Achievement and Appreciation: Part 2 

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Lesson 5-2-Achievement and Appreciation

Incremental Achievements and the Other Side:

What does the other side of a prison term look like?

Participants working through this course serve sentences in detention centers, jails, or prisons. As someone who spent his 20s, 30s, and 40s in those environments, I encourage participants to remember a maxim of this introductory course:

It’s never too early and never too late to begin preparing for success after prison.

Start by thinking about the other side. Statistics show that most justice-impacted people face monumental challenges when they leave prison. The irony of corrections is that recidivism rates in many jurisdictions show that seven out of every ten people in jail or prison return to custody after release. As people spend more time in a “correctional” setting, they become less likely to function as law-abiding, contributing citizens.

People can speculate and draw conclusions about the reasons behind those dismal success rates. Rather than dwelling on the reasons behind failure, I always encourage participants to think about success. Regardless of where participants begin working through this course, I hope they will architect a release plan. That plan should lead them to where they want to go, and the legacy they want to leave society after they’re gone.

For example:

Socrates lived more than 2,500 years ago—yet his leadership and teachings still influence people today.

Frederick Douglass died in 1891, but through the books he wrote, and others wrote about him, we see an example of excellence in advocacy for good.

Viktor Frankl did not allow the losses he suffered in a concentration camp to stop him from bringing change to the world, even though he died decades ago.

Nelson Mandela died in 2013, and others have written volumes about his leadership, despite the 27 years he served in prison.

Those people left legacies that people revere, despite the time they spent in bondage.

My life is different today because of the incremental achievements that began inside of that high-security penitentiary, back in 1987. I can still trace the steps:

While I languished in a solitary cell, Officer Wilson gave me a series of books that taught me about Socrates, Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela, and others. From those books I learned to stop thinking about my problems and to start thinking about how I could reconcile with society from inside of a prison cell.

Frederick Douglass’ story inspired me to develop communication skills. If I worked to become a better writer and better speaker, I hoped to persuade leaders that we should reform opportunities for people in prison to earn freedom. 

Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Viktor Frankl, and many other leaders showed the path to succeed as an advocate. Besides developing skills, a person had to develop relationships. 

Every achievement begins with incremental steps. Some of those steps will be harder than others, but people who commit know that each step should lead to an intended destination. 

When I started my path inside a solitary cell before my judge inflicted a lengthy sentence, I visualized the life I’m leading right now—working to improve outcomes for all justice-impacted people.

A conversation with Lynn Stephens helped me along that path. She supervised the business office of the prison’s factory. When I applied for a job, she asked why I wanted to work in the business office. The initial meeting with the Unit Team convinced me that I needed a plan to write the next chapter of my life. I told Lynn that I wanted to find a quiet spot where I could avoid the volatility of the penitentiary and work on a release plan that I could use to pry open opportunities and prepare for success upon release from prison. 

The more I spoke with her about my release plan and preparing for success after release, even though I had only begun to serve a sentence that would keep me confined for multiple decades, the more I could see her perceptions of me change. From the release plan, she could question me and see the deliberateness of every step I took.

Engineering that release plan became the first step toward becoming a purple cow.

Lynn authorized me to work as her clerk. She tacitly allowed me to complete my schoolwork after I finished my office duties. Because of her support, I earned an undergraduate degree. Independent study and correspondence courses taught lessons that opened new opportunities. 

As Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great, the most onerous part of success is getting started. But momentum builds.

With Lynn’s trust, new opportunities for growth opened. Looking for sanctuary from the asylum, I found a niche by volunteering for a suicide-watch program through the psychology department. When the shift in the business office concluded, I sat in a quiet area of the prison’s mental health unit. In that niche, I had the solitude I would need to concentrate on my studies. While on the suicide-watch shift, I could write to prospective mentors. 

I began writing letters using the same strategy that persuaded a university to admit me as a correspondence student and the same approach that Elon Musk used to network when he immigrated to North America. If an article or a book inspired me, I’d introduce myself by writing a letter. Typically, at that early stage of my journey, I wrote to professors who published books or articles about the prison system.

Those scholars didn’t know me from anyone else, but I doubt they received many letters from people serving time in prison. Ironically, being in prison may have been an advantage in my efforts to connect with them. Through those efforts, I connected me with professors at Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Hofstra, and other great universities. I considered each new relationship a monumental achievement and an incremental step in my release plan.

Those professors visited me in prison. As they got to know me, they invited me to publish articles in their books about prison. Some invited me to write chapters for them. As time passed, they introduced me to their publishers, which led to publishing contracts to publish books I wrote.

The takeaway?

Had I not taken incremental steps during the earliest stages of my confinement, I would not have been able to seize or create opportunities that advanced my release plan.


Write responses to the following questions in approximately ten minutes. If participating in a class setting, discuss verbally.

5-4: In what ways will the incremental step of completing this introductory course influence your adjustment?

5-5: In what ways would finding mentors that align with your release plan lead to new opportunities and achievements?

5-6: How can you show appreciation for the opportunities that others are opening for you?

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