3-3-Action and Accountability
As Virgil advised Dante, today’s actions influence the life we lead in the weeks, months, and decades ahead. Leaders taught me that instead of dwelling on the predicament I created, I should contemplate the future.
What would people who had influence over my life expect of me?
Those kinds of questions do not have a right or wrong answer. At any time, we can meditate on such questions. While staring at the wall of a solitary cell, I had to think of the decisions that put me there.
No one would care that I hated living in confinement.
If I wanted to lead a meaningful life, regardless of my location, I had to take steps like any other person who overcame struggle. I had to build a record that would convince others to advocate on my behalf.
By introspecting, I realized the importance of using time inside wisely. If I didn’t make changes, people would always see me for the crimes that led me to prison. Every decision would come with an opportunity cost. If I chose to ease the pains of confinement by watching daytime soap operas, playing table games, or acting in ways that could lead to disciplinary infractions, I could prolong rather than shorten the time that I would spend in prison.
On the other hand, if I thought about the people I would meet in the future, I could create an effective action plan. To the extent that I created accountability metrics to measure progress, I may succeed in overcoming the stigma of being a convicted felon.
The tripart plan would require me to focus on:
- Earning academic credentials,
- Contributing to society, and
- Building a support network of positive mentors.
In his book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins wrote about the ways that good companies could become great companies. Readers may find similarities in how they could use the same principles from that Good to Great to reach a higher potential.
A memorable metaphor from that book invites readers to consider the difficulty of starting a new plan. He wrote about a spindle or axis mounted to the ground. On top of the axis, sat a heavy disk made of stone. Mr. Collins wrote that, because of the disk’s weight, it would take an enormous amount of energy or force to spin the disk. But once the disk started to spin, it would require less force or energy to keep spinning.
The metaphor helped me realize that I would have to get started if I wanted to become better at anything. To get started, I must apply myself with commitment, energy, and discipline. Getting started would be difficult, as I had been a terrible student before my imprisonment. I didn’t read well or write well, and as evidenced by the decisions I made that led me to prison, I wasn’t too good at critical thinking.
Yet just as Jim Collins wrote in his book about building great businesses, we could take small actions that would be part of a methodical plan to build a better life. Although difficult to get into the habit of daily study at first, the more I read, the better I became at reading. The better I became at reading, the better I became at thinking and writing.
Those self-directed efforts changed my life. They helped me to prepare for success through prison and beyond.
While going through that phase of getting started, I remember reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. That story showed how hard Malcolm work to develop his vocabulary. From inside a solitary cell, Malcolm made a commitment to improve his vocabulary. By learning to put words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, he became a powerful orator and a leader for his people. He embodied the maxim that the pen was mightier than the sword.
Another influential message from Good to Great influenced my actions and accountability in prison. He wrote about the importance of setting a BHAG—an acronym for a big, hairy, audacious goal. Leaders of great companies, he wrote, always had something gigantic that they wanted to solve. As human beings, we all could follow the model of setting a BHAG.
Prison and Sentence Reform:
Another mentor who inspired me, Mahatma Gandhi, advised people to work toward being the change they wanted to see. I wanted to live in a world that measured justice differently. People in our society measured justice by waiting for calendar pages to turn. Yet leaders like Jim Collins convinced me that we could work toward big, hairy, audacious goals—such as changing the way that society measured justice.
Instead of waiting for calendar pages to turn, we could start with the end in mind. If society wanted people to emerge from prison successfully, we should reconfigure the goals of confinement. If we want people to emerge as good neighbors rather than recidivists, we should open opportunities that would incentivize them to work toward earning freedom, through incremental steps.
To work toward that end, I would have to consider all my strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Business leaders used an acronym to refer to this exercise. They called it a “SWOT” analysis.
My greatest strength was that I had defined success. I knew that I wanted to emerge from prison with my dignity intact, and with opportunities to live a life of meaning and relevance and dignity. Since I hated being in prison, I made a commitment to engineering a plan. I would have to take intentional steps that would allow me to make an impact on society. Like Socrates taught, success wasn’t only about what was happening to me, but also the role I could play in making society better for all.
Despite wanting to get out of prison, and wanting to see systemic change, I had many weaknesses. During my first 23 years on the planet, I hadn’t accomplished much of anything. As an adolescent, I lived recklessly. I sold cocaine, and a jury convicted me of crimes that led to a 45-year sentence. I graduated high school with mediocre grades, and I didn’t learn much. I didn’t read well, write well, and I hadn’t produced much of anything that would cause people to see me as being anything other than a criminal.
I considered our nation’s pathway that led to mass incarceration as being the greatest social injustice of our time. It led to intergenerational cycles of failure. People learned how to live in prison. By focusing on their time inside rather than preparing for success after prison, many people emerged from prison to experience homelessness, unemployment, under employment, or further problems with the law. An opportunity existed to change the system and introduce the concept of earning freedom through merit.
The culture of confinement did not foster an environment for learning. In a high-security penitentiary, I felt the pervasive threat of violence and disruption. Although I could control my behavior, I could not control other people’s behavior. Legislators and administrators that I would never meet created laws and policies that governed my life. They supported an ecosystem that did not value the voice or the mindset of a person with my background. Although I wanted to change laws and open opportunities for people to work toward earning freedom, they wanted to protect the security of the institution.
In my view, that system perpetuated cycles of failure. Trying to change that system could lead to problems with other people serving time, and with people that supported the system as it existed.
To work toward prison reform, I would have to consider the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. I didn’t like being in prison, and I wanted to get to the other side, becoming the change that I wanted to see. I felt as if I would have to walk across a high wire, with incremental steps. The wrong step could lead to my demise, but if I held myself accountable, and made the commitment, I hoped to contribute to the changes I wanted to see. They may not lead to my liberty, but those changes could lead to a better society. And working toward that end could bring meaning to my life while I served the sentence.
Since I was only in my early 20s, I didn’t know how to contemplate the implications of a 45-year sentence. I hadn’t been alive that long. With credit for good behavior, I understood that I could complete the term within 26 years—but I didn’t have a frame of reference to put that time into context.
Instead, I focused on the first 10 years. To reach the goals I wanted to achieve, I would have to hold myself accountable. During those first 10 years, I pledged to work toward making myself a more potent voice for prison reform. First, I would need to overcome the weaknesses that I perceived in my backstory. I would need to develop credentials that would lead influential people to consider ideas I would propose. I had to overcome weaknesses that included:
- A lack of academic credentials,
- Poor writing skills,
- Low confidence in verbal communications,
- A felony conviction for drug trafficking at the start of the war on drugs,
- A lack of influence with leaders in society.
Within ten years, I intended to change those weaknesses. Since I knew what I wanted to accomplish within ten years, I could craft a pathway to work through the first five years. And since I knew what I wanted to achieve in five years, I could chart a course that would lead to incremental stages of success within three years. Knowing what I wanted to achieve during my first three years of imprisonment helped me to make better decisions during my first year, my first months, and my first days of confinement. I could develop accountability metrics to keep me on track.
Write responses to the following questions in approximately ten minutes. If participating in a class setting, discuss verbally.
3-7: What weaknesses could you overcome from prison?
3-8: If you worked toward overcoming those weaknesses, what opportunities would open for you?
3-9: In what ways could you create accountability metrics to ensure that you’re making incremental progress?