Recently, I applied for the Offender Mentor Certification Program (OMCP), run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to train and educate incarcerated people to become peer-to-peer alcohol and drug counselors.
As part of the application process, I was asked, “How do you maintain your recovery and what can you offer others to sustain their recovery from problems with drugs and/or alcohol?” These questions led me to reflect on my journey from fear and ignorance to freedom, love and enlightenment.
I am a native of Mississippi, raised by sharecropper grandparents with no education. They were very strict Christians with core values of respecting your elders, hard work and staying in school. I’ve always respected my elders and hard work has always been a natural part of survival, but, when I was incarcerated at the age of 19, I only had a third grade education.
Like many people of color, I am a product of the “school-to-prison pipeline.” As a teenager, I was arrested and charged with the first-degree murder of a 53-year-old White man who was seeking sexual favors from Black teenagers — “young bucks,” as we were called. I was ultimately convicted by an all-White jury in 1973.
For me, maintaining my recovery involves a constant awareness of what brought me to admit to myself that I have a problem. Once I came to terms with the fact I was not happy with myself and that I was ready, willing and able to make a change, I educated myself on the options I had to recover from my addiction.
Initially, I classified my chance of success as impossible. Now, decades into my recovery, I know recovery is a joyful, life-long process made possible only by surrendering to your higher power.
Every day I am blessed to wake up, look at myself in the mirror, and be reminded that I like the person I see. I know it’s a blessing to embrace each day as another opportunity to exercise meaning and purpose in reaching out to others less fortunate than myself, even while I continue to grow and learn.
As for what I can offer others to sustain their recovery from drugs, alcohol or whatever it is that holds them in bondage to addiction, I offer the gifts of trust, compassion and love. I offer trust in that I will only share strategies I know will work for them as they have for me, compassion born out of personal experience not unlike their own, and most importantly, unconditional love.
In addition to the above, I tell anyone struggling to find a solution to a problem to understand that the solution is within themselves. It’s just a matter of unlocking one’s own creative processes. There are many models to use in creating a plan to move forward.
One model I learned in social work studies and that helped me personally is the GROW model, which requires you to ask yourself four questions:
What is your goal? For me, the goal was freedom. Freedom from who I was, freedom from fear and low self-esteem and freedom from ignorance and my own limitations in thinking.
What is your reality? My reality was being in prison and not feeling as though I liked or loved myself. I was a slave to all my selfish desires. Having a fearless truth about where you are is essential in finding the proper path to where you wish to go.
What are your options? This involves making a realistic list of all your possible options, both the positive/desirable ones and the negative/undesirable ones. The point of this exercise is to get the creative juices flowing and create a comprehensive assessment of options.
Which of your options will you select to put the process of change into motion? For myself, the most challenging and necessary option was educating myself. I decided to get my GED and high school diploma.
At the time, I was in extreme segregation at San Quentin, and only allowed to have religious and educational materials. This led me to challenge myself to cram for the GED test in less than four months. I passed on the first try with a score of 254.
Later, I found out 245 was the lowest possible passing score. Passing the GED was such a major turning point for me that I wasn’t content to merely pass. So 17 years later I took the test again. This time I passed with a score of 277! That higher score motivated me to take advantage of the higher learning college program offered to prisoners in California.
My first course was sociology and it proved to be another turning point in my life. In this class, I learned about the five essential pillars necessary for the survival and longevity of any social/business structure.
This knowledge led me to dissociate myself from the group I was affiliated with, a subculture with no values worth dying for or passing on to the next generation.
Prior to this point, the well-intentioned wisdom from others to give up the so-called gang lifestyle had fallen on deaf ears. My educational growth gave me insight into what is necessary to build a stronger, worthier and more sustainable community, and it became a catalyst for giving up the gang lifestyle.
Education again led me to an epiphany and inspired me to change and strive toward better things in my future. Now, I hope to inspire others to make a change from addiction, fear, ignorance, and self-hate.
After 48 years of incarceration, it may be surprising to hear that I have no disdain for CDCR. To the contrary, I have nothing but praise for the model California has created in response to mass incarceration. The governor and other leaders of this great state have given even the lowest social outcast an opportunity to turn his life around via education.
For me, education has meant liberation from a different form of incarceration: ignorance. I challenge everyone — prisoner or non-prisoner — to take full advantage of the educational opportunities given to them. Get educated!
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.