Prison to Promise: A Conversation with Dr. Craig Waleed (Part 1)

Q&A   25 November 2020
By Dr. Craig Waleed

 

I came to realize that I’m that which thinks, that which feels, that which behaves, and that which is aware more than anything else.

Dr. Craig Waleed
Educator, Counselor, Motivational Speaker, and Author

This is part one of a two-part conversation with Dr. Craig Waleed, author of Prison to Promise: A Chronicle of Healing and Transformation. At 19 years old, Dr. Waleed was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison, where he began a personal transformation journey that led him to earning a master’s in mental health counseling and a doctorate in executive leadership. Today, he remains focused on empowering others like him to shape a more hopeful future of their choosing. We are honored to share his story.


Q: As a young person, what was the lens through which you viewed the world and what role did education play in shaping that lens?

Dr. Waleed: The etymology of education, which comes from the Latin word educare, immediately comes to mind. It means to bring out that which is latent. Education is about helping people become the best version of themselves by tapping into their own impulses, natural talents, and interests. Regarding my own education, that word feels like a misnomer. The training I received in school did little to help me recognize and appreciate my potential.

Consider a circus or a zoo, where animals are trained to do unnatural behaviors. Now, imagine releasing that well-trained animal back into its natural habitat; it probably wouldn’t survive simply because it is mis-educated. 

Oftentimes, in our schools and institutions of higher learning, we’re not preparing students for the real world or for how to recognize and follow their own path. Students today are not being educated in a way that’s true to Education Reimagined’s vision of helping people recognize what they’re good at, what they’re interested in, and who they are or want to become. 

Growing up, I had a misunderstanding about who I was or what it meant to be a Black man coming of age in the world. I was influenced by the false images perpetuated by the media, by the events in my neighborhood, and even by some of my family members. I learned to value being conniving, fighting or navigating violence, glorifying liquor and drugs, engaging in promiscuous sex, and neglecting your children.

Q: Did you have access to a network of support growing up?

Dr. Waleed: I come from a working class, very religious family. My mom, as a single parent, did her best to raise me. I was also raised, in part, by my older sister and my aunt and her husband—who were clergy members. I was mostly exposed to really good people, including strong male role models, like my two older brothers who went on to college and earned Bachelor’s degrees, and an uncle who was a practicing lawyer. 

Q: Why do you think this network of support and your family’s positive influence weren’t enough?

Dr. Waleed: I had a limited worldview. The false and sensational narratives about Black boys and men that, even today, people are drawn towards had a stronger pull on my attention. I had a lot more exposure to the negative aspects of the so-called Black experience that were normalized long before you and I arrived on this earth. I thought that certain beliefs and behaviors would get me respect. I didn’t understand that I was causing harm to myself and others. 

I could trace this worldview back to my childhood. Between the ages of two and five years old, I was exposed to all types of abuses: sexual abuse, verbal abuse, and abandonment, among others. I really didn’t understand how these negative experiences subconsciously informed my behaviors until I was much older, which culminated in me committing a very violent crime. 

I still remember it clearly. I was 19 years old when I got into a fight and stabbed multiple people. I was ultimately charged with attempted murder and assault and sentenced to four to 12 years in New York State’s prison system. Up until that point, I thought that’s who I was supposed to be. But, once I got inside that prison cell, things changed. I started to feel despondent, depressed, and violated. I was frequently subjected to strip-searches, which does a lot to break you down as a human. It was a nightmare.

Q: Can you elaborate on the experience of being broken down and how you built yourself back up?

Dr. Waleed: No one ever described prison as a series of dehumanizing processes. The older guys (the “big homies”) in my neighborhood would glorify going to jail and having run-ins with the police. I bought into the idea that striving toward that would make me an authentic Black man. 

I remember around the age of 11 being told by some of the older people that cared for me that my path would eventually lead me to a detention center, and so, that became a twisted subconscious desire of mine. But, once I found myself in that prison cell, I started to understand my losses and feel the pain of being trapped. 

I started to investigate what led me there. How did I really end up here? Why did I believe that getting here was so important? I quickly realized it wasn’t where I wanted to be. My subconscious was telling me, “You’re here because of how you’ve been thinking and what you’ve been thinking, but it’s your thinking that also can get you out of here.”

I wasn’t really sure what that meant in the moment, but I eventually came to understand that we are our thoughts. How we think dictates what we do and what we internalize. There’s a passage from one of the holy books that encourages people to guard their ears and eyes against what they see and hear because those things shape their cognitive processes.

 

Black people are much more than what the criminal system has conditioned us and the world to see and think of us as. I was able to disrupt this thinking when I began to see myself as an intellectual and emotional being.

