Strength of Character

Strength of Character

Being incarcerated for any length of time can be a brutal, psychologically taxing experience. As of this writing, I am 40-years-old, and I have been incarcerated for 19 years, roughly 48% of my life. And while that may be eye-popping, it is important to remember that I am not the victim here. I hurt others, and there is no getting around that truth. My own behavior, my selfishness, my violence put me in prison. I deserve to be in prison, but I don’t ever want to be a man who belongs here.

My self-centered behaviors, my “doing” flowed from my inward state of “being.” I was broken inside. Only bad people consistently harm others in physical, material, and emotional ways. I was a horrible person — no singular act of violence led to my incarceration; it was a self-centered lifestyle that allowed violence and criminal activity to be acceptable, made increasingly worse by my self-hatred, which I self-medicated with copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. I hated who I was, but I don’t hate who I am. I’m not the same person today.

During my journey, I have thought much about how a bad person can become a good person. Is it even possible? I think so. I believe people can change. I’m certainly not saying I have achieved such a monumental feat, but I have arrived at a few foundational conclusions about what having strength of character means, which is such an abstract and confusing concept that it can make my head swim. It is so difficult to define. It is also extremely difficult to find in prison.

Personally, I don’t want to hurt anyone ever again — that is a top priority in my life. And a long time ago I realized that accomplishing that involves not only putting off my old patterns of “doing,” but also putting on a new way of “being.” If I want to be a good man, then it is my responsibility to figure out what that means.

Although admittedly complex, I feel like the characteristics of a good man are fluid and flexible, while paradoxically remaining absolute and irreducible. Whether incarcerated or not, a good man exemplifies courage, honesty, responsibility, patience, tolerance, high standards, kindness, mercy, loyalty, integrity, authenticity, and honor. These are not specific acts of doing; they are traits that determine how a person will act and react. They involve being. And while this may seem an impressive list, they are merely words. What they actually mean is incredibly elusive and slippery. They may engender strong, positive feelings, but what do they look like in action? This has been a difficult question for me to consider.

For example, courage is often subjectively determined by one’s view of the situation. Yet at its core, courage is not paradigmatic; it is objectively defined, although its application or expression, perhaps, may be situational. Courage is a commitment to face a threat, rather than run from it. Yet, even threats are subjectively determined, right? I mean, I’m not really afraid to fight. Some guys are, but I am not. However, I am quite fearful of appearing weak to others. For some, a willingness to fight when afraid takes courage, but for me, a willingness to walk away takes much more courage.

Prison culture has warped values and twisted social norms. There are times when you must fight, but most often, you have a choice. Yet, to walk away often appears weak. To speak up against racism or to encourage others to find peaceful, non-violent solutions to interpersonal conflict can appear soft, a weakness to be exploited. Therein lies my dilemma — to be courageous, for me, runs against the values of my environment. Decorated U.S. Army General George S. Patton (WWII) has been credited with saying, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it.”

Consequently, for me, physically fighting, using violence to appease my bruised ego, essentially failing to defend my values, is a cowardly act, a selfish act. Courage, then, involves the fortitude to keep from being shaped by prison culture while simultaneously being defined by it.

Honesty has similar elastic qualities. Honesty involves far more than simply telling the truth and not lying, right? I mean, we all know that annoying cat who constantly embellishes in order to impress others and garner affirmation, basically by force. But as a character trait, honesty requires acknowledging mistakes and taking responsibility for my actions, rather than relying on clever duplicities in an effort to avoid consequences. Honesty involves resisting the temptation to use deception as a tool in order to defraud others for personal profit. The fruit of honesty, over time, is being viewed as a trustworthy person.

In prison, I see incredible dishonesty all around me on a regular basis. Guys may be “honest” (so called) with their “homies,” but consistently dishonest with everyone outside of their immediate social circle, and even themselves, especially when caught doing something against the rules. In my opinion, honesty is not a situational ethic — it must be the standard. I don’t need to “rat” on anyone in order to be honest, but I do need to be real with myself and others about my own actions. If honesty is not the standard, I am ultimately incapable of having character free from deceit.

