From GED to PhD

From GED to PhD

Photo by Taha Mazandarani on Unsplash

I have been incarcerated for over twenty years now, a lifetime for many. When I was 21-years-old, I took a man’s life in a fight that I started. Yet, while I unquestionably deserve to be in prison, I never wanted to be a man who belongs here, and I  have worked hard to never be. It took some time for the momentum of positive energy and self-discipline to become transformative, but I have not wasted my days. On December 10, 2021 I graduated with a PhD in Psychology and Counseling, but my journey goes beyond academics.

I arrived at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution an emotionally underdeveloped 21-year-old with little education. I didn’t even have a GED, and I was profoundly self-centered and insecure. For  years I used alcohol, drugs, and lies to cover my shame and conceal my psychosocial dysfunction, but when I arrived here and the heavy metal door shut behind me… and on my life, I was left with nothing but the truth of who I was and what I’d done. I grieved over the loss of my life–as any narcissist would, but deep down, I knew I had hurt so many people, one of whom would never go home. I grieved for him, too, and I knew I must do something different. I could not stay who I was.

Not much real change happened in the first couple years of my incarceration. The system is structured far more around order and security than rehabilitation, and I didn’t know how to change myself or be anything other than what I had always been. Consequently, it took time for me to learn how to be different, and it wasn’t easy.

A transformational moment in my life came while I was in disciplinary segregation after a fight. I had what I believe to be a spiritual experience, which I describe in an earlier blog post on this platform, and it redirected the focus of my life–at that point, although I did not yet know what my future held, I knew there was something more for me. My life was not forfeit. I knew there was a purpose for me that I had to pursue.

I prayed often after I was released back into general population. Nothing too pious or formal, but a sort of running commentary with God. I never  heard an audible response, but  whenever I would pray about direction or ask for guidance, I always felt a one-word response in my spirit: Learn. That is all I was given. So… I pursued it with all of me, leading to significant educational achievement.

I earned my GED in 2003, and in early 2008 I was hired as a tutor in the Education Department, a job I still hold today. Through a career development site available in the computer lab, I found a university that offered distance learning for the incarcerated, and I contacted them.

My mother had recently received some money, and she asked me if I needed anything. I could have asked for trivial, comfort-oriented things, but I told her about the educational opportunity I had found, and she was on board. She paid for my entire education, from the first course in my associate degree program to the final practicum for my doctoral program. I will never be able to adequately express my gratitude, for she very likely saved my life.

I use the metaphor of a weed often — I look back on my young life, and I see that I was a weed. I negatively affected all the good around me, and I was ultimately removed because my impact on those around me was universally ugly. I brought nothing of worth to anyone, and when I realized this, I simply had no desire to live because I knew I was a burden to everyone, especially those who love me. I just didn’t want to keep going if I could not be any better than I was. It was during this low period that these educational opportunities came into my life.

The rest is really history from an academic standpoint. I earned an Associate of Arts degree in 2013, a Bachelor of Arts in Counseling in 2015, graduating Summa Cum Laude with a 3.98 GPA. I finished my Master’s of Counseling degree program in 2017, and I finally finished my educational journey in 2021, completing my PhD program. Moreover, I have accumulated over 350 additional CEU credits toward earning my certification in alcohol and drug counseling. I have everything I need for my license except the 4000 hours of clinical counseling, which I cannot get in here. I am immediately employable in my field, however.

The best lessons I have learned go beyond academic achievement. I have learned what it means to know who I am, to know my purpose, and to find meaning in the pain of my own mistakes. I have learned that I don’t need to wear a mask to hide my flaws or to use drugs and alcohol to numb my emotional struggles. I have learned self-awareness, empathy for others, and acceptance of my weaknesses. I don’t need to force others to view me the way I want them to, and I don’t need to judge others in order to feel better about being me. In my journey from GED to PhD, I have learned how to be authentically me, and there is no greater gift that God could give me.

I have made so many mistakes in my life and hurt so many people, and although my violence was over 20 years ago, it remains powerfully salient for me — it is a motivating factor in my life. I don’t want to hurt anyone ever again or give space to or be a channel for darkness in the world. I want to be conduit for light and contribute significantly to the good in the world by using my faith in God, my education in counseling and psychology, and my experiences of failure, incarceration, and personal development to benefit others, especially those wrestling with issues of identity and addiction to harmful substances or behaviors.

I look forward to the next step in my journey of becoming all I was designed to be, and I am so grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way, my friends and family, my mother, and the Blue Mountain Community College instructors for whom I work have been life-changing influences in my life. I simply could not be where I am today without all of them — I am endlessly grateful. I have said it before: although I ended up in prison as a result of my own self-centeredness, prison is not the end of my story.

