I thought it was time that I gave a peek into my world here in prison, beginning with growth through classes and programs I’ve taken. I have shared certificates on my website (under Doc tab) and at the bottom of this page, that I have achieved over the years with everyone in an effort to show that I believe in change, and anyone can improve who they are as a person with help.
When I came to prison, I didn’t understand how I had gotten here, who I was, and to be transparent, I wasn’t very educated. When I came to prison, I had never read a whole book in my life, and suffering like I did from ADD reading had always been an embarrassing practice. But, as I was to learn with time and through experience, my ADD made it hard for me to learn by sight or sound, so that left me with learning to read better. Yet, I know now that there was more to it than just the desire to learn, because I wanted to understand why I was here and who I was. Most people don’t understand how I could come to prison and not know how it happened, but those that know my story know just how unhealthy and damaged my past truly was.
By the age of 14, I had been physically, emotionally, and mentally abused by two family members and also sexually abused by two others. I can’t tell you what it was like to be a teenager suffering through all the changes, seeking to understand who I was and wasn’t, and endure all that negativity and hurt during those developmental years. Coming to prison two months after my 20th birthday and having never been in serious trouble in my life, I endured a kind of change that nothing compared to other than the abuse I suffered.
My whole world had fallen apart, no one knew the truth, and the more I thought about it the more I began to wonder just what had happened. People that should have known me didn’t seem to any longer, and the people that didn’t know me didn’t want to, based on what had happened. I came to prison accepting the blame for what happened, because in my mind it was the only way I could deal with it. Own it all, accept responsibility, adapt and survive in a foreign world, all while trying to figure out who I was. How did I do that?
I first had to figure out what I wasn’t, and I knew in my heart I wasn’t what everyone thought I was. My family didn’t die because I was caught robbing our home, and I knew for a fact that there were people out there that knew the truth. But, if I was going to survive in this new world, I needed to pay attention and learn all I could about being a part of it without it becoming a part of me.
The first 8 years I was in prison, I was at the Cummins unit and there weren’t many programs you could get into or take for self improvement. Back then if you had your GED or high school diploma, you didn’t get put into school, and at the Farm that didn’t leave you much beyond going to church. At that time, you had to really want to go worship, too, because it was the meeting place for most of the hustlers and a place for lovers to meet up in the bathrooms. Guess you could say that the prison chapel was a place where God and the Devil came to embrace the lost, but then again that has been prison as a whole the entire time I have been here.
I spent the first 4 or 5 years on hoe squad, working like a slave with a hoe or pick, and when I came in it was books that I found my way through. Back then, I also had many people that wrote me who had seen my case on TV, and more often than not they were people that had been abused as children and wanted to share. People felt that if anyone would understand it might be me, but more often than not the questions they asked where the same ones I too was seeking. How does someone abuse children, and how do those children overcome it? Does everyone have the trust issues that I do, or am I just more insecure due to all that my experiences left me confused about? The more that people wrote, the more I became convinced that I could be more than who I was; a prisoner, I had something that I could give back. There were more questions than answers, always, and more than a few people wrote to remind me what a worthless piece of crap I was. Not to mention those that made fun of me, calling me the “last boy scout” or some other play on words, and sad as it may seem, my best friends for years were books.
I stayed quiet and out of the way, read all the books that people sent me, and one of my old teachers was a constant source of empowerment and support. My old football coach’s wife sent me boxes of books, and I will never forget the first books that she sent and how they intimidated me. Tom Clancy’s series about Jack Ryan, huge books that often exceeded 1000 pages, but oh the thrill of making it through one. 🙂 It may sound silly to you, I know, but for a boy that had never read a whole book it was a confidence builder. I was in dire need of, and wanted so desperately, those confidence builders and as I finished those and other books. I learned to love to read.
I had found a joy in something I once dreaded, due to the abuse it had once caused at home. I grew to love the characters and began to connect with them in ways that helped me to develop my own social skills and learning to communicate.
Was I really that bad when it came to communication and social skills? I felt that I was and I certainly didn’t communicate well enough for others to understand what happened and why. So, I read and isolated myself inside prison, and while most people left me to my books, and the silence it offered, it didn’t fill my need to interact with others. A problem with prison is that most people key in on those that show a need to relate and interact as weakness that can be exploited, and I certainly didn’t want any more attention than I had to get as it was. I found that if I didnt talk to anyone, people thought that I was crazy, but in my silence I suffered greatly and felt alone in a new world and trying to heal from terrible experiences.
Emotionally I could only take so much when it came to books on child abuse, and I certainly didn’t want the predators in prison to see me trying to figure out what happened to me. Prison taught me all about learning a lesson that I hadn’t known in the world, and that was learning how to spot a predator and how to avoid them and, if need be, stand up to one.
You don’t have to be the toughest guy in prison, so long as you aren’t the weakest or the smallest. I didn’t get much education beyond reading for my pleasure; escaping to another world with different people and lives with meaning. Of course, most of the experiences I had never had myself. Every book in some way offered me a view into another’s life, experiences that shaped those people and how. Yhe more I could understand and relate, then I could also compare to my own life.
Books helped me to grow up, yes, but emotionally I was very much a boy and I had no confidence in who I was in relation to those around me. In silence, well, people can think all kinds of things, and I used mine as an armor to keep people a safe distance away. I wrote people and by writing, learned how to express myself and think about problems from different perspectives. As I met others with similar needs, I even began to learn what relationships were. I had never been comfortable with anything beyond the sexual, it was what I had known most of my life, and my abusers left me struggling with any notion of what a healthy relationship could be.
