“How I Accomplished the Impossible”
By Richard T. Watkins (R.T. Watkins)
Nearly a year and a half ago, I authored an article answering the question, “Should mass incarceration across the nation be considered a civil rights catastrophe?” At the time, I was serving a LIFE sentence with the Michigan Department of Corrections. I spoke on many things, though the most important was self-change and awareness as the foundation for real prison reform. After serving over 25 years of my life sentence, I had something to say regarding the topic. I knew I had an audience that would listen. The article was published in this magazine’s July 2021 issue.
Today I am finally a free man…think of that for a moment. The word “free” for me has filled me with great humility. Great thankfulness. I know how discouraging time can become for all of you serving long indeterminate sentences and life terms. But I woke up one morning serving a life sentence…, and I went to bed that night with 52 days left to serve.
We can rise above the chaos; we can overcome all the obstacles and barriers placed in our way and move beyond them to a brighter place. We must all take our own journey and account for our sins; the only question is this; “Where will your journey take you when it is near completion?” Whether you admit it or not, the path you are on is necessary to refine and complete you in whatever form you choose. For me, it was a journey required to become better.
For me, the beginning of this journey was admitting to myself that I needed to change. I changed my thought process, my friends, and my entire reality. I found positive things to occupy my time, and I called it my therapy. I participated in every program available and completed them; I read any self-help book I encountered. I took charge of my own rehabilitation and maturity because I knew no one else would.
I was ready when the parole board notified me that they wanted to see me. I had spent two decades fixing myself and digging deep inside to understand why I did the things I did and why they were wrong in the first place, rebuilding relationships I had destroyed and nurturing the ones I still had. I maintained those relationships with complete honesty, I had to convince them of who I was now to take their focus away from whom I used to be. We are always at the mercy of those that support us during incarceration, and I owed it to them, to be honest in all aspects, and it worked. When I had my parole hearing and, ultimately, my public hearing, they were there to support me and speak on my behalf.
Make no mistake, the process for a lifer to go home is much more than a simple parole hearing… It doesn’t matter how good our behavior is and has been. If we cannot demonstrate we have become someone better, we have no chance of getting our life back.
You can earn parole, even as a lifer, but it requires the hardest work of your life every single day. You must dig deep, find the darkness inside, and rid yourself of it. You must search out the things you buried and hid away and bring them to the surface so you can face them and overcome them. You must be willing to face everyone affected by your actions and show them who you are now…all they will see is who you were.
When you can change and sustain that change despite your environment, you will be ready. You will be prepared to face the parole board, your victims, and the public. Still, most importantly, you will finally be able to face yourself.