February 23, 2010. As I walked up to the main area where visitors are received at the prison, it occurred to me that some 15 years ago I was in prison. What a reality check!
Now, for the first time, I was returning – just this time it was in a different role. Fifteen years ago, I was an inmate and almost to the day fifteen years ago, I was taking my first steps out of prison to speak to students at a local school about choices and consequences – about what choices I made that got me into prison. On this day, some fifteen years later, I was speaking to inmates, having successfully navigated surviving and thriving following prison, about choices and consequences – specifically how to succeed in life following incarceration.
And, as I write this I have the sneaking suspicion that some of you – haven’t looked closely enough at my background and will find surprise in my open revelation. To me this is nothing new. I haven’t hidden my past. If you are open about who you are then those who would attack you are denied the ammunition. But, more important than my past is the fact that I am not defined by it either. I cannot change the fact that I am a convicted felon, but that label does not define who I am and the value that I bring to my family and society.
But this blog is not about me…rather it’s about what I saw when I looked into the eyes of those prisoners on February 23rd.
WHAT’S NEXT? I remember asking that question…time after time. As I took those first 23 steps into federal prison I knew that my life had changed. This new environment was something I was unfamiliar with – a foreign experience and for sure something I was unprepared for. I couldn’t go to Barnes and Noble and read “Prison for Dummies.” Although, I’ve thought of that since 9 out of 100 Americans will be incarcerated at some point in their lives. (Sad statistic).
Prison is a different world. The rules are unique and one must adapt to this new society or face problems that most would want to avoid. It’s not like the movies, at least not in every way. Likewise, especially minimum security prisons are not “club fed” either…just ask anyone who’s been there. Life is different and the adaptable survive.
OVER TIME…you become accustom to your new world…the world in which you work each day for 12 cents an hour. This world knows you as a number, not a person, and all effort is practically made to strip you of your identity. Bernie Madoff is no more important than John Doe…in fact, celebrity might work against you.
I tried in every way to keep a portion of who I was, but 2 steps forward were met with a push of 5 steps back. The sooner you accept your number and learn to blend the easier it becomes to survive. And, if you are cursed with a long sentence, then prison becomes a way of life. If I’ve ever seen anything that creates an entitlement mentality – prison does. It’s a bit like being stuck in a boarding school for a long period of time, you eventually think that life is what you are currently experiencing and forget that another “civilized” world exists out there somewhere.
NEARING THE END – But then you begin to see that the end of your sentence is approaching and again you wonder “what next?” Actually, for most inmates, that end “What’s next” question is the scariest one. Think about it…for “X” number of months or years this has been your life. You have not had to be concerned with where you would sleep, what you would eat, how you would get medical care, or where you would work. All of those questions were conveniently answered for you. After all you were the ward of the federal government or state…under their care and direction. Now, however, you’re facing a new day…a day when those questions have to be answered by YOU!
THE PRESENTATION: As I stood there, facing a group of inmates for the first time since I was released, I knew as I looked into their eyes what they needed. They needed HOPE! They needed the reassurance that they could make it on their own, that they were not destined to be a repeat statistic.
- Regardless of what they or anyone might say, the choices they made got them there. The sooner we learn to accept that we are truly the masters of our fate – good or bad, the quicker we learn to apply those “master” skills to empower ourselves to achieve our dreams.
- Life in prison (while truly a different experience and one that must be adapted to) is not normal and we must not forget that we are responsible for our own well being. No one is responsible for us – and for some that is a hard lesson.
- Yes…when you get out you will still be a convicted felon and many people will look down on your for that label. The question is not what you have been but rather what you elect to be. As a wise man once said to me, “Son, you’ve made a terrible mistate, but YOU ARE NOT A MISTAKE! The choices you make today will define your life in the future and the legacy you leave for your two children. MAKE THOSE CHOICES WISELY!”
- But, Chuck, finding work will be hard. Yea…that’s right, but they key is to do what other people are unwilling to do. Have you ever wondered what makes folks born outside of this country so successful? They see opportunity where others don’t. So think about the most “unsexy” jobs that most folks don’t want to do and do them. You can become rich in “garbage!”
- Last, but certainly not least, believe in yourself. Every human being, regardless of circumstance, has the power to move in the direction of your dreams. In fact, there is a song by that title sung by Michael Gott. I would highly suggest that you look it up on itunes…but it for 99 cents and listen. What an inspiration!
It was my honor to speak to those inmates and I hope that other opportunities like that present themselves. While speaking to a paying audience is wonderful, my “pay it forward” is addressing inmates and as I look into their eyes seeking hope – I hope that I fill their hearts with the knowing that they, too, can find joy beyond prison walls.