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.

Doing Time Well

Doing Time Well

Doing time in prison is a universally difficult experience, and the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated came in totally unprepared for life on the inside. As a result, most come out worse than when they went in, but a few defy the odds and overcome the prison environment in order to transcend the mistakes of their past and become better people. I have been incarcerated for 20 years now, and I’ve learned a few things about doing time well. Hopefully you will never need this information, but if you have a loved one going to prison, you might think about letting them read this.

What is of utmost importance is that the time be used productively, which does not happen automatically – nobody is set up for success upon entering the prison system. However, the ultimate deciding factor that shapes everything else about the time spent on the inside is the choice to take responsibility for your actions and not blame others. We put ourselves here – not the broken homes in which we grew up not the police or the district attorney or the judge, and not the correctional officers who run the prison. We did this, and we must not only recognize that fact, but we must also own the pain and turmoil left in our wake before we can move forward with our lives. Unless we do that, we will not have an effective springboard from which to launch, and we will be trapped in a destructive cycle of compensation behaviors that impede growth and stifle the actualization of inner potential.

Once we have taken responsibility for the pain we have caused others by our selfish actions, we regain the power to determine the direction of our lives. We are not victims of circumstance, and when we internalize this reality, we can use our time in prison to learn how to grow mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We can summon the motivation and determination to stay physically healthy, and we can expand our understanding of what it means to be a good person. Through relentless practice, we can make prison time an advantage in our pursuit of meaning and purpose. Yet, we still must do the time.

There are six primary things to avoid in prison. A failure to circumvent them effectively will, without a doubt, make the prison experience far more difficult. Gangs, drugs, gambling, informing on other inmates (ratting), homosexual activity, and talking about other inmates are all issues that have no good outcome. They should be avoided with vigor.

Gangs can offer acceptance, a degree of companionship, and the protection of numbers, but they come at a price – you are not your own. If you throw in with a group on the inside, you are no longer able to do your own thing. Using drugs in prison will put you in debt fast, and owing people in prison opens the door for violence and financial or sexual exploitation, you never want to put yourself at the mercy of sociopaths. Gambling holds another potential for exploitation, and sharks often swim in the waters that surround poker tables and sports books. Tread with extreme caution. Rats get hurt – never tell on anyone, and keep that which is not your business, not your business. Whether you are gay, bisexual, straight or anything else, homosexual activity in prison is never a good idea. It attracts the wrong crowd, invites predators, and can lead to violence, disease and victimization. Finally, keep other people’s names out of your mouth – if you don’t talk about anyone, then your words can’t be misrepresented.

Avoiding these six things will increase your safety and personal peace exponentially. The overwhelming majority of problems on the inside flow from one of these six issues. Those who come to prison often miss this fact, and whether through ignorance or a lack of self-control, get caught up in a cycle of violence and exploitation.

How you carry yourself is crucial as well. Be respectful both to staff members and other inmates. If you are respectful, you will usually receive a greater degree of respect from others. Don’t be a tough guy or a bully – it’s ugly, and all it does is show everyone how insecure you are. However, you must stand up for yourself, but that doesn’t always mean a physical fight. Communication and authenticity, although frightening and countercultural in a prison setting, will often lead to positive resolutions. Yet, there may be times when you must physically defend yourself, and if you are confronted physically, fight back. Defend yourself, but do it ethically – you do not need to stand tall in here, but you do need to stand up.

Prison is an honor culture where often seemingly insignificant slights can be met with sudden violence, but losing a fight does not always mean a loss of respect. Yet, a failure to defend yourself will lead to exploitation every time. Be mindful, however, and do not set out to hurt anyone – if you knock your opponent down, allow him to get back up or leave him be. Do not follow him to the ground or kick him, and never use a weapon – you don’t want new criminal charges. Violence is inevitable in prison, but you should make sure yours is defensive and never offensive.

It is also important to establish a routine. Get into a groove, set some goals, and work towards accomplishing them. Use smaller goals as milestones on the journey toward reaching the larger ones. Put your head down and put in some work on yourself and your life. Your time will pass quicker, and your self-esteem will improve as you see progress in your life.

