I recently spoke at the Jessup Correctional Institution in Jessup, Md., to celebrate the graduation of 38 inmates who took the required courses to receive their GEDs. GED, or General Educational Development, is essentially equivalent to a high school diploma.
The Jessup Correctional Institution is known to be one of the tougher facilities of its kind. This was my fifth time visiting the prison, each for a different occasion and each time with a similar message: Hope!
Every time I have been inside to speak, I have always felt moved by the spirit. Yes, the guys who I am speaking to have committed crimes, and the general consensus on the outside is to not care about what happens to them. They’ve sealed their fates. They did the crime, now they must do the time.
But when I’m there, I feel a connection, one that leads me to conclude that these guys can connect with spirit.
It was an extremely hot and humid day, and there was no air conditioning where the celebration was to occur. The 38 inmates were on one side of the room and their guests or relatives had to sit on the other side. The pride of their parents or guests was evident as their loved ones were about to receive their diplomas.
In my remarks, I wanted to make one thing clear to these men: When it comes to their secondary education, they are no different than those who have achieved their high school diplomas through the traditional route. They have the same certification as someone who finished in one of Maryland’s 582 high schools.
But at the same time, in a way, their experience has an extra level of meaning. The expression is “doing time.” Well, they did a lot with their time. They used it wisely, and turned what could have been long, meaningless days into a fruitful endeavor that earned them the equivalent of a high school degree.
Their feat is actually quite rare and commendable. About 68 percent of prisoners in state prisons do not have a high school education, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In Maryland, only 482 inmates — out of more than 22,000 total inmates in the state — took and passed the GED exam in 2014. I encouraged the graduates to make use of what they earned, and when the time comes, make new lives for themselves on the outside.
As for my time with them, it started slowly. I talked to them for about 15 minutes, and hoped to leave them with something to consider. My message was simple — when you walk out of this place one day, you have to ask yourself a simple question: Do I get busy living or do I get busy dying?
What does that mean? Getting “busy living” means making the most of the opportunity you now have, becoming the best version of yourself and taking on a life of personal growth. Getting “busy dying” means being destined to repeat the same mistakes or create similar situations that will land these guys back in jail, as happens to 76.6 percent of convicts within five years of their release. Dying means doing nothing to enhance yourself in any area of your life. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.
I didn’t get much reaction from the guys at first, but as we moved forward, and as I continued to speak and look into their eyes, I started to see them react. Heads started nodding in agreement with what I was saying, and within minutes just about all of them were tuned in.
A few of the guests approached me afterward thanking me for my message and saying how it connected with them. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an opportunity to engage in a one-on-one conversation with any of the graduates. Nonetheless, I believe, as I have experienced in the past, that the spirit was at work as it has always been. I might not see immediate results, but I do believe these guys were impacted that day, and I hope it stays with them.
Feeling and knowing the spirit is at work is tough to describe. There is an unusual energy that exists. In all the years of my reading and studying personal growth, the best way for me to describe it is as an awareness that something greater than conversation is going on. You connect with people, you see it in their eyes, you hear it in the way they respond to you. Simultaneously, you feel this consciousness in your head as if you were understanding each other even though you’re not actually using words or even physical gestures to communicate.
What I was reminded of that day is that when the spirit of one connects with the spirit of another, magic happens.