If you passed me on the street, you wouldn’t assume I was an ex-convict. In fact, once people get to know me, and find out I spent almost six years in prison, they are shocked. I often hear “you don’t look like someone who has been to prison!” In many ways, that’s reassuring, but begs the question, “what do people who have been to prison generally look like?”

I was 17 years old when my involvement in a homicide resulted in a 5-to-20-year prison sentence. I remember acutely being a new inmate in March of 1992 and walking down what we called the cattle chute. The yard was on the left and a crowd of inmates were heading back to their cells. I looked up at the three-story high cell houses and thought to myself “this is it, bottom of the barrel.”

It was in that moment that a slow fire began to burn and I vowed then and there to do whatever was necessary to change myself and to make sure upon release I would never return. I finished my GED, took college courses, completed drug and alcohol treatment and continued with 12-Step meetings. I received certificates in welding, and tried to take advantage of every self-help program or group available.

It was through an organization called Reaching Out from Within (ROFW) that I truly emerged from the protective shell I had created. ROFW helped me begin the deep, introspective search necessary to understand why I had done the things I had done and what I still needed to do to change. This organization also helped to connect me with other inmates who were on a similar path.

The welding training led to a job while I was still in prison and after my release I continued working as a welder, attending 12-Step meetings, and keeping my nose clean. I spent two years on parole before being released. In July of 2011, I was able to get my record expunged.

My goal of giving back came to fruition in November of that same year when I was permitted to return to prison, no longer as an inmate but, rather, as a volunteer and mentor.

Looking back with the benefit of time, I realize that not everyone has the same experiences in prison and the results aren’t always as positive for others as they were for me, and we need to ask the tough question, “why?”

Why does our system work better for some than for others?  Why are opportunities more plentiful for people like me who looked like me, a typical white kid from the suburbs? Why are opportunities so scant for others?

Don’t get me wrong. I am appreciative of the doors that were opened and of the people who looked out for me. This is why I am compelled to give back. Today, I am the board vice president of Reaching Out From Within, the organization that changed my life.

But until the system works this well for everyone, all of us, myself included, have a lot of work to do.

Jason Miles, Vice President, Board of Directors of Reaching Out From Within