Note: Tom Odle is a regular speaker for the TRAC (Taking Responsibility And Changing) program at Dixon Correctional Center in Illinois. The TRAC Program takes place immediately following orientation at a parent facility. This program is designed to help offenders focus on their goals and enter productive programming while incarcerated which will enhance their opportunity reenter society successfully. The program consists of 15 hours of introductory instruction on topics such as criminality, substance abuse, behavior modification, relationships and family strengthening, employment, education, health & wellness and goal setting.
As someone doing a natural life sentence, and having come from under the sentence of death, which was issued to me at the age of 19, like some rite of passage, I have grown up in prison and seen, experienced and done things most people only see in nightmares. Giving such a young person the sentence of death allows them to no longer care about consequences at their actions because any punishment that could be given fails in compassion to already having a death sentence.
That is what happened to me – nothing that could be done to me could be worse or supersede the death sentence so off I went into the arena of prison life a boy among men ready to make the men stand back and take notice of the boy with nothing to lose and ready to prove it.
Coming to prison left me with only one family member who gave me any thought after the circus atmosphere of the media died down and I was shuffled off to be executed and that was my maternal grandmother. Everyone else had written me off except her. She was an old woman experiencing not only prison for the first time, but coming to see her grandson who was now considered among the State of Illinois worst human beings, deserving of having his life forfeited. She would endure the humiliating searches before being allowed to come and see me, hear the remarks from staff questioning why she was wasting her time with me, but never once was she deterred from going through any of it because no matter who I was to the State of Illinois, I was her baby boy.
I often had to visit behind glass, chained up like an animal because I was in segregation most of the time for one thing or other, fighting, weapons, drinking, drugs. She never really complained about it and tried to understand that this was prison and there were things one had to do to survive until she just got tired of it and told me that something had to give, either my behavior or her visits. Of course, I promised to change because she was my granny, and all I had, but once out of segregation, I was back on my terror train and in segregation again.
Shortly after this, I was on a visit and saw a guy I had recently fought with and he was pretty messed up – cuts, swollen face, and bruises – but what humbled me most was how his kids and wife were crying because of how he looked. I felt so bad for having done that to this guy. I disrupted time with his family that was so precious, and why? He owed me $ 5? Bumped into me in line? I can’t remember any longer. What I do remember those kids crying and how I ruined that family visit.
That was when I decided I had to change my ways and I began reading books, self-help books, college books, painting, anything to help myself become a better person and even though I am not a religious man, I came to believe in karma. Because I was doing good things, good people began to come into my life and many are still here after many years and it continues even now, and I feel so blessed by these people. I was finally able to stay out of segregation and hug my granny. Looking back I feel foolish for doing all that I did to stay in segregation because I missed out on so many hugs from my granny and she is no longer with me to give them.
I was taken off Death Row in January 10, 2003 after about 18 years of waiting to be executed. I hit population with a different attitude than I had when I entered Death Row and I took full advantage of all the programs that the Department of Corrections had to offer.
Because my behavior was very good I was able to get moved to a facility where there were many programs and because I was doing a life sentence, the administration helped me get involved in everything positive available. I enrolled in college. As a kid in school, I would always make it by with a “C” which was okay for me, but on my first college exam I failed which was woke me up and I never failed an exam ever again. I figured if I was going to do this, I was going to give it my all and I did. I graduated Lincoln Trail College with an Associate degree in General Studies with Honors. I spoke at the graduation, having graduated top of my class, the first commuted Death Row inmate to receive a college degree. I have attended Anger Management, was in the art program that painted murals in the facility, worked a job, and was able to get to a better facility where I am able to move around less restricted, and feel less stress about everything revolving around doing time. My granny has been gone for a while now, but not before she knew I graduated college. I have plenty of college credits and enough for another degree in Arts, which has left me with having taken most every class offered.
I took a course called Lifestyle Redirection, which is based on changing your way of thinking and helping you cope with issues that may be troubling you. I am always looking to better myself and always get involved with these programs. I now participate in a TRAC program, where I speak to people coming in to prison and tell them basically what I have written to help them see there is another way to do things. When I close out my presentation I tell them that we are all somebody – a parent, a brother, an uncle, grandson, and we need to get out and be that somebody. I feel that with each passing day, I come closer to being the person I’m meant to be and that is a great feeling.
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