Presence - March 2008

by Khalil Osiris


Part I of an Interview with Khalil Osiris, co-founder of The Psychology of Incarceration and a columnist for RED! Webzine.

Mr. Osiris is an author, college professor, and pastor who spent 15 years of his life in prison. Building on his professional training and personal experiences as a formerly incarcerated person, his work focuses on helping people overcome negative self-talk and self-imposed limitations, which he says are “common forces of incarceration.” 

Jeffrey Hillard, editor of RED!, conducted this interview.

The Psychology of Incarceration program (P.O.I.) is quite revolutionary, and it’s becoming more appealing as the months unfold.  To what do you attribute this recent success, especially as it’s taught to inmates in prisons and jails in Ohio?

I’d say much of its success is due to the core content itself, to the individuals who helped create and foster an understanding of its principles, and to those inmates who realize that this is not like any other course being taught in prison. It’s as close to utter truth-telling in a course as one could teach in a prison setting. There are wonderful and necessary courses being taught inside prisons, but P.O.I. hits deeper; it aspires to touch the individual’s very soul and thinking, and it stresses that an inmate can change his or her way of thinking – of being – and thus change his or her actions and behavior in a positive way. In other words, negative thinking can be changed into positive thinking, and negative actions into positive actions. We call them pro-social actions.

You began teaching P.O.I. several years ago, right?

Dr. Robin ‘Doc’ Herman and I began teaching the material that solidified into The Psychology of Incarceration in 2000 to students at Wright State University Dayton, Ohio. We grew it from this point. Doc gradually integrated the program into Dayton Correctional Institution.

P.O.I. is not an easy program. It’s challenging. It’s demanding. It’s transformative. It asks a person to dig deeper and deeper, as the weeks unfold. It calls for full-blown attention to the work, the reading, the writing, the collaboration throughout the course. But, so many inmates are ready for this. They’re tired of running or acting out or getting caught up in the same negative situations that landed them in jail or prison. They’re searching. We’re seeing this time and time again, repeatedly, as we get deeper into the course work. We see this even among inmates considered very difficult, perhaps resistant. Much credit goes to ‘Doc’ Herman, Tony Villa Sr., and a few others who were in on the ground floor of both writing The Psychology of Incarceration textbook and helping institute the vision and teachings.

Importantly, too, about its success: the work is not left at the penitentiary or jail. Inmates taking the course do not exactly “finish” the course. Technically, they graduate from the course and complete the Journey Book and course work. But, we teach inmates to take 14-weeks worth of their learning to the next level, after that course term has ended. Upon one’s release, he or she is empowered and equipped to put the material into action in his or her new life outside. We’ve established support systems on the outside in order for individuals to keep progressing in their transformation. Naturally, as always, it’s up to the individual. We deal a lot in the course about making positive choices. So, that is our hope and prayer: what inmates achieve positively in the course affects who they are and what they do after they re-enter society.

I’m thinking, too, that your own past history of being incarcerated allowed you to better see what many inmates are seeking and not finding, or else they’re learning things but not fully committed to transformation. And yet when they see, early, the hope behind P.O.I. they want in, they want to experience change – because they see you up there,

Yes, exactly. I had years to think about this. Several inmates and I talked about what was not being presented to inmates. I had years to plan how I could work with others to actually influence them to do positive things. I knew what I had done, and through God’s grace and forgiveness, I realized I could positively help myself and others. I was a negative thinker, which landed me in prison; but I was an intelligent thinker.

In prison, I understood that I could turn it right around totally and use my skills in a life-affirming way. I was incarcerated with others who felt and were the same way, as in “What can we do? We have been so blessed. We’re still alive. And we know that when we’re released we’re not coming back.”

I think it often takes a very intense program like P.O.I., and the wisdom of teachers like Doc Herman, and the commitment of prison officials to allow inmates to see the things I did. What is not amazing to me is that there are many inmates like myself who want to change from the person they were when first arrested and then sentenced. It may be amazing to the public, but not to someone who’s been inside.

When I teach P.O.I., inmates know immediately where I’m coming from. I was inside, like them.

What makes up The Psychology of Incarceration course?

In terms of how it's presented in prisons, we utilize a staff of trained facilitators and special guests to support and validate inmates, the textbook, a Journey Book [for journaling, essays, and creative writing], and we insist that in-class discussions and work be continued during the week, in between weekly sessions.

P.O.I. examines the mental health standard, or what is considered the definition and nature of human well-being. It examines and emphasizes pro-social thinking and values. A bottom line is that thinking determines actions, and actions determine behavior. If one’s thinking is negative, negative actions will occur. Crime is a frequently a result. This is what’s called “distorted thinking.” This thinking is very problematic. It’s harmful. We address this.

A sad thing is that, frequently, distortions are socially-sanctioned. An example would be someone saying, “I just can’t stand my job, but I love my paycheck.” That’s a distortion. We don’t tend to criticize someone for that expression. We go on. We basically “sanction” it. We don’t stop that person and ask him to take stock of his life.

Now, P.O.I. also offers a scholar’s view of distorted thinking in a teachable way – through the textbook and JourneyBook, for instance, and the writing of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. We integrate teachings into writing, into class discussions, and into personal reflection. We empower students in the classes to carry on the conversations in their cells or in the dining hall. Also, the use of stories – both oral and written – are very important and a cornerstone of the course.

You’ve called “incarceration” a metaphor more than anything. This is the root of the teaching behind the course. Could you explain?

We say that incarceration is a metaphor for self-imposed limitations. For example, it’s reasonable to say that an inmate was “incarcerated” mentally long before the physical prison sentence was handed down. What does this mean?

Whatever actions dictated that individual’s arrest were planted in his or her thinking well before the action occurred. A scenario could go like this: “My mother was in prison, never heard from her, I never had a father around, my friends ran around everywhere and did everything wrong like I did, so I’m not cut out to be anything to anybody.”

Not only is that negative self-talk, but the person has placed a limitation on the kind of human potential he has. It’s like he’s consigning himself to do wrong no matter what. He’s imposed a total limitation of the self. This mental incarceration will precede the crime he commits. P.O.I. is designed to change that individual’s thinking about himself or herself, to help the person transcend self-imposed limitations.

Jeff Hillard

Khalil Osiris


Read Part II of interview.

Read Part III of interview.

More information about The Psychology of Incarceration.