My name is Eric Burnham, but these days I’m better known as inmate #12729124. I grew up in a low-income, single-mother home. Nobody in my family had ever graduated high school, so any thoughts of college were “what if” dreams.
As a young teenager, I arrived at the conclusion that there was a ceiling over my life. Whether for socioeconomic reasons, psycho-social stumbling blocks, or poor lifestyle choices (perhaps a combination of all three), I grew to accept the idea that there were just some things in life I would not be able to do. Getting a college education was one of those things, and once a person identifies something as unattainable, steps to get it are considered a waste of time. Consequently, when I was 15 I dropped out of school–a dysfunctional family situation made my poor choices much easier. I was messed up inside, and I self-medicated with lots of drugs, alcohol, and consensual sex. I completely embraced a criminal lifestyle. I didn’t really care how I was living or who I hurt as long as I was numb.
During adolescence, the belief that I was incapable, and therefore undeserving, of anything better became a firm fixture within my self-concept. I was deteriorating fast, and the culmination of my poor choices was a life sentence in prison. I was 21-years-old. I take full responsibility for the carnage of my past. I am deeply ashamed of who I used to be. When I arrived at EOCI in 2001, not only did I not have a high school diploma or a GED, but due to my substance abuse during adolescence, I was emotionally underdeveloped as well. I was initially assigned to the GED program. Within two weeks I dropped out, and about a month later I was placed in disciplinary segregation for fighting.
While in segregation, I began to realize I was worth more than the way I had been living. I wanted something different for my future, or I knew I would die in prison. I just didn’t know how to change. I did know, however, that getting back into the GED program was a good place to start. I earned my GED within six weeks, and I felt like a new man. To the prison staff, a GED isn’t much, but to me, earning my GED showed me I was capable of success, which was empowering beyond description.
I began to question my involvement with gangs, drugs, and other nefarious activities. I wanted more. I had begun to view myself as worthy of more. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t really know how to get what I wanted. It was at that point in my life an opportunity to earn college credit via correspondence-course format became available to me. Since I was enrolled in college courses, clear conduct was–and still is–required in order for the Education Department to proctor my tests. I realized I needed to stay away from certain people and activities that could negatively influence me or jeopardize my education. My lifestyle mattered to me for the first time in my entire life.
I freely admit I was scared. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel or how I was supposed to act. All I knew was that I wanted an education, and I didn’t want to let down the people who were supporting me. They believed in me, and nobody had believed in me like that before.
Staying out of trouble for a greater purpose than simply avoiding negative consequences is habit forming. I haven’t been to segregation since I began my pursuit of a college education. In 2015 I graduated Summa Cum Laude (3.98 GPA) with a BA in Counseling, and in 2017 I will graduate with a Master’s degree in Counseling (3.94 GPA). I’m taking my life in a direction I never thought possible.
For me, education has been a catalyst for change. The investment in myself and in my future has had an enormous impact on my self-concept, my worldview, and my decision-making process. Ironically, even though I’m still incarcerated, my education has provided a greater sense of freedom, purpose, and self-assurance than I have ever known. When I’m released from prison, I’ll be pursuing a career, not simply looking for a job. I’ll be able to use the knowledge and experience God has given me to help others who are struggling.
If you have a loved one in prison, one of the best things you can do is help him or her secure educational opportunities. They can use any help you’d be willing to provide. Education is vital in today’s high-tech, fast-paced society. Inmates releasing back into society already have a black mark against them because of the felonies that haunt them. They don’t necessarily need a college degree–college courses, vocational training, or even some anger management or emotional intelligence classes can significantly help. According to the Journal of Correctional Education, 75% of college educated inmates find stable employment upon release, and they have 43% lower odds of future incarceration. Education matters. It can literally change an inmate’s life. I know it changed mine.