My Most Valued Book

If my house were on fire and I could only save one book, I wouldn’t have to think about my choice. I know exactly where it is located, even though I picked it up at a library used-book sale more than forty years ago.

The book is entitled “20,000 Years in Sing Sing”, by Warden Lewis E Lawes. It was first copyrighted in 1932 and the edition I have was published on 1942. I’m sure this book is out of print, but this is one book that should never be out of print.

Warden Lawes worked his entire life as a supervisor of a prison. He worked tirelessly for reform of penal institutions in the United States. His methods were sound, effective, and revolutionary. However, his reforms were not universally accepted. The system still has problems long after Lawes left the scene.

Early in his career, Lawes found that the most common model for reformatories and prisons was based upon mistrust, fear, and force. He was not naive in his approach to prisoners, but his focus was more on the effectiveness of interacting with inmates. He wanted to know, “What approach was more effective and productive?” He said, “No prison can be run without discipline and obedience. But it should be the discipline and obedience born of respect and understanding (p. 152).

To sum up, Lawes’ approach to prisoners was to treat them with mutual respect, trust, and fair dealing with honesty. “We realize, of course, that there are many dangerous men among our prisoners. Men who bear watching. I have found, however, that the gesture of trust will bring its return in honor and faith (p.143).” How did he do this? One example. He brought his wife and children to live with him inside the walls of Sing Sing Prison in New York. His trust was returned by the inmates.

How did this book change my life?

I was a teacher of young adolescents for twenty-five years. After reading this book, I decided to change the way I interacted with each student.

On the first day of school, I would introduce myself to the students and I say that my main goal for the year was to treat each student with dignity and respect. My only request was that they treat each other and me in the same manner. That was it. I also said that on the last day of the school year, I was going to ask every student to hold me accountable. How did I do?

With that approach, I became a more effective teacher and facilitator, not an adversary to be defeated at all costs.

The applications of this approach for anyone who works within an institution are endless. The ills of society are showing up in record numbers. Governments are being cited as useless and hopeless because their work is being gummed up with inaction. And, the inaction appears intentional. We need new ways to interact with one another. If we were to dedicate ourselves to treating each other with mutual dignity and respect, we might be able to come together and begin finding solutions rather than adding to the growing number of problems.

What do you think? Can you see any applications for interacting more effectively with others? In families? In neighborhoods? In work places? In cities? In institutions? Among friends? Your comments are welcome.

Author: William Peters

William Peters is a narrative poet who finds the occasional humor in growing old, past events, familiar objects, and even relationships. His poetry reads like a snapshot in time.

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