For my first 25 years, school taught me lessons I would later be tested on. Never did I expect to be in the same vicinity as killers, drug dealers, and rapists—and the private school environment of my youth could have never prepared me for it.
One person from whom I’ve learned some of the most profound life lessons was a 44-year-old serial killer serving a life sentence plus 80 years. This man--let’s call him Frank--had his eyes torn out of his head during a scuffle with his former cell mate at a Maximum Security prison. After choking Frank out, his cell mate pulled out his eyes. When Frank regained consciousness, he felt the blood all over his face, and heard the other inmates yelling out that his eyes were gone.
Three months later, Frank got a medical emergency transfer to a Medium-Max prison, where I happened to be at the time. This prison was chosen so that Frank could receive better medical aid. As I was a peer educator and hospice volunteer, the staff asked me if I would be willing to assist him in his new life being blind. At first glance, any sane person would be extremely uncomfortable to be anywhere near a man who could do so much harm to other beings. But when we met, I observed Frank and sensed a certain charisma and passion for life, despite his physical setback, past transgressions and knowing he’d never get out of prison.
I was responsible for guiding Frank around the compound, and as a result Frank and I became closer. I took him to his medical appointments, to eat in the dining hall, and even to work out in the yard and gym. I remember a particular time we were outside in the yard in the afternoon and walked around the track, and then I asked Frank if he wanted to run on the grass. He hadn’t run since the incident, but he trusted me to guide him with simple directions: I ran behind and guided him, and for a moment he broke free of his condition and all that troubled him, running and laughing as a child would over their first big accomplishment.
As Bryan Stevenson wrote, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” In spite of the terrible things he’s done, Frank’s traumatic experience helped him to find a new respect and appreciation for life. He participated in my support groups and had a positive impact on many lost men in search of direction, and I’ve continued to use his story and experience to inspire other troubled felons to turn their lives around.
Brian Ruiz is a former architecture student at Chicago’s IIT and apprentice architect, currently serving 5 years in an Illinois correctional facility. He is a peer educator and facilitator for several programs and plans to be active in public speaking upon his release.