In the final episode of a series with Prison Fellowship CEO, James Ackerman shares some of the life lessons he’s learned from rehabilitating inmates and changing lives, such as understanding the context of criminals’ lives.
Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Doctor Daniel Amen.
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Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome back. We continue our series with James Ackerman, CEO and president of Prison Fellowship. We've talked about forgiveness, we've talked about the amazing work you guys are doing. What I wanted to do with this podcast was talk about the major lessons you've learned since you've been involved in Prison Fellowship. I mean, you were in the entertainment industry and had done a lot of high-level stuff. But, this grabbed your heart and has kept it.
James Ackerman: Yeah. What really grabbed my heart was the first time I went to prison with a Prison Fellowship staffer, and realized that these are people. And, they are worthy of our love and our support and our mentorship. And that was really the first lesson for me. And I came out of that prison that day realizing that I can't wait to go back. I can't wait to commit myself to this work.
Tana Amen: Interesting.
James Ackerman: And some of us have a passion for the homeless, some of us have a passion for vet, some of us have a passion for women who have been abused. Different people end up having different passions, but the one that the Lord put on my heart was to serve the needs of incarcerated men and women and their families. There's so many things I think I've learned along the way about how people in prison are perceived, and also how people in prison think, and understanding how to speak into that, and how it really helps as a practicing Christian to apply the Bible and a biblical worldview to the thinking of men and women in prison.
'Cause a lot of people out on the street think that life is about getting what's due to me. And backing up my tribe, if you will. And that tribe could often be a gang. And it's, for men in particular, that gang is where I find identity, right? But, if you apply a biblical perspective on it, which is that you're here because God has a plan for your life and a purpose, and are you prepared to step into that plan and purpose? And those who are end up doing great and tremendous things.
I guess one of the other things I've learned is, I've learned, or I've had the opportunity to see, real transformation. Remember, I was talking about the academy in the first podcast that we did, and I said, our oldest academy is in Texas. It's outside of Houston. That academy's been there for 21 years. The person who leads that academy ... Literally, the program director of that academy is a graduate of it.
Tana Amen: Oh, wow.
James Ackerman: Right? So, he went down for 15 years, eventually had a radical transformation in Christ in prison, applied to go to this academy, was approved by the parole board to go to the academy, they shipped him to that unit, he went through it, he graduated it, got out, got a degree in biblical counseling, and four years after he got of prison came back as a mentor and counselor.
Tana Amen: Amazing.
James Ackerman: And eventually landed a job and rose the ranks of that academy to becoming the program director. How crazy is that?
Dr Daniel Amen: So many people, when they do something that they're ashamed of, kill themselves, because they don't see another way.
James Ackerman: Right.
Dr Daniel Amen: And, suicide often occurs when you feel like you have no options.
James Ackerman: Right. And that's true for a lot of people who find themselves in prison, particularly as it relates to taking a life. And particularly if the taking of the life was not intentional. So, we have another person on staff who was involved in a car accident when he was raging drunk.
Tana Amen: Oh, God.
James Ackerman: And killed a 17-year-old girl. And he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was so drunk, he walked away from the car accident not realizing he had been in a car accident.
James Ackerman: And he was thrown into jail, and the first thing going through his mind is, how do I just end my life? How do I just bring this to an end? How can I possibly ever come back from this?
Dr Daniel Amen: And how did he come back?
James Ackerman: He became a model citizen in prison, started working in the rehab center, poured himself into his faith, poured himself into addiction recovery, got a mentor, and became the man he was always supposed to be. And, his mentor was so great that his mentor, when he got released seven-and-a-half years into his sentence, was standing outside the prison gate with a brand new suit.
James Ackerman: And took him to a church, where they'd put up a banner and said, welcome home Joe.
Tana Amen: That's amazing.
James Ackerman: His name's Joe [Ablo 00:06:08]. He's a wonderful guy.
Tana Amen: Yeah, that kind of pain will keep you from hopefully ever making that ... anything like that, and reaching out to other people to prevent them from making a mistake.
James Ackerman: And his wife, who I met the other night, stayed with him through the whole process, and they've been together for a long time now. And they've got adult children, they have grandchildren now. He's a wonderful guy, but he's got this incredible narrative.
