Where do I go from here? That can be a tough question to answer for the 2.2 million Americans who are currently incarcerated. Nevertheless, there are serious consequences for those who fail to find a positive answer. In fact, statistics show that four out of every ten prisoners released will end up either violating their parole, or committing a new crime. Furthermore, it is estimated that over seven million Americans are currently part of the criminal justice system. And if you think about it, all of these people are not only negatively affecting their own lives, but the lives of their families as well. So, what are some of the reasons so many people keep getting in trouble?

One thing that contributes to these alarming numbers may be that many prisoners do not think about answering the question, “Where do I go from here?” until the end of their incarceration. And our system is set up so that they are not even required to. I know this because I have been a prisoner in the Illinois Department of Corrections for the past 15 years, and I have seen many people go through their incarceration without ever making an effort to change the direction of their lives. I do believe that the responsibility to change ultimately rests with each prisoner, but I also think many people in society do not realize that the prison atmosphere is not one that is very conducive for rehabilitation. Although I may be familiar with the reality of every day prison life, are you?

I have an analogy that might be helpful if you are not. I don’t know how you were punished when you were young, but when I was a kid and did something wrong, my mom used to ground me. Sometimes, depending on how bad I had was, I either would be confined to the house, or if there were aggravating circumstances, my room. The time period of my confinement also fluctuated depending upon the seriousness of the offense. Sometimes a few days was good enough, maybe a few weeks, certainly not more than a month (although I think once I got grounded for life), but for the most part I knew how long I had to suffer. Although, I remember two segments in particular that I dreaded the most. The first being the period I spent waiting for the exact punishment to be decided, when my mom did not want to hear one more word come out of my mouth. And the second, equally horrific part occurred when my friends came to the door and had some cool adventure planned, but I had to tell them I couldn’t go because I was grounded like some little baby.

But once I figured out that the world wasn’t going to end, and that my friends weren’t going to move on in life and forget about me, I just tried to make the best of it. Although I had to be careful not to appear as if I was having too much fun; you see, my mom was pretty quick at discovering (and summarily confiscating) things that helped me enjoy myself during punishment. If I was caught laughing it up on the phone, well say goodbye to that too. Video games, yeah right. I guess her theory was that I should be thinking about what I did wrong, and not having fun, or something crazy like that.

Well the same kind of thing happens when you are arrested, but it’s a million times worse when the judge tells you that you have to spend the next 5, 10, or 20 years behind bars. You still get that, “You can’t be serious, that’s not even possible” feeling, but the judge is not a loving parent and he or she probably doesn’t have much faith in you at all. Furthermore, your new confines will not be anything like your home, no, far from it. Now you’ll be serving your sentence in an environment conditioned to be oppressive. You still might see some distant day in the future when you’ll be set free, although it may be so far away that it might seem like it belongs in the plot of some futuristic movie. I know that in 1995, when the judge told me I wouldn’t get out until August 30, 2014, that day didn’t even make much sense to me.

And when faced with time like that, and believe me, there are many in here with similar, if not more lengthy sentences, it is hard to find some motivation to change. The parole board used to review what you’ve been doing while serving your sentence and a person could conceivably earn their way out of prison, but that method has been forsaken for a new approach. Now, if you are sentenced to 25 years in prison, that’s how long you’ll be there, period. What further exasperates a lack of concern for the future is that prison staff has one thing on their minds, and that is prison security. As long as you follow their rules (or at least not get caught) no one will even pay you much attention. To them you are just another number; rehabilitation is not in their job description. But these issues are comparable to how everyday citizens must feel about taxes, something inevitable, and beyond their immediate spheres of influence. My experience has been in the realm of everyday prison life, and unfortunately, that it is what I know the most about. You see, there are still important choices every inmate has to make, and before I tell you about how I decided to approach my lengthy prison term, I offer you a description of what being grounded in the big house feels like, and under what circumstances you will be thinking about what you are going to do after it’s over.

