Parolee: Life passes you by when you're in prison
Standing in front of a crowd of Churchill Junior High School students Friday afternoon, parolee Brian Oates relayed to them how his life of crime began with stealing a toy truck from Kmart in 1982.
“We didn’t have Wal-Mart in those days,” he said. “I never got into drugs. My drug of choice was adrenaline.” Oates admitted that he was a truth-or-dare junkie, but “I took truth out of it; everybody just dared me.”
Oates was one of three convicts accompanying motivational speaker Carl Cannon of Peoria to his second speech aimed at keeping kids out of prison. Students at Churchill have heard one of the ex-prison guard’s presentations before, something he does all across Central Illinois.
The child of a military family told of a time when “a so-called friend” asked him to help break brand new windows at a school in Germany, except “‘we’ didn’t do anything; the dumb one did it. Brian did it.
“I got kicked out of a whole country, guys,” he said as he shook his head, remembering a time when his father had to choose between leaving Germany or leaving the military thanks to his son’s actions. But even getting booted from part of Western Europe didn’t discourage him from the path of crime.
Several years later, after graduating from high school, Oates’ friends decided to begin stealing cars, wanting to take them to a chop shop in Atlanta to sell for parts.
“I never saw any money. All I saw was cars,” he explained. “They weren’t daring me to get paid; they just dared me to get cars.”
The parolee then related how he suddenly decided to stop his life of crime, thinking he was going to take a trip to see his sister and brother-in-law in Kansas. His brother-in-law was a police officer and, he thought, could help get him out of the mess in which he found himself.
In order to make the trek from Alabama to Kansas, crossing several states, he had to steal a car.
“Let me clean this up,” Cannon broke in suddenly, leaving Oates silent behind him. “What he’s not telling you is that that brother-in-law was me.”
When Cannon, a correctional officer, looked inside the car, he noticed there were no keys in the ignition. So, he ran the license plates and determined it was stolen. His brother-in-law’s decision to seek his help would land the man in jail for a third, and hopefully final, time.
“This isn’t just for you,” Cannon said of the assembly. “I wanted them (the convicts) to see you because I wanted them to believe they can make a difference. Cops and robbers working together to help you.”
If there’s one thing Oates wanted the students to take away with them, it’s the fact that, when you’re in prison, the world passes you by. He remembers hearing about the start of the Gulf War from inside prison.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was awoken by fellow inmates after a late-night shift in the prison kitchen who told him something happened with the military.
“Everybody’s out in the world doing whatever they do,” Oates told the students of those defining historical moments, “and I’m locked up.”
Michelle Anstett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.