I Am Too Important to Fail

By Jonathan Roach

Jonathan Roach was a youth offender featured in "Tavis Smiley Reports: Too Important to Fail."

Everything happens for a reason. My main goal is to succeed by learning from everything that I am exposed to. I once heard a man say, “Prison and college are two of the best places for a man to gain knowledge and build character.” I disagree because I am against prison and what it stands for. However, with the right mindset and a correct attitude, I believe a person can become very knowledgeable in prison. Many people believe that prison can build boys into solid men, and it can create and develop leaders. In reality, it is the person inside prison who does all of the above.

To the public, the ultimate objective of prison is to correct a man’s thinking, to let him pay his debt to society and be rehabilitated. Unfortunately, prison is everything but corrections and rehabilitation. In my opinion, prison is all about money; so if it was established in the name of the almighty dollar, how could it be about rehabilitation? It reflects the root of American culture: the belief that money is power. I don’t believe it is far-fetched to say that prison is a money-making industry.

Writing this gives me a chance to clear rumors about prison. Prison is what you make it. It is all in your mindset, which manifests itself into a reality. If you decide to strive and obtain freedom, you’ll be free.

In a way, prison can be equated to life on the outs: it’s all about the decision you make.

I learned a lot while being incarcerated. For example, some people who are physically imprisoned can obtain mental freedom, while some who are physically free can be mentally imprisoned. Being a prisoner of your own mind can be heart-wrenching and detrimental to your physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health. Mental imprisonment is the worst kind. Where I’m from, most people are mentally imprisoned, which stems from the addiction to the street lifestyle, or “death style,” if you will. I was raised in Oakland, CA, where more teenagers drop out of high school than graduate.

When you first get to prison, they throw you a party, as if being there is some sort of celebration. This is normal. No one really trips off of how messed up it is to have a celebration for coming to prison, but, at the time, it is comforting. In a warped sense, coming to prison in the “death style” is cause for celebration because it’s considered a good thing. It means you earned your stripes, your rite of passage.

Prison is a revolving door, which will continue to be that way until we realize we have to change our thinking and lifestyles in order to succeed. We have to stop the cycle of incarceration and break free mentally to maintain our freedom. The answer starts with me. It starts by first developing a plan, speaking out and making people aware of what is going on.

I feel as though I have fared pretty well since the last time I spoke to Tavis. I have grown mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally. I didn’t take any additional college courses or receive credits while I was in prison. That does not mean that I lack knowledge when it comes to education and life. One thing people spend their whole life trying to do is figure out their purpose.  Through learning, experience and a whole lot of observation, I am thankful to say that I have been blessed with a vast understanding of my life, of who I am as a maturing young man and the role I play in society. I am too important to fail. I strive to simplify, solidify and crystallize my understanding and perception of my life.

I am determined to succeed as a man, as a father, as a student, as a leader and as a person who gained his freedom. The promise of an educational opportunity for me to attend college while in prison was sidelined because I lacked time, which made me ineligible.

My roads home led me from Alameda County Juvenile Hall to Alameda County Jail-Santa Rita, San Quentin State Prison (Reception Center), High Desert State Prison (first mainline), California Correction Center (second mainline), Duel Vocational Institution (overflow) and San Quentin State Prison (third mainline).

The three words I can connect with my prison college experience are: bureaucracy, classification and override. “Bureaucracy” because nothing got done that was supposed to get done. No one did what he or she said they would do. “Classification” because I was misclassified and sent to High Desert State Prison, a level-4 maximum-security prison. And “override” because, although I requested to be transferred back to San Quentin in order to attend the prison college program, I was denied twice before I was transferred. At that point, I was not eligible to enroll.

Where am I now? I am working on enrolling in school for the spring 2013 semester. This is the beginning of my path to obtain my doctorate degree. That is my long-term goal, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. My short-term goals are getting my driver’s license and reconnecting with my daughter and family. I know before anything becomes something, it begins with a thought and manifests itself into something tangible. I am on my way to success. All of this is to say that I have my mind set on success and nothing short of death will stop me.

I would love to take this time to thank all the people for helping, pushing, supporting me in some way, shape or form: Bonnie Lacy, David Muhammad, Dr. Siri Briggs-Brown, Mona Hall, Lonnie Morris, Arnold Perkins, Gloria Sawiris, Kisasi Brooks, Ruben Lizardo, Wendi Chavis and, of course, Tavis Smiley. All these people have played an important role in my life, whether they know it or not. They are part of the reason I am where I am.

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.
– Frederick Douglass


Jonathan Roach was featured in the previous installment of Tavis Smiley Reports: “Too Important to Fail.” He was a youth offender in California’s Alameda County and pursued a degree while being incarcerated.

Last modified: March 7, 2013 at 1:30 am
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