A Dash Defined

A Dash Defined

As of August 2021, I have officially completed my PhD program. I have earned a Doctorate of Philosophy in Counseling and Psychology, with an emphasis on the integration of psychology and theology. I have reached the apex of academic achievement, and I have done it while serving a life sentence in prison.

I have worked so hard and overcome so much. I remember the day I was arrested. I didn’t even have a GED, and I was so self-centered and self-absorbed, my worldview so narrow. I am a completely different person today. I have come so far on the journey toward becoming the man I was designed to be. One important thing I have learned along the way is that all my hard work and perseverance has not led me to the end of a journey, but prepared me for a beginning. I am now more equipped to use my life experiences, in conjunction with my education, in service to others, which will define my dash. I have found myself, and I can give of myself from a place of authenticity, meaning, and purpose.

I read a question once that has stuck with me. It was one of those profound questions that cannot be answered completely until after one’s life is over. It asks, “What did you do with your dash?” While some are longer than others, we all get one–after our lives are over, there will be a date when we were born and a date when we died… and a dash in between. Whether a literal dash on a headstone or a figurative one etched in time, we all get one, and all of them impact the world, some for better, some for worse.

The superhero, Colossal, stated that “Over a lifetime, there are only 4 or 5 moments that make you a hero.” Well, I think that there are 4 or 5 decisions that determine your character as well. We tend to think of heroes as having superhuman qualities, able to solve immediate and impossible problems with other worldly force. However, I think real life heroes display extraordinary courage and perseverance in order to open closed minds, to impact their environment positively, and to make change in the lives of others… and to do it on purpose.

During the last 20 years that I have been incarcerated, I have come into contact with some fantastically ignorant people. The most abrasive among them are those who view a long prison term as an accomplishment. Personally, I disagree. I believe a prison term is the result of a wasted opportunity at life, the inevitable destination of the profoundly unaware. Yet, I have learned that prison doesn’t have to define you, but what you do with your prison time will… every time.

Prison time is extremely difficult and painful, but it can be the crucible of pain and struggle that makes a person stronger, whether one wants it to or not–how we respond to our mistakes and to our hurts will almost always determine the quality of our future, and the definition of our dash.

I am in prison, and I am guilty. I deserved to be sent to prison. I wasted my young life. I hurt so many people, and it haunts me. The pain of the young man I used to be and the harm I have caused threatened to overwhelm me during my first few years of prison. I was emotionally isolated and had no psychoactive substances to mask the pain. There were times when I didn’t want to keep going, times when I didn’t think I could, and times when I didn’t think it mattered. I was on autopilot for several years, lost in the consequences of my own sins, knowing I deserved them.

Sometimes in life, you come across people that bump into you, and without your awareness — and perhaps without even theirs — they change your direction like asteroids colliding in space. In the middle of my emptiness, I was given the gift of people who believed in me, even when I wasn’t sure I could believe in myself. It only took a moment for my mother to pay for my education, for the GED instructors to give me a job as a tutor, and for so many along the way to provide love, assistance, and support — and for some to cut me a break when I needed one. Those people are the heroes of my story, and I simply could not have come as far as I have without them.

I am grateful for all the support and care I have been given along the way. For a man like me, coming from where I do, having gone through all that I have, and having hurt so many people… for anyone to give me a chance to choose to be different amounts to giving me a chance to be human, to accept my own imperfections, to love and be loved, and to experience success in the midst of failure. I was one of their four or five moments, but the moments they chose to use on me have literally altered the outcome of my life, and the impact of my dash. Everyday heroes have prepared me for the next step in the journey of my life, allowing me an opportunity to knowingly make the right four or five decisions that have permanently shaped my character going forward, decisions that — were it not for them — would have, in all likelihood, been the wrong ones, and carried me further into the abyss of narcissism.

The biblical definition of ‘angel’ is messenger’ … and many times ancient prophets did not even know they were speaking the Words of the Creator. If God is love (1 John 4:8) and God’s messengers are to love like Him (1 John 4:9-11), then the people who loved me enough to give me a chance are, quite literally, angels in the truest sense, and I am eternally grateful.

I am not yet free to deploy my education, personal development, and past experiences to benefit others on a broad scale. I still have work to do if I want my life to matter. For I have learned that I matter the most to my world when others matter to me. I have never been a hero to anyone, but the impact of those who believed in me helped me to overcome my own failures, which reverberate through me to the lives of others. My dash is not yet written in stone. We all get one, and it only takes four or five moments and four or five decisions to define it. I have never been a hero, but because of my angels, I want to be one.