That leads seamlessly into the concept of responsibility. As a character trait, responsibility involves dependability, fortitude, determination, and acceptance of consequences. I would go so far as to say that responsibility is the hallmark of adulthood, the foundation of everything. A good man is responsible for not only himself, his words and actions, but also those in his care, his family, friends, and all those affected by his decisions, words and actions. A responsible man will, at times, be willing to sacrifice his own needs or desires in order to keep from negatively impacting others. He is also accountable to his own conscience and willing to answer for his behaviors, whether they are right or wrong. He readily acknowledges his mistakes and takes an active role in righting his wrongs.

I really feel like patience and tolerance go hand in hand — A man who aspires to be good will patiently seek to understand others before making judgments about people and situations. As a tutor in the Education Department, I battle my own impatience often when I teach a challenging student algebra, paragraph writing, or even the structure of the U.S. government. Most men in here are not as educated as I, and if I genuinely want to positively impact them, I must exercise tolerance. By patiently enduring their mistakes as they learn, helping them to be okay with the trial-and-error process of growing, I learn humility, and the ensuing tolerance transfers to my view of everyone who is different than I, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or educational/socioeconomic backgrounds.

It is not easy to set aside my personal biases in order to positively impact others. It is volitional, a choice, and I think the ability to do so flows from having empathy toward them. Others may think, feel, and act differently than I; they may have different beliefs or arrive at different conclusions about faith, politics, or reality itself, and to be okay with that requires not only tolerance, but also the kind of patience that fosters personal growth, knowing these differences do not threaten my own uniqueness.

I think a good man must have high standards as well. He will not always live up to them, of course, but he will do his best to adhere to his ideals. Standards of behavior, speech, and work ethic flow from self-discipline and commitment to growth. It is not easy to be a man of high standards, but it is easy to tell those who have them from those who do not. For example, I have seen cats in here erect personal standards for the explicit purpose of being seen doing so, creating the structure of their mask. Yet, behind the meticulously designed facade, they feel entitled to exercise no true boundaries, no morals, ethics, or universal code of conduct whatsoever. They are sharks who feed on others. I believe a good man refuses to do that. The outcome of a man without standards is both predictable and inevitable.

In my opinion, mercy and kindness run together as well. You cannot have one without the other. Mercy can be defined as entering into the experience of another and by doing so, feel moved to help. Mercy is love in action. A merciful man is one who stoops to conquer not only himself, but also another’s pain and suffering if he can. In prison, this type of kindness is very difficult to witness because it doesn’t happen much — it is just too risky. Genuine kindness recognizes the need for simple things like generosity, a smile, or even holding back bitter words, but it also includes the far bigger idea of not being emotionally or physically dangerous to anyone, which, in prison, is viewed as weakness to be exploited. Therefore, one must know how to stand up to the dangerous while being kind to the harmless. Mercy, in prison, is taking the time to know the difference.

Ahh… loyalty — what an overused word. Almost everyone wants loyalty, but so few are willing to give it in return. I think a good man is willing to pay the price for remaining loyal to his loved ones as well as his own ideals. Loyalty involves allegiance, an allegiance of commitment and faithfulness. When the inevitable conflict arises between loyalty to loved ones and loyalty to personal values, I feel like a good man would have the backbone to challenge loved ones about dishonesty or immoral behavior while simultaneously supporting them, which can be arduous and painful. Ultimately, however, loyalty to loved ones means not doing things that harm them and making sure they are protected, as well as playing an active role in ensuring that loved ones feel the comfort of that loyalty. Loyalty leaves no doubt.

