It was the 4th day in a row that I had seen him in the prison rec yard. Maybe I just hadn’t noticed him before. But lately I had. He was walking laps on the track. Slowly. With the gait of a 60-year-old man who had carried more than his share of the burden for more years than I had been alive. And though it was a hot August day, he was dressed in his standard issues prison blues: jeans, a white t-shirt, a blue full sleeve cotton button down shirt, and worn brown work boots. In his left hand he carried a small white towel, with which he dabbed his sweat-beaded head from time to time. In his right hand, he clutched something a bit odder. A small sheaf of hand-addressed letters, maybe 20 or 30, held together with a couple of rubber bands. The envelopes on the outside of the bunch were yellowed with age, and stained with the practice of carrying them day in and day out on the walking track.
I watched as the man made his way to the concrete picnic tables, sat down, and gently, ever so gently, pulled a letter from the stack. He opened the envelop, and took out the letter, but he didn’t seem to be reading it. He was just holding it, lovingly, gently, between his hands, as he stared off into the distance, somewhere beyond the concrete wall and barbed wire fences. Every now and then he would stroke or caress the letter with his free hand, but his gaze never wavered from the horizon.
The Indiana State Prison in Michigan City Indiana, the oldest maximum security prison in the state, was not generally known for the strength of its inmate tutoring program, but nevertheless that was my prison job. I was a tutor in the ABE (Adult Basic Education) class. I worked with the most basic level of curricula… the alphabet, numbers, reading 2- and 3-letter words. I knew the old inmate in the rec yard wanted his privacy, but my curiosity as a tutor got the best of me, and I sat at the end of his table. He was almost in a trance, as he lovingly held what appeared to be a handwritten letter covered in a child’s script. I didn’t say a word. He wasn’t reading the letter, just holding it. After a while, it became clear to me that he wasn’t reading it because he couldn’t read it. But how could I broach such a delicate subject? If I said out loud what I knew to be true, it could expose a weakness in him, and in prison, a weakness could be fatal. Either to him, or to me for pointing it out.
It seemed such an injustice, though. To go through childhood and adulthood without knowing how to read or write, and then to be in a place where you are isolated from everyone who means anything to you, and then to get a letter from that loved one, but not be able to read it, or respond to it. That was too much. Here was a man who was in prison for whatever his crime was, and he was justifiably denied his freedom because of that. But to be denied that most vital of human connections because he couldn’t read? No. That was just plain wrong. So, I said something to him. He wasn’t upset. He had gone through his whole life with people knowing he couldn’t read, and he was used to that. But something was different now. He was ready to make a change. He wanted to be able to read for himself what his little niño was writing, and he wanted to be able to write back his own thoughts. I told him I respected what he was trying to do, and that I could help him.
And I did. A few weeks later, that old man was transferred to the classroom where I worked as a tutor, and I kept my promise. I worked with him one-on-one almost every day. His discipline and drive were impressive. Even after I was transferred to another class, the old man and I would meet in the rec yard to continue our lessons. And in the end, he achieved his goal. His goal wasn’t to get a GED, or even to get to 6th grade equivalency. He wanted to be able to read his niño’s letters, and he wanted to be able to write back. And so, he did.
In my eleven years in prison, I had the honor and good fortune to help many inmates (and a few guards) how to read and write, how to add and subtract, how to fill out a job application, how to write a resume, or how to keep track of a savings account for the first time in their lives. I’ve helped people get GEDs, Associate Degrees, and Bachelor Degrees. And I can honestly say, for all of those hundreds of people that I worked with, not once did I feel burdened by, or resentful of, the work I did. I always considered it an honor.
I was an educated young man when I went to prison. I was in school, at Indiana University in Bloomington, working my way into medical school, when I committed my crime. I was home for the weekend when my young sister told me that my dad was being very unfatherly to her. My father and I fought, and in the end, he ended up dead. I turned myself in, plead guilty and was sent to prison for 30 years. That was in 1992.
Prisons are full of the most unfortunate members of society. People who have never been given a fair shake at life. They’ve committed crimes, of course, and are guilty of them… that is without question. I was certainly guilty of my crime. But it is grossly disproportionate how many people in prison are there because of poverty (often generational poverty) or a lack of opportunity brought on by a lack of education.
When I got to prison, I spent a few years adjusting to what was going to be a very long stay. But once I recognized and accepted that I was going to be there for a long while, I needed to find a way to make a life within the walls. My options were few. I could do nothing, and just waste away mentally and physically. I could embrace the negativity and depravity of so many of those around me, and become the worst of the worst of society. Or, I could find a way to salvage what humanity I had left by helping to salvage the humanity of others around me. For my soul to survive, it seemed like I only had one option.
I was only 22 when I went to prison. I had no skills, and no experience. All I had really ever done in my life was go to school. So that is where I started. And working within the Education Department, I found that I had the ability to work with people that didn’t denigrate their present situation or disrespect their past life story.
Over the course of years, I found that helping others to heal from the some of the social injustices that they had endured throughout their lives helped me get a better focus on my own life and the type of person I was going to be if I ever made it out alive. I learned that humanity really is a community, and that no one has all of the answers. Not even me.
I learned that showing a little compassion and believing in people even a little bit, especially when they have never had anyone believe in them at all, can have a powerful effect in altering the trajectory of their lives.
I had been sentenced to 30 years in prison. Because I followed the rules and used my time to change the behavior that led me to prison, I was released after a little over 11 years.
The day I got out, I knew I had been given a second chance at life. Every day that I lived after that, I would do so to live up to that gift I had been given. And in this regard, my years of tutoring helped in ways I could not have foreseen. I found that I had learned a skill. But more than that, I had learned how to work with people. Not just beside them, but with them. To understand a little bit about them, to see a little bit of life from their perspective. Years later, when I would become a manager of group of about 50 men and women, I used my experience not just to lead them, but to understand what is important to them, and then work to empower them to achieve that goal.
But even more than that, I learned to seek out and to see hope. Hope in people, in that no matter how downtrodden they were, no matter how many mistakes they had made or how much of a hole their past had made in their present lives, I learned how to find hope in their lives, and how to help them see it for themselves.
A young lady that I met at a soup kitchen was reluctant to come to my tutoring classes. It turned out that she had a young baby. Because she was only 19, she did not yet have a fully formed sense of self-identity, and she was afraid that I would judge her for her early motherhood. But as I listened to her story, I found in her a kernel of hope that she did not yet recognize as such… her baby. That sweet child, who she thought would be a liability, was actually her greatest motivation. She ended up getting her GED, and was in talks with her mother to get off the streets and move back home so that the baby could be cared for and she could work and provide for a better life.
And slowly, over the years of helping people find hope in their lives, a miraculous thing happened. I began to find hope in my own life. The guilt that I felt because of my crime, the guilt that had not been bleached and burned out of me after a decade in prison, that weight of shame that I carried with me… well, I found that if I could be an agent of bringing hope to the lives of others, then maybe my own life had some value after all. And every day, from that point on, I would strive to live a life worthy of that hope. Worthy of that second chance that had been given to me.
I did not know if my ex-con life could meet that standard of hope and grace. I did not know, until one day, a chance encounter with a woman and her kids and a book of statistics. Then, and only then, did I know.