Resist institutionalization. That is, depend as little as possible on the system. The encroachment of a certain amount of institutionalization is inevitable after years of incarceration, but an over-reliance upon routine, on others, on processes can lead to helplessness, anxiety, and an avoidance of people. Change your routine up from time to time. Get out of your safe space once in a while – growth begins at the end of your comfort zone.

Stay active and stay social. You may not always like those around you, but you need to stay human. Just be careful with whom you associate – remember, most of the people in prison are untrustworthy, and they will drag you into their drama. Some warning signs are those who have been to prison several times, talk bad about others behind their backs, fight a lot, are highly manipulative or exploitive, racist, overly controlling or overly nice, gang members, bring negative energy, complain a lot, are creepy or make you uncomfortable – if any of these are observable in a person, you should disengage. Be kind and cordial, but keep them at arms length and never do business with them.

I have been here for two decades, and in all that time, I have only met 4 people I consider friends, people I trust. In prison, you’ve got to accept that there will be extended periods of loneliness – savor the moments of genuine laughter and peace. They are often few and far between. Prison time is slow time, empty time. You’ve got to fill it with positive things or the darkness will cling to your personality and control your thoughts and behaviors. Fill your time with education, spirituality, reading, exercise, healthy competition, or anything that relieves stress and makes you better – and do it on purpose. Don’t sleep all day and do your time feeling sorry for yourself. Get up and grow!

Finally, no matter how much time you are doing, whether a lot or a little, remember you get out someday – that day will arrive and in order to be successful when it does, you need to be prepared for it. Seek vocational training if you can, acquire some skills you can use in the pursuit of your future. Increase your social skills, job interviewing techniques, self-control, and anger management. Save money and NEVER screw over the people who have helped you while you were on the inside. The universe aids the honorable, and luck favors the well-prepared. When preparation meets opportunity, potential can be actualized.

Look, it is really up to you. You get to decide what kind of person you are going to be each day. You can be a thug, self-centered and dangerous. You can be addicted to substances or behaviors. You can be a car thief or burglar. You can be a liar and a cheat if you want to be, but you don’t have to be – while it may not feel like it, it is very much a choice. Do you want to be in and out of prison the rest of your life? The department of Corrections will keep a light on and a bunk open for you. Sure, it is easier to come back to prison after you have been here, but it is your life. You can squander it behind these iron bars and razor-wired fences. You can either become someone who overcomes the mistakes of his past, or you can be defined by them and doomed to repeat them. Doing time well means coming out of prison a better person than when you went in to prison. The deck may very well be stacked against you, but enough with the excuses. Don’t follow the crowd. Do the time; don’t let the time do you.

Unexpected Insight

Unexpected Insight

Faith is the essence of being. Everyone has faith. Whether theistic, pantheistic, or atheistic, everyone believes in something, and faith perspectives stack exponentially. I mean, we must have faith in not only the legitimacy of our faith, but also how each perspective merges with another.That is, we must believe our faith perspectives are true, or ultimately we don’t believe them.

Personally, I am a Christ follower. I have faith in the accuracy and legitimacy of the biblical framework when effectively linked with common sense and married to scientific discoveries, revealing yet another layer: I have faith in the scientific method as well, believing that scientific inquiry and religious faith are not mutually exclusive but complementary. Faith solves philosophical problems that science cannot. The scientific method can only measure the physical world. Philosophy and theology attempt to interpret and explain those measurements. Faith, however, determines a person’s worldview based upon the subjective integration of available information from both science and philosophical or religious paradigms.

Faith can be difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. It is entirely peculiar, modified by one’s experiences and particular apprehension of reality. But basically it is a durable and enduring belief or trust is something or someone, right? However, the very capacity for faith is, in itself, evidence of a spiritual component within the human personality structure. Whatever you put your faith in will grow in your life. Faith is existential and inescapable, providing meaning and purpose while shaping one’s thoughts, goals, behaviors, and worldview. Yet the application of faith to everyday life is volitional, an act of the will. A person can know what should be done and still not do it, or know something should not be done and do it anyway. Regardless of one’s faith perspective, spiritual convictions can be either a blessing or a burden, a fountain of strength and perseverance or a pit of quicksand, pulling a person deeper into despair and self-loathing.

