My next mistake was my choice in “friends”. I use the term loosely because they were the worst sort of people I could hang around—burgeoning drop outs and criminals who cared nothing for their future or mine. Yet I hung around them because drinking beer and getting high and skipping Ancient Medieval History was way better than learning about the Tigris-Euphrates river valley and the cradle of civilization.
My body and mind were attuned to instant gratification of animal desires: SEX! PARTIES! FREEDOM! Like a brightly lit Vegas strip the appeal of adulthood was impossible to resist when hormones and stupidity hurried my steps. Never mind the responsibility or maturity that should come with getting there.
Sure the Catholic Church and my Sunday school teachers taught me valuable morals. Of course my parents warned me to do the right thing even when it was really hard. And I really wanted to be an obedient son, but it was hard to fight the need to be perceived as “cool” or acceptable to my peers, to combat poor impulse control and curiosity. I applaud any kid who has the common sense and fortitude to finish school and transition to college, the military or a trade. The obstacles I faced were not insurmountable. I simply wasn’t up to the challenge and wish the idea of a successful life dominated my thoughts rather than the things that did.
It’s difficult to be forgiving of my past mistakes when viewing them from the hindsight of a prison cell. There may have been other circumstances influencing my poor judgement, but the bottom line is they were my choices to make. In a matter of three years from the day I dropped out of school to being charged with capital murder I chose freedom from responsibility every time because a lack of education made me blind, deaf and dumb to the future.
Death row changed everything.
Not only was my freedom from responsibility at an end, I was about to find out we are all held to account for the past eventually. At night, in the silent darkness of a cell where it’s just you and God, there is no way to avoid the conversation in your head space. At least, it occurs in the minds of people who know they really screwed up. I am one of those people and it was my conscience roaring back to life after being suppressed with drugs and alcohol. There is nowhere to hide from the “me” I should have been rather than the one awaiting execution and it has forced me to reexamine the life I threw away in excruciating detail.
After four years of this a Catholic priest who delivered our Thursday Mass made a statement after yet another of my theological questions. “You need to get something on your mind.” He said it kindly, knowing I was hungry to learn but starved for material. There are no educational programs on death row, no access to the Internet or a library, and our only connection to the free world is the mail. When I asked the priest what he meant he said, “How would you feel about taking a college correspondence course?”
Skeptical, I shrugged, “All I have is a GED I got at the Maine Youth Center. It’s been eight years since I’ve been in school.”
He smiled then. “Are you interested in trying to learn?”
“That is all that matters.”
Six weeks later I began my first college correspondence course, an introduction to social psychology through the study of group behavior, relationships and theories on social influence. After finishing the course I discovered that I LOVE learning and it can be fun when you have an interest in the subject; success feels great after such a long time in the shadow of failure; and a willingness to pursue an education is important because the mind will otherwise grow stagnant in the same pattern of thinking.
I was fortunate my newfound sponsor wanted to invest in my potential for growth despite my status as a death row inmate. This once in a lifetime second chance to learn had to be seized and utilized to the fullest degree. My entire life in the free world was a study in failure resulting in my imprisonment. I didn’t want to fail anymore. The idea of doing so after being granted this opportunity filled me with fear, determination and purpose. I would not fail.
So I continued to enroll in courses, acing one after another. One day I spoke with my sponsor, “You know if I keep this up, and I fully intend to, I could get a degree or something.”
“That sounds like a plan” was all he said.
I had awakened to the reality that I could define my future. There was nothing I could do about being on death row but my time would be spent educating myself in all of the ways I should have as a teen. With every bad decision I made in the free world firmly in mind, my first good decision on death row was choosing to learn from past mistakes.
In spring of 2013 I graduated from Ohio University with an associates in arts degree with a social science emphasis. This was possible because I prioritized education and decided I will not succumb to the ennui of prison or be just another inmate. At no point has it been easy nor is there anyone I can turn to if a particular subject is too difficult. I persevere because for those of us on death row this is the end of our world and I will not have it said of me that I didn’t try hard enough to change. Giving up is easy and many of my peers scoff at the idea of an education, but many more wish they had such an opportunity.
I realize my educational experience and radical change in thinking are atypical for death row and many who serve life in prison, but they should be a blueprint for what rehabilitation looks like. People came to prison because they lack a better way to deal with life’s many circumstances. Without any understanding of conflict resolution, problem solving, critical thinking or other basic concepts explored in high school and junior college the people who quit school are at a distinct disadvantage. Even more so if they can’t, don’t or won’t learn a trade. This is why prison must be a last resort for learning, not a human warehouse where our potential is wasted. The sooner the public understands this and is willing to fund trade schools and post-secondary degree programs in prison, the sooner politicians realize the only way to effectively keep people out of prison is providing education to prisoners, the better off all of us will be.