Tana Amen: Oh yeah, his story is powerful.
James Ackerman: 25% of our field staff at Prison Fellowship spent time in prison.
James Ackerman: And they're highly effective people, right? Because they walk with incredible authority.
Tana Amen: Of course, because they've been there. Right, they've been there. Wow.
Dr Daniel Amen: So, if you just think of ... It's the Pharisees that wanted to judge this one woman who wasn't doing the right thing, and Jesus said, "You are without sin. Cross this line."
James Ackerman: Drew a line in the sand. Right? Or, throw the first stone.
Dr Daniel Amen: Throw the first stone.
James Ackerman: That's right. Yeah.
Dr Daniel Amen: And it's like, all of us have failed.
James Ackerman: Of course.
Dr Daniel Amen: And what I liked what you said in the last podcast, and I'd been thinking about it, is how many people listening to this podcast have driven drunk?
James Ackerman: Oh, yeah.
Dr Daniel Amen: And got away with it.
James Ackerman: Oh, sure.
Dr Daniel Amen: Or, you were so tired that you almost fell asleep on the road.
Tana Amen: Working nights is worse.
Dr Daniel Amen: But, you haven't killed anybody. And, it's by chance, in a way.
Dr Daniel Amen: Right? That it just helps you have more empathy when things go wrong. And you also said ... One of the things I've learned is, you have to understand the context of a person's life. We were talking before the podcast that, when we evaluate people here at Amen Clinics, we always of four circles. What's the biology? So, head trauma's huge in prison. I know it is. The studies are almost 50% of people in prison had a significant brain injury some point in their life. Among the homeless ... And they did a study in Toronto. 58% of the homeless men in Toronto had a significant brain injury before they were homeless. 42% of the homeless women. So, it's massive, but nobody thinks about it. But, there are also psychological factors. Growing up without a dad, growing up in poverty, growing up ...
James Ackerman: Addicted.
Dr Daniel Amen: Witnessing trouble. There's social factors, who you hang out with. I just had a conversation with the mother of a patient of mine, and she's gonna, against the girl's will, put her into a really good school, and I said, look ... I said, when kids become teenagers, their friends are more important than their parents. So, your job is to manage who they hang out with. So, social is critical. But then, also spiritual. Is why are you on the planet your deepest sense of meaning and purpose? We love a teacher. Her name is Byron Katie. She wrote a wonderful book called "Loving What Is." It's so powerful. And she has the brain of a murderer. I scanned her. But she's not. She's the most peaceful person on the planet, because she realized [inaudible 00:09:32] she believed her thought she suffered. And when she didn't believe her thought, she didn't suffer and really had what I think was a spiritual awakening for her. So, understanding all four of those circles, and then working, which is what the academy program really does, is powerful.
James Ackerman: Right. And, who among us, if a close relative or one of our children came to us and said, I've really been down a bad path but I want to get onto the right path, wouldn't walk with that person to do that? Right? Well, we're surrounded by people who want to make the right choice, want to head down the right path. And whether they're in a program with the Salvation Army, or they're in a program with Prison Fellowship, it's important that we walk shoulder to shoulder with them. The apostle Paul says in the Book of Romans, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." So, we're all in the same place. Chuck Colson used to say, "The ground is level at the foot of the cross." Irrespective of how wealthy you are, or how poor you are, or what your background is, or whether you're educated or not educated, in Jesus's eye, we're all the same thing. So, God looks to us to be heaven on earth. To invest in each other's lives, and to do His good thing. His good work.
Tana Amen: It's interesting. When you grow up with a background like mine, it's easy to become a little bit jaded and judgemental. Like I said, you have these breakthroughs like with the Salvation Army. And, starting to see the scans really messed with my head.
Dr Daniel Amen: Literally.
Tana Amen: Really messed with my head. 'Cause you ... You feel sort of justified in being judgmental and angry about ... No, that person should pay a price. Then, that's how you feel, and you've decided what you're going to believe.
Dr Daniel Amen: Oh, one of our biggest fights was ... I was on Larry King.
Tana Amen: Oh, I was so angry. When I realized he used me-
Dr Daniel Amen: And to go from here to LA-
Tana Amen: He used me for the carpool [inaudible 00:11:35].
