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Is It Better to Rob a Bank Than Work for MacDonalds?

The inside story of how a Kiwi-American tapped the insights and talents of max-security prison inmates and transformed New York prison programs, by Eagles Chair, John Wareham.

 "I have a confession, John." Incarcerated stickup man and cat-burglar Kenny Johnson pulled me aside at the close of our very first Eagles Rikers Island prison program, back in 1995: "I've been tapped to lead a team to rob a bank when I get out of this hell-hole next month; you got any thoughts on that?" I disguised my disappointment with a deadpan smile. "Do you have any other options?" I asked. "Maybe I could dish hamburgers at MacDonalds?" he said. I thought about that. "Okay Kenny," I said: "Next week, let's split our prison class into two teams and we'll formally debate those choices."

 What happened next and in the years that followed was astonishing—as you can see for yourself in this brief video, narrated by Dr. Nadine Strossen, then chief of the American Civil Liberties Union.

  • Kenny went on to become a founding Eagle, noted poet, and full-time Rikers teacher. With Kenny in that role, the Eagles Foundation arranged for a team of hot-shot lawyers to enter Rikers Island and debate that very same topic with a team of incarcerated inmates. Alas, Kenny was felled by a heart attack just four short years later, but you can see and hear him here right now, delivering his poem, Crazy for Conspiracies, just one a week before that tragedy.


 Seeing prison inmates so adept in parliamentary debating, many people mistakenly imagine that teaching that skill to prison inmates transforms them into law-abiding citizens, BUT . . . in fact, inmates who happen to be dedicated criminals welcome that new skill, but merely apply it to becoming cleverer and more confident rogues.

 Our Eagles Taking Wings program has an annual single-digit recidivism rate. To tell you why, here's a 2-minute video of max-security Eagles graduate Josue 'Big Bear' Pierre confiding what he got out of the program. Bear in mind, too, that:

  • Dr. Jess Maghan, former director of training for New York Police and Corrections Departments called the program"truly transformational";
  • New Zealand's Victoria University psychology professor Tony Taylor called it "a stunning program that should shake many on both sides of the fence to the core."

The Scissors Cure for Kiwi Crime
One Blade Won't Hack It

Precis of John Wareham's Talk to New Zealand Rotarians, 16 Feb 2023 / To read the full transcript click here now

In a talk to New Zealand Rotary, Eagles Chair John Wareham said that since nearly half the prison population identified as Maori, the current race-based programs seemed appropriate to the Labour government, and are unlikely to be axed. Wareham explained that under these programs:

  • Maori inmates are segregated into 'decolonisation' programs embedded with the Te Ao world view, Te Reo language, an 'aggrieved underpinning of ethnic entitlement', and training in the wielding the Taiaha fighting staff.
  • But life-altering concepts of modern psychology are routinely excluded, he said, "So, upon release, with little but folklore and ancient fables to fall back on, participant graduates suffer depression, anger, and a level of alienation that seems clearly to have fuelled waves of lawlessness, 'ram raids' and crime sprees.

Virtually all criminals will be released back into society and become our neighbours, said Wareham. He then suggested two proven, modern 'scissor-blades' remedies for Kiwi crime: "Think of punishment and rehabilitation as blades on a pair of scissors," he said:-

  • The first blade, Group Violence Intervention (GVI), is based on the fact that 20 percent of criminals commit 80 percent of serious crime. The program was created by Boston Professor David Kennedy, following the killing of his son by gangland criminals. GVI reduced crime so dramatically that it came to be called the Boston Miracle.
  • The second blade, Taking Wings, is a secular 'color-blind' prisoner rehabilitation program grounded in cutting-edge concepts of modern psychology, embracing the principles of an inclusive, multi-ethnic, liberal democracy.

The Taking Wings program, which has an annual single-digit recidivism rate, was created by Wareham and former inmate graduates of the New York maximum-security prisoner program that Wareham taught for twenty years. Dr. Jess Maghan, former director of training for New York Police and Corrections Departments called the program"truly transformational"; New Zealand's Victoria University psychology professor Tony Taylor called it "a stunning program that should shake many on both sides of the fence to the core." A summary of the Taking Wings program is contained in this link to the Eagles podcast episode What If You Stumble? 


