It’s graduation week here at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, – E.O.C.I., and many of the men I tutor now have a G.E.D. It’s indescribable to watch these newly minted graduates sit together in the auditorium. As each name is called, I think of all the hard work he put in and all the effort I put in to help him. There were moments of mind-blowing frustration, of course, but there were also moments of euphoria as understanding broke through.
Tutoring is a wonderfully rewarding endeavor. Most of the men in the G.E.D. program are young–between 18 and 24, and they are in dire need of someone to believe in them, to help them and guide them, and to show them they are not worthless. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they wonder if they are worth the effort required to earn a G.E.D., if they are capable of succeeding at anything other than crime and violence, if their future is going to be any different from their past. I get to show them they ARE worth the effort; I get to show them they ARE capable of something different; I get to pull back the curtain and show them a future that CAN be different from their past.
Earning a G.E.D. in prison is viewed by some as a lesser educational achievement, but those who hold that opinion are perhaps looking down on the accomplishments of struggling men trying desperately to work their way out of circumstances most couldn’t stomach. The majority of guys in the G.E.D. program here at E.O.C.I. don’t come from comfy two-parent, suburban, middle-class childhoods where they were expected to finish high school, go to college, and live happily ever after. No, most of them come from low-income backgrounds, dysfunctional families, and broken homes. Many self-medicated their pain and confusion with alcohol and drugs, making their problems more severe, and they often haven’t ever learned how to effectively solve problems and plan beyond the present moment.
While these issues certainly do not justify their criminal behavior, they no doubt contributed to the lack of education that turned them to a lifestyle of criminality. And for these men, earning a G.E.D. essentially begins a new chapter in their lives, a blank, unwritten chapter, a chapter in which drugs and crime and incarceration are not inevitable. I know this to be true because I earned my G.E.D. here at E.O.C.I. 13 years ago, and I’ve been on the path of transformation ever since. Earning my G.E.D. was the catalyst of change for me.
Those of us in prison are not all that different from people on the outside. We love and we hate. We win and we lose. We make mistakes sometimes, and sometimes we get it right. We hurt and we get lonely. And the vast majority of us regret the actions that brought us to prison… and the people we hurt.
Yes, we committed a felony, often multiple felonies, most of which hurt others in one way or another. However, a single criminal act–or even a series of criminal acts–doesn’t make us bad people. It just means we did some bad things, but if we are going to move forward and become contributing members of society, we need help, support, and respect. Incarcerated men cannot be punished into upstanding citizens. We need training and an opportunity. Education–even a simple G.E.D.–provides that opportunity, and as a tutor, I get to play a small part in transforming lives, helping each student take advantage of the opportunity to realize he’s worth more than the way he’s been living. Indeed, graduation week means good times here at E.O.C.I.
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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