found myself just like, I broke down in tears and I told Daniel, I'm like, I can't do it. There is no way I'm going to go face those people. I found myself being extremely judgmental and I didn't want to do it and I'm like God picked the wrong person this time and he looked at me with that look and he was just like God picked the perfect person. So, in the end, it ended up being very healing, probably more for me than it was for them and it was great for them. But how do people move past that? It's a really hard thing if you've got your own baggage. So, are there, I get maybe that's too much for this podcast, but we've got to get people to the point where they can work on their own issues to be able to accept people and trust that we can move past these because people are working on these issues. We've got to be able get them to where we can connect to them.

James Ackerman: Look, we've all made mistakes, right? Not all of our mistakes have led to us going to prison. Some of our mistakes should have led to us going to prison but didn't get caught. So, I think we can and we should be more empathetic to those who went to prison and when you consider behind that that there is abuse that led to this one becoming an addict that led to her stealing from people that led to her going to prison, it should lead to some sympathy and understanding that if we address those things and we work with her in prison to help her overcome those things, to help her heal from those hurts in the past, then we're going to help make a more productive citizen.

Dr Daniel Amen: So, easy to blame, easy to judge. The imaging work we do just completely changed my mind. So, growing up I actually had no opinion of the death penalty. I just really hadn't thought about it, I grew up Roman Catholic and they were against it, but when I started our imaging work in 1991, pretty soon attorneys started to hear about it and so they'd send us people who did really bad things and their brains were so awful that I began to really question is it the sign of an evolved society to kill sick people because clearly their brains were damaged and it wasn't popular at all because I grew up in a household where my dad would basically say, kill the bastard, he did something bad. Because the easy thing is to judge people as bad.

Tana Amen: Especially if you've been hurt.

Dr Daniel Amen: The harder thing is to go, why and can I fix it or can I influence and what would Jesus do? You know, because growing up and always being a Christian my whole life, well, what would Jesus do? Would Jesus go visit them in prison? Would Jesus heal them in prison so that they could have a more productive life? The answer is yes and so who am I to judge? I think it says don't judge [inaudible 00:14:10] in the Bible. Who am I to judge and why can't I be more useful?

Tana Amen: You know, one thing, I had a huge epiphany when I was working with the Salvation Army and I had a couple of these pretty hard criminals come running up to me with their big pants, they had lost all this weight. One of them passed his GED after failing three times. They were just so grateful. Their energy, their brain fog cleared up, and just massive gratitude. And so, they were coming up and they were running up to me and I'm like, at first, I was like, it was weird for me and then all of a sudden after enough time of working with them and hearing their stories, I'm listening to their stories and I'm like, that story is not that different than mine. That story is not that different than mine, wait a second, I'm so confused. Do you know what I mean?

And so all of a sudden my epiphany, the thing that came to me and the thing that helped me sort of turn it around and I can't tell you, I never had those thoughts, I'd be lying. I do, but what I think about when I have those thoughts, what came to me in that moment and what softened my heart at that time, my story's not different than theirs. And then for every person that I was able to help, even though what I was doing wasn't that much, it's not like what you're doing. But that small thing that I was able to do for any one of them was one less scared little girl or little boy. It's just, but you've got to start there.

James Ackerman: Yeah, you've got to start there and that, for me, was the epiphany I had when I went to prison for the first time. I met people who are people and they need to be loved as people. There's a reason why, going back to quoting Matthew, Jesus called us to visit the imprisoned. They're people and their lives matter and investing in their lives. Some people get it together or don't go down that really horrible path. Some people go down a different path and it takes them into addiction, homelessness, imprisonment, whatever it is and so. And that's what you experienced through the Salvation Army program in which you worked. But any of us could have ended up in that.

Tana Amen: Well, people in my family did.

James Ackerman: Yeah.

Dr Daniel Amen: When we come back, we're going to talk about forgiveness and how that might apply to the conversation we're having. Stay with this.