I love sharing stories about people who used prison as a transformative experience. This is a great example. Jared Owens spent 18 years in federal prison for drug charges. During that time he honed his artistic skills by doing portraits and other art pieces for clients as his “hustle”. He used the time in a positive way to develop skills he can use after release. It worked. He is now a renowned and respect artist in Charleston, SC and beyond. His work sells for thousands of dollars and he is even using his fame to help children and others
If you’re facing prison, I hope you will see it as an opportunity to build and/or hone a skill to improve your life and the lives of others. Whether it is art, business, culinary arts or some other interest, find something on which you can focus your time and energy.
While I don’t agree with a lot of what President Obama has done, his latest move to conduct a pilot project to test the possibility of giving Pell Grants to some inmates is a move in the right direction. Check out this article here for more information. For too long, our country has taken the position that warehousing prisoners rather rehabilitating them is the preferred approach. As someone who has seen the effects of this policy firsthand, I can honestly say it is a miserable failure. While there are some risks that come with offering grants and the like (some inmates seek to become better criminals, not better people), I do believe there are enough people in prison who truly want to become productive members of society to justify giving it a try.
I was actually able to take a college-level entrepreneurship certification course through Kent State University when I was at FCI Elkton. I was in the class with about 10 men and I have to say it was a worthwhile course that provided valuable information and education. We walked away with college credit. For some it was the first time they took classes since high school, where most didn’t even graduate.
I hope this pilot is just the first step in a shift toward training and rehabilitation and away from warehousing. Please encourage your congressional representatives to support these types of initiatives.
This article from the Christian Post reports on a resurgence of prison gardens. I always thought this would be a great idea and never understood why there weren’t classes around subject like aquaculture and horticulture where inmates could learn valuable skills that could be translated into a career upon release. Plus, growing food could be a way to cut costs and create healthier meals. I would have loved getting outside and working in the soil for a little while.
Prisons need to offer many more opportunities for inmates to learn a viable skill or trade. I did see some opportunities around welding, brick masonry, HVAC and cooking, but they could only accommodate a very small number of the guys who wanted to participate. These courses need to be expanded and there should be some incentive for inmates to take part.
It’s time for another Super Bowl. And yes, just like on the street, there are bookies in prison. This article shows a little bit of how things work, but it doesn’t talk about the dangers of gambling in prison. When people ask me about how I managed to get through five years of prison without any major physical altercations I tell them that 1. God protected me and 2. that I didn’t engage in any of the behaviors that tend to attract violence. There are a number of activities that put you at risk. I tell guys to avoid things like sexual activity, controlling the television, loaning and borrowing money and especially gambling. Next to television, the most violence I saw in prison was related to gambling. Whether it was playing cards for mackerals, or betting on sports via the ubiquitous weekly tickets put about many different bookies, inevitably there would be altercations around each week’s results.
So if you’re entering prison and thinking it may be fun to bet on a few games, I encourage you to think twice. It is definitely not worth it. Not only is it dangerous, but if you’re caught it could also result in an infraction, time in the hole, loss of privileges and worse.
This article is a great example of how one man used his time in prison to learn and hone a skill that transferred to a viable vocation on the streets. His work is being shown in galleries and he is connected with churches and other organizations. It is critical to spend your time in prison cultivating some skill that can be used on the outside. While the choices are limited, there are opportunities to learn skills like welding, masonry, fitness consulting, graphic design and more.
I spent much of time teaching others. I taught marketing and public speaking to inmates at FCI Elkton. It was rewarding to see the men commit to something and learn something new. It is sad thinking society is giving up on these men. While not all prisoners are out to improve their lives, many are, and we shouldn’t paint them all with a broad brush.
I also took college-level courses during my prison time. I learned about entrepreneurship and business management. It was a blessing to be able to spend my time in that way.
If you are facing time, I encourage you to plan to use it for something positive.
I’ve written quite a bit about the importance of training and educational programs for inmates in helping prepare them for release. This program is a good example of helping inmates learn a skill that is transferable to the real world. As you prepare to enter prison, and once there, I highly recommend making a list of specific skills, training and education you want to gain while doing time. being intentional about it is critical in building a sense of dedication, direction and accomplishment.
