Prisoners Can Change and Become Successful Citizens.
The SUMMIT program proves it.

By Marjorie Foerster Eddington and Julianne Hinkel

There are some people who feel that they're unforgivable and worthless. But they can find forgiveness and worth. The Pathfinders of Oregon program teaches life-skills to rehabilitate prisoners, and in so doing, transforms their lives. Julianne Hinkel, a facilitator from the program, speaks about its effectiveness from first-hand experience. She shares part of the story.


The SUMMIT (Success Using Motivation, Morale, and Involving Teamwork) Program started with a boot camp model in 1992. The Superintendent was interested in exploring alternative incarceration, so he travelled to New York and observed a program that was working well. SUMMIT became the first alternative incarceration program (AIP) in Oregon, aiming to help inmates face the thinking patterns behind their behavior, with the goal being never to return to prison and to live pro-social lives.

In exchange for graduating this intense, voluntary, 6-month, 16-hour day, journey-inward experience, participants earn a reduction in their sentences of 1 month to 2 years. This program not only helps them to return to their children, jobs, and new lives sooner, but it requires them to take accountability for their part in the mistakes they have made. They no longer feel powerless and are willing to grow and change.

It has evolved over 18 years and has proved itself, resulting in low recidivism rates with an average of around 12%. Not only does it save taxpayers money (it costs taxpayers $30,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison in Oregon for one year), but it does a more important service in enriching and saving lives. The program gets people back to their families and makes the community better.

I teach a Pathfinders class, which is one of the required SUMMIT program elements. Others are Alcohol and Drug treatment, GED education, Cognitive Change, Release Planning, and Parenting and Family (the latter which I also teach). A lot of amazing things happen in this program. For example, one of my students is a long-time prisoner who's been incarcerated many times. He is a motorcycle gang member, standing over 6 feet tall. His long beard and braid down his back create a profound presence. This man was very closed up, unwilling to trust, and depended on prison values for his security.

About halfway through the program (when we were talking about forgiveness again), this man wanted to share with the class some very personal experiences from his childhood, but was very hesitant. He told me if he didn't begin healing this pain, he would eventually go back to numbing it with heroin. He decided to wait. I was pushing him because I could tell he wanted to talk, but he kept saying, "I'm not ready." I replied, "Well, when are you going to be ready? It's never going to be easy." He came up to me at our break and said he wanted to tell the class after break.

He disclosed to the class information he'd never told anyone. He explained that his family life was very unstable and violent. He witnessed a lot of conflict between his parents, and he remembers traumatizing events that still haunt him. As he shared his pain, he cried -- something he had told me I would never see him do. He also shared that he had had a son when he was only 19. The birthmother decided to have the child adopted, and he signed over his rights. This decision has caused him a lot of guilt and pain, as he felt he abandoned his child, even though he knows that the child has had a better life.

For the first time in his life, he wants to think and deal with his feelings and not turn to drugs. He wants to learn how to forgive himself and those who hurt him when he was a child. After he told his life story, letting his emotions just flow, he got nothing but hugs and handshakes from his peers. These kinds of things happen constantly in my job. I'm blessed to have such an amazing job where I care about my students. Even after they graduate, some of them keep in touch. At times, we have them come as guest speakers and as examples of success for the inmates currently in the program.

There is a widespread need for these types of programs. We see it working every day. We see the prisoners changing. We see them successful. They'll come back, even five years later, still clean and sober, full of love and hope. It's amazing stuff.

Julianne Hinkel, OR