Another Life Begins in Prison

JaredOwensHeadShot

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.

 

Pell Grants Available to Prisoners?

safb_classroomWhile 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.

Prison Sentence is Not the End

Inmates taking part in training service dogs.

Inmates taking part in training service dogs.

After I was caught and was facing 8-10 years in prison, I can’t think of how many times I thought, “My life is over.” I have to admit, I thought about suicide, running away and just crawling up in a ball and hiding from the reality. As time passed and I got closer to my plea and my sentencing, I started to realize that this didn’t have to be the end of anything. It could be the beginning of something big for me, my wife and my family. That the man I was did not have to dictate the man I could be.

After about 6 weeks of severe depression and paralyzing stress, I went to see a pastor named Ricky Mill from Providence Baptist Church. In addition to telling me that God loved me no matter my crime and that I could be saved through grace and the blood of Jesus, he told me not to miss this opportunity to build a new life. He helped me see that if I use the time I have to get closer to God, to my wife and my family and serving others I can experience the love of Christ, not just today, but for eternity. How crazy is that?!

I used that advice as I entered prison and began my 6-year sentence in Federal prison. I met people who chose to use their time to be better criminals, or to sleep away their incarceration in hopes that it would pass more quickly. I also met inmates who chose to use the time to become better men. They sought out and took classes. They found vocational opportunities to learn a new trade like masonry, electrical, plumbing and solar. Like me, they chose to leave prison better than they entered it.

So, if you’re facing prison time. Now is the time to decide how you are going to do your time. Are you going to sleep it away, try to become  better criminal or will you use the time to become a better person?

Email improves communications for Vermont prisoners

My wife and I during a visit at FCC Petersburg

My wife and I during a visit at FCC Petersburg

While I was serving my five years in Federal prison, the BOP rolled out an email system for prisoners. It allows inmates to correspond with friends and families on a more consistent basis. In Federal prison you get 300 minutes of phone calls per month, or about 10 minutes per day. While it was a blessing to be able to speak to my wife almost every day, it was difficult to deepen a relationship or deal with issues that cropped up. Plus, I was shipped off to FCI Elkton in Ohio which was about 9 hours away from home, so our visits were very limited.

It looks like states like Vermont and others are implementing a new email system for their inmates to help improve communications with family. This is a good step forward, but hopefully they will not use it to replace personal visits as some institutions have tried to do with video chat systems. Nothing can replace the personal and intimate moments inmates experience with their family during visits. This should never be replaced by technology.

CNN Hero helps prisoners prepare for success

collette carroll

Collette Carroll – CNN Hero

I met many heros in my five years in prison. Most of them served as part of a ministry and were committed to helping us increase our chances for success after prison. They brought encouragement, knowledge and hope to many men who felt hopeless and discouraged. Collette Caroll is a CNN Hero who brings this hope and help to men in San Quentin to help them prepare for release from prison. She provides job training, counseling and helps the men feel empowered as they get ready to re-enter society.

As I served my sentence I also felt like God was calling me to help others. I decided to try to help some of my inmates by teaching classes in public speaking and marketing for small business. Funny thing was, I probably got more out of teaching those courses than the men who took them. I gained insights into the lives of men who came from backgrounds I couldn’t imagine. I worked with guys from inner city gangs like the Crips, Bloods and Latin Kings. They wanted to improve their lives so they could give their children a better chance to escape the fate of previous generations.

As you enter prison, plan to serve others and participate in programs like Collette’s. You will see that serving God and others will not only help you prepare for a successful life, it will help you survive and thrive in prison.

God bless Collette Carrol and the thousands of other volunteers who seek to help serve God and others by helping the least of these (Matt. 25:40).

What hospitals can teach us about prison recidivism

revolving_door 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.”

Finding God in Prison

atlantic magazineFor some entering prison, it is the seminal experience in their life. It can be the opportunity for them to turn their life around and begin a path of renewal, or it can lead to a revolving door in and out of prison. For me, it was the former. I saw it, and still do, as a blessing. An opportunity to turn from a life of sin and addictions, to one focused on service and integrity. This article from the Atlantic about a prison chaplain in Oregon reminds me of that choice each prisoner must make as they begin their incarceration.

While I don’t agree with all of the chaplain’s statements, I do agree with her when she mentions that some prisoners will say, when they are being honest, that prison was a positive experience for them. This may sound counter-intuitive, but prison can be the life-changing force that shocks a person’s system and drives them to surrender their life to God, which ultimately means being re-born in Christ. I am so grateful He gave me that opportunity to spend five years focused on improving my life, getting closer to Him and becoming a better man, husband and neighbor.

Prisoners may get Pell grants for college

safb_classroomWhen I entered prison I sought to use the time to improve myself in body, mind and spirit. I spent a great deal of time and energy getting in shape physically, mentally and spiritually. I lost about 50 pounds, read thousands of books and dug deeper into the Bible and my relationship with Christ. I worked on becoming a better man, husband and member of society.  I do believe that those entering prison must make a choice, do they become a better person or a better criminal? One way to ensure they choose the former is to offer more opportunities to get an education beyond a GED. This article addresses the issue of offering Pell grants to prisoners.

I was blessed in that I was able to take advantage of an entrepreneurship certification  program offered by Kent State University while I was at FCI Elkton. I saw the men who took that course gain confidence in their ability to be more than a criminal. That they could actually build something for themselves, their children and the community.

I’ve always been fairly conservative politically. But my time in prison has helped me see that we must open doors, not close them. That we must take a few risks in order to create an atmosphere of hope and promise for the least of these. Of course there will be a few who abuse this privilege, but that is the case in the “free” world at universities across the country. This should not stop us.

 

Worship a welcome respite in prison

Power of Praise Band

Power of Praise Band

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.

Whitey Bulger: “My life was wasted…”

Whitey-Bulger_Most-Wanted_HD_768x432-16x9Even the most hardened criminals can have moments of insight, regret and remorse. There weren’t many harder criminals than mobster Whitey Bulger. He killed many men and lived a life of crime for decades. In this article from the Washington Post, Whitey responds to a letter from some teen girls who wrote him as part of a school project. In his response to their letter he candidly admits he wasted his life and spent if foolishly. I would guess this would be the honest response from many of us who spent time in prison for our actions. I know it my case I spent many days and nights in regret and remorse for all of those I harmed by my selfishness.

As you prepare for prison I strongly suggest righting as many wrongs as possible. To repent and turn away from your old behavior. For me, I truly began to understand that repentance means not just apologizing for my actions, but also turning away from them toward a new life. It was amazing how at peace I was once I asked for forgiveness and began to walk a new path. It didn’t minimize the pain I caused, but it helped me understand that I could move forward and use my time in prison to glorify God and to honor my wife and others with my actions. I hope you will do the same.