When I entered prison I knew I wanted to work on body, mind and spirit. This meant spending time studying both spiritually and mentally and taking time to eat healthy and work out. I took classes around entrepreneurship and also taught classes about marketing and public speaking.
Do you know you are going to prison? If so, you can really choose to take two paths. You can crawl up and wait to be taken into custody, or you can get busy preparing yourself for the day you enter prison. The more prepared you are now, the better you will do once you get there. We are here to help you.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard prison described as a revolving door I could buy a life-time supply of mackerels from the commissary. But sadly, the analogy is pretty solid. More than 75 percent of those released from prison will return within five years. This article from the Brookings Institute discusses how taking an approach similar to the way hospitals are compensated for re-admissions would quickly reduce recidivism in prisons.
The premise is that hospitals are penalized when a person is readmitted after receiving treatment for an illness. This incentivizes the hospital to ensure the patient receives the best possible care the first time and that there is a focus on quality of care rather than recurring revenue through multiple visits. If you translate this model to prisons, it would incentivize the system to truly focus on rehabilitation through education, training, counseling and other services rather than just focusing on warehousing bodies.
From my five-year experience, I did see a few opportunities offered, but not nearly enough to accommodate the demand. Not every prisoner wants to improve. In fact, some prefer prison to life on the streets. But that is the minority. I taught classes in public speaking and marketing while in prison and saw men who craved a chance to start over, to learn something and to become a truly productive citizen. But there are just not enough classes, classrooms, teachers, books and other resources to accommodate this demand.
It would take not just an act of congress, but a huge sea change to go from warehousing to rehabilitation. It has to start with electing people who understand the issue and don’t just act on knee-jerk calls for being “tough on crime.”
Caught this article on how worship time in prison was a welcome respite from the stress and strain of being and inmate. From my experience I certainly agree with this. I often looked forward to the hour or two on Sunday and the few times we had outside groups come in to worship with us. It was great to be in a positive atmosphere and spend time singing, praising and fellowshipping with other believers.
Some of my best memories are of listening to a band called the Power of Praise. They graciously visited us a few times a year at FCI Elkton. The chapel was usually packed and we sang along with them as they sang contemporary Christian songs and traditional hymns. It was especially emotional at Christmas when they would sing carols like O Holy Night and Silent Night. Man, it tore me up! We had other great groups come in as well. Like the Mennonite Church whose choir performed for us a few times each year. What great voices! So comforting and uplifting.
I encourage you to get involved in worship during your incarceration. It is a welcome respite from the daily struggle.
I can’t express how important it is to feel connected to people on the outside while you are serving prison time. From the time I entered custody I began writing letters to my wife, family and friends. With only 300 minutes per month of phone time in Federal prison, it is important to utilize mail and email (where possible) to stay in touch with people who can encourage you and hold you accountable while you spend the time behind razor wire.
This article from Phys.org discusses a study that demonstrates the power of the pen pal for those is prison. According to the study, “Prisoners said the scheme made them feel less isolated, helped change their self-identity, provided a distraction, boosted their happiness and raised their hopes for life beyond prison.” As someone who did five years in prison, I can’t agree more!!
Some guys I saw were full of shame and depressed. They chose to isolate and not stay connected to friends and family. There were also guys who had no one on the outside with whom to communicate. These were the guys who seemed to have the most trouble using their time for something productive. They felt alone and unmotivated to improve themselves.
If you are facing prison, take the time to get contact information for people who are supportive and encouraging. And once you get inside, take the time to write them regularly, even if you don’t hear back from them it will help you to put into words your experience. Many churches and ministries provide pen pal services to which you can subscribe. Here are a few I found:
This is a nice op-ed piece from a prisoner in Attica who is advocating offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) to inmates through the television system in institutions. It makes perfect sense to me. Sadly, because of our society’s (faulty) mindset that results in warehousing of prisoners rather than offering opportunities to improve themselves and increase their chance of success, we are stuck in a revolving-door cycle of recidivism. I saw it firsthand. While not every inmate will take advantage of these services, those who do will more likely become productive members of society rather than just another statistic.
If you do end up in prison, there are a few opportunities to take classes, learn a trade, and improve your body, mind and spirit. Take advantage of them. Don’t waste the years sitting on your bunk, watching the Real Housewives and learning how to be a better criminal. It is incumbent on us to prove the money invested in these programs delivers results or we will lose them.