When I think of the phrase, “Do the time, don’t let the time do you,” I reflect on history. What I see are figures that were imprisoned and as a result of their experiences in institutions went on to change the world. Many became writers, artists, political activists, community leaders and presidents. They took an experience meant to break them and turned it into a superpower.
Let me educate you with a few. Malcolm X entered a prison a criminal. While there, he learned by experience and introduction to Islam the social conditions that people of color lived under, mainly, a society based on racism, segregation and oppression. Malcolm X educated himself to the problems that confronted his people and the world history that made the system possible. When he was released from prison he became a leader for political, economic and social freedom. He went on to meet and give speeches to world leaders and inspired many people from every background to become involved in his quest.
Bobby Sands, an Irishman, became a prisoner of war at the age of 19 for his struggle to liberate Ireland from English occupation. While in prison, Sands’ prisoner of war status was stripped, and he along with others prisoners of war were deemed criminals. This subjected them to harsh treatment on the inside and took away their legitimate political power.
Bobby and other leaders turned prison into their own university. They studied their own history and world history. They learned and taught others about their ancient culture and language. Importantly, they educated themselves to the means by which they could gain their country’s freedom.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his struggle to end apartheid and, when released, became the first president of a free South Africa. Martin Luther King Jr. spent only a few days in a jail and within those hours wrote the now famous “A Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
Many were sent to prison as criminals for violating laws that are now deemed unjust. Many did violate just laws and went to prison as criminals, but walked out leaders to work to better the world not only for themselves, but that all could enjoy peace and freedom.
What I am saying is you can spend all your life in prison, or only a few days, and have it mean nothing. What I am saying is that you can go to prison and learn nothing about yourself or the world around you. What I am saying is that you can go to prison and live the same life you have been living. What I am saying is that you can go to prison and continue to be the worst decision you ever made. What I am saying is that this doesn’t have to be the case.
We are not all Malcolm Xs, Mandelas, Sands or Kings, but we all have the same potential. Do your time by improving yourself. Read literature, learn how to write, earn your GED, high school diploma, college degree to become a leader in your family and community. Immerse yourself in a skill and passion that you have. Maybe you draw, write stories, poems and songs. Aspire to be a better brother, son, sister, daughter, mother, father. Take this period of your life and do the time, don’t let the time do you.
Miguel Quezada was convicted of second-degree murder at 16 and sentenced to 45 years to life. He has earned a GED, high school diploma and an associate’s degree in social science. He is a founding member of Criminals and Gangmembers Anonymous and works from San Quentin State Prison to empower fellow juvenile lifers and youth through The Beat Within writing workshops and journalism.
David Inocencio founded The Beat Within in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in many California juvenile halls. The model has been replicated in six states and Washington, D.C. They welcome submissions and new partners. Write to him firstname.lastname@example.org.