Dr. Craig Waleed
Educator, Counselor, Motivational Speaker, and Author

During the seven years and 10 months I served in prison, I really started to understand the power our minds have over our conduct. I spent a lot of time escaping into the pages of books, writing, and interpreting. I think these exercises trained my brain in the same way that a farmer might plow the ground before they lay seeds. And, I was especially drawn to stories about other Black people who had made it through struggles and created triumph out of their tragedy. 

I read a lot about Antiquated Africa. I learned that out of Africa arose the first civilization of people who did a lot to advance humanity long before there was any written history. Absorbing this information inspired me to start thinking differently about who I was, and who I wanted to be. 

This shift in my thinking motivated me to begin pursuing something else. I began to change my thoughts and behavior, including how I engaged with other people in prison. I started paying closer attention to my actions. I cried out to the universe, which helped me reveal my true self. I saw myself as a deep ocean. 

If you can imagine what people do when they go to the ocean: some stand on the shore and allow their feet to get wet; some people wade out into the water until it reaches their chest to really become familiar with the ocean; and, some people get on a boat and really go out there and might even choose to dive in searching for treasures. That last one was me. I traveled out on a boat into the ocean of myself, dove into the depths, and began looking for treasures. 

I came to realize that I’m that which thinks, that which feels, that which behaves, and that which is aware more than anything else. And, I continued to work on trying my best to reshape the way I perceived the world and myself. In doing that, I decided I wanted to spread kindness, love, and guidance to anyone I came into contact with. 

Q: When did you know you wanted to pursue education as a career?

Dr. Waleed: Before I was released, I enrolled in the Consortium of the Niagara Frontier (an initiative put together by Canisius College, Daemen College, and Niagara University) and ultimately earned an Associates of Arts degree. While going through that program, I also started working as a teacher’s aid in the prison’s general education program where I helped men learn basic education and study for the GED. This experience gave me the idea to pursue higher education post-incarceration and become a teacher. 

That was where I began to recognize my own potential. The professors who came into the prison became my heroes and really inspired me. I came to see the school building as holy ground within the hell of prison and the professors as spiritual leaders. Going through the academic processes and the rigors of reading, researching, analyzing, and interpreting helped me broaden my thinking about my own potential and the world. 

I always thought that the world was a hostile, vicious, and violent place. And in many regards, it can be. But, how I interpret things has a lot to do with how I conduct myself and engage with the world around me, so I began to look for the bright spots in the world, rather than be transfixed on what could go wrong. Through that lens, I saw an opportunity to go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree. Like the professors I admired, I wanted to be an intellectual.

By 1999—two years after my release in 1997—I had enrolled in the State University of New York (SUNY) Brockport College to complete a four-year degree in Health Science with a concentration in Substance Abuse Counseling. I chose that path because drugs and alcohol greatly contributed to me, and others like me, going to prison and is often what keeps many people in prison. I really wanted to help others break the cycle.

Q: It sounds like you had decided on a new path, but where did you go next, and what were the inflection points that continued to shape your journey?

Dr. Waleed: I eventually became a substance abuse counselor. The interesting juxtaposition was that, as part of my reintegration back into the community, I was required to undergo substance abuse and mental health treatment. So, after completing my degree, I ended up getting an internship, and eventually hired, at the very place where I received treatment. Even more ironic, I was given the same office where I met with my Substance Abuse Counselor during my mandated treatment.

After five years of working as a substance abuse counselor for men and women coming out of jail, I left to become a re-entry case manager, connecting returning citizens to resources. Yet, I still had this thirst for knowledge from the seeds that were planted in my head by one of my college professors, who I worked with researching cigarette smoking cessation. Her exact words were, “You know, we got to get you into grad school,” but at the time, I just wanted a bachelor’s degree. And honestly, I had no idea what graduate school was.

Funnily enough, I ended up enrolling in Brockport College’s Mental Health Counseling program to earn a Master’s degree. Once I graduated in 2010, I became an adjunct teacher at a junior college, the Institute of Technology in my hometown of Rochester, NY, and at Brockport College, while still working as a re-entry case manager. 

Yet, I still wanted more. I wanted to teach more and continue helping people. This inspired me to write a thesis focused on the perception of community support for people who are integrating back into society after prison. And, I particularly wanted to illuminate the negative social impact the legal system continues to have on a person, even after they have served their time and paid their debt to society.  

This thread continued when I enrolled in an accelerated doctorate program in 2015 with a focus on Executive Leadership. My dissertation focused on returning citizens. I investigated the impact of emotional intelligence on formerly incarcerated persons’ ability to avoid recidivism.

I believe higher education, vocational education, or any sort of relevant training that contrasts the environment that brought people to prison has the power to lead them to see the world and themselves differently—well beyond the harmful stereotypes the world reflects back about Black people—and make different choices. 

Black people are much more than what the criminal system has conditioned us and the world to see and think of us as. I was able to disrupt this thinking when I began to see myself as an intellectual and emotional being. To this day, I continue to help people understand the relationship between their thinking, behavior, and emotions.

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