The Men For Honor Inmate Leisure Time Activity Group began with a focus on health and fitness. ILTAGs are permitted by the institution to confront idleness, encourage creativity and advance pro-social activities among the population. In 2003, the men decided to change its focus toward self-help and personal development. The first class offered was critical thinking and debate. It was a thought-provoking, foundational class that gave its participants their first set of social skills to contrast the often violent and abrasive prison culture. Men who weren’t accustomed to public speaking learned new skills. Others who had never looked at their own biases and myopic world views were suddenly forced to debate both sides of an issue.
The effort was such a success that a creative writing class followed. As a result, several participants were published through this effort and our individual and collective horizons broadened. Articles proliferated and new writers flourished. Google results of individuals and Men For Honor, sent in by friends and family, were like trophies in the hands of men who had accomplished little else in life. A collective esteem was fostered.
Over the years the group has stepped up its game and created criteria for potential peer-led instructors. Each instructor is required to have had formal training in the subject offered. The group also began modifying the formal curricula of colleges, universities and the by-laws of recognized business organizations to fit the unique needs of the incarcerated population.
Men For Honor has since rotated a myriad of self-help classes. Whites and blacks now openly practice and speak Spanish with their Latino peers. This is astounding considering that the typical prison environment is deeply segregated along racial lines. A common language of openness, along with a collective willingness to understanding diverse cultures, can bridge the widest divides, encouraging a deeper span of respect never before imagined. Making amends is also an important theme.
To instill the complete meaning of making amends participants are taught the three elements of this noble action: 1. direct amends, meaning to give or assist directly to the person harmed; 2. Indirect amends means to give to a cause(s) that the person harmed may have embraced, or to give back generally; and 3. Life amends, which means to live a consistent and enduring life of direct and indirect amends.
In that vein, Men For Honor, and its participants have raised over $11,000 since 2007 for charities such as the Red Cross, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and Human Rights Watch, among others. Participants also write hundreds of youth diversion letters per quarter to admonish at-risk youth about the dangers (and consequences) of the criminal lifestyle. They use their own life stories as cautionary tales.
All Men For Honor core-class subjects differ, but the overall substance of the topics overlap. For instance, New Choices, Different Directions, a course on the negatives of gang banging, emphasizes the harmful ripple effects to the members of these criminal enterprises, their families, their communities, and of course, their victims. As with all Men For Honor courses, empathy for others is a reoccurring theme. The Lifer’s class, parenting, victim sensitivity and communications class all share the goal of replacing negative practices with healthy coping skills. These pro-social interpersonal skills help our participants defuse volatile situations, instead of viscerally reacting. When we transform our participants’ thinking, we create a more amicable and hospitable environment for all – staff and prisoners – which reduces the possibility of recidivism and victimization beyond these confining walls.