If a person has a conviction of faith, a genuine commitment to a moral value system but consistently fails to apply it or grow spiritually through an inability to apply it situationally, then he or she will feel inadequate, unworthy, and inferior on a deep, existential level. Over time, the pain of self-contempt will become endemic to the personality, part of the person’s identity, making it extremely difficult to shake at that point. Self-esteem is eroded, creating a sort of downward cycle of unworthiness, increasing the likelihood of failing to live up to the standards of one’s faith. And on the cycle goes, leading to insecurity, compromise, and defensiveness as a result of spiritual inauthenticity. The subsequent shallowness leads to felt emptiness and an ineffectual fulfillment of purpose.

On the other hand, when the principles of one’s faith are actively applied in ways that, albeit imperfectly, influence decisions and behaviors, feelings of self-respect and self-esteem increase, leading to spiritual empowerment. One feels the strength and authenticity of his or her faith. When a person lives out his or her beliefs, spiritual formation develops, and he or she experiences actualization of purpose, increasing opportunities to include faith paradigms in the decision-making process of one’s life. An upward cycle takes shape that expands worldview and faith perspectives through the accomplishment of growth objectives.

My faith, in conjunction with my education, has played a pivotal role in my personal transformation. My journey to life-changing faith in God’s existence and personal concern for me as an individual was certainly profound, but it did not break the laws of physics or include any strange hallucinations or visions. It occurred quite organically, actually.

In July of 2002, I was involved in a fist fight. I was taken to disciplinary segregation (the hole), and one day something happened. I was standing in the shower, and you need to understand that the showers in segregation are basically single-celled cages. It was dark, only a single, dim light in the center of the ceiling that revealed staggering filth. Hair and dirt lined the walls and used bars of soap and body fluids on the floor. I was disgusted. I felt like I was in the bowels of the earth, completely alone in that tiny cage. I knew it was my own poor decisions that put me there, and that only made it hurt worse. My soul was in profound pain, and I knew nobody cared. Nobody.

It was at that moment that I felt in my soul, in the deepest part of myself, the idea that I was worth more than the way I was living. It did not feel like my own inner voice or even a voice at all, just the idea, which was something I had not experienced before. Although inexplicable, it occurred to me that self-centered decisions will always lead to the dark places. I felt the incredibly strong conviction that if I continue to make myself the most important part of my story, then I would never be anything more than I was. I would never become the person I was designed to be. I felt a pull inside of me, telling me there is a better way to be. Yet, not only did I not know how to be any different than I had always been or how to make different decisions than I had always made. I had no idea who I was supposed to be, either. Discovering those things became a journey of faith over the next several years and continues today, and I am such a different man because of it.

I am certainly not trying to tell anyone what they should believe or how they should live. I have plenty of my own stuff to figure out, and I deeply value the idea of freedom to choose for oneself. After all, God gave us all the freedom to pursue Him or not, to believe or not. Who are human beings to take that away? I am only sharing some thoughts about my own understanding of faith and its importance in my life.

I am not claiming that I have arrived at this place of spiritual enlightenment that others have not. I’m not even trying to define enlightenment or what that looks like. What I am saying is that I have faith, and I know what I believe. My faith in the sinless life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, has made me a better, more empathetic, compassionate, and forgiving man, as well as provided me with a framework to move beyond my self-centeredness and even learn to forgive myself, which admittedly has not been easy, nor should it be, in my opinion.

Faith can fill the soul with joy and light. While convictions of truth may be uncomfortable or unpopular, they are foundations upon which personal growth is built. In moments of weakness and self-doubt, emotional exhaustion, identity crisis, profound grief, fear or pain, faith can guide us home. It can help us learn and understand who we are and even why we are. The key, I think, is to know, to really know what you believe. Otherwise, you cannot lean on that which you don’t really have a firm grasp.