Dr Daniel Amen: You need somebody to go with you. And I love spending time with my wife.
Tana Amen: But, when I realized he was gonna go give this guy who had done a really bad thing an excuse, I lost my mind. So, I'm in the car, all the way there, like ...
James Ackerman: Expanding his ear.
Tana Amen: I was so angry.
Dr Daniel Amen: It was so painful. And I'm ... 'Cause I was on Larry King. [inaudible 00:11:59]
James Ackerman: Don't you have one of those medical dummies that you can put in the car [inaudible 00:12:01]?
Dr Daniel Amen: That day, I wanted one.
Tana Amen: It was a 15-year-old girl that had been brutally hurt. But, anyways ...
Dr Daniel Amen: And it's never to give them an excuse. Because there's still responsibility. It's to help understand why people ... Like, I am so sad by what happened with the school shooter in Florida recently, and we failed him. He cried out.
Tana Amen: Repeatedly. Repeatedly.
Dr Daniel Amen: The FBI knew. Social services knew.
Tana Amen: He tried repeatedly.
Dr Daniel Amen: The local police department knew. And people go, oh, well more mental health services. He had a lot of mental health services.
Tana Amen: They failed.
Dr Daniel Amen: It's not more of the same. If you do more of the same, we'll get more of what we have, which is an ineffective system that ... If we would have scanned him, he would have fallen in love with his brain. And then, he would have been more compliant with treatment, because ... Not that he was defective, but he could have a better brain. So, when I told my dad in 1980 I was gonna be a psychiatrist ... I was a third-year medical student. He asked me why I didn't want to be a real doctor. Why I wanted to be a nut doctor and hang out with nuts all day long.
Tana Amen: Well, I almost canceled my first date with you when I found out you were a psychiatrist.
Dr Daniel Amen: Right? Nobody wants to see a psychiatrist. No one wants to be labeled as defective, or abnormal, or crazy. But, everybody wants a better brain. So, what if mental health is really brain health? And that, I think, is just such an important shift.
Tana Amen: So, what I was getting at about seeing the scans, when you have somebody who's very set in how they believe what they think they believe about something. But, you begin to see ... I think you described it perfectly, 'cause when I would see the scans of someone who had done something who, in my mind, it's like ... throw away the key. But, all of a sudden, you realize, wait a second, that person was abused, they had a toxic-looking brain, they had a brain injury. And you start stacking it all, and you see the scan, and you're like ... ew. There's this icky feeling. And then, they do something really awful and, yeah, they did something awful. That is a fact. And there is responsibility there.
Tana Amen: But, you do start to have this feeling like, well, how fair is it that no one looked? That there was no treatment.
Dr Daniel Amen: I have so many stories.
Tana Amen: It started to mess with my head.
Dr Daniel Amen: Do you remember the story of Jose's ... 16-year-old boy who confronts Dylan, who's wearing a red sweater. It's in Healdsburg in Northern California.
James Ackerman: Which is a nice town.
Dr Daniel Amen: He had been hotboxing.
James Ackerman: What's that?
Dr Daniel Amen: Which is, you get into a car, you roll up all the windows, and everybody smokes pot.
James Ackerman: Oh, wow.
Dr Daniel Amen: So, you really elevate the level of TAC in your system.
James Ackerman: Toxicity.
Dr Daniel Amen: And so, he's completely stoned. And gets out of the car.
James Ackerman: Hotboxing. Thankfully, I don't know what this is.
Dr Daniel Amen: Confronts the kid in the red sweater and says, what color do you claim? And he says, I don't claim any color. It was actually the color Jose claimed. So, it's not like he's [inaudible 00:15:25]. And he goes, wrong answer, and beats him nearly to death. He was in a coma for three weeks. Was awful. Made the news all around the bay area. And the defense attorney called me, because they said, we have tested Jose, and he's got cognitive problems. And when I scanned him, his brain had three very clear problems. He had very low frontal lobe function, so judgment was [inaudible 00:15:52]. So, imagine that on pot. His cingulate gyrus, that's the brain's gear shifter, was dramatically overactive, so when he started beating him, he couldn't stop. And his temporal lobes were damaged, and that often goes with aggression.
