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Tired of prison? Learn to break the crime habit

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It was a hot, sultry Spring afternoon more than 2000 years ago and many of Jerusalem's citizens trudged up a steep incline to a site the occupying Romans had selected for public executions. Two men already hung there in the blazing sun as the crowds, clustered behind the Roman guards, followed the third prisoner whose sentence has been determined just that morning. Weakened from the nightlong beating, this prisoner, even with help from an African of Cyrene, struggled mightily with the heavy cross beam. At the top of the hill, it would be lifted into place onto the upright stake, planted solidly in the hard ground of this place called Golgotha. Finally, the three prisoners all hung there on three crosses, each in his own way awaiting release from excruciating pain that death would bring.

Without warning, sometime just before 3pm, these three men--two of them convicted of insurrection against Rome and murder, and the other, hanging in the middle, convicted of claiming to be a king greater than Caesar--began one of the strangest conversations in recorded history. Yet, this ancient conversation, recorded in the Bible in Luke 23:39-43 ,reveals powerful principles of change for more than 10 million criminals in the U.S. today.

"If you are the prophesied Messiah--the Christ--as you claim to be--one criminal whispered through blood-caked lips, then save yourself and us." The man in the middle did not respond. The convicted man on the other side, painfully gasping for breath, rebuked (renounced) his cohort in crime, saying: "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong. Then he said to Jesus, Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom." Turning as much as the pain would allow, Jesus, 33, painfully whispered to that criminal: "Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise."

That conversation reveals seven principles by which we recognize and nurture change in criminals. Principle one, revealed in the question of the first criminal, shows that change must be desired, and cannot be arbitrarily applied. So no matter how hard we try, we cannot punish out and change into criminals. That criminal's comments indicated no interest in change. Rather, he simply wanted to get out of the current predictament. Remember, a three-phase prime directive governs all criminal behavior. Criminals want to get over on people, get away with it, and if caught, get out as quickly as possible so they can return to getting over on people. Also take note that Jesus offered no response. I made this observation for the first time during a Prison Fellowship Annual Conference when in a workshop I asked: "If Jesus has no response to a criminal who is not ready to change, why do we keep talking?

On the other hand, six principles revealed in the comments of the other criminal indicate a desire to change. Those principles, stated for today's application, are as follows: you must renounce your criminal lifestyle and cohorts! You must accept personal responsibility for your circumstances, whatever they are! You must acknowledge that the sacrifice of Christ provides the cornerstone of the change process! You must turn to Christ in faith, as the source of a different future! You must anticipate the reality of that future, no matter how long it takes! You must activate the principles of the new future, despite the conflicting evidence of daily circumstances.

Is this the only way a criminal can change? I don't know! I know that I attempted to change several times but didn't begin to succeed until I recognized and inculcated these principles in my efforts. I began this process 40 years ago, about a year before my final release from prison on Dec. 9, 1968. Please be clear. These six principles describe the beginning of the change process. There's a lot more. The rest is summarized in the question: how can criminals break the crime habit?

Crime is a way of thinking that justifies harming others for self-gain. Therefore, attempts to change behavior and performance prior to changing thinking fail miserably,. Here's how you break the crime habit. Change your thinking. Changed thinking empowers you to change your beliefs. Changed beliefs position you to change your expectations. Changed expectations empower you change your attitude. Changed thinking, beliefs, expectations and attitude position you to change your behavior, which leads naturally to new habits . All this together enables you to change your outcomes.

You see, the principles that take you from crime to contribution reveal a time consuming process that you will live through if you desire to change. First, challenge your thinking!

Okay, I had to ask myself four decades ago, if the way I think brings harm to myself and others, how must I think to prevent those outcomes? I learned that I had to switch from greed to balance, from instant gratification to long ranged planning, from getting to giving, from being served to serving. I believe this first step to be the hardest part of the change process, but because I really wanted to break the crime habit I stuck with it.. As I learned to reject criminal thinking as an option, I learned that I had to replace the old thinking with thinking that was new, innovative, creative and enthusiastic.

Here's an example. My first job after being released from prison was as a janitor in a Durham downtown hotel, across the street from the daily morning and afternoon newspapers. On that job I made two significant personal policy decisions that reflected the beginning of new thinking. First, I refused to wear the janitor's uniform off the hotel premises. My colleagues, who did, laughed of course, and called me the "dressed up janitor." I concluded that I had to see myself as a writer working as a janitor. I had to see that even when the daily evidence indicated otherwise. That's new thinking.

One day during the Spring of 1969, I walked into the Managing Editor's office of the morning daily newspaper and applied for a job, knowing full well that he would not hire me. Being hired was not my objective. After a relatively short interview, I asked the Managing Editor if he would let me "hang around" the officer after I finished working at the hotel and learn whatever I could by asking questions of the veteran journalists. He agreed. That's innovative thinking.

Some of the journalists didn't see an aspiring writer. They saw a "go-fer," and whenever I asked a question, they wanted me to go for coffee, or across the street to get them a chicken sandwich, or down the block for a couple of hot dogs. When I returned, they got what they wanted--the food and drink--but were then too busy to answer my questions. So despite earning weekly take home pay of less than $60, whenever I went into the newsroom I already had the food they liked. But there was one big difference. Now I owned the food, and the price of my food were answers to my questions. That's creative thinking.

Later I began rewriting chunks of the newspaper, banging out copy on a battered Royal typewriter I had bought in a local pawnshop. I asked the City Editor to review my rewrites and suggest improvements. After about three weeks of this, the City Editor asked me to come in on Saturdays and Sundays--still without pay--to rewrite wire copy. That enterprising thinking.

As my thinking gradually changed, so did my belief system. I began believing that maybe I could envision a new future. Maybe being an African American high school dropout with a crime and prison record, and few marketable skills did not doom me to a life on society's margins. Maybe I could really become a quality professional writer.

That's the process! It's arduous, challenging, difficult and even sometimes discouraging. But as the late Ray Charles often commented: "It is what it is." Changing your thinking is the first step in breaking the crime habit. Complete this first step, and the others follow in order. It all depends on how thoroughly you have renounced the criminal lifestyle and how earnestly you desire a new destiny.

See you at success.

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I am a former criminal who has been 39 years (12/9/68-12/9/07) making the arduous trek from crime to contribution. I am a bona fide expert on how to break the crime habit, earn an ever-free life and achieve the criminal and prison background into (more...)

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