Leadership By Example: An Inside Perspective on Leadership and Positivity Within the Prison Community

By: Jermaine Dickerson, Freelance Community Journalist

What is leadership? What does it mean to promote positivity? I am living proof that these ideas exist. Even though my current circumstances being incarcerated are not ideal, I am dedicating my life to being a great leader and to promoting positivity throughout the community. My story on leadership is different than the norm. Stillwater is still a level 4 prison at the end of the day and some inmates are not too fond of being led by their peers. It takes courage, patience, and pure determination to break through as a leader and promote positive values in such a negative environment.

Before my incarceration in May 2007, I had a promising career in sight. I attended the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Southwest Minnesota State University hoping to obtain my Bachelor of Arts degree in child psychology and criminal justice. I was hoping to graduate to be a licensed psychologist and a future judge. I also had a promising football career that was lost. Due to unseen circumstances I was not able to stay at either school.

Shortly after I arrived at Stillwater Correctional Facility. I knew I still wanted to lead and create change. I started researching educational opportunities and self-help classes here at Stillwater.

Stillwater’s education department is elite. It offers a computer lab with many newer computers and keyboards in a relaxed atmosphere. The staff is very helpful and insightful. There are tons of books and resource materials to indulge in. We also have a huge smart board to learn from. The library has tons of books and magazines. They also offer GED testing, College Courses (A.A.), and many Self-Improvement classes. There is also Lit1, Lit 2, and Lit 3 classes. These classes are for the younger populations who want to obtain their high school diplomas, GED’s, and tabe scores.

I also finished a number of classes; all of these classes ranged from one month to three months. These classes include Anger Management 1&2, Changing Faces 1&2, Emotional Intensity class, Alternative To Violence Project, Parenting class, Restorative Justice Classes, and Building Character. I was also a member of the Building Character Committee, focusing on creating positive change for myself and other inmates. I also facilitated Education Orientation for the new arrivals teaching them how important their education is to their future success upon release.

The Emotional Intensity class made a big difference in my life. It was facilitated by a licensed psychologist and was directed at keeping our emotions in check. The class taught me how to stop using so many negative emotions and start displaying positive ones. I was taught how to relax and how to stop being so confrontational. It helped me understand leadership and what positivity can do. It showed me good leaders had to display positive traits: how to inspire, motivate, and be humble. I started keeping my negative emotions in order and started making the best out of bad situations. I was taught some conflict resolution training, which helped me in debates or heated arguments. I was also taught breathing exercises to relieve stress.

The Education Orientation is a program set-up to counsel young offenders that just arrived to prison. It focuses on offenders carrying themselves in a positive and respectful manner. Once a week I would go to the education department to facilitate the class full of young inexperienced offenders. I would teach them how to be a better person and how to avoid conflict and that the correct way to make a change in their lives through education. I used my own personal experience as well as homework, exercises, and decision making drills in my facilitation.

The Building Character Committee is an inmate-based program designed to teach inmates how to work on themselves, while helping people work on character failures. We promote leadership and accountability trying to teach good characteristics that enhance people’s lives. We host guest speakers doing motivational speeches, softball games, and basketball all-star events. The committee has monthly meetings where we discuss and decide new innovative ways to create change.

My favorite thing about the education department is the staff and their willingness to help and inspire. The staff is hands-on and very encouraging and always makes time to assist us with homework or basic questions.

I also signed up for and graduated from the Prison Fellowship program. The Prison Fellowship is an 18 month Christian-based program. It is designed to enhance our faith in God, while teaching us how to be leaders. There are about 5 or 6 sub groups within the class and each group has an outside resource person. After graduation inmates are offered a chance to come back as a mentor and tutor to lead a group until the next one comes along. Also, after completion, The Prison Fellowship family offers housing and job training when inmates are released. When we arrive to class we are greeted by all of the staff. All the staff work for free and donate their time and effort to us. This whole course is based on developing leaders and promoting positivity. The class taught me patience, faith, and how to lead. At the time I had given up on any religious activity due to my circumstances. The Prison Fellowship taught me how to believe and that’s one way my life changed for the better and why I am the man I am today. I stopped being so angry and put God first and everything fell into place. I learned that I am destined for a great future.

I also became a Mental Health Mentor tutoring the disabled. I have received numerous appreciation certificates and have been invited to the annual meal as well. I take time out of each day to try to touch someone’s life in any way I can. I eventually started taking college classes to obtain my Associate of Arts degree in Communications through InverHills Community College. My graduation ceremony is March 26. I am currently half way done with obtaining my Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Management through Ashland University. I am the first person in my immediate family to accomplish this milestone.

The majority of staff and offenders show a lot of interest and support for the programs offered here at Stillwater. The promotion of positive events and resources help everyone. It prepares people for their futures and release. It keeps the a positive atmosphere in the prison, while also keeping staff and inmates physically safe as well. Still there are important issues to consider.

Minnesota has some of the lowest rates in the country concerning incarceration. On the other hand Minnesota has some of the highest racial disparities in incarceration. More Black men and women are incarcerated in Minnesota than anywhere else in the country. We also have some of the highest numbers for probation and parole in the country. This information is alarming and we need to come together and fight to create change especially for minorities and our youth in the community. The change must start now. I plan to create change by guiding and leading by example and showing an investment in education can pave the way to our futures.

When I am released I want to help kids stay out of trouble and give back to my community. I might do this through a non-profit organization that inspires and teaches our youth, through job training classes and recreational activities. I also want to open my own business to create jobs for people that otherwise cannot find meaningful employment. I am very passionate about positive change. I won’t give up until my mission is complete. Out of all the people I have mentored if I can just affect one of their lives in a positive way then I’ve done part of my job.

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