What does all of this have to do with my education and classes? Well, I learned and grew up by writing other people the first 8 years of my being in prison, and while I loved and lost, I also learned what love could be and who I was. Failed relationships causes hurt, sure, but I learned how to be a man and that I could offer others something that had value and meaning. I found out that I was a person that had worth, and the people who got to know me through letters and visited liked me.
It wasn’t until I came to Maximum Security Unit in 2005 that I got the chance to get into classes. The Chaplain here had us meeting in the gym or, later, the kitchen. I went through “Quest for Authentic Manhood” and, later, “Anger Resolution“. I met some of the volunteers that spent their time here determined to help us be better men. No, the classes aren’t as in-depth as they could be, but it opened the door for me and I found that people listened when I talked. People remembered that I used to not talk to anyone, worked out all the time, and preferred books to others’ company. It was the way I coped, how I did my time, and then things changed.
I had prayed to God for years for protection, growth, healing, love, you name it, and as I went to those classes I began to use the material to help others that struggled to understand. Sure, I still had people that made fun of me behind my back, seeking to embarrass me in order to feel better about themselves, but I enjoyed helping people and I found a way to.
Life Principles classes were about the Bible, using lessons from those in the Bible to help me and others make better decisions when faced with life problems. Anger Resolution dealt with recognizing the root causes of anger, how we can fix those core issues, and even what it means to have stronghold in my life that are areas of weakness I have to overcome to get where I need to be. I began studying the Bible in earnest and I found out things about the Bible that I never knew, while learning that nothing I experience today hadn’t once been experienced by someone else, thousands of years ago.
Every person in the Bible is there for a reason, and I got to see just what God did with those that screwed up and were outcasts from the world. You see, I learned that God used those that were broken, lost, sick, and needed purpose, because they all knew that on their own they could do nothing. God also knew that others could relate to them, and as they listened to their testimony they could find hope that maybe God could love and use them as well.
I began to see myself as someone lovable, having worth to God, and until you believe you have worth and love yourself how can you possibly love others as you should? Figuring out how to love sometimes means figuring out what it isn’t, and as I learned and grew there weren’t many mistakes that I missed along the way. I remembered all those that I had hurt not knowing how to really love as I should, and I hurt with shame knowing that in my hurt state, I had caused others pain.
The more that I learned, the more aware I became, not only of the things I had done and what I did wrong, but also how my poor choices also affected those around me. I was asked to mentor in some of the Life Principle classes, help others to understand what I had over time, and as a table facilitator I grew to enjoy teaching as well. Being a hard worker had lead me to working on Maintenance with a job in the Library and then as a tutor in the school. I began to learn how I best learn in an effort to help others, and it was a huge gift to be able to help others gain an education and experience that sense of worth it provided me.
I became involved in UNITY, You And I Helping Teen Youth, and it was my first experiences dealing with gangs and how they operate in the world and in prison. None of them wanted to see what I did as I listened to others recount their stories and experiences. Those kids that didn’t have parents at home, ran the streets looking for role models to fill those needs, and sounded very familiar to what I went through. I didn’t get into a gang as many of those guys had, but I knew what it was like to be a child with needs and others exploit those needs for their own benefit. Gangs are often run by those that are more mature and educated; they use those that aren’t to do their bidding, while they feel part of something resembling family.
I learned about character, anger management, drug and alcohol treatment, parenting, and errors in thinking. Mentoring in that class was a test of my ability to relate, and I was able to meet and gain the respect of guys I would have never met otherwise. Funny how alike we all are when it comes down to human needs, and the more that we learn about ourselves the more we are able to relate to those around us.
PAL was a year long program that I loved and miss daily. This program is longer, geared towards teaching men to live Godly lives and develop skills that enable them to have success. No, it wasn’t easy living in those barracks for a year, nor mentoring in there when I was done, but I was deeply touched by that time and felt closer to God than any other time in my life. I look at the Bible in a way that differed from others, and I love to ask questions in order to see if people really understand what is being shared and if it has meaning in today’s world.
It is the volunteers who make such programs what they are because they take time to come down here and love us enough to invest in each of us. Recently, I completed a class called Compassionate Communication, and it was something that I had needed for a very long time. I had read a book about it, sure, but taking the class helped me to apply the knowledge. I learned that my thoughts are my own, and what I choose to dwell on will, in fact, affect me emotionally. What I tell myself about what others do and say, or the circumstances around me, is just as important to communication as what others actually do and say. I am responsible for my thoughts, and my thoughts are what lead me to act in certain predictable ways. I learned to be more compassionate by listening better, asking good questions, what words to use and not use to get my points across, and lastly I learned to use that skill with everyone I know.
The more I learn, the more I want to have the chance to be free, because I know that I can help others by sharing my experiences and the lessons learned from them. Maybe I can do that here as well, and it is our goal to try, but I wanted to share with you my path of growth and change.
I chose to invest in myself because I wanted to be a better person, and I know in my heart that I am. The more I have learned, the more I realize what I don’t know, and I am determined to learn all that I can. I encourage you to challenge yourself, learn something new, and above all learn about who you are so you can relate to others. Thank you.
You can learn more about Heath on his website.