Integrity is yet another murky, often misunderstood attribute. Not only is it the quality of having strong moral convictions, but it involves the ability to put them all together into blended functional properties that can be consistently applied. I can believe that courage, honesty, kindness, and loyalty are valuable traits, even admirable ones, but without the capacity for practical application when tempted to do the opposite, they are merely good ideas. It has been said that integrity means doing the right thing even when nobody’s looking. The only way to do that is to know what the right thing to do is — and to make doing it habitual.

A good man, with unquestionable strength of character, is authentic. There is no circumventing this. He is not phony; indeed he cannot be. He is comfortable in his own skin. Above I mentioned the mask that some wear — being authentic means not wearing a mask. A mask hides the beauty of the soul. Authenticity allows the unique beauty of the soul to shine into the world.

The dictionary defines authenticity as denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life. I view it as harmony between my inner life and outer behaviors. It is congruency of face — an authentic man is the same regardless of those around him. In prison, I watch so many cats alter their beliefs and behaviors in order to conform to those around them. To me, that inconsistency of character displays not only profound insecurity, but a distinct lack of personal identity as well, leaving them conspicuously untrustworthy.

Perhaps the most difficult trait to define, and therefore to achieve, is honor. Again, the dictionary holds honor to mean adherence to what is right, a morally upright standard of conduct. However, the term dishonor does me no favors when it comes to understanding — it means to have lost all claim to the good opinion of one’s peers. Consequently, I’m left to infer honor is defined by adherence to a socially accepted set of values. Yet, what those standards are depends upon the moral attitude of the majority. Then context matters, and in prison an apparent binary social code exists. One code is honorable to wider society and dishonorable among those encapsulated by prison culture; the other is honorable within the prison environment but dishonorable to wider society. That is how it is usually framed, but I don’t think it has to be so.

This squeeze between cultures can be a tight spot, making the formation of good habits difficult. The overwhelming majority of guys in here will choose the immediate gratification of acceptance within their environment. Yet, I want to be honorable, a man who epitomizes all the traits of a good man I’ve listed here, so the choice is clear for me. It is simple, but it is not easy. I am far from perfect, but I know who I want to be. And I’m finding more and more that striving to be a good man, even in prison, can be done. It is even respected when done right, with pure motives.

All this seems so idealistic, so utopian, doesn’t it? However, this type of strength of character exists in the world. It is not a myth. The very fact that it seems to be is evidence of how elusive truth and goodness have become. Good men exhibit these traits everyday, albeit imperfectly, but to be imperfect while straining for excellence sort of captures the human condition, does it not? And those men who strive to live up to the ideals described here inevitably enjoy a deep sense of justice, purpose, and self-respect, which in turn, garners the respect of others. Imagine professional athletes: They never stop chasing perfection, never stop working to get better. Good men pursue truth, love, and hope with a contagious zeal that impacts everyone around them in unfathomable ways.

While not intended to be exhaustive, I hope this writing has conveyed effectively my thoughts about not only what it means to be a genuinely good man, but also how difficult it has been for me to understand just what that means. I know right from wrong, to be clear, but I’m talking about more than that. I’m talking about impact, transformation, and giving back. A man who only consumes and never gives back is most certainly a nickel out here looking for a dime. All the negative traits I observe in prison moves me to constant personal reflection in order to root out any of them I see in myself. After all, I am in prison, too, encapsulated by my environment just like everyone around me. I guess it’s true what they say: The same boiling water that hardens an egg softens a potato. It all depends on my response. And where I stand does not have to depend on where I sit.

Honoring My Victims Every Day

Honoring My Victims Every Day

We are pleased to share this Opinion Piece in The Oregonian by guest columnist and frequent AI blogger Martin Lockett.


I had been drinking all day on New Year’s Eve of 2003 and then, had gone to a party to celebrate more. Later, as I drove my twin brother home, he tried repeatedly to get me to slow down, to drive more carefully. But I ignored him.

