The Write Way

Dur­ing my jail sen­tence, I signed up for any­thing I could to make the hours go faster, in­clud­ing a lit­er­acy pro­gram for in­mates. What I learned there changed my life.

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - STEVEN RICHARDS FROM TORONTO LIFE

Dur­ing my jail sen­tence, I signed up for any­thing I could, in­clud­ing a lit­er­acy pro­gram for in­mates. What I learned there changed my life.

As a kid, I had a hard time read­ing and writ­ing. Let­ters and num­bers looked backwards to me, and I was al­ways falling be­hind my class­mates. I was of­fi­cially di­ag­nosed as dyslexic when I was eight. It was hu­mil­i­at­ing. In el­e­men­tary school the other stu­dents made cracks and only stopped when I roughed up a kid who was mock­ing me. The sum­mer af­ter Grade 9, I took a part-time job work­ing for my dad as a tire tech­ni­cian. I was mak­ing $150 a day—a for­tune for a teenager. When I was of­fered a full-time po­si­tion, I didn’t think twice about ac­cept­ing it. At 16, I dropped out of school.

Life was pretty good for the next few years. I started my own com­pany, MS Tires, and be­came a fa­ther in 2011. But then an evening out changed the course of my life com­pletely. I was at a club in down­town Toronto with a buddy. As we were leav­ing, my friend de­cided to re­lieve him­self on a stair­case that led to an un­der­ground park­ing garage. A se­cu­rity guard in­ter­vened, and the sit­u­a­tion es­ca­lated. The next thing I knew, my friend was at the bot­tom of the stairs and I was on top of the guard, punch­ing him in the jaw.

My life con­tin­ued to move for­ward at first. In 2013, while I was out on bail, my wife Chantel and I pur­chased our first house, in Bramp­ton, Ont., and in 2015, she got preg­nant.

Then, one night at around 11 p.m., I ac­ci­den­tally hit a woman with my car. It was dark and rainy. I had tried to make a left-hand turn and didn’t see her cross­ing the street. I pan­icked and fled, then turned my­self in a few hours later. That night, I found out she had died. I raised $11,000 to­ward the fu­neral costs us­ing a Go­FundMe page, but I was con­sumed with guilt. Two months af­ter the ac­ci­dent, I was sen­tenced to 12 months at Toronto East De­ten­tion Cen­tre for the as­sault, plus an­other five for leav­ing the scene of the car ac­ci­dent. My fam­ily came to my sen­tenc­ing, in­clud­ing my preg­nant wife and my five-year-old son. I wasn’t al­lowed to hug ei­ther of them good­bye.

FOR THE FIRST two months of my sen­tence, my unit was con­stantly on lock­down, and I was stuck in my cell for 23 hours a day, seven days a week. I was only al­lowed out to shower and to jockey for the phone with my fel­low in­mates. Even­tu­ally, I was as­signed a job in the prison’s kitchen, where I worked ev­ery day from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. cook­ing for the other in­mates. The rest of the time, I enrolled in any­thing I could—Bible stud­ies, a harm-re­duc­tion course—to make the hours go faster. One day, a cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer told me about Lit­eral Change, a non-profit lit­er­acy pro­gram for in­mates. She had seen some of the let­ters I had writ­ten to friends and

fam­ily, and thought I would ben­e­fit from it. I de­cided to give it a try. For me, it was just an­other way to pass the time.

I met with Robyn, a pro­gram co­founder, one-on-one twice a week. At first, the les­sons were chal­leng­ing. For so long I had re­lied on my phone and com­put­ers to cor­rect my spelling. Sud­denly I had to think for my­self. Ev­ery ses­sion, Robyn would teach me 10 new vo­cab­u­lary words, which I would learn to spell and use in sen­tences. We went over ev­ery­thing, from long and short vowel sounds to parts of speech. She al­ways gave me home­work—read­ing as­sign­ments, short sto­ries to write, vo­cab­u­lary words to use in po­ems—and I would start on it as soon as I was back in my cell. Within weeks, I was look­ing for­ward to my les­sons. The pro­gram was an op­por­tu­nity to work with some­one who be­lieved in me—some­one who wanted to help.

Not long into the pro­gram, I could spot mis­takes other in­mates were mak­ing in their let­ters home. When I re­ceived notes from my fam­ily, I could pick out which words had been spelled in­cor­rectly or where punc­tu­a­tion had been used in the wrong places. Some­times I thought about send­ing them back with cor­rec­tions, and that’s when I re­al­ized I was learn­ing some­thing. When I had free time, I used my new skills to write let­ters to my son and po­ems to my wife. She saved them all, put­ting each one in a pro­tec­tive plas­tic cover. Look­ing at them now, from the first one I wrote to the last, I can track the vis­i­ble im­prove­ment in my writ­ing. It’s un­be­liev­able.

I con­tin­ued work­ing with Robyn right up to the end of my sen­tence— I served 12 months, hav­ing had my sen­tence re­duced for good be­hav­iour. Robyn and I are still in touch; I’d like to get my GED, and she’s push­ing me to earn my last six high-school cred­its. Be­fore I went to prison, my wife used to do all of my pa­per­work for my com­pany; now I man­age it my­self. And if it weren’t for Lit­eral Change, I’d still be read­ing just to get by—not to bet­ter my­self and def­i­nitely not for fun. Th­ese days, when I pick up a book, I find it hard to put it down. I love Tony Rob­bins, and I’m cur­rently read­ing Confessions of an Eco­nomic Hit Man by John Perkins.

My daugh­ter is still a tod­dler, but my son is seven, so he’s learn­ing how to read. And just like his dad, he’s hav­ing a hard time. A year ago, I would have been frus­trated that I couldn’t give him the help he needs— who wants to ad­mit to his own child that he can barely read? But it’s so much eas­ier now. I’ve been do­ing the same ex­er­cises with him that I learned while I was in prison. Now, it’s my turn to be the teacher.

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