My name is Eric Burnham, but these days I’m better known as inmate #12729124. I grew up in a low-income, single-mother home. Nobody in my family had ever graduated high school, so any thoughts of college were “what if” dreams.
When I was a teenager, I came to the conclusion that there was a ceiling over my life. Whether for socioeconomic reasons, psycho-social stumbling blocks, or poor lifestyle choices, I had come to accept the idea that there were just some things I wouldn’t be able to do. Getting a college education was one of those things, and once a person identifies something as unattainable, steps to get it are never considered. So, when I was 15 I dropped out of school–a dysfunctional family situation made my poor choices much easier. I was messed up inside, so I self-medicated with alcohol and drugs and completely embraced a criminal lifestyle. I didn’t really care how I was living as long as I was numb.
During adolescence, the belief that I was incapable of anything better became a firm fixture in my self-concept. I was deteriorating fast, and the culmination of my poor choices was a life sentence in prison. I was 21. I take full responsibility for the carnage of my past. I am deeply ashamed of who I used to be.When I arrived at E.O.C.I. in 2001, not only did I not have a GED, but I was also emotionally underdeveloped due to my substance abuse during adolescence. While I was initially assigned to the GED program, within two weeks I dropped out, and two weeks after that I was in disciplinary segregation for fighting.
While in segregation I began to realize I was worth more than the way I had been living. I wanted something different for my future, but I didn’t know how to make that happen. I did know, however, that getting back into the GED program was a place to start. I earned my GED in 6 weeks, and I felt like a new person. I had accomplished something that for most of my life seemed utterly impossible. Earning my GED showed me I was capable of success, and that was empowering beyond description.
I began to question my involvement with gangs, drugs, and other nefarious activities. I wanted more, and I had begun to view myself as worthy of more. It was at that point in my life an opportunity to earn college credit via correspondence-course format became available to me. Since I was enrolled in college classes, clear conduct was–and still is–required in order for the Education Department to proctor my examinations. I realized I needed to stay away from certain people and activities that could negatively influence me or jeopardize my education. My lifestyle mattered to me for the first time in my entire life. I freely admit I was scared; I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel or act. All I knew was that I wanted an education, and I didn’t want to let down the people who were supporting me. They believed in me, and nobody had ever believed in me before.
Staying out of trouble for a greater purpose than simply avoiding negative consequences is habit forming. I haven’t been to segregation since I began my pursuit of a college education. In 2015 I graduated Summa Cum Laude (3.98 GPA) with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Counseling, and I’m currently working on a Master’s degree. In addition, I’m accumulating CEU’s needed for state certification as an alcohol & drug counselor.
For me, education has been a catalyst for change. The investment I have made in myself and my future has had an enormous impact on my self-concept, my worldview, and my decision-making process. Ironically, even though I’m still incarcerated, my education has provided a greater sense of freedom and self-assurance than I have ever known. When I’m released from prison, I’ll be pursuing a career, not looking for a job. I’ll be able to use the knowledge and experience God has given me to help others who are struggling.
If you have a loved one in prison, one of the best things you can do is help him or her secure educational opportunities. They can use any help you’d be willing to provide. Education is vital in today’s high-tech, fast-paced society. Inmates releasing back into society already have a black mark against them because of the felonies that haunt them. They don’t even necessarily need a degree–college courses, vocational training, or even some anger management classes can significantly help. According to the Journal of Correctional Education, 75% of college-educated inmates find stable employment upon release, and they have 43% lower odds of future incarceration. Education can literally change an inmates life–but it cannot be done without your help.
I’ve been incarcerated since 2001. When I was 21 I confronted another man while intoxicated, and unfortunately, I took his life. I was a heavy alcohol and drug user during adolescence and young adulthood. I deeply regret the actions of my youth, but I’m not the same person I was back then.
I’ve earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Counseling, and I’m currently working on my Master’s degree while at the same time trying to earn enough CEUs (Continued Education Units) to meet the requirements for certification as an Alcohol and Drug counselor. I work as a tutor in the GED program here at the prison.
Personal growth, to me, means becoming the person I was designed to be. I’m not entirely sure where the balance is found between nature and nurture in the formation of my spirit as a unique human being. I do know, however, that I am just one incarcerated man trying to use the very big mistakes of his past to make a positive impact on this crazy world. I kind of think that’s what life is all about: taking the bad and using it for good.
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