First we have to back up a bit, back to the second the cuffs click around a person’s wrists. So for a moment, try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is on their way to prison. Imagine having done something wrong, something you can’t even believe you let yourself do, but once you arrive at the county jail, and pass through a series of doors that eerily click shut behind you, you realize that life will never be the same. Right then remorse and shame start to permeate your thoughts, and your arrest may have suddenly interrupted years of bad behavior, behavior you know you should have stopped long ago, but these thoughts don’t change much. You have other problems to deal with now. You soon find yourself surrounded by complete strangers, individuals who are themselves also at a very low point in their lives. For the most part everyone seems completely indifferent to you, except for the fact that you have to share everything together. If you have half a brain, you realize that when someone does approach you and strikes up a conversation, they probably want something. And although it seems like there is always someone around, you have never felt so alone. Quickly it comes to your attention that there are rules for everything, even when you can talk, and when you can eat. Officers have rules; inmates have rules; and somehow you have to find a way to follow them all. But one thing is certain, one way or another you will comply. Furthermore, concrete, iron, and barbed wire blot out the sky and serve as constant reminders that there is no way out.

Somehow, the days start turning into weeks, court dates come and go, and once you finally get your sentence, you are transported to a real prison. Hopefully you avoid a maximum security penitentiary, but either way you won’t be fully prepared for what you encounter. During the bus ride you sense that this will be one of the last times you will be in traffic for awhile, so you start to soak in sights you realize that you’ve taken for granted, things like trees, grass, and regular people. Once you pull into the prison, you know that you’ll be glad to be rid of the cuffs that have been biting into your wrists for the past few hours, but as the gates shut, you also realize that what’s waiting for you probably can’t be any better. Life has been irrevocably altered. The people you find yourself around now have been doing time for years, and now people watch to see waht you are made of. And there are of course more rules to follow, but it seems like the consequences are more serious than ever before. Although at first things are subject to change without notice, maybe you get lucky and find a safe little niche for yourself, somewhere people don’t seem to notice you very much. Either way, it doesn’t take long for you to figure out that the less you leave your cell, the fewer problems you encounter.

Sometimes it may even feel like you’ve been caught in the midst of a powerful storm, although its elements are only real to you, and the people who battle against them. The winds of this storm constantly batter you with the force of uncertainty, of never knowing whom you can trust, or what might happen around you next. The thunder that booms resonates with the incessant noise created from too many people crammed together in a space that wasn’t designed to hold so many. And its unnatural darkness is thick from a multitude of restrictions that seem to completely obscure the outside world from your view; and when the lightning from the anger that surrounds you flashes, you get the sense that you should probably find something to use for cover. You also notice that there are a lot of people around you who are heavily medicated, and probably need to be somewhere else other than in the general population of a prison. But maybe pushing the reality of this new existence from your mind isn’t such a bad idea.

Distractions like homemade alcohol, drugs, television sets, and even excessive sleep may offer you some temporary relief, quick fixes that distract you from the conditions of your new home. But as the seasons start to fade away your heart and mind grow a little numb from the fact that no matter what you do, you will still be confined for a fixed period. It even occurs to you that the exactness of your outdate seems somewhat irrational in its exactitude. When every day is essentially the same routine, what makes one day, or one year any different from another? Something else that doesn’t make much sense is that fact that all of the people you imagined being there for you when you get out don’t even send you letters anymore asking you about how you are doing, and it slowly dawns on you that this time people really are moving on in their lives without you.

Unfortunately, this is how many prisoners spend their time, surrounded by an almost palpable atmosphere of indifference. And it does not seem to register with most members of society that concrete, barbed wire, and rigidly determinate sentences do not facilitate change. The reality is that the tiniest cell, in the deepest darkest of prisons is a relatively inconsequential thing to someone who does not feel like they are part of the world anyway. The human mind will find a way to adapt, even if it means holding on to some of the habits that contributed to a destructive lifestyle in the first place. And I have seen so many people bounce from one distraction to the next, all in an effort to merely pass the time. Then, when their special day arrives, they are given ten dollars, and simply let go.

So what makes me any different? Well, for starters I made the decision to answer the question, “Where do I go from here?” at the beginning of my incarceration. And because of that I have been able to spend my time not only thinking about what I did wrong, but also about how I’m going to make things right. And I have found out that when you decide to change your life you can find something else in prison besides all of the restrictions and cold indifference. Within the chaos of the storm, there are shimmers of light that pierce through the darkness, and they offer hope. I know this because I have not only seen them, but they have also helped sustain me. These beacons of light manifest themselves in the forms of books, teachers, and loved ones, who have encouraged me to think critically about who I am, and who I want to become. However, I wouldn’t have been able to see them if my eyes had been blinded by hopelessness. Thankfully, I had an experience early in my incarceration that helped me open my eyes, more specifically, this experience occurred when I discovered how powerful writing could be, a time when an ordinary pen became my lifeline back to the world. And on a fresh sheet of paper I found a place free of the restrictions that threatened to close me off from any real future, a place where the only rules that existed were my own, no one else’s.

