Finding Positive Influences and Mentors
in Federal Prison
I hated being in prison. Authorities locked me inside a solitary cell after my arrest, on August 11, 1987. I spent a year locked in those confined spaces before authorities transferred me to federal prison. When I hit the yard of a high-security penitentiary, I appreciated the relative liberty. But as I listened to the people around me, I knew that I needed to find positive role models.
Prison is filled with negativity. It’s understandable. The system is as close to communism as we come in the United States. It stifles creativity. While incarcerated, people serve the institution. It tells them where to work, where to sleep, and with whom they can communicate. Prisons deprive people of building private property, or participating as full-fledged members of society. Worse, people in prison advise newcomers that they should forget about the world outside and learn to live in prison.
Since I hated prison, I rejected that advice. Instead, I set my mind on finding positive influences and mentors in federal prison.
The first mentors I had came from the books that I read. Although face-to-face contact is great, it’s also great to find wisdom from the pages of books. I read The Republic and felt that Socrates spoke to me. He taught me how to think differently. Instead of dwelling on the problems that I created, I learned how I could use time in prison to prepare for success upon release. The art of Socratic questioning helped me develop critical thinking, understanding the opportunity costs that accompany every decision.
Besides Socrates, I found mentor advisors in Nelson Mandela, Viktor Frankl, Frederick Douglass, and Jean Jacque Rousseau. I learned from Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jack Welch. Leaders taught me how to think differently.
Later, I began writing to people that inspired me. If I read an article or a story about a leader in society, I wrote an unsolicited letter. The letters were simple. I described why their work wanted me to work harder. I wanted to become a better person and I invited them into my life. I described the bad decisions that led me to prison, but also laid out the plan I put in place to prepare for a life of meaning and relevance.
That strategy helped me open relationships with many leading academics. They would visit me in prison. They mentored me and even invited me to publish alongside them. Through that work, I developed relationships with publishers, opening income opportunities and also helping me to build a stronger support network.
Through those efforts, I even found the love of my life and she married me inside of a federal prison’s visiting room. My career exists today largely because of the adjustment strategies that I made while climbing through 26 years in federal prison.
I encourage anyone going into federal prison to develop a strategy that will help them open mentor relationships with influential role models. Those relationships give a person a reason to avoid the disruptions in prison that can lead to further complications–including more time in prison.
For those who want assistance, I encourage them to visit PrisonProfessorsTalent.com, a website that our nonprofit sponsors to help people in federal prison build support. Anyone can build a Linked-in like profile that helps them build support. Or, they can simply send an email to [email protected].
If a person chooses to build a profile, consider journaling to memorialize the many ways that he or she is building an extraordinary and compelling adjustment strategy. Perhaps a prompt for the next journal entry:
Critical Thinking Question:
- In what ways would building a tribe of mentors influence prospects for success upon release from federal prison?
I would never ask anyone to do anything that I didn’t do while climbing through 26 years in prison. The strategies that I learned from mentors helped me emerge with my dignity intact, and with opportunities to prosper.
Founder, Prison Professors