Everything I Needed to Learn About Life, I Learned in Prison

It’s been a decade, but the voice and the words of the judge who sentenced me still rings clear in my mind: “You’ve been sentenced to a term of 10 years in the Arizona Department of Corrections.” Little did I know at the time, but I was being sent to Perryville Correctional, a prison that is home to several call centers operated by a company called Televerde and staffed by those incarcerated. The unique opportunity to receive highly sought-after professional training and employment while serving time has literally been life-changing. There have been so many opportunities to learn life lessons during my time here — what an awakening experience it has been!

Prior to incarceration, I lived a life like most middle-class individuals. I graduated from college, had a career, owned a home and went on a yearly vacation; I was married and had four children. As far as appearances were concerned, I navigated life pretty well. Living the dream, right? No! I realized I was sitting in a pilot seat steering my life in all the wrong directions, which is eventually what landed me in prison.

In hindsight, I’ve now realized that I was complacent with co-dependency, fearful to make the right choices. I had surrendered my integrity to please others, and as a result lost sight of my own destiny. When I arrived at Perryville Correctional, I had to buckle down and examine myself. I did some soul searching in order to create a path to set myself back on a course that would lead me to my fullest potential.

The journey I’ve traveled and the lessons I’ve learned while incarcerated have taught me to embrace and experience life regardless of where I am. I find it so ironic that these invaluable lessons weren’t taught in a classroom but behind prison walls, with the help of my sisters in orange and my Televerde mentors. So, let me sincerely share with you – everything I needed to learn about life, I learned it in prison:

Self-love is not selfish.

My time at Perryville provided a space for me to get acquainted with myself. I lost sight of who I was and who I wanted to be. I’ve learned that loving and caring for me doesn’t mean that I’m selfish. I’ve created “alone” time where I can find solitude to reflect and rejuvenate. These moments of self-care allow me to think and ponder. I‘ve learned to accept the person that I was, faults and all, and to begin to forgive myself and have the courage to take flight and imagine what could be possible in the future. Ultimately, I’ve learned to love myself in spite of my mistakes.

Do what you say, align your behavior with your words.

I walked into Perryville without one single possession. My words were all that remained. Words matter more than you can possibly imagine. So think before you speak, and align your words to your behavior and thoughts. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, don’t say sorry if you don’t mean it. What it boils down to is this: be the person who has integrity in order to build trust, especially to the people you’ve once hurt and relationships you’ve once destroyed. I’ve learned when our sincere words align with our behaviors, it accelerates the reconciliation process with our loved ones. Don’t forget, actions speak louder than words.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

Life is full of unexpected surprises. Whether they are positive or adversarial, stay focused on your own growth and journey. The abundance of distractions and drama can steer us away from what’s important. In prison, I didn’t allow my time to waste away by merely wandering aimlessly without direction or goals. Map out a plan of action and find your purpose. Don’t go astray, follow your compass by staying on course and keep your eyes on the prize.

Listen more, speak less.

Do we truly use our voice wisely, or do we merely create “noise?” I often ask myself whether I could have done and spoken differently if I were to relive a situation again. My parents taught me that the wise ones do not speak much, they listen. So choose your battle and pick the right moment to speak up so your voice is heard and your message is effective. Use your voice to set healthy boundaries to establish what’s acceptable within your relationship circles. It’s perfectly OK to say “no,” or “I’d rather not” without having to give any explanation or feel bad about your decision. I’ve learned to examine my non-negotiables so I don’t make compromises I’ll end up regretting.

Life has seasons.

Too much of a good thing is not good for us. Life can’t be only flowers and butterflies; we would get sick of their fragrance and beauty. This is the biggest lesson I learned in prison. Life has seasons and necessary endings. There’s a time to plant and nurture, a time to sow and reap the results, as well as a time to accept endings and let go. Endings are necessary for us so we can be challenged, make progress, and experience the unfamiliar. Through the seasons of life, I’ve learned to embrace new growth and beginnings, let go of the uncontrollable outcomes, and welcome transformation.

Live with no regrets.

This is perhaps the most important lesson. Don’t ever be afraid to admit you were wrong or apologize. Admitting that we’re not anywhere close to being perfect, and simply a work in progress, keeps us humble and in a constant mode of striving to do better. I’ve also learned to live each day as my last, never leaving a situation or a conversation with regrets.

It may seem odd to some, but I am leaving prison a better, wiser person, and I’m taking with me fond memories. I never let these walls and fences confine me, just as you shouldn’t let your own mental walls and fences confine your vision and purpose. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” This quote helps me see beyond limitations to opportunities, even behind prison walls.

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