This story was written by Mike Christenson, graduate of The Last Mile program in San Quentin State Prison. It's one of many stories of hope, commitment, and redemption emanating from the California prison system.
Ten years ago my life changed in a split second. I was involved in a fatal car accident that took a friend's life. I was sentenced to twelve years in prison for vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. All I knew about prison was what I saw on TV and in the movies. I was a 22-year-old white suburban kid from Burbank, California, walking into a maximum security prison.
I realized that I needed to keep a positive attitude. I was determined to honor my friend by constructively serving my time, emerge a better person, and contribute back to society. The first couple of years were the hardest. I had to navigate the violence and politics inside prison. I was moved around from prison to prison several times due to overcrowding.
Prison had nothing to offer as far as self-improvement goes. Kitchen jobs that paid twelve cents an hour were all that was offered. I realized early on in my 10-year term that if I wanted to better myself, I'd have to do it on my own. I began to educate myself and enrolled in a distance learning program that offered an Associate of Arts degree.
One day, while sitting in my cell, I read a story in the the only prison newspaper in the country, the San Quentin News. It was about a program called The Last Mile, teaching computer programming in San Quentin State Prison.
I only had three years left on my sentence, and I recognized that this program could be a way for me to become relevant in the job market and create a path for a successful reentry back in society. I requested a transfer and fortunately, it was granted. I was headed to San Quentin.
When I arrived, The Last Mile sessions were in the middle of their six-month semester, so I had to wait. I got my hands on as many programming books as I could. I wanted to be prepared when I went in for my interview.
It was the hardest program to get into at San Quentin. Out of over three hundred applicants, only sixteen guys were going to be selected. I had to make sure that I was one of them.
My preparation paid off: I was accepted. I worked diligently to become one of the top students, and in April 2017, I returned to society. I recently received a scholarship starting in September, to General Assembly, one of the country's top coding schools.
Prison is an incredibly difficult place to survive and thrive. These 5 P's were key to my survival and will lead me to a successful future outside of prison:
If you have genuine goals and you are working to achieve them, you will get respect in prison. I found purpose in learning to code, and even though most of the men on the yard had no clue about coding, they showed respect.
Time can stand still in prison, so staying motivated and focused is critical to survival. You endure lockdowns, verbal abuse, bad food, and difficult living conditions, but overcoming these obstacles has made me realize that I can endure and prosper in the worst of conditions.
Work ethic and the drive to perform at the highest level comes through the pride in the work and projects that I have generated over the last three years. I've learned that no matter how large or small the task, always take pride in the outcome.
This is something that I never had before coming to prison. I found a passion and true calling, and a desire to succeed that came out of the darkest time in my life.
I was not a confident person before entering prison, but I realized that I was not only gifted at learning, but I had a talent for teaching others, and articulating concepts and ideas to groups and larger audiences.
I'm on a path that I never expected when I entered prison. I will be able to fulfill the promise I made to myself to honor my friend who lost his life.
I'm hoping my time at General Assembly will help me polish the skills I developed in The Last Mile and lead me to a career as a software developer. I have no doubt that I will be successful, and never return to prison.