The “Transition Class” for those prisoners getting out soon ended today. My “neighbor,” assigned to an adjacent bunk, a young man who had a very limited outlook for success in society, came back in the dorm, showed me his certificate, and said, “I talked about you at graduation.”
“What did you say?”
“I told them that before I met Charlie Norman my only plan for release was to get out and start another meth lab, make as much money as I could, so I’d have enough money to last me for the next few years when I came back to prison.
“He told me that was b.s., an he showed me these books he read about crops, farming, and the Mother Earth News magazine. He had these seed catalogs, and I began reading everything, including a big book on organic farming. I felt that I could do that. I’m from the country, people I know have land I could use, and I began to believe, because of Charlie Norman’s encouragement, that I could make a successful living doing organic gardening. I began writing things down, making plans, looking forward to the future, for the first time. He said when I get out, I should go to church, meet some decent people, and not associate with the losers and dopeheads that I hung around with before. I’m gonna do that.”
When this young man moved into the re-entry dorm, he told me that he would be getting out in a few months, but had six years probation to do. He knew he would never complete six years “on paper,” that he knew he would violate and return to prison, and his plan was to get out and make $10,000 by any means necessary, so when he came back to prison, he would have enough money put away to be able to live on during his imprisonment. Starting a meth lab was his only release plan.
After the class graduation, the instructor, an outside employee, told my neighbor that if he needed help obtaining information on what he planned to do, she would use the computer to find it. He discovered what I learned years ago, that if you showed good intentions, good people would try to help you.
I’ve been serving this life sentence since before this young prisoner was born. I have known thousands of men over the years who were virtually interchangeable with him, and I have despaired at the waste and cost — to society, to those young men, and the loved ones who suffer along with the men at their failures. Working in dozens of programs over the years, I’ve found that many prisoners suffered from a lack of vision, unable to picture a future law-abiding, successful life in free society. They are untrained, uneducated, unprepared to be good citizens. They cannot visualize themselves getting a decent job, earning a paycheck, having a family, living the American Dream. Instead, they live the American nightmare.
What I’ve tried to do over all these years is to paint pictures different from the prison failure vision, the only future they could otherwise see, and help them realize that there were other choices they could make. Poor choices, impulsive choices, wrong choices — prisoners are plagued with bad judgment. When faced with a life-altering choice, so many prisoners seem doomed to choose the worst alternative, time and time again. In this instance, if my influence caused one future meth lab to be eliminated, then something positive for society and the life of one young man was achieved.
I am pleased that I’ve been able to positively influence many hundreds more men who got out of prison, led law-abiding lives, and never committed another crime. You don’t hear about the success stories. The failures are the ones the news media pay attention to.
This latest example only strengthens my resolve to continue speaking out to these impressionable young men, doing what I’m obligated to do for my fellow man, in the worst possible circumstances, despite being unable to help myself.
To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, I depend on the kindness of strangers, friends, and family to speak up for me.
NOTE 01/23/2014: This young man got out of prison last week, picked up by his family members. At the time of his release, he was still intent on his new plan and determined to follow through with it. Time will tell, but we’re praying for him and hope for the best. (Libby)