There are times in one’s life when you have to wonder what led you to this moment and place? How did you get here? As the large steel door slammed shut behind me – separating me from the outside free world – I had to wonder about the choices that had landed me in prison.
To say that entering prison was intimidating would be an understatement. Prison was hardcore. In California, if you are sentenced to less than a year you go to jail. If you are sentenced to more than a year, then its prison. A much meaner, tougher environment. I was in prison. I had to surrender all of my personal belongs, give up my cell phone and was searched from head to toe. It’s the guard’s job was to ensure that nothing came into the prison that wasn’t supposed to.
Once I was processed, I was escorted to an empty room and left alone for what felt like an eternity. The silence was deafening. Every door I had gone through had been securely locked behind me, there was no escape. Then without warning, the door burst open and two armed guards entered followed by a large man in a suit.
I held my breath and waited.
The guards said nothing and simply stood to the side. They too waited on the large man. In prison there is a lot of waiting, but what does it matter? You’re not going anywhere. The large man in the suit thrust out his hand and said, “We are so glad you are here, we’ve heard good things. You OK? you look a little nervous…”
Nervous? Of course not. I am in prison, the doors keep locking behind me and I half expect to meet Hannibal Lector at any moment. “The lambs Clarice, the lambs…” I smiled and simply shook my head, I was fine I muttered.
To be fair, let me explain why I was in prison. I had been a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley and sold my last company. I was ready or inclined to do another start up, so I began teaching entrepreneurship at the Renaissance Center for Entrepreneurs. After a few years, I was invited to participate in a pilot program to teach entrepreneurship to inmates who were facing re-entry into society. And while I had been teaching future business leaders the ins and outs of break even analysis for several years, this somehow felt different. Probably because, well, I was in PRISON.
I worked in that prison for 2 years. Everyone has a story and everyone is innocent. California’s recidivism rate is 65 percent – which means the more than 6 out 10 inmates will be re-incarcerated within 3 years. My job was to improve that number by offering an alternative. If you go back on the street with no skills, you will be back. We couldn’t change people but we could offer a different path to those who truly did not want to come back.
I learned a lot in prison. There are many bad people who belong in prison, but there are those who either made bad choices or simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Over the years we had our success stories. James launched a successful construction business and made it a point to hire former inmates when possible.
Sam spent 40 years in prison and took my class at the age of 60. His entire adult life had been spent in prison. But it wasn’t time completely lost. Her learned how to cook. We helped him launch a catering business and today he employs 20 people.
Sadly, there are heartbreaks, too. Carlo was incarcerated at the age of 18 for murder while on drugs – which he committed and rightfully he served 25 years behind bars – his entire adult life. Carlo was a quiet man who happened to be an amazing artist. His dream was to create children’s coloring books featuring prominent African Americans. He was in our program for 6 months and was a star pupil. We were able to arrange for a grant for working capital so that he dream could be a reality. He was our poster child for re-entry.
Carlo had a grown daughter that he desperately wanted to reconnect with. But she wanted no part of a man that had ruined her mother’s life and whom she had never met. Within two weeks of leaving prison, Carlo met and married a woman. But coloring books do pay bills, at least not initially. He also couldn’t find a day job because of his prison record. Not many folks want to hire a murderer regardless of whether he paid his debt to society. With no money and no prospects, his new marriage crumbled and Carlo started using, again. Within 3 months of his release, Carlo was back in prison where he will likely be for the rest of his life.
They say prison changes a man. I here to tell you it does. I saw people overcome adversity that would crush you and I. And sadly, I saw people like Carlo that never stood a chance. But as I had learned on “If you change one life, help one soul – it is all worth it.”