Invaluable life lessons come to us from a myriad of sources. Even from unexpected places like a state correctional facility and an inmate sentenced to life without parole.
For the past four years I have been communicating with a “lifer” prisoner via occasional phone calls and letters. In research for my next book, a good friend of mine introduced me to Rhidale as someone who understands how to keep going and bending through tough circumstances and losses.
In 2001, Rhidale was sentenced for a felony murder conviction (an unintentional death that occurred during a robbery). Because of another teenage robbery on Rhidale’s record, the judge doled out one of the harshest punishments possible: life without parole.
So how does someone keep from breaking with such sullen news? What hope do you have when your future looks woefully bleak?
Digging for Real Answers
I’ve asked these questions and hundreds more over the past few years in getting to know Rhidale. Last November, I met Rhidale in the prison at the edge of Ordway, Colo.,(the photo is by the small town’s welcome sign). In my book chapter about Rhidale, I write about wandering around the prison visitation room trying to find my assigned table. Twenty-some male inmates eye me fumbling around empty tables looking for the number the guard barked out to me.
My ego crawls with a tinge of embarrassment. Fair-skinned, doe-eyed me wants to crawl inside myself and disappear. Or, at least walk back out behind the locked behemoth-like steel door. Out of here. Done. Past the tough-guy guards. Past thefrisk-you-down security team at the guard gate to drive back the ninety miles to civilization. Right along the stretch of dried up tumbleweeds and parched melon fields surrounding this state prison for men—up to 1,007 of them, many with maximum sentences that will ball and chain them for the rest of their lives. . . . Small-town me has never committed a crime that I know of, and yet, I have. We all have. We all mess up and say and do things that are not our stellar best. Gossip. Envy. Pride. My rap sheet is lengthy, just notsomething the U.S. criminal justice system cares about.
Life Lessons for Us All
Sure, Rhidale spent his early years behind bars proving he was no pushover. “I trained myself to be automatically dangerous,” he explains. “I worked out all the time. To stay physically fit, fast, and explosive, I made myself a weapon.” But finally one day after a decadein prison, Rhidale realized his anger and his steel exterior as a human weapon were leading him to a slow death.
“I began to realize that I have to answer for my actions. I have to answer to God. Learning how to forgive was also crucial,” Rhidale explains. “I had to learn how to allow myself to be forgiven for my actions too.”
In 2010, Rhidale encountered another epiphany: “I had to stop making excuses,” Rhidale shares. “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I really doing everything possible to get home? Am I really doing all that I can to be the most that I can, to be all that I am capable of being?’” I couldn’t lie to myself. I knew I wasn’t doing everything possible. Instead, I was just giving lip service to what I wanted.”
Rhidale’s words pack a plethora of life lessons for all of us.
- Step up and answer for your actions.
- Realize you ultimately answer to God.
- Learn how to forgive others.
- Learn how to forgive yourself.
- Stop making excuses.
Not Defined By Life Situations
For the past decade, Rhidale has reinvented himself and poured himself into creating and directing a program to transform gang member prisoners into more caring and productive men.
“I’m showing people it doesn’t matter what your situation is. You don’t have to be defined by your situation. You can create your own circumstances,” Rhidale says. “I’m trying to leave a legacy of love, caring, and kindness as much as possible. I am not Gandhi or a saint or anything, but I’m making good choices, and I’m staying occupied with things that actually matter and that make a difference.”
With all the pardons and clemencies occurring across the country, especially for crimes men and women committed in their teens and early 20s, Rhidale has been on the short list for getting his sentence reduced. Some day. One day.
Rhidale believes he will be freed to live outside in the world again. I believe he will too. For now, he is grateful to be free on the inside of his mind and heart. And that’s an invaluable life lesson for all of us.