Read Full Transcript of Wareham 'Scissors Cure' Address Here Now


Breakout Plan Nominated for Pulitzer Prize for Audio Journalism

Listeners Worldwide in 400+ cities

In The Breakout Plan podcast series, host John Wareham and a team of graduates of his maximum security prison classes share a unique, street-smart insights into why we get trapped in the 'wrong life', then a 'proven, practical, doable, achieveable formula for creating the life we truly want.'   

"If ever there was a master key to the mental penitentiary, this is it. Wareham shares a riveting journey into the heart and soul, and presents a profound and creative thesis for transforming a specious sense of personal autonomy into a pure sense of freedom."Jess D. Maghan, professor emeritus of criminal justice, University of Illinois at Chicago, former director of training New York City Police and Corrections Departments
Go to The Breakout Plan Podcast Series; Click Here Now

Why Recovering Criminals Die Young

Deb, John, Dwayne, Joe, Kenny, Ted at visit to the Chuang Yen Monastery, Kent, New York

How to arrest the syndrome that kills them, transcend racism, and reduce crime

From a presentation to Criminal Law Society, by John Wareham

That's me, second from the left in the photo. The friends around me are former inmate graduates of the Eagles development class that I created and shared with denizens of New York's Rikers Island Correctional Facility. The snap was taken at a weekend refresher retreat after they got out of Rikers. I keep a blow-up of it on my office wall. Whenever I look at it, I remind myself that:-

  • I'm the 'last man standing.' That's right. Everyone else in that photo is dead. And they all passed way, way too soon. Ted, expired homeless in his early 40's, Kenny was felled by a heart attack at 49, Joe died of pleurisy at 52, Deb and Dwayne fell to Covid at 60.
  • Their lives were transformed, as was mine, by the 13-Week class we shared in a basement Rikers cell. After their release, I was able to secure well-paid, full-time careers for Kenny and Joe teaching Eagles principles to Rikers inmates. Dwayne, with no special help from me other than his bus fare, became a lifelong, honoured drug counsellor down in Atlanta. And Ted, our 'gentle giant', became a security guard.

 The Eagles Foundation is strictly secular, but the famed Buddhist monastery was close by, so it seemed well worth a visit. More so than I imagined. Three lessons became burned into my brain:-

  • Getting by is never easy if you hail from 'the wrong side of town.' Institutional bias is real and bad policing crushes good people and weakens hearts. All too often, the added stress of having to put bread on the table results in crime. So, even though they'd turned their lives around, these great friends of mine were infinitely more likely to wind up dead than I was.
  • Most so-called correction systems merely compound the issue. Harsh sentences and conditions further mar mental and physical health. And most of the time, in most countries, retribution trumps rehabilitation. My take, even in New Zealand, is that we're mostly reliving dark times when being of a so-called 'different race' was the imagined cause of crime, and a blend of nine parts punishment and one part parsimony was the imagined cure.
  • Death may claim life, but consciousness can live on. Indeed, this happened. The voices, experience, lessons learned, and advice--the font and the fruit of consciousness--of these fellows in the photo is alive and well in our Pulitzer Prize nominated Eagles podcast series, The Breakout Plan. Right there, right now, is your chance to hear how the living words of Dwayne, Joe, and Kenny are helping lost citizens and creating a better world for every last one of us.

For prisoner development programs, issues of racism and institutional bias are hot topics best left to smoulder. But no matter: during our sessions on Rikers Island, we dived into that red-hot heat. The outcome astonished officialdom. To know exactly what went down, let's click to the link and go to the videotape ... How to Transcend Racism:  John Wareham Master Class 8-minute YouTube Video


Colour-Blind Criminal Transformations

From an address by John Wareham to the New Zealand Law Society


Looking at the sea of coloured faces in New Zealand prisons, you might be excused for thinking that complexion causes crime. I faced a similar scene at New York's infamous Rikers Island Correctional facility when I arrived to teach my first inmate class:

  • Thirty-five guys showed up; twenty-five were African-American, eight were Hispanic, and only two were white. Something was wrong with this sepia picture, surely.
  • And get this: eighty percent of newly released Rikers inmates returned to prison inside sixty days. Yikes! If I couldn't work with these guys to reduce that unholy recession, forget the whole thing.

