Art of Communication: Reginald’s Story

The Art of Communication is a program offered to qualifying adults in custody (AICs) at a number of Oregon Department of Corrections’ institutions across the state. Developed by Chaplain Trime Persinger at Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI), the course teaches AICs how to build positive relationships and manage conflict situations through everyday conversations. This post is part of a series which aims to share the stories of AICs who have been impacted by the program.

Below, AIC Reginald Johnson uses language taught in the program to help another AIC shift their perspective. AIC Johnson shared his experience with Trime Persinger, who wrote it down as follows:

Part of my responsibility as a Legal Assistant (LA) is to prepare guys for Parole hearings. AIC Smith was going on his 34th year in prison and had been denied parole on four previous occasions. He was preparing for his fifth “Rehabilitation Hearing” with the Parole Board. He was in for murder.

During one pre-parole conversation with Smith I asked him, “How did you feel at the time of this incident? Why did you think you had the right to take someone’s life?”

Smith chuckled and said, “The Parole Board has asked me that question every time.”

Me: “What did you say during the first hearing?”

Smith: “He deserved to die.”

I was shocked. I asked, “What did you say at the second hearing?”

Smith: “I said that he was a piece of crap and did not deserve to live.”

Me: “What did you say at the third and fourth hearings?”

Smith: “He deserved to die. He was a piece of crap and did not deserve to live.”

I asked him again, “How did you feel and why did you feel that you had the right to take someone’s life? This time, I would like you to focus on yourself. I would like you to begin with ‘I’ and explain how you were feeling.”

There were five to ten seconds of quiet. I didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything. I noticed tears coming down from his eyes. Then he said, “I was afraid that my family did not look at me as a man of the house. I was afraid they no longer wanted me around because I had allowed this man to harm my family. I was scared that I was going to be alone because I couldn’t protect my family.” He was really crying.

I sat and watched him for a couple of seconds. Then I said, “The next time this question is presented by the Board, please answer it as you have today.”

About a month later, Smith went to his Parole Board hearing. He received the decision a month later. He came into the law library and said to the coordinator, “I need to speak with LA Johnson (me).”

I was in another law library at the time. The coordinator called for me and asked me to come there. I walked into the law library where Smith was. He comes up and hugs me, saying, “You are a genius.”

I asked him what was going on. He said, “The Parole Board found that I was likely to be rehabilitated. They scheduled me for a psychological evaluation and an exit interview.”

He said that they had asked him the question for the fifth time, “How did you feel at the time of the murder?” In their report they spoke on Smith’s ability to say what he felt, that he was scared. He told me that he cried there also. He told them how tough it was to get to that point.

This 66-year-old white man hugged me. I am African American and that had never happened to me before. He kept saying, “You’re a genius” and crying.

I said, “I’m not a genius. That’s just “I” Language from The Art of Communication.