To Vick or Not to Vick?

I wrote this a few years back and it seems appropriate to share again in light of the hub bub surrounding Vick in NY/NJ right now:

In an earlier post, I ranted about the Michael Vick “haters” who refused to allow the man to try to change, even likening the situation to Dee Snider’s social manifesto by way of sadistic horror flick, Strangeland. Several people mentioned to me that they’d like to read more on my take of the situation as my personal experiences in my career and life may lend themselves to interesting insights. I’m not sure how interesting my take is, but on the week where the former “Ron Mexico” graces the cover of Sports Illustrated I will humbly oblige. As someone who makes their living in the prison rehabilitation business, I’m sure my take on the situation is both informed and framed differently than that of the masses.

I will begin with Dee Snider’s incredible and disturbing film to illustrate how we as society often refuse to allow for redemption. For those unfamiliar with the story, a sick and twisted sex offender is put in jail. This pervert genuinely works to rehabilitate himself and reshape his life. His remorse and fear of the consequences guide him to become a changed man and upon his release, he is truly reformed and rehabilitated. Soon after his release, he is tormented and tortured for his past by the people in his community. Only so much ridicule and finger pointing can continue before a man hits his breaking point; after some time, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the man reverts to his disturbed and disturbing former self.

Admittedly, the Michael Vick scenario is a different situation, however those in society that refuse to allow the man to try and change are doing their part to bring out the old Michael. Thankfully, as this time it doesn’t seem like Vick’s old self is interested in emerging, but that doesn’t stop the angry mobs from trying to raise the dog killer and immature punk from his grave.

I guess, as they say, “haters gonna hate”.

However, I want to assert that people do change. I cannot attest to Michael Vick’s transformation, but I can attest to what I’ve seen working in the prison system, halfway houses, and in the administrative side of prison treatment programming. Having worked in several related avenues (those aforementioned), I have seen what treatment programs, impactful relationships, and the removal of freedoms can do to a man in prison.

Let’s look specifically at treatment programs, both what they are and what they’re not. Treatment programs in jails and community corrections are not reprogramming; as facilitator’s of correctional programming, we are not entering men (and women) into A Clockwork Orange-esque treatment where we try to force change. Rather, the appropriate analogy is that of a tool belt or toolbox, where we train offenders how to use certain tools and it is their choice as to whether or not to use them. Programs country wide tend to be rooted in cognitive behavioral theories, where teaching offenders to change the way they think about situations will inevitably change the way they behave. Afterall, our thinking controls our behavior.

To the best of my knowledge and research, Michael Vick was in cognitive behavioral based programs focusing primarily on drug and alcohol issues. As an immature young man, Vick routinely used alcohol and drugs for recreation. While the major issue behind the drugs and alcohol may have differed from a typical addict’s, the treatment he received in jail likely was aimed at his faulty thinking that was at the root of his issues. Whether it be his excessive drinking, his marijuana use, or his funding of a dog fighting ring, it seems likely that at the root of it all was the thinking that he was untouchable, or at least entitled. The treatment programs that he participated in undoubtedly focused on this and other cognitive distortions (thinking errors) that guided his poor decisions.

While I cannot confirm the programs he was involved in, it’s hard to believe that based upon what we’ve seen in his public persona since his jail release that something hasn’t sunken in.

In addition to these treatment programs, there are larger key factors that motivate a man to change, relationships and the loss of freedom. The latter being an obvious one, the former maybe not as much. We are all aware that people are motivated to change their lives based on others in their lives that they care about. Michael’s children are a primary example for him, as would be his mother. However, relationships with friends and acquaintances made in jail seem quite impactful from my observation.

Imagine that you, as a young dumb inmate who “caught a case” for gambling and animal cruelty, meet older inmates who made one horrible decision in life and have spent the last 20, 30, or 40 years of their life in prison. These older inmates tend to take young men with a second chance (like Vick) under their wing. One of the things I’ve seen these “old heads” serving long term and life sentences spend a great deal of time with in these relationships is impressing upon the younger guys to make the most of their second chances.

The loss of freedom cannot be expressed in words, but imagine the shame, helplessness, and anger at oneself a man must feel. I cannot even begin to comprehend it, personally.

Putting all of this together, I’ve seen many men change and many men fail to change. Some fall somewhere in between, changing more gradually, in steps with relapses in between. I suspect Michael Vick falls into this category. Motivated by the humility he learned in losing everyone and the desire to prove himself as a changed man, Vick has been changing at a pace his own. Last Summer’s party an example of a minor relapse, perhaps better termed a lapse in judgement.

It’s hard to change all at once, in fact it’s damn near impossible. That party is a great example of a man having a hard time because the old friends and family tend to suck you back in. I find no difficulty in believing Vick when he says that he never wanted to attend that party, but felt like he had to make a brief appearance. It’s similar to the alcoholic who knows he shouldn’t attend the wedding of a friend because of the open bar, but feels the obligation tugging at him. Vick left before things got messy, which is what mattered most… but the lapse in deciding to be there in the first place causes many to question him. However, these lapses are natural and shouldn’t be cause for concern… at least not lapses at the level of Vick’s party. Had he allowed himself to be part of the fight that ensued or been found getting high or drunk, perhaps our view on this lapse should be one of much greater concern.

Overall, what I’m here to say today is that we don’t have to like the man, but like anyone else in this country, Vick deserves his chance. To disallow for that is not only illegal and unfair, but it’s against the entire spirit of what this country is about. Rather than be ashamed of my team for signing this man, I have actually started to become proud of them for embodying a spirit of second chances. However, as an organization, they still need to be cautious and undoubtedly will be.

Let’s not be part of the problem by abandoning the team or spending our time criticizing them. Let’s not be a part of the problem by tearing down a man that’s trying to get his life together. Then again, it’s everyone’s freedom to say what they will. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve had my share of second chances in life (while not as Michael’s level), so I won’t begrudge anyone theirs. I believe in second chances, I believe in change, and I believe in a God who helps people change their lives. You may not, but I still urge you to spend your time more constructively than tearing down a man for his past sins.

Justin has been running websites since his first Geocities site in 1994, but only did he ever start covering anything of substance years later. After he stopped regularly running local concerts in Northern NJ and the greater Philly area, he knew he needed to step up his writing game if he expected to continue to get free music to listen to. He writes regularly here and at Cinapse, as well as contributing to a few other sites on occasion. He likes music, film, the Philadelphia Eagles, the 76ers, talking about Criminal Justice, reading Intelligence Report, and his family... not in that order. His beautiful wife is far more talented than he is and his kids far more adorable... and crazy.
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