Lifer’s Graduation Speech

By Jason, Common Good Atlanta student

How do you explain the casual way in which you threw away your life? Answering that question honestly took years of struggling with my own failings. It was not easy, and I did not enjoy it. But I had to. That was the question I had to answer for myself before I could ever get up and speak to others. The last time I spoke at the Lifer’s Group graduation I told the audience that we cannot afford to become complacent or apathetic. It’s easy for us to do, because for us it is so hard to reasonably look to the future. In prison, we mainly only deal with today, and that is the reason that we get so wrapped up in this prison atmosphere, but it is also what helps to insulate us against our fears for the future. It has become so hard for me to live in this prison environment while no longer feeling part of it. I can see why so many prisoners are afraid to deal with their anger and hatred, because when you do this environment becomes unbearable. It seems that the more I shed the part of me that once saw prison as an extension of my inner life, the more I find myself avoiding others and staying to myself trying to keep myself together. I have to challenge myself to survive, like so many other men I unconsciously took refuge behind these walls. Having lost hope for the future on the outside I had made prison — this pseudo reality — my everything. How much life is lost waiting on nothing?  We begin to lose our way; we live with our eyes closed because it is easier. But that’s prison right? No, that is life, but does it have to be?

It is something that I personally have struggled constantly with. In prison I was a shadow of what I once was, I was hollow, and I turned on myself inside my own head. I filled the void with everything I hated about myself for the majority of my last 21 years of life. I have a problem letting myself heal, up to now I’ve never believed that I deserve to, I am just now trying. I had let life break me, the reality is the world breaks everyone, but if we allow ourselves to heal, we will be stronger in those broken places. I heard an analogy about us that has stuck with me: we could be called “human boomerangs,” people who were broken in the middle and fundamentally bent and because of this no matter how hard we were thrown out of prison we were just going to keep coming right back. We are in charge of our narrative, so it is up to us to prove that the things about prison that breaks so many of us have only served to make us stronger. You have to trust in yourself that you are better than this moment.

The professors in my Common Good Atlanta classes have taught me that character is the ability to commit to morally upright ideals and character can only be developed in the struggle against our own weaknesses. We can be disciplined and punished into not doing bad things anymore, but no one can compel you to be good. That step is solely up to us, it is not easy, we will have failings, but this struggle has intrinsic value for the reason that this is the only place you will find your truest self. The nature of humanity, its essence is to feel another’s pain as one’s own, and to act to take that pain away. There is strength in compassion and empathy. I am a flawed man with a violent past, that I cannot deny, but I will not allow people to suffer when it is within my power to help them. And if by doing these things I can make some type of amends for the things that I have done, and all the things I failed to do, then that can be some small compensation. Embrace the struggle; it will be your healing. The darkness of the future is the necessary space for the exercise of our faith.

Our struggles will not end with our release, there are going to be so many more hardships to endure. We need to understand that the full severity of incarceration’s punishment is never greater than at the time of our release. I am currently looking for homeless shelters or halfway houses, because by the time I am released, my last family member will have died during my imprisonment. I will have no one to turn to for help, so I have to prepare now. As lifers we are only going to be just on the other side of the fence, and it will continue to define us for others: convicted felon, ex-con, criminal, animal. Do not allow that to define you, erase that page of your life and write your own words, fight to define yourself. Make that your drive, your strength, and then it never can be your weakness.

I am going to succeed, but for more than just myself, I will go on to help others, because I have an intimate knowledge of pain and suffering, many of us do. I will use mine to help others heal and help myself heal completely and become stronger in the process, we all can. If I could help a kid like I was, not end up like I did. Did many of us have such a person in the past? I want to help others find their value, see their strength, and escape their conditioning. Did you know that fully grown adult elephants are restrained by a single tether on one leg, because they are fully conditioned from infanthood to believe that they are not capable of breaking that restraint? The implanted idea of their weakness is what holds them back, and these are the most powerful animals that God created. The worst thing we can do is to help others injure us. To be what we are, where we are, but to be free of the shackles that held us down in the past and made failure acceptable, because failure is a learned behavior and enlightenment can be learned, too.