Although, when I discovered how powerful writing can be I was only a kid, and I probably could not have articulated the significance of what was taking place. But recently I participated in a college writing class that taught me to view writing in a new way. Today I am able to reflect back upon that experience with a fresh understanding, a time when my professor would say that I wrote for a change. And although many people around me find it difficult to wade through all of the distractions of prison and sit down to write, something special can happen when you do, and this is what my story is all about.

All the way back in 1994, when I was 18 years old, I found myself at a critical crossroads in my life. I was sitting in the county jail, awaiting trial for a crime I had committed when I was 15, but one that had gone undetected for three years. There was no doubt about my guilt, however, despite my initial confession I was still frantically searching for a way to avoid taking responsibility for my actions. I blamed other people, drugs, everything but myself. This wasn’t doing me any good, I felt horrible, and everything seemed so hopeless. During this time I slept a lot, watched TV, and tried to distract myself as much as I could from the reality of incarceration.

At first none of it seemed real, as if I would wake up any moment and find that it was all a bad dream. Even my first few court dates seemed surreal, as if I was watching some reality show, but the shackles that bit into my wrists and ankles assured me that their pain was real. It soon became obvious that the only thing to be done in my case was to plead guilty, and put myself at the mercy of the court. There was not going to be some fancy lawyer getting me off the hook: no, my court appointed attorney could barely stand the sight of me. But that was understandable because he knew that I was lying to him when we first met. Anyway, after a while, I decided that I couldn’t stand not knowing what was going to happen. I knew I was going to prison, and I wanted to get it over with. Therefore, I listened to the advice of my lawyer and decided to plead guilty. My sentence would range anywhere from 20 to 100 years, and it would be up to the judge, a man who knew me only because of the mistakes I had made, to decide the exact number of years I would spend behind bars.

But before the judge would let me enter my plea, he sent me back to a little holding cell to think things over, because once I plead guilty there was no going back. So as I sat within a small cage, chained to a steel chair, and the weight of the world on my shoulders, I began to reflect on who I had become, and how I had arrived at such a hopeless destination. As I started to peel away layers of bad decisions, I heard a voice coming from deep inside that I had not heard from in a while. I sensed its familiarity as the voice of my youth, a voice that had once overflowed with love, but whose resonance had been drowned out by a powerful current, one saturated with the poison of substance abuse.

You see, I began my battle with substance abuse at an early age, thirteen in fact, but prior to that I had grown up as a big brother to two younger siblings. We grew up with a loving mother, although the same cannot be said of our fathers, different men who shared in their indifference towards their children. As the oldest, I always had the most responsibility, but that only seemed natural. Doing well in school, and taking care of the kids when my mom had to work were responsibilities that not only made my mother proud, but also taught me how special it is to be a part of a loving family. A shortage of money hardly ever mattered. We had a lot of fun going to the beach, or just hanging out and watching movies together, and as I reflected back on those times I felt a lot of love, and heart. But the slamming of nearby cell doors reminded me that I was far removed from those who loved me. Somewhere I had forgotten to take care of myself, and there I was, little Robby, once a responsible son and good big brother, now chained to a steel chair like some crazed animal, surrounded by concrete and iron, and at the mercy of a violent storm.

But my memories had stirred something deep inside of me, and I sensed that I had learned something about substance abuse that differed from what the “Just Say No” campaign of the day had obviously failed to teach me. I didn’t know exactly what that was, but I felt compelled to find out. But first I had to take responsibility for what I had done. When I was summoned back in front of the judge, I informed him that I was ready to make my decision. In the spring of 1995 I plead guilty to the murder of a drug dealer, a man who would never get the chance to change his life around because of what I had done. The judge postponed my sentencing for a month, but I had an opportunity to talk to my lawyer after the hearing. I apologized for lying to him and I told him that I think I might be able to help other kids avoid making some of the mistakes I had made. He told me to write what I felt down, and show him when I was finished. Thus, in the confines of my regular cell, which allowed me a slight view of Lake Michigan, I started to engage in the writing process, and I found an outlet that helped me break free of the hackles of despair that I had felt inexorably entangled within.