I would encourage anyone who is lost in the chaos of contemporary times, of division and shallowness, whatever your faith perspective, live what you believe. Authenticity brings congruency and peace. Resist the lure of materialistic narcissism and hedonistic humanism that would have you believe that faith does not matter. We have been designed with a spiritual aspect that influences well-being in either positive or negative ways depending upon whether or not it is acknowledged and nourished. Find truth. Pursue it with your whole being and refuse to relinquish it. Find that balance between conviction of faith and love for those who believe differently. It is no sin to clutch your beliefs close to your breast with one hand while sifting through the thoughts, beliefs, and traditions of those who walked this earth before you with the other. Arrogance can lead to a closed mind that may miss unexpected insight. Life is too short. Don’t miss a thing.

Don’t React – Respond! 

Don’t React – Respond! 

This past week came with one of the biggest shocks of my fifteen years of incarceration. My unit (‘incentive housing’ with extra privileges for those of us who have exhibited at least 18 months of clear conduct) was inspected by the administration. We had been duly warned not to have any extra clothing or bedding when they come lest we be removed to another unit immediately. Such a move would force us to give up all of our luxuries such as all-day phone access, microwaves, access to hot water to heat up canteen food items, soda vending machine, etc. I’ve completed all 15 of my years of incarceration without receiving a single write-up. In other words, I know how to follow the rules, so when they warned us, I was already in compliance.

They came last Thursday, as promised, and began tossing extra clothing from people’s cells. I knew all those in violation would be removed from the unit. I’m thinking, “Why would they still have extra clothing?! They knew they were coming!” Then they got to my cell and tossed out a sheet, “Oh no,” I thought. “They got my cellie’s extra sheet at the base of his bunk” (he’s on the bottom). At that point I was worried I would lose my cellie and be forced to play the “cellie lottery” where we have no idea who they’re going to put in our cells. After all the dust settled, they moved 40 guys that very night!

The next day we all knew it still wasn’t over because we’d heard they were coming to move 11-20 more! I thought this was strange because why would there be a question as to how many would be moving? If you’re in violation, you’re in violation. 

I came back from work at 10:00 am and asked the officer to pop my door. He said, with a list in his hand, “Are you A or B bunk?” I started worrying about my cellie, but I answered, “I’m A bunk.” He delivered the devastating blow: “You’re moving!” Shocked, incredulous, and staggered, I responded, “What? How? I didn’t even do anything. They took nothing from me.” He gave the typical contrived response most do in that situation: “I’m just doing what I’m instructed per the captain. I need you to start packing.”

Deflated and dejected, I packed and headed to another unit for the first time in the five years I’ve been here. No one cared to hear my claim of being innocent of this infraction. The administration needed ‘examples’ to send their message that they would no longer tolerate rule breakers, so anyone would do. All attempts made by my now former cellie to set the record straight by taking ownership for the confiscated sheet were met with apathy. A meeting was held by the administration, and a 90-day ban for returning to the unit was implemented for all 56 of us who were banished – guilty or not.

Needless to say, it’s been a huge adjustment for me. Everything from when I can use the phone, get hot water to cook, to even when I can get a shower, has changed. Through this ordeal I have felt wronged, indignant, and helpless. But after the initial shock and adjustment took hold, my true character, mettle, and resiliency kicked in.

In considering what has happened to me and putting it into its proper perspective, I accept it as something I have no control over. In doing that, I choose to not allow it to consume my thoughts or drain my energy. Instead, I consider it an opportunity to test my ability to adapt to and handle unexpected adversity well and appropriately. How often do we blow up, make rash decisions, and create mountains out of mole hills when sudden hardships afflict us? Then we reflect on it later and inevitably regret reacting the way we did. Too late.

Another aspect I have considered is that this is preparing me for my eventual release. Things will happen in life that I have no control over, but how will I cope when they do? If I can’t handle being moved to an uncomfortable unit in prison, I am in for a world of hurt when I get out because so much more can and will happen that will upset me. This is a mini-test, and after a week now to reflect, ponder, and respond, I feel I would earn a solid B from my instructor.

The moral of this short illustration is, we always have a choice in how we respond to life’s unexpected challenges. If we only focus only on the undesirable aspects in front of us, we miss the hidden opportunities to use them for growth in character, and resiliency that can only help us better face other life challenges that will surely come. The goal is, therefore, not to react to negative life challenges but to respond. Responding requires a change in how we view these circumstances in the first place, seeing them as opportunities rather than obstacles.

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.