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A Success Story…But a False Hope?

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Given that I’ve given up on the idea of prison as rehabilitative, what does it mean when someone actually is rehabilitated in prison?

That’s my takeaway after reading yesterday’s NY Times article about Donnie Andrews and Fran Boyd, he a former felon who served 17 years for killing a drug dealer and she a former heroin addict who saw her son become addicted too before she was able to beat her addiction.

There’s a happy ending to this story — Andrews started doing drug counseling while he was incarcerated, and began speaking out against drugs and gangs. One of the people he supported and helped beat an addiction was Ms. Boyd. They first met face-to-face two years after they began talking (he would call her every day at 4PM from prison). They’re set to get married tomorrow.

Undeniably, this is an incredible and uplifting story. The man who beat the odds. The kind-hearted prosecutor who ultimately came to support him. The homicide detective who played matchmaker for him. There’s a lot to feel good about here. Mr. Andrews and Ms. Boyd inspire hope.

But I worry that much of that hope is in large part false. Mr. Andrews’ story is amazing. But it is also an extremely rare success. The risk is always that glorifying one man who found redemption can condemn millions of others who don’t by lulling us into thinking that the situation in our prisons is OK. Or at the very least by giving elected officials a PR tool to convince those of us who are less educated about prison conditions that things can remain at status quo.

They can’t. Rehabilitation is for many a cruel joke that doesn’t even rise to the level of an empty promise. Programs to support re-entry are on the rise but are far from the norm. The lesson to us from this story is not “well done” but rather “do more.”

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