Want to change the world? Go to prison.

Daddy, why are you going to prison?! Aren’t the bad guys in prison?

My 5-yr-old son was afraid.

I’m going to help the guys in prison buddy. They aren’t bad guys, they’re just people who’ve made mistakes.

It felt like the right thing to say, but I was afraid too. I had never been in a prison and I felt the same way he did. But my feelings about prison were about to change.

People keep doing the same things unless something makes them change (I guess the laws of physics apply to us too). Without going to prison my beliefs about prison would have likely never changed. It’s possible my son and his children and his children’s children may have never changed their ideas about prison either.

But I did go to prison.

Avenal State Prison

Three world changing lessons I learned in prison

1. See with new eyes

Before going to prison my beliefs about prison and prisoners were based on stereotypes and lies. Here’s what I believed about prison before visiting:

  • Prisoners are dangerous
  • Prisoners are mean
  • Good guys like me don’t go to prison

I was wrong.

Many of the men I met in prison had been in prison 20 or 30 years. These men had committed serious crimes in their late teens and early 20s and were still paying the price in their 40s and 50s. I’m sure some of these men were dangerous when they were put in prison, but they didn’t seem very dangerous to me now.

Most of the men had grown up in poverty surrounded by gangs and violence and had done bad things, but mean is not the way I would describe them. Humble, kind, gentle, thoughtful, friendly, and respectful are the words I would use to describe the men I met in prison.

One man I met even reminded me of myself. He was a white, college educated, middle-class American with two loving parents who didn’t grow up around gangs or violence. He told me the story of the terrible decision he made in his early 20s:

I was only minutes from my house. I knew I was drunk, but I didn’t think it was a big deal. I had driven that route home hundreds of times. But this time was different. Someone died. The unthinkable happened, and I went to prison. This was never part of my life plan.
— Ryan

I cried for Ryan.

Ryan made a fatal mistake, but we all make mistakes. I could be Ryan.

I could go to prison, you could go to prison, anyone could go to prison.

Being in prison opened my eyes, and I saw that prison wasn’t just for bad guys.

2. Feel for someone else

To change false beliefs and negative stereotypes you have to feel empathy. People are pretty good at feeling empathy too, when given the chance. My visit to prison gave me this chance.

Step to the Line at Avenal State Prison

We did an exercise called Step to the Line designed to help us understand each other and feel empathy for people whose lives have been different than our own. All of the men in prison lined up on one side of a line facing all the volunteers on the other side of the line. The Defy Ventures team then read statements and people on each side of the line would step forward if the statement was true of them.

This exercise was deeply moving and emotional. Here are a few of the statements and my experience:

I like hip-hop music.

Most of the volunteers on my side of the line step forward as do all but two of the men on the other side of the line. We are standing toe to toe looking directly into eyes only inches from us. We’re laughing and reaching across the line shaking hands and giving high fives. I didn’t realize we had so much in common.

I grew up hearing gunshots in my neighborhood.

None of the volunteers on my side of the line step forward but almost all of the men on the other side of the line do. The three feet that now separate us feel like an uncrossable chasm and I see just how different our lives have been.

I’ve been convicted of murder.

Nobody moves on my side of the line. Half of the men on the other side of the line step forward. People are crying on both sides of the line. I look up and down the line at men who made irreversible mistakes in their past, but I don’t see murderers. I see friends. I see men I’ve spent hours connecting with, listening to, and trying to help. I begin to feel uneasy and embarrassed. I realize that before this moment I thought of murderers as monsters. But as I look across the line I don’t see any murderers or monsters, just people trying to change and be better.

Pictures from the Step to the Line exercise with Defy Ventures at Avenal State Prison

3. Learn by doing

I’ve read great books and seen powerful documentaries that have opened my eyes and helped me feel empathy for others. But going to prison was different. I wasn’t learning passively, I was learning by doing. I took action and experienced change myself. This type of learning by doing is called experiential learning, and it’s one of the most effective ways people learn.

We see big problems in the world like the prison epidemic in the US and feel like there is nothing we can personally do to change anything. But there is something we can do. We can share our experiences and knowledge with someone else and help them learn by doing. You can call it mentoring, coaching, or tutoring. Whatever you call it, it works — even in prison.

Me doing a mock job interview in prison

One of the biggest challenges the men I met in prison will face is getting a decent job when they get out of prison. To help them overcome this challenge we practiced interviewing them for a job during our visit.

I had just finished one of these mock job interviews and it was my turn to share feedback. I knew what this man needed to do to improve, but I was afraid to tell him. I didn’t want to make him feel bad. Plus, I was nervous. He had spent 25 years in prison. Could any advice I shared really help him?

I looked him straight in the eyes and told him what I thought,

You did a great job explaining your experience and why you’re qualified for the job. But if I was interviewing you, I wouldn’t have heard any of that. In the beginning you mentioned you had served time in prison but you didn’t look me in the eyes and tell me why. All I was thinking during your interview was, what did he do? Why did he go to prison? You need to be honest with me. Own your past mistakes and tell me how you’ve changed. Then tell me about your experience and show me why I would be crazy not to hire you.

His eyes surprised me. I saw gratitude in his eyes not anger. He wanted honest feedback. He asked me a few questions and then we practiced again. And he improved!

He looked me right in the eyes, owned his past mistakes, showed me how he had changed, and convinced me I would regret not hiring him. It only took a few sincere words of advice, encouragement, and an opportunity to practice.

I see this every day at Wyzant where we connect expert tutors with learners who want help to overcome challenges and achieve their career and learning goals. The best tutors are not the best because of what they know. The best tutors guide struggling learners through difficulty and help them rebuild confidence in themselves through practice.

We can all be the person that helps someone else learn. A few words of encouragement from the right person at the right time can change everything.

We need change and change is possible

The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. There are more than 2 million people in prison in the United States today, and 70% of children with a parent in prison will end up in prison themselves one day. So unless we change something, we’re going to have a lot more people in prison as the children of these 2 million current prisoners grow up and follow in their parents’ footsteps (prison statistics).

Spending time in prison taught me that we can change this one person at a time if we open our eyes, feel empathy, and learn by doing.

All of us working together at Avenal State Prison

Go do something

I discovered Defy Ventures after a mentor challenged me to go do something rather than just talk about the problems I saw in the world.

I’ll give you the same challenge this mentor gave me:

  • Find opportunities to mentor minorities
  • Spend time in environments where you are the minority
  • Improve educational opportunities for the poor

Doing any one of these three things will change you for the better and give you the chance to be a positive force for change in someone else’s life. And you don’t have to go to prison either.

Stop by a local school, library, or Boys and Girls club and ask if you can help. Travel and learn about people and cultures who are different than you. You can even do this in your own community by riding public transit, going to a different restaurant, or shopping at an ethnic grocery store you’ve never been to and having a friendly conversation with a stranger. Talk to family, friends, and colleagues about problems in the world to find the people close to you who have different perspectives and learn to appreciate and respect their differences.

We have more power to change the world than we think we do.

That’s what I learned in prison.

If you want to get involved with Defy Ventures, check out their volunteer opportunities.

Me and my new friends at Avenal State Prison

My purpose in life is to learn, grow, and help others. I write about what I’m learning. Want to learn with me? Join me here.

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