"Unlocked" Keys to Getting Out & Staying Out

By Chance A Johnmeyer

Personal growth

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12 mins

Introduction, Chapters 1 and 2

They say a prison officer is down fifty percent of the time he has worked, so for me that is a seven year bid. I came to prison as a young officer in January of 2001, walking thru the front door of New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord. I had left a hot, dusty job as a factory worker making guns for Sturm, Ruger & Co. At the time, my peers said I would never make it six months, yet here I am fourteen years later writing to you.
It was here behind the concrete and barbed wire that I began to be challenged about everything that I thought I knew, about humanity, about the soul. It was here that I came face to face with the reality of so many people—Prison! The prison experience is unlike anything I have ever experienced. It began, and continues, to transform who I am and how I respond to people in my life .
At the end of 2006 my advanced education in humanity would continue as my family and I closed the NH chapter and moved south below the Mason Dixon Line to Florida. Florida was a totally different animal altogether; it seemed caught in a time warp, hesitant to change. The old south elements of prison operations were still deeply rooted, but still in a lot of ways it was the same as up north.
I watched men of all races leave the gates after serving their time—excited, with dreams and ambitions, going out to retake their lives. Some would never return; others within a short time would be back in the yard, with their heads hanging down, a sense of failure. They had been beaten by poor choices and consequences. These, combined with an unreasonable criminal justice system, made it seem like a losing battle for them as they tried to reenter society.
I’ve seen, and continue to see, a lot of guys coming back. It has always bothered me, to see a man return, with pain in his eyes. I continue to ask why? This book attempts to answer that question.
You will find within these pages mental notes and life lessons, written, erased, and rewritten again after years of walking the upper deck, standing cell front, and watching the yard. I have gained much insight by talking and asking questions, listening as grown men broke down their lives in front of me from beginning to the end.
The truth has always been my cause; for an officer, or an inmate, it didn’t matter. I would seek it out aggressively, like a detective uncovering the lies. My hope is that you find in my writings truth and understanding. My hope is that what I have presented challenges you to the deepest part of your soul.
You will meet Troy, an inmate that worked for me in 2014, as he details out his thoughts with only 30 days left to go. Troy was on a different path, constantly reading and taking notes, working to take what he had learned and use it to change what was going on inside his head. While everybody else was eating everything that wasn’t nailed down or challenging each other on how many push-ups they could do, Troy was working out his mind. It’s for the "Troy’s" that I write this book.
Included you will find dozens of pages of carefully selected resources for Florida residents, all the real-world practical information that I have seen inmates struggle to find. I believe information empowers people, giving them the confidence to succeed.

This section includes information on:
• Federal Bonding
• Guidelines for those incarcerated, by Federal Student Aid
• Contact information for top schools for cooking, welding, HVAC, and solar
• Child support modification forms and more practical information to assist in your transition

You and I both know, everything is not black and white or cut and dry. This book will not claim to have all the answers, nor will I tell you, “If you do X, Y, or Z, this will happen.” What I will tell you is, “If you take what you find here, think over it, and put it into practice, it will help you to stand free, and just maybe you will never… circle back around to be in this dark place again.”

Chapter 1: Troy

Where did all the time go? It just seems like yesterday that I got here… Truth be told, I haven’t made any positive use of my time while I’ve been down. All in all I didn’t do the time. I let the time do me. I have all these tattoos, twice convicted felon, and flat on my ass when I get out. What the hell am I even getting out for? At least in here I have three hot’s and a cot! Out there ain’t nothin given to nobody. My family abandoned me long ago, my friends showed me their true colors the minute I stepped foot in here, and my girl… Let’s not even go there. It all happened so fast, and now shit’s fixin' to get real.
When I first started this bid I couldn’t even see this far down the road. Looking back, it didn’t matter anyway, everything was a blur. Today though, thinking about the day they let me out that gate… That is clear as day. I’m not really any different now, than when I stepped out of that van in chains, ten years ago.
Now that I am face to face with the future, the time I have done doesn’t seem all that bad. What sucks though is the thought of starting all over from scratch. I’ve been out once before. When I got out, I really thought I was gunna make it. I went back to where I grew up, tried to find a job, and get settled in. Everybody I ran into, who knew me from before, they half-way listened, talking to me, while lookin' at someone else. They weren’t really listenin'. I tried to tell them I was a changed man, but it didn’t matter.
You know this is depressing. I sometimes think “The System” is designed specifically for me to fail. I feel like the boot is against my neck, and I can’t move.
I’m not looking for handouts, just something different, and anything to keep me from coming back to the chain gang.
If I don’t find anything, I’m gunna do what I got to do. I refuse to go around not having anything. I just hope I don’t get caught again. If I do, they ain’t letting me out, and I ain’t havin' that.

