Weekly Journal Entry – Being Productive/Useful
I joined this site because I believe in the site’s overall mission. They want to advocate for criminal justice reform options and to highlight that many inmates are trying to do positive things to better themselves. A challenge is that I do feel some will be inclined to believe that me specifically or prisoners in general are bad people and anything positive we try to do is for an ulterior motive. I’m afraid if people have that belief anything I say will come across disingenuous. But part of what I’ve had to accept is that if I try to make positive changes it shouldn’t be to change what people think of me. I’m certainly not going to change anyone’s opinion with words, and I just have to do what I can to let my actions show my genuine intent and hope it sets a positive example. I still have a lot to work on and I think contributing to this site can help because it causes me to do additional self-reflection and sometimes helps me come up with new ideas.
One thing that has been consistent throughout my life is the urge to be useful and stay productive. I’m almost always on the go. In my job, I always took on too many responsibilities because I had a hard time saying no if someone asked for help. At times I had close to a dozen different roles. So it was a dramatic change going from that to the county jail where being useful or contributing was nearly impossible. With COVID, much of this time was spent in 23-hour-a-day lockdown in a cell, and jobs and recreation aren’t options in county jail.
I still had my usual drive to be useful which was significantly heightened because of the guilt I felt from the fallout of my crime. Because of the severe negative impact I had on the victims and my family, I desperately wanted to do something positive to start repaying my debt to society. I know I can’t make up for what I’ve done, but I still want to find positive ways to use my time. It continued to be a challenge at county jail, but I was able to be a little creative and find some ways to at least be productive. Other inmates occasionally made fun of me because I always had my “homework” out when I worked on various projects. I worked on some genealogy projects, created stories and games for my kids, planned future projects and volunteer opportunities for when I’m released, completed a workbook on my offense the chaplain gave me and when the jail got tablets, took Khan Academy academic classes. Napping all day or watching TV like some others felt like giving up. Being productive helped, but it still was hard to feel useful.
I hoped that would change moving to a Federal prison with more opportunities. At first, things weren’t much different. When I arrived, the facility was again on lockdown, so I spent another 5-6 weeks locked in a cell. Upon the lockdown ending I approached the different departments trying to sign up for different classes, treatments and programming. I hate being away from my family, but if I can use this time to better myself then hopefully I won’t have to view it as a waste. But I was continually turned away because either I wasn’t eligible, the program wasn’t running, or there was a long waiting list because of COVID. Once again I felt frustrated, desperate to feel useful and productive.
So again I tried to be creative. To start addressing my issues and faults, I asked psychology what I could do since I couldn’t get into any classes. They mentioned they had a self-help library. So I started attending that regularly and have gone through numerous workbooks on things I have struggled with from anxiety and depression, to drinking, to my offense conduct. I have met with their doctors, continued to learn a lot and have even researched to find additional resources they can add. I have a lot of work to do, but I have successfully lowered my mental health care level from level 2 to the regular level 1 and I’ve made concrete future plans to seek specialized treatment when I get out.
My other big goal in being useful was to somehow find a way to give back. My background is in finance and education, so I got a job with the education department tutoring GED classes. In the last year alone we have helped around 80 inmates successfully get their GED. I could have got a job at UNICOR (the manufacturing program) that paid a lot more money versus the around twelve cents an hour tutors get paid, but this job makes me feel like I am going to possibly help people make a positive change in their lives. This in turn will help me improve, so I can leave here a better person. If I was just sitting here doing nothing I think my mental health would spiral and I would have a difficult time adjusting later on.
I’ve also tried to turn my frustration into something positive. Since I couldn’t get into a lot of the programming I wanted to myself, I started asking staff if I could help with administering it given my background. I had some experience with the ACT WorkKeys employability skills program. The BOP wanted to start offering that, so I talked to staff, helped them set it up and now am the sole tutor for that program. This helps inmates gain skills that will help them prepare for more diverse jobs when they are released. We work on things like workplace discipline, teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking and communication. Inmates can leave the program with a certification to give future employers if they complete this nationally recognized program.
I also offered to teach classes. They hadn’t had any adult continuing education (ACE) classes since COVID, but they allowed me to create and start one on entrepreneurship that I taught in the evenings. I then started another one on financial literacy. It’s a challenge to get resources, but my family has been amazing in helping me track different things down. I’ve been amazed how engaged other inmates have been with these classes, and my supervisor even noted this is the first time he can remember that a class had perfect attendance throughout. BOP studies have shown that these type of classes, along with WorkKeys and GED (known as EBRR’s – evidence based recidivism reduction) help lower recidivism rates for inmates, so this has given me a purpose which is something I desperately wanted after 2 years in county jail.
I know I can’t change or make up for my crime, but I’m trying to have an attitude of one day at a time and trying to use each day to do something positive. I know this is a major goal of mine once released some day. I have always felt motivated to help others and to leave things in a better position than how I found them. Despite my utter failure in this goal because of my crime, this is not a part of my personality I want to lose. I just want to do a better job of it. I’ve been inspired by seeing a few other inmates with similar mindsets, so I try to associate with them. Though it’s been more of a challenge in here, I think the perseverance and creativity I’ve had to try to employ to feel useful will help me going forward.