Moments later, I sped through the intersection of Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Fremont Street and crashed into a car. As I was being interviewed by a police officer, he told me that I had killed two people and another was being life-flighted to Emmanuel Hospital.

It was days later when The Oregonian newspaper was delivered to my cell that I grasped the devastation — and the irreversibility — I had caused my community. It turned out that my victims were actively working their own programs of recovery from substance use. They had turned their lives around and were helping others do the same. Now they were gone.

Employees and clients at Volunteers of America and other recovery-related organizations were in shock and disbelief as they learned about the tragic deaths of their friends, mentors and loved ones.

Nearly a year later at my sentencing, I was confronted by my victims’ family members who were just a few feet away from me as they gave their victim impact statements. They offered me forgiveness that I didn’t deserve, yet they also made it known I took something immeasurable from them that they could never get back: Any more precious memories they’d ever make with their mothers.

Then I stood up, turned around and addressed the courtroom: “My indictment says I acted with extreme indifference toward the value of human life, but I can assure everyone here that my feelings have been anything but indifferent since the day this happened. And I know it’s not much consolation, but I vow to spend the rest of my life doing all I can to ensure something like this never happens again.”

With that, I was sentenced to 17 years and six months.

For the next three years I lived with immense guilt and shame for the senseless decision to drink and drive that fateful night because it changed the course of these people’s lives forever. But once I was able to forgive myself, I was able to positively channel that energy into making a difference in the lives of others, carrying on the legacies of the people I had taken from this world.

In keeping with that solemn life vow that I made more than 14 years ago to my victims’ family and friends — and my own — I have used my time to earn an education toward a career in counseling. I knew this would give me an opportunity to help others struggling with addiction, the same addiction that led to me killing two people. In these efforts, I have earned a master’s degree in psychology and published my memoir, “Palpable Irony,” in an effort to detail and warn against the dangers of drinking and driving. Three years ago, I was given a rare opportunity to share my story and help lead panels of victims hurt by other impaired drivers here at the prison. This restorative justice program provides profound healing for many men incarcerated for fatal car collisions as well as victims who come in and tell us their heart-wrenching stories. Those in attendance are incredibly moved and grateful for having heard so many compelling stories that urge them not to drink and drive.I currently work as a certified recovery mentor in a drug and alcohol treatment program at the prison. I mentor men one on one, counsel them in group settings and assist them with recovery-related issues. This is such a unique position within the Oregon Department of Corrections, and I couldn’t be more grateful and humbled that I would be entrusted with such a responsibility. Through this effort, I have earned state certification as a recovery mentor, and I expect to receive my state certification as drug and alcohol counselor early next year. This work is my life’s passion. Not because it makes me look good, or makes a lot of money, or because it could reduce my sentence. It can’t.

Rather, I do this work because my reckless actions took two beautiful people from this world. Therefore, I will honor their precious lives and bring meaning to mine every day through using my story, education and experiences to help others not follow in my footsteps.

And, because I said I would.

— Martin L. Lockett, MS, CRM, is serving the 15th year of a 17-year sentence at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

Counting My Blessings

Counting My Blessings

It’s not too often that we take time in our day to reflect on the many good things we have: a job, healthy kids, a home in a safe neighborhood, food on the table, and the list could obviously go on for pages. After all, we are so preoccupied with the hustle and bustle of day-to-day affairs, doing everything we can to stay on top of our responsibilities; who has time to stop what they’re doing, ponder life’s blessings, and truly be grateful for them without thinking about what we need to get done the next day — or even an hour from now? But doing this is actually as critical as taking care of all the obligations we give so much of our attention to.

I have indeed found myself contemplating, more and more, the many blessings I have, even in my current circumstance which is inherently negative. But this is not entirely voluntary; allow me to explain.

