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This article was first published by Adopt An Inmate. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

For more than 20 years now, I have been inmate #12729124, but my name is Eric. I was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison for taking a man’s life in a fight that I started while intoxicated. I deserved to be sent here, but I never wanted to belong here. That aim has changed my life. I have taken advantage of every opportunity to grow, and in December 2021, I graduated college with a Ph.D.

Prison is a deeply toxic and unrelentingly oppressive place, filled with hidden exploitation, normalized dehumanization, arbitrary rules with inconsistent enforcement, and an inflexible power structure that works to enfold resentment and rage into the personality of the incarcerated. The temptation to become callous in order to feel physically and psychologically safe is insidious. I have resisted it while simultaneously processing my dysfunction, so I can move past it. 

I grew up in a low-income, single-mother home with no father figure to speak of — my biological father was killed before I was born; my first stepfather committed suicide in the room next to me when I was 5 years old, and my second stepfather was an abusive narcissist. Although I had an older sister, she left the home as I entered adolescence. I was unsupervised most of the time and quickly spiraled out of control.

I abused drugs and alcohol throughout adolescence, dropped out of high school after my freshman year when I was 15 years old. By young adulthood, I was addicted to alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamines. I was also self-centered and projected a carefully constructed image in order to conceal my true self. My substance dependence was the inevitable result of self-medicating both the shame of my perceived inadequacies and the anxiety involved with keeping them hidden.

In addition, I am bisexual and always have been, a fact almost nobody knows. The emotional isolation was often crushing, and I internalized rejection as a teenager. My first two serious sexual relationships, a secret one with another boy on my high school football team and another with a girl two years later, both ended painfully. These two experiences, in conjunction with my inability to relate effectively to others, made me feel ashamed and left me running from myself.

I was a weed, there is no other way to describe it. A weed entangles, intrudes, consumes and spreads, choking the beauty around it. Weeds corrupt and destroy their surroundings, and they are removed because their impact is universally negative. I was unquestionably a weed, and when I finally realized it, I didn’t want to live anymore.

But a powerful moment came in the early 2000s when I was in segregation for fighting. I was in the shower, which, in segregation, are single-person cages. Only a dim light illuminated the filth. Hair and dirt lined the walls. Used soap and bodily fluids decorated the floor around the drain. I felt like I was in the bowels of the earth and completely alone, and I knew it was completely my fault. My entire soul was in pain, and I knew nobody cared. Nobody.

All of the sudden in my spirit I felt this idea that I was worth more than the way I was living. It occurred to me that self-centered decisions will always lead to the darkest places, and if I continued to make myself the most important part of my story, then I would never be more than what I had always been. I believe God spoke to me that day.

I earned my GED, and in 2008, I was hired as a tutor in the education department, a job I still have today. I also found an accredited university that offered distance learning to the incarcerated. My mother had received some money and asked if I wanted anything. I told her about the educational opportunity, and she paid for my entire education. She very likely saved my life.

I earned an associate of arts degree in 2013, and a bachelor’s degree in counseling in 2015, graduating summa cum laude with a 3.98 GPA. I finished my master of counseling degree in 2017, and on December 10, 2021, I graduated with a Ph.D. in psychology and counseling. I have also accumulated 350 additional credits toward my certification as an alcohol and drug counselor. 

I have made so many mistakes along the way, and many steps seemed so insignificant, but looking back on the distance traveled, I can see how each one mattered. I have learned that I don’t need to wear a mask of intimidation or violence to hide my flaws or numb my emotional difficulties with alcohol and drugs. I can be my authentic self. I’m not a weed today, and I look forward to using my education and personal experiences to help others upon release. Though I remain incarcerated, I have found meaning in my mistakes and purpose in my pain.

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.

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Eric Shawn Burnham

Eric Shawn Burnham is a writer who earned a PhD in psychology and counseling while in prison. He is a staunch advocate for education and has been a tutor in the GED program for 14 years. When he gets out, he plans to be a counselor and help young people from making the same mistakes he did. He is incarcerated in Oregon.