|About to Give Up
Sunday, November 21, 2010
By Tom Lagana
from “Serving Productive Time”
Whenever I check into a hotel, I routinely ask, “Where's a good place to eat? What sights should I see while I'm here?” My next question, “Could you please give me directions to the local jail?” typically produces an interesting reaction or two. Right on cue, I produce a copy of Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul and reveal, “I'm the coauthor.”
The first few months I tried this, I was amazed to find the hotel staff had a particular interest in the title and subject matter-some were even eager to confide a personal account about a friend or relative who was serving time.
It takes advance planning to obtain permission and security clearance in order to present programs to inmates. I'm usually successful in gaining admittance to most correctional facilities so I can offer a measure of encouragement wherever I can.
Several years ago, my wife, Laura, and I celebrated our anniversary by vacationing in Maui. In addition to enjoying ourselves, we arranged to present a program to female inmates at the Maui Community Correctional Center. The total involvement and overwhelming energy of the thirty or so women in attendance was a spiritual experience for us all.
But not all of my visits behind bars are this positive. One exceptionally hot summer several years ago, I was beckoned to the Southern states several times to present corporate seminars and keynotes.
While planning one of these trips, I began looking for correctional facilities that might welcome a visitor. After discovering that there was a prison within three miles of my hotel, my hopes dissolved when countless attempts to make contact with them proved futile.
At the same time, a prison chaplain in an adjacent North Carolina city asked me to present a keynote speech to a group of prison volunteers. When I told him about my unsuccessful attempts to gain admittance to the prison near my hotel, he offered to make arrangements for me. “If that's what you want to do, Tom,” he replied, “then I'll make that happen. Don't worry. I'll arrange everything.” Before long the date was set, and we agreed to meet at my hotel before the program.
After arriving at the Raleigh airport, I settled into my hotel room and enjoyed a refreshing night's sleep. The next evening, after conducting a full-day seminar, we drove to the prison. I was hopeful this event would be inspirational for the inmates, perhaps giving them an ounce of hope, a glimpse of the outside world, or a few blessed moments of relief from the dreary routine.
As we entered the facility, my feelings of hope turned into disappointment. No staff were there to greet us or help. In fact, I soon discovered, no more than a feeble attempt was made to inform the inmates of my program.
We were ushered into a cavernous cafeteria in disarray from dinner, as evidenced by the chaotic arrangement of tables and scattered remnants of food that served as “fly magnets.”
I thought, “What am I doing here in a North Carolina prison, on one of the hottest days on record, being upstaged by gigantic, rattling fans?” On top of everything else, only twelve inmates showed up-six left soon after realizing free books weren't part of this program.
I thanked the chaplain for his kind efforts and said good night. Sitting in my car, I wondered, “Why did I even bother? I could be relaxing at the hotel. I've been speaking all day, my feet hurt, and tomorrow I'll be up early again.” After the seminar, feeling disheartened and about to renounce all thoughts of ever visiting another prison, I boarded my plane in Raleigh. I couldn't wait to share my demoralizing experience with my wife, Laura.
The next morning, I began sorting through my mail. I stopped cold when a Raleigh postmark caught my eye-it was a letter from an inmate. At first I thought it had something to do with my recent visit. I opened the letter and began reading.
An inmate named Adam told me how he ended up in prison and about some of the events leading up to his fate-something prisoners don't normally disclose.
Reading further, I learned Adam had been arrested while earning his master's degree. He had been accepted into a doctorate program and was working two jobs to pay for tuition, rent, and food. When one of his jobs evaporated because his employer went bankrupt, Adam admitted he had made a horrendous error in judgment.
“I sold Ecstasy for only four months . . . but I got busted. After being drug-free for twenty-nine years, I screwed up my life, and now I'm facing a sentence of up to twenty years,” he explained. “When I went to prison, suicide was a very real option. Soon after I was locked up, my mom sent me a book-Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul. I read it in one day. It was then that I realized that I could make it. Here are some of the stories that were especially helpful to me.”
Adam proceeded to cite specific stories that were instrumental in altering his self-destructive mind-set. “I thought my life was over. I'd thrown away eleven years of college and probably a chance at a doctorate. By the time I got to the story,
'Not a Mistake,' I realized that, while I had made a huge mistake, I am not a mistake. As the story mentions, 'Good people are sometimes capable of doing bad things and allow stupidity to overcome rational thought.' I pray twice daily. I ask the Lord to touch my district attorney and judge with compassion and forgiveness, in hopes they will pass it on-not just to me, but to all who come before them. Because of your book, I thank God for every glorious day, whether behind bars or not-because it could be worse.”
When I finished reading Adam's letter, I handed it to Laura, who was reading the newspaper across the breakfast table. Choking back the tears, I asked, “Sweetheart, would you read this and tell me what you think?”
“Sure.” When she finished, Laura removed her glasses, looked me square in the eyes, and asked, “How does this letter make you feel?”
“It makes me feel like I'm doing what I'm meant to do.”
About to Give Up. Reprinted by permission of Tom Lagana. © 2009 Tom Lagana from the book “Serving Productive Time: Stories, Poems, and Tips to Inspire Positive Change from Inmates, Prison Staff, and Volunteers” by Tom Lagana and Laura Lagana.
Tom Lagana is a professional speaker, trainer, author, engineer, and volunteer. He is a recipient of the Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service in Delaware and coauthor of “Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul.” He and his wife, Laura, are coauthors of “Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul,” “Serving Time, Serving Others,” “Serving Productive Time” and “The Quick and Easy Guide to Project Management.” They present and facilitate workshops, programs, and seminars for inmates and volunteers across the United States. He may be contacted at P.O. Box 7816, Wilmington, DE 19803, phone 302-475-4825, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or see website: www.TomLagana.com.
This column was printed in the November 21, 2010 - December 4, 2010 edition.