Tom Wilson believes the lessons taught, and perhaps more importantly, learned, through mentoring offenders in the state prison system may apply just as well outside those fortified walls as they do inside.
The associate prison warden, who retired on Friday, self-published a book this year on how to emerge from what he terms "underliving." The title, "Authentic Man School: A Practical Guide for Next-Level Living," is a reflection of where the material was born: in a prison's rehabilitation program.
Wilson spent 23 years working in Montana State Prison and its affiliated Montana State Correctional Treatment Center, once more gruffly called the "Treasure State Boot Camp" program, focusing on offenders in mentoring programs.
The time he spent speaking with those in the chemical dependency program grew more regular over the years, and soon the curriculum for the book took form. It was there, he said, that he saw real growth in offenders who grew up sleeping in their clothes, eating Oreos for breakfast and developing a co-dependent relationship with drugs and alcohol.
"The criminal justice system is not tidy; we want it to be cheap," he told the Missoulian in a phone interview earlier this month. "The problem is the human condition is much more complex than that.
"What I want is these men to do it for themselves. They want someone else to come along and give them a life worth living," he said. "And what I have is, 'Here's how you build a life worth living for yourself.'"
And like many rehabilitation techniques, Wilson said "Man School" is not intended to be a one-off read.
"That's a key for people — recovery and addiction are not linear," he said. "Recovery is more of an oscillation. If you can catch yourself before you go all the way back in the bottom, you get to the next cycle."
Wilson has administered the ideas in "Man School" outside the treatment programs for some time now. He was in Seattle to speak at a conference 18 months ago when he woke up one morning and noticed his leg was twice its regular size. After four days in the intensive-care unit, a doctor would tell him he was having trouble with a vein in his leg. He made a full recovery, but calls this a decisive moment for him to get his ideas on paper.
With his pen, he was able to capture an approach to life that has merit, he said.
"Here's what I mean: The moralist says do better or we're going to lock you up. That might make people sneakier, but it doesn't change the man," he said. "Just locking him up doesn't get him to ethical higher ground. … In the middle of the moralist and the therapist is the pragmatist."
Much of the book focuses on climbing past obstacles, accepting feedback and, in turn, learning how to give feedback. Wilson has included many graphs, diagrams and illustrations to help readers visualize what he's talking about.
He defines words like intelligent with examples of Charlie Sheen: a brilliant person, but one who's made the wrong choices with that brainpower. Studies from psychologists draw the line between positive and negative mindsets, and vignettes bring the downsides or benefits to life.
"Man School" is Wilson's first effort at a book, although he's submitted several pieces in the past to the recurring pastoral column in the newspaper in his hometown of Deer Lodge. Having been a pastor for several churches, Wilson makes a few mentions of faith in the book, but said the reading is secular. More important are the lines he's picked up from others in the process of developing his mentoring programs.
"I collect genius," he said.
And despite the title's suggestion, "Man School" is an everyperson's book, Wilson said. The name for his book was originally a term for his program first posed to him by an inmate.
"The program may be called Authentic Man School, but is really is a roadmap to success for anyone who needs it," Jessica Connel, chemical dependency program manager at the Montana Correctional Treatment Center, writes in the review page.
Wilson said he himself had to overcome a childhood in an "underliving" situation. Raised in trailer homes submerged in abuse, addiction and seasons of poverty, he left that setting and found busy hands left little time for trouble. He would later spend 10 years in an electrical shop before gravitating toward the church, and spent six years in a chapel before his career at the prison.
Wilson turned 60 this month. With his career at the prison sloping down and the side work of putting a book together getting busy, Wilson found the steps involved in publishing exhausting: finding an agent, pitching the work and dueling with the company over royalties.
With a plan in mind to get something in print before he retired, he decided to self-publish the book with a printer in Spokane and Timothy Cooper Clayton Publishing in Deer Lodge.
"I think my book looks as good as any book," he said. "You couldn't do that 20 years ago, but you can do that now."
In finishing his work, Wilson is still fascinated with what people are able to achieve, particularly from the lowest point in their lives. Translating information into emotion is how to bring change in a person, he said.
"As good as we are at developing AI (artificial intelligence), we still can't make it driving a freaking car," he said. "The human mind has this amazing ability to love, create things and create joy. (Those in his rehab programs) are leaving most of their potential on the table. They have a co-dependent relationship with meth or alcohol or some other distraction, and they're not realizing their potential to create a world full of wonder."
Wilson's book can be purchased at authenticmanschool.com. He plans to spend the first leg of his retirement supporting the book with public events in the coming months.