As a Table Topic Master, in our 20th ToastMasters meeting on North Carolina’s Death row, I described the Think Smart program. Think Smart selects certain minimum security inmates to speak at community centers and schools about the personal experiences that led to their incarceration. The selection process of inmates who apply is extremely tough and only carefully chosen applicants are allowed to participate in this crime prevention program.
What do Think Smart supervisors look for? What makes one prisoner a stand out candidate who can speak to the community and another not good enough?
The qualities looked for are the same traits prison officials look for when they receive recommendations from prison superintendents to transfer medium custody inmates to minimum custody facilities. Sometimes it does not matter if you are infraction free and within five years of release, it is then you will have to personally advocate for your transfer.
This is especially true of prisoners serving life sentences.
How do you engage in personal advocacy in prison? What character traits or qualities does it involve?
Inner Strength and Self Respect
The first lesson I learned on death row was an important one. I was assigned to a bunk with an older guy known for taking advantage of young white prisoners in the hope he could “turn them out” if they were dumb and weak and isolated. Within a few weeks he tried me. When I told him to back off he said “What you gonna do about it?”
The following morning I spoke with a friend about the situation and he gave me sound advice that has held true throughout my incarceration. “If you don’t deal with this guy now, maybe nothing happens. But maybe he comes at you a little harder next time. And if not him then somebody else, because people are always watching. Make an example of him, because what you do today will define your tomorrow.” So I got into my first fight on death row, but the take away proved to be incredibly valuable compared to the bumps and bruises I received.
Accountability, Dedication and Perseverance
Seven years into my incarceration I had experienced the sleepless nights of nearly twenty-five executions. I did a great deal of soul searching during that time and asked a lot of questions. How did I get to death row? Who was responsible? Why had my life arrived at this point? What could I do about it? When would it change? Where would I be in the end?
These questions defined my relationship with Catholicism until one day a priest that came to the unit to deliver Mass said to me “You need to get something on your mind. What would you say to enrolling in a college correspondence course?”
I was dubious. College? Me? I dropped out of high school the second week of my sophomore year. The only reason I had a GED is because the youth reformatory I went to didn’t give teens a choice – unless you prefer solitary confinement.
Fr. Dan extended an incredible opportunity to me: post secondary education in prison is rare. The single best decision of my life was accepting the challenge of, and responsibility for, completing a college correspondence course. In feeding my hunger to learn I took control of my life. I stepped up to the plate, cast aside all of my personal failures and swung for the parking lot.
I was fortunate someone believed in my potential to learn, handing me the chance to flourish on my own merit. I studied hard and did my best and found I am a capable student. More importantly, I developed a core trait in the greater scheme of personal advocacy – accountability.
In prison the word “responsible” is often used as a bludgeon to get offenders to admit their crimes. This is also called “criminal culpability” and it has a different meaning than holding yourself accountable for each and every day. How you spend your time matters.
Personal accountability mean I would succeed or fail based upon the effort I put forth. Regardless of obstacles, odds or extenuating circumstances I would treat every course as an investment in a future. Now that the standard has been set, could I rise to meet it?
My thinking had to evolve. No longer could I dwell on the things I can’t change. No more could I rationalize excuses. I could not allow petty frustrations to steal my focus. Success required perseverance, dedication and the will to win.
These traits and my burgeoning knowledge empowered me to take on harder courses of study. I convinced my sponsor to give me more, that I would succeed as far as he allowed. I asked to study through a university that provided degree programs for incarcerated students, advocating for my abilities as a student. He agreed.
My transfer to Ohio University was an acknowledgement that my life was mine to determine, a commitment to a future I didn’t know existed. I grew more confident in my abilities. I was a hard worker who decided what I did today would define my tomorrow.
Seek and Create Opportunities
Prison is no longer a place where there are abundant educational opportunities. As such, you are forced to learn whenever and however you can. If you want to grow as a human being though, you must be open to discovering both your strengths and weaknesses. No one can do this for you. An honest self-evaluation will help you understand what your potential may be and how to use it. By doing so you can position yourself in such a way that doors will begin opening.
What doors you ask? As of 2017 the reversal rate of death sentences in North Carolina is 71-75%. This means most of the people in our ToastMasters group will receive a reduced sentence of life without parole or some lesser sentence. Some of you may even be acquitted. If you want to reach a place where you can engage in a variety of vocational, work release and religious programs you must advocate for it! Personal advocacy is written into the Department of Public Safety’s programming policy.
Planning for a future beyond death row and pursuing available prison programs is difficult for several reasons:
- You are a death row prisoner and not expected to succeed at anything. That you are in ToastMasters already defies this expectation, but you’ll have to make it your business to defy stereotypes.
- Programs staff are unlikely to respond to your request for information because you don’t have a case manager.
- The mental health staff on the unit are not trained to access the information you seek. Your rehabilitation is not their job.
- The average prison official has neither the time nor the inclination to help you. You must be persistent and persuade them.
Personal advocacy is your job, and that means being accountable and independent, but there is a Catch 22: you must build a network of people who can facilitate achievement of that independence. I don’t mean people who send you money or care packages. I mean information, advice, support and guidance. People who can help you maneuver within the confines of the prison system just as your attorneys ferry you through the legal system. Information from your support network will bolster your personal advocacy and empower every decision you make.
Once I attained my associates in arts degree in 2013 I began planning for a future that may or may not exist. The necessity of this thinking became more apparent with the exoneration of Henry McCollum, who spent 31 years on death row and was kicked into the street with nothing to show for his time in prison. What you do today will define your tomorrow.
From that moment on I’ve striven to publish my writing in journals and magazines, pushed the administration to begin a GED program on death row, and became the chairman of the advisory board for the Lifelines Collective. Personal advocacy has been central to continuing my education in the field of criminal justice reform and improving my life.
None of us have the luxury of saying “I’m on death row. Why bother?” The truth is, we are on a testing where opportunity exists if you’re ready to define your tomorrow by what you do today. Do you have what it takes to defend your existence?