I work for an addictions treatment program. Every day we start the group session with a daily reflection read from a book, and each person says why or how it resonates with him, followed by what is called a Daily Moral Inventory (DMI). When we check in for the DMI, each person says how the previous day went, what they’re grateful for, what they regret (if anything), etc. This expectation can at times seems repetitive, but I’ve learned that it’s a healthy practice to get into because if I were not “required” to do it, I likely wouldn’t “have time” to reflect on what I’m grateful for, in spite of my physical circumstance. Instead, I’d either keep my head down and stay focused on my job, my next goal, or find myself complaining about what is not going well in my life. 

It’s entirely too easy to fall into a pattern of allowing good fortune in our lives to go unacknowledged as we focus our attention on the next goal or responsibility we want and/or need to carry out. This is a harmful practice, however, because it is essential to our psychological well-being that we take time to “pat ourselves on the back” for things we’ve accomplished, appreciate the things and people that make our lives more purposeful and fulfilling, and be grateful for opportunities that others have not had in life. Doing this has allowed me to refocus my efforts, while doing my part to “pay it forward.”

I intend to keep this practice of daily reflection and gratitude going even after I release from prison because it’s shown me how to ground myself on a daily basis. Life is entirely too short not to celebrate our good fortune and acknowledge how others have enriched our lives.

I take time to acknowledge and be appreciative that I can fulfill my dream of becoming a drug and alcohol counselor. I get to work for a successful treatment program in a prison setting, and teach groups and individuals about addiction and recovery, decreasing their likelihood to recidivate after they are released. I have had the rare opportunity to earn a Master’s degree in prison that, according to statistics, gives me a 0% chance to recidivate. Moreover, it enables me to go directly into my field with a level of credibility and respect that I never imagined coming into prison 14 years ago.

These are a few of the many things I take time to appreciate as often as I can. Life has enough struggles to complain about; therefore, I owe it to myself (as do you) to cast as much sunshine on my day as possible — by counting my blessings.

Why Bother

Why Bother

Any woman in a relationship with a man in prison can attest to the fact that there will, unfortunately, be many in their families and inner-circle of friends who don’t approve of their relationships. Many who are critical of these relationships, however, are not coming from a place of experience or personal interaction with the incarcerated man, and therefore would give them a credible basis on which to judge him as a person — no. Rather, they operate from the standpoint of preconception, bias, and prejudice toward him — and anyone who is in his shoes — based solely on the fact that he is incarcerated. Simply put, they believe their friend or family member who is in this relationship can do much better, particularly with someone who is not locked up.

This is unfortunate because the fact of the matter is many good people reside behind bars — yes, I just said that. Most of us came to prison while in our addiction; this, however, is not nor was not reflective of who we are at our core. When forced to confront ourselves in a place of confinement such as prison, we tend to come to a place of honesty, growth, and for many of us maturity. We are in touch with ourselves and possess more qualities to offer in relationships than ever before; all we desire from those in society is a chance to be judged on who we are today. Unfortunately, many people disallow us this opportunity.

How sad it is that women who are in love with men in prison are denied the opportunity to talk to their girlfriends or family about their latest visit, phone conversation, or the amazing drawing, card or letter she recently received from her man. She knows any mention of him will be met with a scathing rebuke by some in her inner-circle. So, she is forced to keep it all to herself.

Why does she stay? they wonder. Why not leave him and find someone out here? they’ll ask. She tries to tell them she has met the man who understands her like no one else; that he is caring, sweet, and doesn’t judge her like many others do. She pleads with people she loves to just give him a chance to show he’s a good guy, but they’re not interested. Their minds are made up. As a result, she again shuts down and keeps them from her relationship lest they bring her down.

Here’s what I have learned: People with hardline positions who are not willing to have their positions challenged through experience are not going to budge one bit. They are intellectually lazy and emotionally stubborn. You can try to convince them to see something differently in the most direct or subtle ways, and they will refuse to be open-minded. So, for women in this type of relationship, when it comes to trying to get them to accept your man the way you see him — as a person deserving of a second chance — I would offer one rhetorical question: why even bother? You are wasting your time, energy and effort in trying to move an “immovable object.”