Chapter 2: What’s on Ya Mind

“That’s real.” Do you connect with this guy? The writings of Troy are blood raw, and as I get older I come to appreciate that approach more, over some mask of nice words.
Like Troy, this is not the first time for many of you. You’ve gotten out before and made an honest run at it, but somehow the cards didn’t seem to fall in your favor, and you had to fold. The streets were like an evil seductress, calling you to her pleasures, fulfilling your greatest desires. You soon learned she’s never happy, she always wants more, and you chase after her spending your all, until you’re bankrupt and have nothing left to give.
Since you’ve been down, your friends have left, and you dread seeing the chaplain, afraid he will call your name and let you know someone close has passed away—and you couldn’t be there. Your kids are all grown up, and they barely know you. But it seems that God, if you believe in him, has smiled upon you, and you get another chance at life. You’re getting out. Once again you will breathe in fresh air and experience sweet freedom. Soon you will open your eyes to someone you love sleeping peacefully beside you, not to the lights being turned on at an ungodly hour by a burned out CO with an attitude calling "Count!"
When you hear that last “buzz” to the outside gate, it will all change… Or will it? Are you ready?
During my time as an officer, I have walked rounds, hundreds of them, talking with guys just like you, desperate for conversation, something meaningful, different than the day in and day out nonsense.
I have come to realize thru all of these conversations that those who come to prison and return to prison are those who struggle in 5 main areas.
The command center for these five areas begins with “What’s on Ya Mind”: your thoughts.

"Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions. Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits. Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character. Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny."
– Chinese proverb, author unknown

“We can’t escape pain; we can’t escape the essential nature of our lives. But we do have a choice. We can give in and relent, or we can fight, persevere, and create a life worth living, a noble life. Pain is a fact; our evaluation of it is a choice.”
– Jacob Held

Thoughts are Powerful
I remember one time in 2006 when I was the commanding officer in the SHU unit. This inmate, I forget his name, requested use of the hair clippers. I told him I would talk to the sarge and get back with him. We were busy caring for the remaining 80 to 100 inmates, and we were unable to fulfill his request within the time frame he thought it should be done. Several rounds later, I stopped to speak with him, and I stared in disbelief. He had pulled just about every strand of hair from his head with just his fingertips. His response: “Now I look like a dumbass, and I have visits this weekend.” I couldn’t help but chuckle: a sprig of hair here, a sprig of hair there. I was taken aback by the extreme measures this individual was willing to take to accomplish his desires.
In that cell by himself, with no opposing views, he began to focus on negative thoughts and perceived injustices. His thoughts became his reality.
At times we get alone and our brain gets stuck on rewind and replay. We become convinced that our thoughts are our reality. Those thoughts, when allowed to run wild, can become our puppet master.
While researching for this book I came across this from marriage and family therapist Robert C. Jameson: “What we think often comes out of our mouth and into someone else's ears. Our words impact how we feel about ourselves and they can impact how others think and feel.
"Words are symbols that communicate what's going on inside our head to us and others. We share our fears, our sorrow, our joy, our love and our dreams with our words.
"Our words create action. Our words can create intimacy or separation. With our words we can motivate ourselves to do things we never thought we could do, and our words can also move others to step forward into their own personal power so they can be of service to their community. Words can calm us or excite us. Words can actually change the direction of a nation. So watch what you think and be aware of the words that come from your thoughts, and the actions that follow your words.”
In other words, in “How to Control Your Mind and Thoughts,” Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard said, "Thoughts can be our best friends and our worst enemies."
Being incarcerated takes a toll on the human body without the previous daily physical activity of working and weekend recreation. So a lot of inmates work out like crazy. The brain, like the body, needs to be worked out by putting into practice the following:

Meditate daily
If you're one of those people who quickly excuses yourself as having tried meditation and discovering it did not work for you, that's the first thought you need to change. Why? Because it isn't so. What does it mean to meditate? According to Dictionary.com it means nothing more than "to engage in thought or contemplation; reflect."
We all meditate. We just need to decide what we reflect ("meditate") on, or what we value. Sitting on your bunk fantasizing as you read the pages of the latest urban book, or dreaming about cartels, is probably not profitable for a successful future. Instead, it builds thinking that is wrong and deceitful. It strengthens already destructive thinking. The most deceived person is one-and-the-same with the deceiver.
You can learn to meditate, and you must, if you wish to learn to control your thoughts and your thinking.

