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My time in prison

Updated: Jan 20

For a year of my life just after college, I found myself in prison. But probably not like what you’re thinking…

My degree was in secondary English education, meaning I could teach English to grades 6-12. As I started to apply for jobs, I quickly realized that without sports coaching or other endorsements, I was just one of many new teachers applying for similar jobs. I was already believing it was going to be harder for me.

Then I blew an interview. I thought it had gone pretty well, then the principal let me know that “Three minutes into our conversation, I knew you weren’t the right candidate.” What?!

He was straight with me: “When I asked you what you would do if you had 23 kids who were on track and two falling behind, you said you thought you’d probably keep moving ahead with the 23 and do what you could with the other two. That’s not acceptable. We don’t leave anyone behind here. That’s when I knew you weren’t the right candidate.” My 22-year old self learned a valuable life lesson that day. And I still needed a job.

In the state I was living in at the time, all prison inmates were required to have their GED or equivalent. There was a shortage of teachers. I had a friend who was already working at a state prison doing intake, so I got the job. And this is how I ended up in prison for a year, teaching GED prep.

Though I would never have imagined that job being a step on my career path, I took away these life lessons from “doing my time” there:

  1. I prefer working with adults. (I later went back and got my Masters in adult learning as a result of this experience.)

  2. Prison culture is a community of its own. There are “cliques” like high school, but they take on a tone of pure survival. Find protection or become prey. I saw it as a reflection of our society, but one that’s hard to look at, so we stay distracted by other issues. We have work to do to address the core issues.

  3. There are those who are driven to better themselves despite their circumstances. A student in my class couldn’t speak one word of English. At night, he had his bunk mate translate every page of his GED workbook into Spanish, then he would work through the math problems in Spanish and write them in English so I could grade them in English the next day. Though math is my worst subject, his drive to go this extra mile drove me to make sure his assignments were graded properly.

  4. The teachers I worked with authentically wanted the best from their students, regardless of the circumstances. They cared not only about the GED but the individual as a person. Being seen and valued goes a long way.

  5. Prison doesn’t have to be a physical place. We create our own prisons and live from them daily. We are free to leave at any time, though we often choose to stay “stuck.” I want to spend time on this specific point next.

Personal Prison: Our Hearts

Though the bars may not be visible, each of us are prone to create an inner prison in our hearts, made up of our own life experiences. Experiences with failure, rejection, fear, anxiety, loss, pain, etc.

We tend to reject these parts of ourselves, much like society rejects prison inmates. We treat this part of ourselves as “less than,” much like society treats prison inmates. It’s part of us, but it’s not a part that we like, so we stuff it down, ignore it, and hope it goes away.

Like a balloon held under water that will always force its way to the surface, these imprisoned parts of us need an outlet. After all, they are part of us. (See “About CI” for more information.)

How do you know if you’re harboring “heart prisoners?” It depends on the person and the situation, though common outlets include:

  1. Explosive anger or suppressed anger (which feels like depression.) This heart inmate may have been confined after a heavy rejection or loss.

  2. Apathy. This heart inmate may have been sentenced after prolonged feelings of not “being good enough.”

  3. Excessive habits. Over eating. Over spending. Over indulging in entertainment. Over working. Over committing. Overly engaging in doing daily habits (even if they appear healthy on the surface.) This heart inmate has no boundaries, so they keep “escaping,” though it’s not true escape.

  4. Isolation. Maybe the “heart prisoners” above convince you it’s better if you are just by yourself.

Personal Prison: Our Minds

Our heart isn’t the only place we harbor internal prisoners. Our mind harbors prisoners as well. We are what we think, even if it’s not true. We may find ourselves imprisoned when we start to believe:

  1. Only those who think like me are acceptable.

  2. Only those who look/act like me are acceptable.

  3. The way I learned (insert topic here) is the best and right way.

  4. Others are out to get me or take what I have.

  5. If only “that obstacle” was removed, I could succeed.

  6. I don’t need others. I can do it all myself.

  7. Vulnerability is weakness.

  8. What I have to offer isn’t valuable.

  9. I’m not worth it.

Again, there’s a difference between having these thoughts pop up from time to time. It’s something else to allow them to imprint themselves within our internal belief systems. That’s when it creates internal prisons.

The good news is that we always have the choice to gain true freedom from our inner prisons. We don’t have to wait for our circumstances to improve.

As a real example of how this good news can be true, I'll end this post with messages of freedom and hope from a former prisoner… in more ways than one.

Freedom from Prison(s): Robert pate

Robert Pate is a high school graduate from the Midwest. He went on to get a college degree while playing basketball. He even went on to play semi-pro basketball after college.

After leaving his basketball career, he needed a new source of income. He turned to selling drugs. It wasn’t who he was, but the circumstances seemed to justify the decision.

His decision landed him in real prison, for 11 years.

During those 11 years, Robert Pate saw firsthand what the inside of the prison system is like. It wasn’t a positive experience, but it wasn’t all bad. Though he had lost the freedom to make his own decisions on what to eat and when to sleep, he chose well with who he connected with.

Your vibe attracts your tribe. Dove candy wrapper

He gained wisdom from a group of inmates who, while physically confined for life, had learned to set themselves free. These particular inmates had spent time exploring their inner prisons, identifying which thoughts and beliefs that were true and not true, and choosing real truth.

They had accepted the consequences of their past choices and were finding higher purpose in helping others take their own steps toward personal responsibility. Even behind bars, they were able to show up wholly authentic and at peace.

In his early life, Robert’s identity was defined by his basketball skills. When basketball was no longer a part of his life, that’s when the identity crisis began. He turned to survival, which led to prison. After his release, Robert could have easily stepped into the victim identity of “formerly incarcerated” and made decisions based on this identity. Instead, Robert found true self-identity and self-acceptance under the most extreme circumstances and by the most unexpected mentors. He was eventually released from prison in more ways than one.

Robert took what he gained from his experience and turned it into his mission. He began the IMAGE program while incarcerated and is still leading efforts after his release. He sees the power in walking alongside others on their journey, even while he’s only a few steps ahead. He sees how people, imprisoned in their heads and hearts, can be set free, just as he was. He’s Courageously Imperfect.

NOTE: I had the privilege of meeting Robert in person and hearing him speak. He’s the real deal. When I finally figure out podcasting, I hope Robert is one of my first guest interviews.

Are you in a season of feeling held back or "imprisoned" and want help moving forward? Schedule a 30-minute complimentary consultation to discuss the support that's right for you.


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