I spent the first week of my Christmas vacation in Big Bend National Park. I had dreamed of returning to this beautifully desolate region during my time in prison, so I immediately felt at home in the park. While in prison, memories of past trips comforted me during the countless moments of sadness. I’d also imagine future trips, planting the details in my mind to give texture and definition to uncertain hopes.
I had learned that planning for the future brought the future into the present. A friendly chaplaincy volunteer visited me twice a month, and we talked at length about my plans for the future. All of these plans were dependent on me being granted parole, and parole was far from certain; so my mentor suggested that I ask instead,
“What am I doing today that will lead me to my desired goal?”
I embraced the exercise with enthusiasm. I imagined the type of life I wanted to lead when given my freedom. I knew that I wanted to be free from addiction, so I participated in every program available to me in order to practice the principles of recovery. Soon, I found myself mentoring others who were drawn to my positive outlook. Recovery stopped being a future goal, and instead became my daily reality.
I also knew that I wanted to rebuild the career I had destroyed. During my downward slide into addiction, I had succumbed to a paralyzing apathy that made me a liability to employers. In prison, I shook off the apathy. I worked diligently as a clerk in a mechanical shop, and brought even greater determination to my volunteer position as a Peer Educator. For the first time in many years, I received praise from bosses and coworkers alike. I am often shocked when I hear people suggest that individuals coming out of prison aren’t ready to become productive members of the workforce, as if this were a general rule.
It occurred to me as I hiked the desert trails that my dreams in prison had created a path to freedom, and the vast December sky amplified the liberty. I stopped to look into the blue sky, and grabbed some bottled water from my pack. Big Bend is so dry that visitors must bring their own water; yet it teems with life. Peregrine falcons darted playfully above me as I hiked through a canyon, and I could see signs of black bear along the mountain trails. Purple cacti and thorny bushes with indigo-colored leaves charmed me on my desert hikes.
It surprised me that such an unforgiving environment could produce such living beauty, but it does.
I found such living beauty while in prison, people who guided me on my path to freedom. I’ll never forget my friend Michael. In prison, he had envisioned the life he was supposed to lead. He had an intelligence and discipline that would have led most people to Ivy League schools. In the mechanical shop, he found a book on how to program databases and network computers. With no help other than the book, he programmed a sophisticated database and networked five separate shops together. He became the de-facto IT manager, almost indispensable.
People in prison aren’t destined from birth to lead a life of crime, regardless of what some third-rate criminologists might suggest. Someone had hopes for their future, but something went terribly wrong along the way. Michael had endured such loveless abuse from his own father, that a dark core of rage lay hidden beneath his warm exterior. He was also a Vietnam War veteran, and the psychological scars of battle entwined with the rage to bring out a shocking violence. By the time I had met him, he was in his 60s and had spent the better part of his adult life in prison.
Yet, he had imagined a future where he could be the loving and gentle father he never experienced. He practiced this daily, imperfectly at first. He had to apologize countless times, especially when the rage invaded his eyes and words. Over time, the gentleness on the exterior permeated the angry core within him, and he no longer had to restrain the rage. Fatherless men started calling him “Dad.” His dreams for the future became his present reality. Michael is now a free man. He is the IT manager for a family-owned business, and volunteers with men as they make the difficult transition from prison back to the community.
Thoughts of Michael and others like him arose in my mind during my lonely hikes. The unfriendly land does not nourish life. I walked along the dry cracked dirt, yet I could see life all around me.
The plants and animals had developed spines and claws to protect themselves, but their determination to survive had given them resilience.
This is what happens sometimes in prison. The community willfully ignores the painful trauma and neglect that had taken beautiful lives off track, and they discard and label these wounded souls: offender, convict, criminal. Prison is one of the harshest places on the planet; yet, the men and women who live there continue to dream. It’s as if the dreams someone had for their lives when they were born are seeds that only need a little water to grow.
Even in the desert, it rains sometimes.
I wake up daily with enormous gratitude for the life I get to live today. Years ago, I strayed off course; yet, the gentle rain from volunteers and men like Michael helped me to heal. Eventually, I found a path that led back to the life I was supposed to live. When I think of people in prison, I think of the resilient men who changed my life.
People who attempt to describe prisoners while failing to see these beautiful souls reclaiming their lost dreams are like those who walk through the desert and see only cracked dry ground instead of brilliant purple cacti.