UnCommon Law: Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Life Sentenced Individuals

How UnCommon Law is facilitating rehabilitation of individuals facing life sentences by addressing their mental health needs

By Mary Anne Roach

Prisons as Punishment

America has a serious problem with mass incarceration. While we contain only 5% of the world’s population, the American prison system holds a staggering 21% of the world’s prisoners. Our criminal punishment system reflects and perpetuates existing racial disparities, incarcerating African Americans at 5 times the rate of whites – and we remain one of the only developed nations to be heavily reliant on life imprisonment. America’s societal focus on punishment over rehabilitation is especially evident in our approach to life sentences; one in nine of the 2.2 million incarcerated people in America are currently imprisoned for life. Prison reform efforts rarely include those who have committed violent and/or serious crimes, largely due to the heavy stigma and stereotypes associated with these individuals – however, this demographic is, in many ways, the one in most need of reform efforts. Individuals who commit violent crimes have very often been victims of violence themselves, and have not yet been given the chance to process past traumatic experiences. The link between previous internalized trauma and current harmful behaviors is one the prison system does little to address – indeed, the current state of prisons often exacerbates existing mental health problems. With an emphasis on trauma-centered counseling and advocacy, individuals serving life sentences can frequently be rehabilitated and re-enter their old communities as productive citizens and changemakers, able to create a positive impact and give back to the communities they may have once harmed. 

UnCommon Law’s Approach

Thirteen years ago, Keith Wattley founded UnCommon Law on the premise that individuals experiencing long-term incarceration for violent and serious crimes were not beyond rehabilitation and redemption. Wattley’s approach was born out of an individual case: as he advocated for a client struggling to navigate the parole process after serving a lengthy prison sentence for kidnapping, Wattley saw what was possible when that individual was able to identify the causes behind his past criminality – and saw just how few resources were available for individuals on a similar path. Wattley also saw an opportunity: developing a trauma-informed, healing-centered approach to law, specifically geared towards those most often overlooked by the system.

UnCommon Law works with people serving life sentences for violent and serious crimes, providing a blend of trauma-informed, healing-focused counseling and legal assistance with the goal of helping clients develop effective communication and coping mechanisms to enable a more productive and healthy life inside prison and back in their communities if granted parole. Under the current parole system, individuals who demonstrate genuine remorse for, and an understanding of the causality of their crime(s) may be granted parole, enabling them to return to their communities and families on a contingency basis. UnCommon Law helps guide their clients on a healing pathway through this process and has successfully assisted 215 individuals in regaining their freedom to date.

UnCommon Law’s Strategies

Provide Healing: The majority of individuals who commit violent crime are survivors of violence themselves, giving credence to the idea that the root causes of violence most often stem from past trauma. UnCommon Law focuses on helping people convicted of violent crime(s) revisit their past traumatic experiences (especially original trauma) and understand how those experiences have affected their past choices. Rethinking nonviolent responses is a critical tool in helping an individual process key events in their past, and an empowering strategy for re-examining past behaviors and promoting healthier choices moving forward.

Rehumanize Incarcerated Individuals: UnCommon Law works to provide ways for their clients to engage with the policy systems that directly affect them, both while in prison and out on parole. Many of UnCommon Law’s clients have taken advantage of these opportunities to engage with the public, policymakers and elected officials – often for the first time. Through public events, UnCommon Law provides space for individuals who are currently or previously incarcerated to share their stories and humanize incarceration to those who may not have engaged with these issues before. Many of UnCommon Law’s past clients are now activists and changemakers in their own communities, working to combat cycles of violence and using their unique identities to promote healing and safety.

Facilitate Communication: UnCommon Law zealously advocates for their clients when before the parole board, and holds the parole board to the highest possible standard of procedure. They facilitate communication between clients and parole examiners – often a level of communication that spans two entirely different identities, cultures, and worldviews – and encourage the board to recognize a capacity for change in every individual they speak with. UnCommon Law often works to introduce their clients to individual parole commissioners, to humanize both sides of the parole process and help facilitate effective communication.

Challenges Faced

Fear of the Unknown: The stigma and stereotypes that surround most individuals serving life sentences are daunting, and often deeply rooted in fear. The majority of UnCommon Law’s clients are convicted of murder – which, for many people, marks the beginning and end of a conversation when it comes to policy, education, or reform. UnCommon Law works to subvert stereotypes around individuals who once committed a violent crime, and reframe that conversation at both a public and policy level.

Dangerous Environments: Prisons are dangerous, both physically and emotionally. For clients seeking to process their trauma in a healthy way, being incarcerated in an environment that often sees empathy and emotion as weaknesses to be preyed on makes the work incredibly difficult. There is little space afforded to individuals inside a prison who seek to revisit traumatic experiences or do the healing-centered work that UnCommon Law promotes. Much of UnCommon Law’s efforts with clients include building strong, trusting relationships and helping to break down the emotional armor demanded in prison environments.

Lack of Trust: The majority of UnCommon Law’s clients have a deep distrust of lawyers and the criminal punishment system more broadly. The inability to be vulnerable or seek healing within a prison environment helps feed this distrust. UnCommon Law’s work is only possible with a level of trust, gained through honest and open dialogue about both the organization and the client’s past.

UnCommon Law’s Best Practices

Providing Proximity: Bridging the gap between the general, non-incarcerated public and individuals who have experienced or are experiencing incarceration is crucial in developing public empathy. UnCommon Law facilitates proximity between the public and their clients, encouraging their clients to share personal stories and retake control over narratives often told about incarcerated populations.

Empathetic Work Environment: UnCommon Law’s focus is on providing empathetic, compassionate advocacy to those they serve, and the organization maintains that approach internally. Employees are encouraged to utilize the same methods used with clients on themselves, constantly investigating what motivates them. Providing time and space for employees to practice self-care and self-reflection helps staff stay true to the work, maintain strong connections with clients and the larger community, and creates a sustainable and healthy work environment in a field that often sees high levels of burnout.

Vision for the Future

UnCommon Law consistently advocates for policy changes to remove the barriers in place for people coming home from long-term prison sentences. These barriers often prevent individuals from utilizing public housing, government benefits, and obtaining meaningful employment. After participating in rehabilitation programs, many of UnCommon Law’s clients have high emotional intelligence and well-developed communication skills – but the types of employment available fail to utilize these skill sets. Many formerly incarcerated individuals would thrive in mentor or counselor roles – for example, a middle school or high school resource officer – where their high-level communication skills and emotional intelligence would be better used.

Most individuals currently experiencing incarceration for violent crimes are victims of violence themselves. Individuals living through traumatic situations (especially those in low-income communities) often have little-to-no access to resources that might help them process and cope with trauma. To combat the cycle of violence at its roots, it is crucial that police departments and social services responding to calls about domestic violence, child neglect, abuse, death or arrest, etc. also provide therapeutic resources to those involved. Access to therapeutic resources can ensure that an individual experiencing trauma now does not become UnCommon Law’s client in the future.

UnCommon Law envisions a future in which the work they do transforms our society’s relationship with violent crime. UnCommon Law believes that with a societal focus on healing rather than punishment, we can eliminate life sentences and mass incarceration, and render the prison system virtually obsolete.

Keith Wattley is the Founder of UnCommon Law and a 2018 Obama Fellow

To learn more about UnCommon Law, please visit their website: https://www.uncommonlaw.org/

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