I did not have much of a writing process then, but I set out to write a speech, something I had a little experience doing from the years I spent as a Jehovah’s Witness. As a young boy, my mom had been introduced to that religion and part of their worship encouraged members of the congregation to perform speeches. But as I tried to follow the guidelines I had vaguely remembered learning I found out that things are a lot different when you are writing about something that really means something to you. Instead of writing about the end of days, something I could barely fathom as a boy, I now wrote about how I felt inside, and words just flowed from me. I probably hadn’t picked up a book or written anything in years, but because I had so much to say, it seemed like my pen took on a special life of its own. And as I watched the boats outside of my window slowly make their way across Lake Michigan, I started to feel like I could be a part of the world once again. What I had to say inside started to become more evident, the fog inside my head began to dissipate, and I started to grasp a deeper understanding of how I had ended up so far from home.

I began at the beginning, and I saw how innocently everything had all started. For whatever reason I started hanging out with older kids, and somehow we started experimenting with smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. Although I knew we weren’t being good when we did this stuff, nothing bad ever happened to any of us, and you were just a chicken if you didn’t try it. Since I was always the youngest I felt like I had the most to prove, so it didn’t take long before I was stealing alcohol and cigarettes from the big grocery store in front of my house. It was pretty easy because I had been going there for years running errands for my mom, so no one there paid me much mind. But pretty soon everything we did involved drinking or smoking, and although my mom caught on a few times (hence the grounding), I think she thought that because I had always been so responsible that I wouldn’t do anything too stupid. But I don’t think either of us realized the significance of what saying “Yes” to alcohol and drugs at such an early age can lead to. And as I wrote I started to see that it isn’t even about saying “No” to drugs, it is really about saying “No” to the whole lifestyle drugs represent. Because once I started using substances, I felt obligated to adopt the character that I thought fit the role. “Just Say Yes” became my answer to everything: stealing, no problem; sneaking out in the middle of the night to go party, count me in. I saw that I started making awful decisions in defense of the foolish image I had created for myself, the guy who had to be the life of the party. Getting high became an integral part of growing up for me, and I forgot how to have fun without some type of buzz. And as my substance abuse increased, everything else, including the responsibility I felt for my younger brother and sister, all took a backseat to partying.

As the pieces of paper in front of me soaked in years of mistakes, I began to realize how distracted I had become in my life, and what little attention I had paid to how significantly the world was changing around me. I caught glimpses of my childhood friends, my brother and sister, aunts, uncles, my grandparents, and even my mom, all fading away, and replaced by kids who were just as lost as I was. I eventually ran away, full of that youthful certitude which always leads to heartache, and I saw what a hurry I had been in to grow up. By the time I was 15, I didn’t have anyone telling me when to stop. I started sleeping in the back of my older friends’ cars, behind a couch in my girlfriend’s house, and even in a tent. I had dropped out of school, but all of my friends still marveled at the perceived freedom I had, the fact that no one told me what I had to do. As a teenager, searching for some type of identity, I chose one that took me further and further from the people who had loved me my whole life, and although I could’ve went back home to my mom at any time, I didn’t, because to be honest, when I started partying, I didn’t want to follow any rules.

And gradually, the shame that I felt for disappointing my mom and my grandparents, and the fact that I knew when my brother and sister saw me I was not someone that they should look up to anymore, all melted away into a blur. Sure, I might have been on my own, but I also didn’t realize the hole I was digging myself. I found excuses to steal the things that I wanted, and I justified taking harder drugs because when I was high I didn’t care about how far I had fallen. And my friends went from the curious kids around town, who drank and smoked pot, to strangers that were sophisticated criminals, who did cocaine and plotted evil.

Although at any time I could’ve walked away, I didn’t, and I needed to own up to that. I had been weak because I didn’t care about the rest of my life, but I sensed that I did not have to be anymore. And with each sentence that I wrote it seemed like a burden I had carried with me for so long finally began to lighten. Even as I write these words today, my heart feels lighter. But back then a speech finally did emerge, a speech that warned kids about the dangers of saying “Yes” to a lifestyle that could lead them further and further from who they someday hope to be. I wrote all of the things that I described to you here, and although nothing I could ever write can excuse what I did, writing that speech just felt like something that I had to do.

