It came down to a single sentence.
Taffany Lim serves as the executive director for the Center for Engagement, Service and the Public Good at California State University, Los Angeles. Under her purview, the center dedicates an entire program to helping incarcerated people earn college degrees.
When Lim visited my prison, Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, she read academic papers written by myself and my incarcerated neighbors. She also listened to our stories. Then, with one simple but life-altering phrase, she affirmed our worth before we tackled the challenge of higher education:
“I believe in you,” she told us.
Lim’s confidence in us was a stark contrast to our life experiences. Many of us were abandoned or neglected by parents. We took that as a signal that we were unworthy and unlovable. Then there was the inattention of teachers who couldn’t find the time to mentor us, which made us feel deficient.
Kids who suffer from trauma during their youth are often distracted by these experiences, which makes learning more challenging. All too often this tragic trajectory begins at home in the form of mental and physical abuse, parental separation or housing instability.
I felt inadequate when I struggled with math and reading growing up. Other kids openly blurted out answers or boldly went up to the chalkboard, but I felt overwhelmed just by being called upon.
The lack of attention I received from teachers was a form of silent collusion with my insecurity. I passed every class in spite of my failings, but I had written myself off as stupid, and apparently my teachers had done the same.
Before graduating by the skin of my teeth, I asked my high school counselor what my prospects for college were. He told me I wasn’t college material. That’s when I gave up on myself. I then made the ill-fated decision to deal drugs. My life spiraled from there.
Now at age 56, three-plus decades into a life without the possibility of parole sentence, I am certain I am not stupid. I know this because I earned high honors during a correspondence paralegal course in prison. That success gave me the confidence to then enroll in junior college.
To my surprise, I made it to the dean’s list at Coastline College in California, where I earned four associate degrees before beginning Cal State LA’s prison bachelor’s degree program.
In the bachelor’s program, I earned summa cum laude status with a 3.93 GPA. Stupid people do not consistently make those grades. The potential was always there, even before I was sentenced to prison for life.
There were adults in my life who refused to believe in me growing up. They mostly planted the seeds of my self-doubt. But now, as I’ve aged, it has also been adults who have built back my belief in myself.
Before Dr. Lim, there was Ms. Townsend, a teacher at the state prison in Calipatria, located southwest of Imperial Valley. While she never verbalized the words “I believe in you,” her mentorship and irrefutable confidence in me was contagious. She prepared me to take the paralegal course, the catalyst to my Bachelor of Arts degree.
After a decade of teaching cognitive behavioral therapy to my peers, I’ve seen the overlap in my peers’ prison narratives. The most common causative factor invoked by my peers are absentee parents.
In my case, while my dad was there physically, the distraction of addiction made him shirk parental responsibilities.
For those who were raised by single mothers, who might have worked 16 hours a day — out of love, not intentional neglect — they might have felt abandoned. That perception may have been so hurtful that they ran to gangs for the sense of family they desperately longed for at home.
This is usually where the police get involved, and where interactions can be negative or positive. For me, those unique opportunities for law enforcement to offer guidance, mentorship or encouragement usually ended with threats of arrest and ominous prophecies I would end up self-fulfilling. My intimacy with the police amounted to frequent “stop and frisks,” which reinforced my distrust of law enforcement.
My experiences have taught me to never discount those I’m incarcerated with — or anyone, for that matter. We all have inherent potential. My most meaningful lesson so far: Words are powerful.
The simple phrase “I believe in you” can upturn the despondent and lonely. I now pay it forward by mentoring others to help them further their education or get published. I want to guide them toward successful parole hearings and freedom.
I may never see the light of day, but I’m going to do everything in my power to break this cycle to help others live out the potential they were born with. All it takes is a little belief expressed by a single phrase: “I believe in you.”
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.