Blog: Life Lessons Learned from Two Days Behind Bars

Last year, I volunteered to go to prison for a weekend with other CEOs. Yes, you read that correctly. I willingly chose to leave the safety and security of my home, fly from Michigan to California, and step into the potentially uncomfortable surroundings of a maximum security prison.
Todd Palmer
Todd Palmer // File photo

Last year, I volunteered to go to prison for a weekend with other CEOs. Yes, you read that correctly. I willingly chose to leave the safety and security of my home, fly from Michigan to California, and step into the potentially uncomfortable surroundings of a maximum security prison.

Why would I do this? I did this based upon one question and one data point, along with the belief that everyone deserves a second chance.

The question was “What if you were only known for the rest of your life for the worst thing you have ever done?” This question was asked to me by author and founder of Hustle 2.0, Catherine Hoke. My critical inner voice was running amuck with all the mistakes I had made over the years, while at the same time, I was remembering all of the help and second chances I had received. In that moment I was very grateful that my worst decisions had not derailed my life.

Hoke is the founder of Hustle 2.0, which provides incarcerated people (they prefer to be called Mavericks) with the training and tools they need to transform their lives.

The data point that Hoke shared was powerful. It demonstrated with statistical proof that Hoke’s program really did give these Mavericks a second chance. The typical recidivism rate for someone released from prison is over 83 percent. Recidivism is a person’s tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior, especially a relapse into criminal behavior. Graduates of Hoke’s program have a recidivism rate of less than 7 percent.

Hoke has successfully blended the emotional, feel-good thoughts of helping to create second chances for others, like most of us have been given, with the hard-core curriculum taught in her program to produce transformative results.

I was excited to go to prison and teach entrepreneurship and job search skills to the Mavericks. I was not prepared for what they would teach me.

The message I wanted to give them was one of hope. With the United States being at full employment and the fact that there are more jobs than people, it’s clear that employers are going to need to find ways to integrate with formerly incarcerated people and integrate them into their workforces. The Mavericks were optimistic to learn that manufacturing and construction had many job opportunities for them.

Many Mavericks also wanted to start their own businesses.  Prior to our arrival, the Mavericks created short business plans of their ideas. The CEOs in the room where able to give critical feedback on their plans, while inspiring them to continue to polish their plans and hone their ideas into marketable businesses.

Most of what I learned either occurred in one-on-one conversations with these gentlemen or in a simple, yet powerful exercise called “Step to the Line.” Its purpose is to visually represent that we all have more in common than we know.  There are two lines of people with the volunteers on one line and the Mavericks on the other line. Hoke read statements, and if the statement that she reads is true for you, you step to the line. If not, you step back from the line.

The Step to the Line exercise taught me the power of second chances. We are all just one event away from terrible consequences. At one point, Hoke asked whether participants had fought in school. In response, every volunteer stepped to the line, as did every Maverick. We all shared that common act from childhood.

Most Mavericks were arrested for the first time under the age of 10 years old. I had school yard fights in fifth grade and, in theory, I could have been arrested as well.

We are more alike than we are different. Approach strangers with curiosity, not preconceived judgement. I was surprised to learn that the Mavericks where nervous to meet us.  They had potential assumptions about us. I had to admit to myself that when I see someone with facial tattoos, I have assumptions too.

Sometimes the person we need to forgive most is ourselves. The amount of self-hatred and guilt carried by many of the Mavericks was heart breaking. The Mavericks all owned up to the criminal acts that have put them into prison; no excuses were given. Most of them had not forgiven themselves for their criminal actions.  They carry that self-loathing everywhere they go. Not only are their bodies in a physical prison, but their hearts and minds are in an internal prison. We were given the privilege of telling these Mavericks that “I see YOU” and that you are worthy of forgiveness.

In the Step to the Line activity, the “luck” of family, painful/formative life experiences, zip code, who our parents are, and other questions were asked that demonstrated that these men were born into environments where things like education and the core values of right and wrong were absent from day one. For example, of the 90 Mavericks in the room, only two grew up in a home with 20 or more books. That means 88 men were not encouraged to read or even taught to read. They missed out on the power of books and their impact on our world view. They were robbed of the opportunity to dream of a different life than the one they saw in their neighborhoods.

Mistakes are how we all learn. If we are afraid to make mistakes, we can never grow into our greatest potential. We all make mistakes of varying breadth and depth and, at some point, we are going to need a second chance.

But first, we need to believe that we are worthy of that second chance. As I learned from the Mavericks, many of who didn’t receive a solid first chance in life, sometimes the person we need to forgive most is ourselves. Once we forgive ourselves, we have more kindness and compassion to share with others, including those with tattoos on their faces.

Todd Palmer is founder and president of Troy-based Diversified Industrial Staffing and Extraordinary Advisors Coaching, and a regular contributor to DBusiness Daily News.

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