Dispatch #2: Letting Go…

By Tobin Shelton, Project NIA Intern

I am working to let go of some of my work at the jail in Colorado. I had a strong moment in a class at UIC when I shared an example of “client resistance.”  A young man I had worked with for twenty months was nearing his release date. We had gotten very close and he was compassionate and demonstrated the capacity for change. Shortly before his release he got in a fight, additional charges were pressed and his sentence was extended. I broke down in class at the thought that my work with him might have contributed to his decision to fight. The instructor of my class at UIC mentioned that we, as social workers, must be careful how our enthusiasm puts pressure on others…

Alas, holding on to the possibility that my enthusiasm for a new era of his life in some way triggered his resistance to reentry is neither a healthy nor productive process. I cannot be sure why he acted out. Whatever his choice, the degree to which I am implicated in his behavior and the outcome thereof, cannot define my current reality. I would like to think that his behavior was not a deliberate choice to prolong his incarceration-that he was protecting himself from harm…actually I don’t know which is more (un)settling.

Working with a human being in a jail can be incredibly intense. I will always represent the creator of a system that acts to marginalize and punish those whose behavior rubs the hegemonic monster in the wrong way. No matter my attempt to change the normative practice of justice on an interpersonal level, to empower within a jail is to enter an insuperable building with the hope to disrupt the very systems that laid the bricks (both ideological and physical). It is a daunting and frustrating process; I have yet to topple any walls though I believe the mortar is weakening.

Is it in my best interest to enervate the edifice that pretends to protect me and mine from harm? I cannot conceive of myself in this way. Instead, I must picture my work to bring compassion to the system as a robust heart pounding from within those f#%ing walls-expanding and swelling with self-worth, on the eve of redefining what it means to rehabilitate.


One comment

  1. “Daunting and frustrating”—pretty much says it all. Until something clicks—something works—and a life is changed. We see a lot of people making the “same choices”—but I truly believe “the mortar is weakening.” I’ve seen your compassion for this work, Tobin. The rippling effect of your demeanor and genuine concern—is deeply valued. Even though the walls may not come tumbling down—the very fact that people like you show up—is a much needed component for a systems change.
    Trust in your strength and vision, Tobin. I certainly do.

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