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.

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.