Today, my friend from New Zealand posed an interesting question: How do you keep motivated in prison?
Inmates are primarily motivated by the hope or knowledge that one day they will get out of prison. I entered prison in 2008 and received paperwork telling me of a guaranteed release date no later than June, 2023.
Twenty-Twenty-What?! Just seeing 2023 printed out on paper looked so foreign, so impossible. It was way too far away to even fathom. I needed something else to motivate me.
The first year in prison, I was motivated by the monthly visits from my ex-wife, which I looked forward to more than anything in the world. I’d tell myself, “She’ll be here in a couple weeks, I can hug her, kiss her, laugh with her, maybe she’ll want me back.” Once she got pregnant, though, I never saw her again.
Time to find something else for motivation. I discovered prison penpal websites in 2009. Thanks to Oprah mentioning them on her talk-show, I received several letters a day, for the next two years, from people around the world. Each night, I looked forward to mail call — opening envelopes (with no idea what to expect) was like Christmas morning.
I met Cari, a Native American woman who soon became my best friend. She would write me long letters, often sending multiple envelopes at a time. She sent me her artwork and tons of pictures. We talked on the phone regularly. She made me smile. Whenever things got tough in prison, I knew Cari would be there.
By 2012, Marah and I began dating. This kept me motivated. I loved her. In 2014 she flew from New York to meet my parents and visit me in Idaho. Sadly, our relationship ended in early 2015 because she didn’t want to tell her family and friends about me.
Other things — smaller things — continually motivated me to keep going. The appeals process was especially good at this. From 2008 until 2015, I navigated through the Idaho Court of Appeals, the Idaho Supreme Court, the Federal Appeals Court, and finally the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Each step in the process took about a year and a half. I had hope the entire time – hope that Gant v. Arizona would get my conviction overturned.
My lawyer, Dennis Riordan, visited me once a year. He was one of the best appellate lawyers in the country — he even got the West Memphis Three off of death row! Yes, I had hope. “Maybe this time we’ll win,” I kept thinking. By the time we lost our Ninth-Circuit appeal in 2015, all hope was lost in that regard.
Luckily, the timing was great, as my first parole hearing was now just months away. With it came a new motivation: as long as I was granted parole, I would be out in January 2016, just in time for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. We celebrated their 40th at the Sundance Film Festival. It would be such a nice reunion to be free for their 50th…but I was denied parole and told to try again in two years.
By now, I was in a relationship with Jen. She visited me shortly after my parole hearing. I hadn’t seen her in over 7 years. It was a happy and surreal reunion.
“Two years will go by fast, and we can have lots of phone calls and emails and visits,” she said. She promised she would wait for me. I wanted to marry her, to spend my life with her in Redding. (Just two years. It would be so worth the wait. I knew I could stay strong). We made it 14 more months.
Ten months later, the two years came, and I was denied parole again. They told me that this time, as long as I stayed out of trouble, they’d grant me a parole date in 9 more months (Ok, I can handle 9 months, it’s just like being pregnant). So I focused on my treatment program and on doing everything right. I was so motivated to become a better person and finally get out of prison!
At my next parole hearing in 9 months, they did grant me a parole date as promised — but not for another 9 months. (OK, it’s just like being pregnant, I told myself yet again).
Here’s the reality: the best way to stay motivated is not by looking at the big picture, but by anticipating all of the little pictures, the potential small victories, the baby steps. The weekly pictures Jen would send me kept me looking forward to the next week, then the next. Football season gave me something to look forward to each year, as did the NBA playoffs, and the Olympics every couple of years. I looked forward to intense chess games with Patchett, poker tournaments at ICC, delicious Mexican food feasts with Luna, and visits with my parents.
The prospect of being released motivated me to diet, to exercise, to lose weight. For years, I tracked my calories, limiting myself to 1750 a day. My dad motivated me to learn how to invest wisely in the stock market. My mom motivated me to read more books. Clinician Dodge motivated me to be my authentic self. InmateBlogger motivates me to think of prison as an adventure, not a punishment. When bad things happen, I have new material for my next blog post.
Today, my girlfriend Anja motivates me in so many different ways. She loves me unconditionally. She believes in me. She appreciates me. In November, I’ll get to hug her for the first time.
We dream about a future life together — a life that doesn’t include a rec yard, a chow hall, penpals, or even Inmate Blogger. A life where I can leave prison in the past and get a fresh start for the future. But even starting anew, I’ll never forget all the people who were there for me through thick and thin…the people who helped give me strength during this incredibly difficult, incredibly stressful 10-year journey. I’ll always feel the love and kindness they shared with me. What could be more motivating than that?
Categories: Stephen Newman