Achievement and Appreciation: Part 3 

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5-3-Achievement and Appreciation

Along the way, relationships opened that directly related to the reasons I’m now able to bring courses into state and federal prison systems. The next phase of our course will include more details that show the trajectory. For the complete story, participants might consider reading the following books:

Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term

Details showing the pathway from an arrest on August 11, 1987 to a release date on August 12, 2013.

Prison my 8,344th Day

Details on the deliberate, intentional decisions during a typical day in prison.

Success after Prison

Opportunities that opened after release, largely because of the deliberate release plan.

Perseverance

Strategies to build momentum while working through a lengthy prison term.

Release Plan

Best practices for creating an initial release plan and working to develop the plan over time.

DVD video series

Video profiles of others who built pathways to success after prison. Each video shows the relationship between prison decisions and success after release. Staff members may offer those DVD videos in libraries, reentry centers, or broadcast them over institutional televisions.

Creating those assets contributed to contracting opportunities with different prison systems, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the California Department of Corrections, and other institutions. 

The arc included an apex, like my marriage inside a prison visiting room during my 16th year, and nadirs, like transfers to prisons across state lines and many stints in the Special Housing Unit of prisons where I served time. Each step along the way represented a part of my release plan.

On a path of preparing for success after prison, I learned the power of alchemy—converting adversaries into advocates. Indeed, while locked in a cell the Special Housing Unit at the federal prison in Lompoc, I met Captain Matevousian. An officer cited me with a disciplinary infraction for publishing a manuscript, which brought me to the attention the prison’s head of security. 

Since I’d already served longer than 20 years and had created an elaborate release plan, I knew the system well—perhaps too well. Despite prevailing over the incident report, Captain Matevousian told me that he didn’t want a person on the compound who about the need for prison reform. Based on his recommendation, administrators shipped me to another federal prison.

Publishing books represented an integral component of my release plan. Each time I held a book in my hand, I felt like I was taking another step toward my eventual career in advocacy. I believed those books would advance my commitment to being the change I wanted to see. Despite my goals, administrators viewed my publishing as a potential threat to the institution’s security.

Socrates taught me that, to succeed, I had to understand the world in which I lived. Like anyone else who wanted to overcome a challenge, I had to introspect on questions:

  • What strengths did I have?
  • What weaknesses? 
  • What opportunities existed? 
  • What threatened my progress?

Since my release plan showed what I wanted, I expected to face obstacles. Preparing for success means learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Working toward prison reform required resources I could leverage to build an ecosystem for change. Leaders helped me along the way. To show my appreciation for what they taught, I had to live in gratitude—passing along the lessons that had made a difference in my adjustment.

Those incremental steps across the highwire of imprisonment opened new opportunities when I transitioned to a halfway house on August 13, 2012. Within days, I closed a deal with a real estate developer to acquire my first property, and San Francisco State University invited me to teach as an adjunct professor. I created “The Architecture of Incarceration,” a course for students who wanted to build a career in the corrections sector.

A tri-part adjustment pattern of focusing on earning academic credentials, contributing to society, and building a support network carried me through prison. Similarly, I would need a tri-part plan to succeed upon release. 

Despite feeling passionate about prison reform, I also had to cover living expenses and prepare for retirement. Those needs influenced the intentional, three-pronged career in business, investments, and academia that I launched. Each component of the plan related to the other:

  • By building or accumulating appreciating assets, in appreciating markets, I could prepare for my retirement.
  • By building businesses, I could earn a living that would fund my ministry to improve outcomes for all justice-impacted people. 
  • By working in academia, I could infuse future prison leaders with new ideas that, I believed, would improve outcomes. We could change the way leaders measured justice in America. Instead of waiting for calendar pages to turn, my scholarship advanced ideas for reforms that would incentivize people to work toward earning freedom through merit.

As a professor, I expanded my platform, publishing articles like “Incentivizing Excellence” in the UC Hastings Law Review. By publishing in a law review, I took an incremental step toward building a speaking career that would spawn innovative ideas to a cynical crowd. I spread ideas on the need to empower the Bureau of Prisons with incentives. If we want people to leave prison as productive citizens, we should empower administrators to reward people who pursue that path.

Those writings led to an invitation to keynote an event that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sponsored. For 40 minutes, while a group of several hundred judges and correctional practitioners ate lunch, I promoted the idea of reforms that would include incentives to produce the outcomes we wanted from America’s criminal justice system.

Following my presentation, a well-dressed man in a blue suit approached. He extended his hand and asked if I remembered him. 

“Of course I remember you,” I smiled. “You’re Captain Matevousian. Five years ago, when I was in Lompoc, you locked me in the SHU for advancing the ideas I spoke about today.”

While we shook hands, Mr. Matevousian told me his career had advanced. The agency promoted him to Warden, and he presided over the penitentiary in Atwater. He invited me to give a presentation in his institution. 

Instead of making a motivational speech, I proposed to create a course that would show people in prison how they could begin making decisions that prepare them for success upon release.

That conversation spread the program through the Bureau of Prisons and several state prison systems. It led to the birth of Prison Professors, a website I created to help all stakeholders of the system, including all justice-impacted people. More importantly, it allowed me to work with many leaders, influencing their ideas on reforms that included the First Step Act—the most comprehensive and innovative prison-reform legislation since the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act. 

The First Step Act passed Congress with bipartisan support, beginning a transition from an indeterminate to a determinate sentencing system. It’s an incremental step toward more reforms that our team at Prison Professors will continue working to advance. 

Our advocacy pushes to advance ideas such as:

  • Broader application of incentives with the First Step Act, so that all people in federal prison would qualify for Earned Time Credits.
  • Use of additional incentives, such as extended furloughs and quasi work-release programs for people who have built release plans showing their commitment to earning incrementally higher levels of freedom.
  • Clear pathways to work toward consideration for commutations of sentence, or compassionate release.
  • Reinstatement of the U.S. Parole Commission.

Some people may believe such changes will never happen. I urge those people to consider stories like Halim Flowers, or Tommy Walker. Those people worked hard to build extraordinary and compelling records long before the First Step Act became law. 

Other people get discouraged because they will finish serving their sentence before Congress or the agency implements changes for which we advocate. 

We must celebrate each small, incremental achievement along the way. We grow stronger when we live in gratitude, showing appreciation for the blessings that come our way.

I appreciate each participant in this course. Through their work, I open more opportunities to convince cynical people on the need for reforms that will improve outcomes of our nation’s prison system.

Question:

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

5-7: How does the release plan you’re creating show a series of incremental steps to prepare for success after prison?

5-8: In what way would a small achievement open opportunity in your life?

5-9: How would living in gratitude influence your adversaries?

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