Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 2, 2018
I wrote about a TEDx event at Donovan prison a few weeks ago, and I have been made aware that I got some of the details wrong with respect to a few of the inmates who presented. These details may or may not seem important to you or me, but the fact that they are inmates does not in any way diminish their right to accuracy. Their concerns were not about themselves, but how their parents or children who may read that column would react. And so in the best columnist effort to get it right, I am going to correct some misstatements and give comfort to the subjects. I apologize for the errors.
TEDxDonovanCorrectional — Technology, Entertainment and Design — came to Donovan State Prison recently, courtesy of an impressive effort organized by Mariette Fourmeaux and a cadre of volunteers, both inmates and outsiders. Wow.
I spent the day listening to powerful TEDx talks with a few given by outside experts and most by the inmates, (they practiced for four months.) What interested me was the title for the event – Reasoning with Reality. I have a Ph.D. in wrestling with reality, and I can unequivocally state that reasoning with it is an exercise in futility. Rather, allowing reality to reason with you – that is the true puzzle to solve for. You can plead, beg and bargain, but at the end of the day, “Ms. Reality” gets her due.
As many of you know, I have been involved with Donovan for almost two years, teaching entrepreneurship with Defy Ventures, as well as lecturing to my favorite felons at CGA (Criminals & Gang Members Anonymous). This TEDx event was enormously powerful and also deeply angering. Let me share some stories from the inmates, first names only.
Steve, a lifer, talked about his transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly. He wanted to be somebody as a young man, he joined a gang, he felt like he belonged when he was with his gang, and then the story takes its usual toll, prison. A couple years ago, he found Christ and has completely changed his outlook. He is now a model prisoner and leads other men.
Frank told the story of his one best memory– standing next to a lovely waterfall with his daughter – except that memory was two decades old. The pain of old memories haunts all of us. You had to ache for Frank.
David was an A student in a stable home during the day. On the weekend, he hung out with a group of guys who, in his dad’s absence, became like surrogate family. His dad was a big man physically, belonged to a motorcycle club, and was authoritarian. David wanted to be like his dad to win his love. Dad was unavailable. Parents get divorced.
Daniel was sexually abused when he was younger. His parents got divorced when he was a child, literally pulling him back and forth at the front door to decide who gets to keep him. It is not the same old story of a fight for love and glory, it is the same old story of a broken family, of drugs, despite coming from a middle class family and good education, and a young man’s fight for a breath of air to find a safe place to stand before he ends up behind bars.
Azeez was locked in a closet at the age of five. A year later his brother tried to smother him to death in order to have his mother to himself. At 15, he started to spend more time with a group of boys who were misguided, so he would not be dominated by his parents. Just stop here for a moment and put yourself in his shoes. Do you think you would have any chance of not ending up in prison with that beginning? He found his new reality by reading autobiographies in prison.
Let me also make one thing really clear. These guys were terrific speakers. They had practiced for four months, and they were as good as any big-shot professor giving a talk. I asked myself. What if they were wearing a Brioni suit instead of prison blues? Would you have looked at them differently?
Carie works at the prison. She overcame the usual, early teenage marriage, divorce, bad pregnancy, no money. After a while, you simply cannot bear to hear these stories. In her case, she got a job in the prison system 25 years ago as an assistant nobody and has now become the Assistant Warden. Triumph over adversity. She is someone who knows the pain and can be part of the solution.
Here is the anger. It costs about $71,000 a year to house an inmate in a prison in California. There are 3,500 inmates at Donovan, and I suspect there are only a dozen different stories in the Naked City. They all have the same template. After a while, your heart cannot break any more. These guys are smart, they made some bad choices, there are consequences, but they are also a wasting resource. Is it really so hard for the rest of us to “reason with reality” and change it?
Rule No. 453: There but for the grace of God, go I.