Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Open handcuffs against a retro background
Illustration by Perysty in Depositphotos

I’m a facilitator in a program geared toward positive transformation at my Missouri prison. 

Media and society paint the vast majority of the incarcerated as monsters, unfeeling and incapable of change. But I can attest firsthand that many people have taken necessary steps for rehabilitation. They have committed themselves to living a better life, and they possess a much healthier mindset than the one that got them incarcerated in the first place. 

There are more than 200,000 of us serving life sentences in the U.S., and we are never granted the opportunity to show growth and progress.

Prison can allow us the opportunity to grow, mature and realize things about ourselves that we otherwise wouldn’t have discovered in other conditions with more distractions and vices. Prison makes some realize and activate their potential. Those people use their gifts to create a positive ripple effect that can reach far beyond prison walls. 

I’ve seen prisoners obtain several degrees, become great authors and skillful paralegals, train themselves to be fluent in different languages and transform themselves from uneducated individuals to well-spoken, extremely knowledgeable intellectuals — so much so that some have become local celebrities. Look at Taylor Tom Conley, Bobby Bostic and Chris Wilson

There’s one more individual who stands out to me in the Missouri prison system. His name is Rashad El. He is currently incarcerated, serving two life sentences, and has taken many institutionally provided rehabilitation classes and programs and maintained steady employment. He is determined to make his future brighter than his past. 

During his incarceration, he has published four books, released music projects and developed a clothing line, while also working on achieving his paralegal certificate. It is unfortunate that many stories of transformation, like Rashad El’s, are hidden from society, even when we’ve demonstrated that we are no longer a threat to the public. 

Parole, across the country, is notoriously hard to obtain. Prison Policy Initiative has given my state an F for its parole system. Close to 30 other states have the same grade, or even worse.

When someone is denied parole, they generally have to wait multiple years before they get another shot. Most parole boards heavily weigh the severity of the crime that sent someone to prison, not what they’ve done in prison to change themselves.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that not everyone is forgiving or believes that we can change. But I will continue to work on my character and actions in the hope that the world will eventually see the man I have become rather than just my crime and inmate number.

If you have an opportunity to speak with a person in prison, please listen to their story, and ask them what they have productively done with their time since being incarcerated. Ask them about the life they want for themselves. Their answers might surprise you. 

The next time you hear someone say, “They’re all just a bunch of criminals,” perhaps you can speak for us and say, “No! Not all of them. Some of them would be very successful if given a second chance.”

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.

Antwann Lamont Johnson is a writer incarcerated in Missouri.