When I saw my lawyer I gave him what I had written, and he asked me if he could show it to the prosecutor. I consented, and a few days later I met with both of them, but this time they talked to me like a person, and although the prosecutor had initially argued that I should receive the maximum sentence possible, after reading my speech he saw in me more than the sum of my mistakes. He asked me if I would be willing to read my speech in front of a camera, and of course I said that I would, and he got permission to have a video recorder brought into the jail so he could tape me as I delivered my speech. As I looked into that camera, I imagined standing in front of kids who I may not know personally, but who I could talk to in a familiar voice, a kid who knows what it’s like to be faced with making some tough decisions. I also spoke with the gravity of a young man who had to suffer some serious consequences for my actions, consequences that would last the rest of my life.

When I composed my speech, my future did not look very bright at all, nevertheless, through writing it I was able to find a spark inside of me to want something more for my life. I was able to reconnect with my family, who I had almost lost touch with, and I set a good example for my brother and sister again. I remember during my sentencing both my mom and grandma cried a lot, and every time I see either one of them cry I can’t stop myself from crying too, but when they saw my video those tears were ones of pride, for the old Robby was finally back again, and we all didn’t mind shedding a tear for that. Additionally, in the small town where I grew up my sixth grade teacher still shows my video to her kids every year, and sometimes they will even write me short letters telling me that they heard what I had to say, and that they learned something from it. That is how powerful writing for a change can be: all of these years later the words that I wrote are still helping kids avoid making some of the mistakes that I once made. I cannot say that the past 15 years haven’t been tough at times, but from writing that speech I have been able to do my time with my eyes open, and in search of a better way. I saw that my life was filled with people who truly love me, and over the years they have continued to make the long drive to visit me so that they can give me a hug and let me know that they will be there for me when I get out. But despite my incarceration my mom and grandma are always telling me how proud they are of me, and when I saw their tears of happiness when I earned my GED, and then my associate’s degree, I haven’t needed much else in the way of motivation to pursue as much education as possible while I am in here. And it has been during my participation in college programs that I have seen the best chance for people in here to get out, and stay out. Furthermore, some wonderful teachers bravely enter through prison gates every day and bring light into a very dark place. I am especially grateful to one of my former teachers, who over a decade ago listened to my idea to create a book club for the general population, and worked with me to make it happen, despite the fact that doing so created more work for her to do. Everyone who participated in it learned some very valuable things. We came to realize that our incarceration does not have to be a void in our lives that we will always try to ignore, but that every single day offers us an opportunity to learn, and to grow. We also were reminded of the fact that our education is one thing that no one can take away from us, and despite all of the policies that make learning difficult at times, it is always worth doing what is necessary to make sure that we are able to keep going to school. But the most important thing that Ms. Billingsley imparted to us is that the pursuit of knowledge should not end at the completion of a degree, but that if we make it a lifelong endeavor it will be an activity that will enrich our entire lives. I hope that someday I can thank her for making education more than just studying and taking tests, but something that is alive and real, and helps me see past the gates that isolate me from the world.

Since then I have transferred to another institution and I have had the opportunity to become a student in a unique educational program aptly named the Education Justice Project. The University of Illinois sponsors this program and by doing so takes a courageous step forward in an attempt to address the larger public issue of rehabilitating prisoners within the state’s correctional facilities.

In this program, we are taught that change is not dependent upon the environment we are inside of, but that change is dependent upon what we have inside of ourselves. All of the professors who come here share in the conviction that the students here all have the power within themselves to change the direction of their lives, and that they come here to simply help guide the way. I hope that more of society learns about programs like this, because it is within the atmosphere of prison classrooms where the greatest good is done, and where it is truly possible to start reducing the numbers that make the United States prison population the largest in the entire world.

In the end, maybe writing can’t erase what happened in the past, or make August 30, 2014 come any faster, but it has helped me transform my life. All of these years later, as my release date seems like it might not just be some part of a futuristic movie, I am still reminded that there are plenty of uphill battles waiting for me when I get out, and that society may not ever truly accept me back. Maybe things will be hard, but I find strength in the fact that I am not waiting until I can pass through some locked door to change. No, for me change began long ago. I still may be a little unsure when I think about what the future holds, but one thing I am certain of is that I feel strongly about helping people avoid the suffering my family, my victim’s loved ones, and I have endured. I know that when I write for a change I have the opportunity to do that, and I am thankful for the shimmers of light that inspire me never to give up. Yes, I believe a future awaits me, and that somehow a fresh sheet of paper will always have a connection to it all.