And so, he's got this really bad, troubled brain. But then, I learned the story of his life. That he actually wasn't named for a month 'cause his dad was in jail. His first memory, he's three. His dad throws a brick through a plate glass window. And so, he's around violent people. When he's eight, his mother is murdered, and he can't stop crying. So, he went to live with his dad. And his dad said, if you stop crying, your mother will be here in the morning.
Dr Daniel Amen: Well obviously, she wasn't. So, he can't trust. He's got loss after loss. He had three significant brain injuries. And, when I brought all of this in court, I got death threats on my answering machine for helping a bad person. And, they wanted to send him away for 25 years. They ended up sending him away for 11, to a place where he could get-
James Ackerman: Get treatment.
Dr Daniel Amen: Treatment. 'Cause he also had a brain that was mendable. And, if you don't look, you don't know. But, almost immediately from looking, I started having empathy.
Tana Amen: And here's the other question.
Dr Daniel Amen: Now, Dylan's brain is damaged, and he did it. Right? And there are people that have bad brains that never do anything bad. So, there's got to be responsibility.
Dr Daniel Amen: But, don't we want to rehabilitate Jose's brain so, after 11 years, he doesn't redo that.
Tana Amen: Here's something coming from the person who used to say, give them the harshest ... whatever. If they give this guy 25 years, what happens when he gets out in 10 or 12, but he's been in really bad conditions? He's not going away forever. So, we need to be thinking about that. This is coming from someone who-
Dr Daniel Amen: 'Cause almost everybody gets out.
James Ackerman: 90% of people who go away to prison will return to society.
Tana Amen: Right. So, coming from the person who believes in-
James Ackerman: This year alone, nearly 700,000 people are returning to our neighborhoods.
Tana Amen: Right. So, coming from the person who is ... who has always believed in ...
Dr Daniel Amen: Justice.
Tana Amen: Justice. That is an issue we have to take into ... Even if you're going to give them whatever punishment, or whatever it is that they deserve, we have to be thinking rehabilitation. So, your program makes more sense than ever, because they're coming out. So, we don't want them coming out with more damage.
James Ackerman: At Prison Fellowship, we believe in a restorative approach to criminal justice.
Tana Amen: Right.
James Ackerman: Look. They've been punished. The judge did his or her job, and sentenced this person to a certain punishment. But, the moment they enter the criminal justice system, let's put them on a path to rehabilitation so we're returning to society healthier and more productive citizens.
Tana Amen: This I very much agree with. Because these guys are, like you said, coming back to our neighborhoods.
Dr Daniel Amen: But yet, when we punish them, we feed them terrible food, they're chronically stressed ...
Tana Amen: Beat up.
Dr Daniel Amen: They're afraid. And, they're not sleeping well. It's not an environment that is rehabilitating the brain.
Tana Amen: Constantly worried about being ...
Dr Daniel Amen: In fact, it's hurting the brain. Which is ... Even though I'm not a fan of pot, I'm a complete fan of legalizing it, because please don't put them in jail where you sleep deprive them, chronically stress them, let them hang out with people who do bad things, and expect something good is gonna come from that. Portugal's got a great system where they actually legalize it, but then they teach kids why this is a bad things, because-
Tana Amen: Yeah, but we don't do a good job of that. So, you can't use the "we" in that we believe it should be legal.
Dr Daniel Amen: Well, we have a poster. I should give you our poster.
Tana Amen: 'Cause we don't believe.
Dr Daniel Amen: Hangs in about 100,000 schools, prisons, drug treatment programs, churches around the world. It's called "Which Brain Do You Want." Healthy scans surrounded by drug-affected scans. Which brain do you want? How can people learn more?
James Ackerman: Go to prisonfellowship.org. You can learn about how you can become a volunteer in all manner of areas of our work. And also, if you're so led, donate to our work. We're supported by individuals, foundations, and corporations. We don't take a dollar from government. And so, we're dependent upon you to support our work.
Dr Daniel Amen: Prisonfellowship.org. Check it out. Thanks so much.
James Ackerman: Thank you so much.
Tana Amen: Thank you so much.
James Ackerman: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it, thank you. It's been great.