Observe your thoughts
We all have negative thoughts. In his book The Happiness Trap, author Russ Harris says 80% of everyone's thoughts contain some sort of negative content. So it's normal to have negative thoughts. The Christian’s “Jesus,” who was in all points “tempted” as we are yet WITHOUT sin, had negative thoughts. This understanding changed me forever, because I was always beating myself up because my thoughts were not always perfect.
Late one night I was working in the control room perched high above the walls at NH State Prison. In a quiet moment, I looked over the compound and realized that, in a very real way, the one called Jesus had the same thoughts as every man I was watching over, yet he did no wrong. Wow!
The first nanosecond of a moment, the “seed thought,” or temptation is neither right nor wrong. They just are. Don't judge them; rather, observe their beginning. What gave birth to them? Where were you when the thought first occurred?
How many times has a thought popped into your mind—let's say some kind of judgmental thought such as anger, jealousy, or vengeance about a cell mate or an officer, and instantly, bam! We jump into judgment mode, finding fault with others or ourselves, thinking something negative. It's how you respond to your “seed” thought that introduces the "rightness" or "wrongness" of them. How many times have you or someone you know ended up in the box because they shot their mouth off without first thinking? Consequences are a great teacher.
When you get out, your mind will be flooded with thoughts good and bad “Man, I am out, I am free!” Or, “That b*#ch is not going to talk to me like that!”
“I have been out here for two weeks trying to find work, and still nothing.”
“Hey man, I see ya struggling! I’m gunna help ya out. Just make this delivery for me, and I’ll take care of ya.”
Those of you reading this book right now that have been involved in the sale of narcotics, you will be tempted to sell again, numerous times.
To go mentally from making stupid money to working for a working man’s wage requires a complete restructuring of your mind.
Husbands and wives, you will be faced by a spouse who has managed the affairs of the family while you were locked down, and all of a sudden you get home and a second opinion will not be heard easily. Service families go through these challenges all the time when one spouse or another returns home from service overseas.
Oftentimes in the heat of the moment things are said that hurt and enrage. Once you shoot your mouth off and let those words fly, there’s no taking them back, and they land like a hatchet. When you observe these potentially destructive, life-changing thoughts, you must deal with them! Failure to do so will cause poison to come out of your mouth, wounding those closest to you, your spouse, your children, your mom, your dad. These words create deep, deep pain. Left unchecked, unforgiveness will begin to take root and overshadow your future legacy.
Listed below are some mental tools to consider using when confronted with unprofitable thoughts:

Cast them down
All thoughts pass through the observation stage.
When you get out and have little to nothing, it isn’t fun.
The temptation of easy money is everywhere. I mean money makes the world go 'round, right? So make some quick money by whatever means, go to the store, buy some new clothes, and then investigate the pleasures of the first person that comes along, and you're straight, right? If you choose the path just mentioned, you are not driven by wisdom, logic, or reason, but by impulse. Impulse doesn’t think about where it’s been, or where it’s going; its only concern is the here and now.
You have two choices; you can water these thoughts by spending time meditating on them, or you can cast them down refusing to let it rent space in your head.
Meditation is like watering a plant, growing what is meditated on, good or evil! You can meditate on evil, and it will grow and take over your life, or you can starve it. In other words, in the purported words of Martin Luther, "You cannot keep a bird from flying over your head; what you can do is prevent it from building a nest in your hair."