In fact, I stayed for twenty years, and we reduced the Eagles graduate recidivism rate to single digits.


Hearing of our success, Black Power life-member Denis O'Reilly invited me to create a weekend retreat for the Black Power and Mongrel Mobs, and fly to New Zealand to run it. At twilight on a Friday night, on condition that there'd be no police presence, thirty gang members arrived at a lonely, backwoods convention centre. Some found the first session, uh, well, terrifying. But then word got out that great things were happening. By Sunday more than a hundred gang members packed the hall. At the closeout, the Black Power and Mongrel Mob formed two concentric circles. Then each and every one of those gang leaders embraced and hongied as spiritual brothers. The New Zealand Herald proclaimed that happy outcome 'a miracle.' In fact, the so-called miracle was merely the last step in a process. If you'd like to read more about that process and what went down that weekend click here now.


Rikers taught me, and Kiwi gangs confirmed, that what you see in a prison class—be it white, or black or any shade in between—

  • is a gathering of hope-deprived citizens from broken homes, all stuck on the bottom rung of a socioeconomic ladder where unskilled jobs have disappeared, and semi-skilled workers are being replaced by robots and algorithms;
  • the issue is not race or colour--it is need--to survive these citizens turn to crime;
  • or, to ease their strife and shame they shoot drugs, so what we blithely call 'addiction' is mostly a symptom, not a condition.

Applying those hard-won lessons we created a secular program based on modern psychology, and the crucial concept that--whether in prison or out of it--every human is an equal 'citizen of the world' and entitled to equal justice under the law.

How to Win the War On Gangs

Mongrel Mob Kingdom Welcomes John Wareham

Prison reformer meets with 'Kingdom of Mongrel Mob' gang and urges them to identify as global citizens 

 Mongrel Mob Kingdom Headquarters, Hamilton, New Zealand, March, 2022


 At a meeting in Mongrel Mob Kingdom headquarters, Eagles chair John Wareham urged gang leaders to disregard 'race-based' labels, and accept the simple fact that first and foremost they are as global citizens.

"Whether we know it or not, or like it or not, we are all members of the same tribe. Above all else, we are all homo sapiens and as such all equal global citizens. Our cultural inheritance, often miscalled 'race', comes second."

"This concept, global citizenship, is the heart and soul of 'cosmopolitanism', said Wareham, acknowledging the term coined by renowned, Ghanaian raised, Cambridge educated, Princeton professor Anthony Appiah. "And, the truth that we are part of one global tribe is firmly based in recent research showing that humans all share the same genetic makeup."


In the course of his talk Wareham also:

  • likened current Mongrel Mob members to Rotarians, noting that members of both groups wear insignia proudly, and join for kinship, community service, and economic advancement;
  • shared the pervasive race-based fallacies that cause prison programs to fail;
  • noted that current prison policies have created a situation whereby 'inmate counselors are dedicated criminals who specialize in teaching crooked behavior.
  • invited Mongrel Mob members to help advocate a 10-point proposal for prison-reform;
  • credited cosmopolitanism for a dramatic decline in recidivism rates among the graduates of his maximum-security New York Eagles prison rehabilitation program.

"Armed with a new perspective on the syndrome of serial incarceration, upon release Eagles graduate sidestepped social quicksands and went on to become productive citizens. To be fair, cosmopolitanism has also currently swept most of the free world. New Zealand is in catch-up mode," he said, "but as officialdom becomes wiser, race-based labels will become an entirely unacceptable relic of past colonial history."


Read Full Transcript of John Wareham advice to Mongrel Mob, here now

The Scissor Blades Cure for Crime