Why Wait

Why Wait

Being in prison for now fifteen years, it’s pretty obvious that I have spent countless hours, days, and nights waiting: waiting for what will be my eventual release. On a daily basis, I’m forced — well, conditioned is more accurate — to wait for more mundane things like chow, yard, line movement (when inmates are given five minutes to come and go from their cells to a designated area), visits, etc. In fact, when I think about it, even prior to prison I spent much of my life waiting: waiting for my next paycheck, waiting for my lunch break, waiting to get off work, waiting for my vacation. It’s seemingly a natural human instinct to wait. But why? Why do we accept this bleak, uneventful reality? And perhaps more importantly, what are we giving up in the meantime?

When I came to prison fifteen years ago, I could not fathom how I was going to bring a semblance of normalcy to this dreaded situation. The only thing that actually kept me from going insane was day dreaming about my eventual release, albeit nearly two decades later. However, at some point I had to come to terms with my circumstance, accept the harsh reality I was going to be here, and begin to brainstorm how I was going to make my days meaningful — if I could.

Once I’d reached this point, I discovered something: I can make this as hard or as “easy” as I want it to be; I opted for the latter, and in doing so I began to pour all my energy into my evolution — my character overhaul, purpose-driven living, educational goals, being of service to those around me.

I focused on my character flaws (impatience, selfishness, manipulation) and began to work on each one, asking others around me to hold me accountable when they saw me exhibiting them. I approached every day with the attitude of improving myself, in turn making myself better able to help others – particularly younger inmates who may have looked up to me for how I conducted myself in prison. This gave me a purpose even in a place as dark as this. I tutored inmates of all ages and backgrounds who were working on their GEDs and other curricula because, thankfully, I was suited to do so having gotten my own GED while incarcerated. I then delved into my own educational endeavors by pursuing a college education. I didn’t know how it would turn out, where it would lead, but it didn’t matter because all that mattered was, I was improving myself personally and increasing my chances of employability when released. All of these things enabled me to keep my mind off the time – waiting – and on bettering myself on a daily basis, bettering those around me, bringing purpose and meaning to my life in a way that I’d never experienced prior to prison.

In eager anticipation of things, we often say we “can’t wait” for them to arrive. We spend each day leading up to a particular day or event in deep contemplation about it, excitement building at the mere thought of it. This should particularly resonate with those of you whose favorite holiday is Christmas. Though I’d never be the one to tell you that you should feel guilty for waiting in eager anticipation for this sacred, beloved holiday to arrive, I do caution you to not let it — or any other day or event you look forward to — prevent you from making the most of the day before you; to not lose sight of the gift of the present and the vast opportunities it yields — ones that will only be realized and seized if we’re looking for them, not if we are merely waiting for something else to arrive.

As I sit here and write, I only have two and half years left on my sentence. I have earned a master’s degree in psychology, published two books, gotten certified as a recovery mentor and expect to be state certified as a substance abuse counselor by year’s end. I have helped countless men in their own educational pursuits, addiction recovery efforts, and personal goals. I have co-facilitated the DUI victim impact panels offered here, telling my own story twice a year. My life has taken on a quality and immeasurable purpose that I could not have even imagined possible fifteen years ago when this journey began; this is directly attributable to the fact that I refused to wait: to wait for my life to pass me by in eager anticipation for a date on the calendar that would eventually come on its own.

Education Matters

Education Matters

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.

Letters From Prison: Frequent Unexplained Deaths

From a prisoner in the Sing Sing facility in New York.

inmate survey

Q: Please indicate issues you would like to see addressed in your facility.

A:  Actually, everything, because management could not run a hot dog cart for a week without going out of business. Clearly they want recidivism. Keep the cells full – just like a hotel needs its rooms full. Sing Sing may be best prison in NYS, but very badly run.

Main problems are health care with ZERO education, prevention, healthy diet, age appropriate care or exercise for older men. We have frequent unexplained deaths of fairly young men. Our pharmacy is very prone to errors. After our Nurse Administrator was “fired” and arrested, they gave her another job in mental health which is technically a different agency. She kept her parking spot! Does it sound like a certain church? Educational opportunities are here only for those who fit profile of 20-25 years, above average IQ, interested in college, and no mental illness. That is about 150 out of 1600. My GED classroom has 20 seats. About 1000+ men need a GED. Obviously, this “does not compute.”

Roughly half the population has substantial mental health problems (on psych meds, zero impulse control, talking to themselves, self-medication / drug abuse, very low intelligence, illiterate in any language). Treatment of mentally ill is overmedication, zero exercise, poor diet and isolation.

For those of us who came to prison with skills and education, the problem is no opportunity to use or maintain skills. Our library is okay for fiction, otherwise zilch. Very old, e.g., vacuum tube electronics and a book on Fortran IV (might be valuable to a collector?). Car books have carburetors and crank windows.

Drug problems are major. Head in the sand about problem because “they” don’t want to explain how drugs can get through a forty-foot-high concrete wall. (Staff, of course.) Only control point is poverty of most prisoners.