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I grew up in low income housing, as part of a single-parent household. From the age of five, I suffered physical, mental and emotional abuse as I was exposed to gangs, drugs and crime. However, that wasn’t my biggest obstacle. It was my lack of faith that somehow I could make it out of the environment I lived in.

My teachers often told me, “You can be whatever you want to be. You can do anything you dream of. The kids are the future.” I never believed any of it. Nor did the numerous people I’ve spoken to who had similar childhoods. We saw that children who grow up in low income households or urban communities have a higher risk of failure in life. 

I’ve come to realize, though, that just because you don’t believe it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. 

Reflecting on my past has caused me to conclude that my teachers were right all along. Any child can do anything they set their mind to do. But as a child, I thought as a child. And the only thing I believed was the reality my eyes witnessed. My heart was set on graduating from high school, going to college and becoming a psychologist. The fact of the matter is, it’s hard to imagine a positive future when the reality is a negative present. Instead of high school, it was a gang. Instead of college, it was prison at the age of 18. 

Often I ask myself, “what could have made a difference in my life?” Faith is the only logical answer. Faith is necessary in a child’s development because it’s the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen. If only I could have believed it, even though I couldn’t see it. 

I’ve surveyed approximately 50 male prisoners housed with me at Calipatria State Prison, a maximum security institution in California. I asked three questions, and the results were alarming because they corroborated my experience. The questions were:

1) Did anybody tell you that you could be whatever you wanted to be?

2) Did you believe it was possible?

3) If you believed it, would that have made a difference in your life?

To my first question, 47 prisoners said yes, citing their parents, mentors, and teachers. The other three prisoners said either they couldn’t recall, or nobody cared enough to tell them. As for question two, 39 prisoners said they didn’t believe they could be whatever they wanted to be. Seven of them believed for a brief time, and the remaining four didn’t care. Finally, to question three, 46 inmates said yes, belief would have made a difference. They said their plans would have become goals that could be attained, not merely dreams to chase. Only four wanted to join gangs at a young age and really didn’t care. 

If we want to address the crisis with prison overcrowding in California, we need to think about the fact that the school system is a breeding ground for future prisoners. What’s needed for our children is so much more than education, it’s motivation. Nothing motivates like conviction, hope and faith. 

My prayer is that this article will give humans of every race, color, gender, sexual orientation and creed the insight needed in order to correct a serious problem. There are straight “A” students who end up in prison. People didn’t get smart when they came to prison, they’ve had potential all along, but they never believed they would have a chance to blossom. All in all, it is important to teach kids about having faith because it is required to achieve the success that is desired. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Brandon J. Baker is a writer incarcerated in California. He is pursuing writing and public speaking as a way to make amends.