The best approach that will provide you with the most peace and serenity is to accept that they will be who they are; they will not give your man the benefit of the doubt. But, truthfully, that’s not what matters. What does matter is the fact you are happy and secure in your relationship. What should keep you going is the confirmation you get every time you talk to him, visit him, or receive a letter expressing exactly how he feels about you, how he tells you he can’t wait to spend every day outside of prison with you by his side. Let these sentiments carry you and comfort you in the midst of the unwarranted judgement and condemnation from those around you. Remember this: what others think about you is none of your business. What ultimately matters is what you think about yourself and your relationship. If both give you peace and happiness, then rest in that. Why bother trying to convince others they should feel the same way?

The Ripple Effect

The Ripple Effect

For too many years of my life I assumed my actions affected me and only me. So what if I chose to drink away my pain? So what if I messed up, got arrested, and got sentenced to many years in prison: I’m the one doing the time, or so I thought. I couldn’t see beyond myself and the consequences I’d reaped to see the pain in the faces others who love me — not to mention in all the victims I created while living my life of crime and addiction.

My parents did the very best they could to raise my brother, two sisters, and me. They worked hard, bought us presents for every birthday and Christmases and spent quality time with all of us on a daily basis. We were never considered middle class from a financial standpoint, but I never felt as though I lacked anything that my middle-class friends had.

I added this context to show how my actions were strictly of my own volition — my parents raised us with values. So, when I came to prison at 19, my parents should have felt no guilt for my predicament; but what do you think actually happened? Naturally, any parent is going to question why their son (or daughter) went wayward, what they think they could have done differently to change the path I’d taken. My decisions tortured them, kept them up many a night, and brought them to experience agony they did not deserve. 

They were now put in the unfortunate position of visiting their son in this god-forsaken place, often times being treated like a criminal themselves when they came to visit. They were compelled to now support me, not by giving me money for a birthday or Christmas but helping me buy commissary, hygiene products, and paying for phone calls. They did not deserve this — they never did. Now, they are both gone, and this is the last place they were able to hug their son.

My twin brother, sisters, nieces and nephew have likewise had to come into prison for 15 years (plus three more on a previous prison stint) if they wanted to see me. They are forced to celebrate my birthdays by sending a card — not taking me out to dinner or otherwise. If they want to talk, they have to pay $4.80 for 30 minutes. My nieces and nephew have not had their uncle at birthdays, Christmases, graduations, and so much more. I have been forced to watch them grow up through pictures. My family has been nothing but law-abiding citizens their entire lives and by no means deserve to be subjected to this situation. But because they love me, they would never abandon me. They do not deserve what my actions have put them through.

My victims and their families did not ask to have their lives shattered by the tragedy that I solely produced 15 years ago. Their lives were cut short, never able to reach the full potential they possessed. Future generations of their families will never meet them and come to know the beautiful souls they had. My addiction, recklessness, and complete selfishness severely altered their lives forever. They were doing everything right; I was doing everything wrong, and now they are not here but I am. How is that fair? I obviously cannot answer that, but what I can say with absolute certainty is they — none of them — deserved what I did to them.

For many of us in prison, because we are the ones physically secluded from society and deprived of any semblance of freedom, we equate this with the notion that we’re the only ones affected by our bad decisions. But as I have outlined here, this is simply a misguided, narrow-minded viewpoint. Not only our victims, but also our families, significant others, friends, and many others are affected by the costly decisions we made. Coming to prison is a burden to so many people who didn’t deserve it. The sooner I was able to realize this truth, the sooner I was able to start to rehabilitate. Cognitive classes, church, and educational courses are all positive ways to spend one’s time in prison, but without coming to terms with the massive ripple effect left in the wake of our crime and subsequent prison stay, true rehabilitation and accountability will be impeded.