Replace Them
When destructive thoughts show up, we must begin to discipline ourselves to redirect our mind, replacing thoughts of failure with success. Ex-Navy Seal Cade Courtley, currently a survival specialist, details how the US military uses visualization techniques to practice what they call emergency conditioning (EC). It means conditioning the mind in advance of emergencies, thus producing psychological strength in times of crisis. This is also referred to as "battle-proofing" or "battle inoculation" by military personnel. Example: A soldier lying on his cot imagines a nasty firefight with the enemy, including what it will sound like and smell like, the heavy breathing, and the utter exhaustion.
If the brain imagines something in deep and vivid detail, it will become part of a person's "experience files."
This visualization exercise will actually fool the brain into believing that you have already experienced this event. You can tap into these files at will by hitting the play button that starts the "movie" of what you have already visualized and planned. It will seem more or less familiar if ever you are confronted with a similar experience. (Courtley)
You may choose to reflect on those you love, your mother, your children, your girl, or even friends and family. Reflect on times spent together at church, sports events, parties, and times like that, and hold them in place by playing out that memory in your mind. These are times that you’re thankful for. They enrich our lives.
In the short term try a “gratitude journal,” a term created by Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, a technique used in his pioneering experiment conducted with Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami.
They instructed people to keep a journal listing five things for which they felt grateful, like a friend’s generosity, something they’d learned, or a sunset they’d enjoyed.
The gratitude journal was brief—just one sentence for each of the five things—and done only once a week, but after two months there were significant effects.
Compared with a control group, the people keeping the gratitude journal were more optimistic and felt happier. They reported fewer physical problems and spent more time working out. This is a great idea, because some of us have spent our lives focusing on the negative.
Maybe it began with our parents being overly critical, so we began looking inward, focusing on our mistakes, trying to do better to escape their criticism. As we grew older our focus went to others and their mistakes, as a defense mechanism to help us feel better about ourselves. The journal is a plausible way to begin to retrain the mind. We have to purpose to see positive, good things. Once we see those good things happening to us and write them down, we begin to visualize in a very concrete way the good that is happening to us. Some of you may even carry the journal further into the future.
In some circumstances I have chosen to begin singing. As crazy as it sounds, we all have memories of songs we learned as a child, and as we make an active decision to begin singing those songs or other good songs, our thought processes begin to shift away from the negative thoughts and impulses.
You might be saying, "This dude is crazy. I am not about to start singing some crazyass children’s songs.”
I say to you, “Cool. The way you’ve been doing things, how’s that working for ya”?
What researchers are beginning to discover is that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.
The elation may come from endorphins, a hormone released by singing, which is associated with feelings of pleasure. Or it might be from oxytocin, another hormone released during singing, which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress. Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain why still more studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness. The benefits of singing regularly seem to be cumulative.
In one study, singers, especially choir singers, were found to have lower levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress.
Do you still believe singing is stupid? Sing!

Overwhelm Them
Sometimes you will experience thoughts that are evil and stubborn, and as hard as you try, you just can’t cast them down or replace them. Maybe you have given thought to them for too long, and now they seem overwhelming. If you truly desire success you’re going to have to do some things differently. In situations like these, physical activities that exhaust the body also overwhelm thoughts. When you make an active decision to hit the gym, practice martial arts, or go biking, your body often times will begin to talk louder than your thoughts. Combine this with music or a source of different information, such sports or news radio that is positive by nature, it will counter what you are thinking. Turn it on and turn it up, and begin to refocus your mind towards your success.

Cultivate the space between thoughts
In other words, as you train yourself to be the observer of your mind and your thoughts, you are actually cultivating what easterners call "the primary consciousness" that underlies all thinking. It is that "space between the notes," said Claude Debussy "that makes the music."
What does it mean to cultivate? I grew up in Missouri on a 600 acre farm. My family grew what we called row crops. This included things like corn, soybeans, and wheat. Several months after everything had been planted my dad would have to go thru with a cultivator. It was a large piece of machinery hooked behind a tractor that was spaced so as not to destroy the plants. This cultivator would dig deep, breaking up the stony ground and allowing rain and air into the soil and digging up the weeds. We, like the cultivator, must keep the ground stirred up by practices that keep us challenged.
Things like reading challenge the mind. I read everything. When we take in positive information that reinforces life and success, challenging adversity and succeeding, we keep the mind fresh. We keep it stirred up. What we take in is in essence the space between the notes.

“A man's mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed seeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.”
―James Allen, As a Man Thinketh

If there were no spaces, no “stirring up” between the notes, “your decisions” on the sheet music of “your life” would seem unintelligible, meaningless, and maybe even annoying. This space is the place of internal peace. It is what some call "pure consciousness." It will influence how decisions are made.

Cast Down, Replace, Overwhelm, and Cultivate: four mental practices to help gain control of your thoughts.



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