A Powerful Story of Transformation!
Hello everyone. My name is Christopher Lehigh. I was born and raised in Hanover, Pennsylvania, here in York County by a right-winged, religious, well-to-do family. I grew up in private school and was told the sky was the limit. Any education or career venture would be taken care of and supported by my family. So, there you have it. My life was picture perfect on the outside, but on the inside, I was angry and frustrated with the life I was living, and I was a time-bomb waiting to go off. The explosion happened quickly, and I made some negative choices that ultimately resulted in my expulsion from private school at the age of 15. I then transitioned into public school and I didn’t hold back with my poor decisions. As a young teen, I indulged in every drug, drink, and woman that I could get my hands on.
I progressed rapidly into selling drugs, using drugs consistently, skipping school, and promoting failure to anyone that I could negatively influence. The life continued throughout my high school career and developed, after high school, into me committing serious crimes for the next five years of my life. During that time, I engaged in helping run drug rings, organizing burglaries and robberies and heavily influencing others to do the same. After five years, the local police began to catch on to me and that resulted in 13 years of my life coming and going from prison. Many men, when incarcerated, are ashamed of addiction and crime, however, I was the extreme opposite. I went from prison cell to prison cell preaching an evil message. I told my fellow inmates to stop trying to change for the better and instead embrace their addiction, embrace their criminal lifestyle, and do it to the best of their ability.
In total, I did time in five Pennsylvania penitentiaries: Somerset, Manahoy, Chester, Camp Hill, and Coal Township. While serving time in state prisons, I did not have consistent financial stability. My family did not send me money on a regular basis. At this point in my life, I was feeling the pain of my choices and losing everything to my lengthy prison sentences. I knew I needed to occupy my time with something, so instead of using my time to change my life in a positive, productive way; I decided to pledge my life to everything that promotes evil. I would recruit new inmates to workout with me and I would tell them to learn to love pain so nothing could hurt them. I would preach against God by twisting scriptures from the Bible to support my cause. Out of ten years I spent in state prison, at least 8 of the ten years I had a serious drug habit. I also played a large role in bringing drugs into the prisons and distributing them, which made me valuable to almost all of the prison gangs. I played a hand in running prison stores, gambling rings, loan sharking, and collections. The worse, the better and I loved it. I actually convinced myself that everything in this world was corrupt.
Eighteen months ago I was in my prison cell at Coal Township. I had a heavy drug habit and I was waist deep in crime, mostly running drugs and gambling tickets for a few friends of mine that were Latin Kings. They made sure I never went without anything if I put the work in for them. As messed up as it sounds, I was comfortable in my ways. Then it happened. I don’t know what it was. Was it God? I don’t know. I don’t believe I’m important enough to have a Divine intervention, but it happened. I woke up in my cell and for the first time in years, I could feel. It scared me to death. I could feel that I had a heart and I sat in my cell all day and reflected on my life. I cried over and over again. I felt huge waves of regret and remorse.
I saw the chaos of my so-called comfortable prison life and I saw the suffering and pain that I had so willingly distributed to any and every one that had contact with me during my existence on this earth. I thought I had done too much to surrender. I thought had gone too far, but I knew I had strength and energy and I thought to myself “What if I tried to live right and just do the next right thing every day?” I spent the next few months struggling with this new heart that I now had. So, I struggled with the drugs, and I struggled with my ties to crime in prison. None of it came easy, but I got through it. I started doing programs and avoiding most inmates. I would walk the prison yard alone. I would work out alone and I started journaling and reading. I began to think of a future outside of prison, crime, and drugs. The more I thought about these things, the more I could feel and I liked the feeling. I had worked so hard all my life to eliminate feeling, when in reality, feeling is the exact thing that lets you know you’re needed. You’re needed to give back. I had taken so much. If I could give back, I knew that would mean redemption for me.
When an inmate is paroled from prison with good intentions, he or she is not prepared for all the obstacles that lie in his or her way, and he can easily be deterred and resort back to what they know. That is why the revolving door is constantly revolving. The constantly revolving door is exactly why you need this re-entry committee. There were so many opportunities made known to me through the re-entry committee’s program and outreach. I applied for job training through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and I am currently waiting on a grant to start a Commercial Driver’s License Training. I will finally have more than just a job; I will have a career. The re-entry board helps people obtain jobs, food, transportation needs, and much more. It gives men and women in the trenches a chance to climb out. They promote hope for the broken and restless. If I wasn’t influenced by and involved in this program, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you fine people today.
I have compiled a list of challenges and boundaries that ex con’s face when they’re attempting to re-enter society.
· An inmate trying to re-enter the working world, who has good intentions, will take any job to try to prove themselves. Most jobs that are offered to us, because of our records, are jobs that take advantage of us. The conditions consist of (and aren’t limited to) mandatory 70-80 hour work weeks, low wages, no insurance, and cutting us loose just before hiring us on permanently.
·A lot of us do not know how to communicate to parole officers, counselors, and bosses that we are spread too thin and can’t make the arrangements to be in two or three required locations at one time.
·Many ex-cons struggle with appropriate and healthy communication and relationships with the people in their lives due to lack of immediate access to mental health counseling.
·Transportation is a huge barrier to overcome when ex- cons are initially released. Not having a source of transportation makes it nearly impossible to fulfill all your parole responsibilities.
·A lot of newly released inmates end up in halfway houses. When you put 30-50 parolees in a house together, knowing they are career criminals, the proximity, lack of structure, and power they now have without any repercussions, breeds more crime.
Before I end, I want to say I can speak about all of this with confidence because I’ve lived in this chaos over and over. No one can teach you this life, you must live it. There is no “normal” life, there is just life. The life I lived was self-inflicted. None of it was due to circumstance. I accept full responsibility for my actions and I’m ready to help, not hurt.