Last week I spoke 1 on 1 with level 3 (out of 4) security inmates. Some of these men were serving multiple life sentences with no chance of parole.

Through a local nonprofit called “Brilliance Inside”, I had the chance to go to Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego and participate in intimate group discussions with some of the inmates there. These inmates participate in the Brilliance Inside programs there, which teach the inmates how to communicate properly, become vulnerable, learn entrepreneurship, and prepare them for successful reentry into society. These programs have also led to some of the participants giving TEDX talks (links below).

As I was entering the “yard” of Block A, I was nervous. I have been in prisons before, but not in the yard and unattended by guards.

My nerves went away the moment I started talking to the inmates. I felt something different. The energy from these men was something I have rarely felt from people “on the outside.” These men were enlightened.

No glass, no guards, just a group of entrepreneurs and a group of inmates having deep discussions about their situations, their lives, and the purpose of life in general.

It was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. For me, it was like traveling to a different country and having biases and stereotypes, only for them to be shattered the moment you start talking to the locals.

These men gave me another perspective on life, and through the experience, I learned 4 major lessons:

 1. This could have been me

One of the inmates told me his story of how he came to be there. Growing up in LA (not the good part), he had abusive parents who didn’t put food on the table. When he was 15, a gang recruited him; fed him, protected him. He told me that at the time he felt safer with the gang than at his home.

At 17 he was involved in a gang shooting and arrested by police. 39 years later he is still in jail because the “Tough on Gangs” initiative gave him a life sentence. Now, he doesn’t justify his behavior, I was actually surprised to hear him say that he deserves what he’s going through because he made the choice.

What this story highlighted to me was that that could have easily been me. I was a DUMB 15 year old and just as dumb at 17.

Growing up in a family of criminals, I felt the pull of going to that side.

If I didn’t have my mom and my godfather to keep me on the straight and narrow, I’m not sure I would have made the right choices at that age.

We did an exercise at the beginning of the day, where you take a step forward if you can say yes to a question posed. Over 100 questions were asked and for the most part, there was a healthy mix of volunteers and inmates stepping in or not stepping in. This showed that our life experiences were relatively similar.

But two questions were very different. Almost all of the inmates (and none of the group of volunteers) stepped in for, “Were you physically abused or molested as a child?” and “Did you ever go to bed hungry, not knowing where your next meal would come from?”

This struck me to the core. Apart from those two, I shared many experiences with these life without parole inmates.

It could have been me.

2. People are capable of change.

These men were enlightened, more so than most of society.

The absolute first thing I noticed when I spoke to my first inmate was just how articulate and aware he was. He had a better vocabulary than I did! Each and every one of these men had amazing demeanors and could articulate their experience, emotions, and thoughts so clearly.

They all admitted they made poor choices and explained how they are changing and what they are doing to continue their growth journey.

These guys were more committed to personal development than almost anyone I have met on the outside.

This showed me that my bias that all prisoners are “bad” was dead wrong. These guys made bad choices, but they weren’t “bad.” In fact, they were really good.

All of them said they were growing and changing so that they could help others change and avoid the same choices they made.

When you are having a discussion on Stoicism and what “hope” means to you and society at large with a man serving a triple life sentence, it changes your beliefs around people.

People are capable of change.

3. Rehabilitation works, incarceration doesn’t

Before interacting with the inmates, the group I was with had the chance to talk to the prison’s assistant warden and two of the prison’s psychologists.

They mentioned all of the programs and initiatives Donovan (and California at large) have taken in the past few years to make rehabilitation a cornerstone of their process.

Before this discussion, I have always been really jaded about the prison system. I have seen family members come out of prison after years, only to have no skills, no mindset shift, and no chance of obtaining a job (it’s a hard job market for a felon). This ultimately resulted in them committing another crime and going back to jail, also known as recidivism. While I completely blamed my family members for their recidivism, I also blamed the system for doing nothing to help. This not only continues the cycle of crime (which passes down to kids, etc.) but also costs our nation billions of dollars a year. (each inmate costs taxpayers about $75,000 a year).

The assistant ward and the two psychologists made me optimistic about at least California’s prison system future. Inmates can participate in programs such as therapy, mental health care opportunities, entrepreneurship training, vocational training, AA,NA, gang anonymous, and programs like Brilliance Inside to help with communication skills. For every program an inmate participates in, they get time off their sentence so they are incentivized to participate.

The following stat blew my mind:

The recidivism rate of inmates who participated in their programs was .25%, the recidivism rate in America is around 80%.

You read that right. When actively rehabilitated and participating in programs, only .25% of inmates go back to jail after being released.

Rehabilitation works.

4. You can find purpose in every situation you find yourself in

It’s easy to imagine an inmate that is sentenced to life without parole giving up. Losing hope in their life. Why bother right? You will be in jail for the rest of your life so who cares.

Not these men.

Each one of the inmates I spoke to told me they had a purpose. They were committed to helping others avoid the same choices they made. They were actively growing themselves so they can inspire and educate at-risk youth. Many of these men also had a family, so their purpose was to be the best person they can be for their family from behind bars.

One of the inmates even has two daughters who he holds to high standards. He helps them with homework over the phone and challenges them to continue to improve. They both have 4.0 GPA’s in high school.

These men took a hopeless situation and found (read: created) purpose. They all had hope.

This showed me that no matter how dire with think life is, we can all find a purpose. We can all maintain hope. No matter what.

It’s up to us. Having a purpose and having hope is a choice.

I have taken these lessons into my life. I am grateful for the life I live and the freedom I have.

If you want to get involved or visit the inmates, reach out to Brilliance Inside here. It will be life-changing.  

Want to hear these inmate’s stories?

Here are a few links to their TedX talks. These are some of the best talks I have ever heard.

– Steve Miller’s From Gangster to Grace

– David Pride’s Second Chance Parenting

–  Azeez Momoh’s Finding the Man Within

–  Frank Beltran’s The Value of Golden Memories