BIGGER THAN ME by Richard Roy

Prison is an incredibly negative environment that perpetuates hatred, segregation and all manner of evil.  It is a personal goal of mine to engage this mindset in combat at every opportunity.  Only time and others can judge my success.

I gave this speech for my benefit in completing another goal as a Toastmaster while using it to recruit others to my case.  I hope it inspires you as well.

Bigger than me

By Richard Roy


A grandfather and grandchild were walking the beach at low tide.  Stranded starfish lay along the shore, dying in the morning sun as far as the eye could see.  The little girl ran from one to another, stopping just long enough to stoop, pick it up and fling the starfish into the surf.  The grandfather asked, “Child, what are you doing?”  “I’m saving the pretty starfish gramps.”  “You can’t possibly save them all,” he pointed out.  Stooping to pick up another, she pitched it to the sea before replying, “No, but I made a difference to that one.”

Today is the day for an uprising, a revolt, the day to buck the system, today we change the very fabric of the culture of FCI Oakdale.  From this day forward, those who wish to espouse a doctrine of hate are no longer acceptable.  Today we make a difference.

Man is not inherently good.

This statement is contrary to what we want to believe.  We are told by media, ministers, motivational speakers and mama that deep inside each of us we want to the right thing.  This concept is so ingrained into our society that we assume it is common knowledge.  So why are our prisons full and growing daily?  If humans are inherently good, why we are so surprised, inspired even, by such a basic idea as Oprah Winfrey’s “random acts of kindness?”

I submit as evidence of man’s base instinct – the man sitting next to you.  That man, when left to his own devices, took the low road.  When he was unsupervised his mind wandered.  When darkness fell, he used it to his advantage.  When technology advanced, he perverted it.  When others craved to feed an addiction, he filled it.

But, you may say, these are learned behaviors.  Really?  Who taught the toddler to say, “I dunno,” when mom asks, “who broke the vase?”  How does the youngest of our offspring know to assign blame to anyone other than himself when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary?  Why is bullying rampant in our schools?

Think Bigger Than Yourself

With all this self-centeredness built into our nature, we must work at thinking bigger than ourselves.  Most parents are able to encompass their children in their circle of caring without too much effort.  Beyond that, though, requires work.

Deep thinkers have recognized the need for “looking out” for thousands of years.  But the concept often makes us uncomfortable.  Take, for instance, the “Golden Rule:” Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  In the seventies we saw the bumper sticker:  Do unto others, then split.  Another cynical aspect is:  He who has the Gold, Rules.

The following, philosophies embrace the golden rule.

Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Paul the apostle wrote, “And do not forget to do good and share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”

Sacrifice?  Doing good is so hard for humans that the most prolific writer in the New Testament calls it a sacrifice?  And don’t forget?  We have to tie a string around our finger just to remember to do something good for someone else?

In Buddhism, the Law of Karma states, “If you do good, good will return to you.”

The prophet Mohammad taught, “What I want for myself is what I want for my brother.”

The Roman statesman Seneca said, “This is the law of benefits between men; the one ought to forget at once what he has given, and the other ought never to forget what he has received.

These great thinkers believe it a basic necessity of life to think bigger than ourselves.  To do any less, mankind threatens to hate itself out of existence.

The second law of thermodynamics states that order slides into disorder.  The human equivalent is a teenager’s bedroom.  The parent picks things up, washes clothes, organizes the closet and makes the bed.  Within moments of the teen entering this ordered space, chaos descends.  It is only with the application of energy – parent, teen, maid – that order is reestablished.

In our personal lives, the application of energy is required to restore harmony between people.

Accept responsibility for your own life

In the book Good to Great the author interviews the owner of a highly successful manufacturing company.  The author wants to know what sets this operation apart from the competition.  The owner points to the wall overlooking the manufacturing floor.

“See that glass in the wall?  When things are good:  Profits up, expenses down, quality exceptional, that glass is a window.  The credit belongs to the people doing the work.  I never forget they are the reason for our success.”

“But when a glitch occurs, that glass becomes a mirror.  The problems belong to me.  But guess where the solution lies – out there.  The solution to the problem is in the hands of those who know the process best.  It becomes my responsibility to draw the answer out; encourage input and provide resources to effect change.”

You are the CEO of your life.  You own the outcome of your actions.  Give credit for your successes to those who deserve it.  You know how to read?  Thank a teacher.  You’ve written a stellar business plan?  Thank Mr. Edwards.  But when life happens and you find yourself in prison – look in the mirror, then give yourself the resources to change.  Your best resource is your attitude.

I don’t have the courage

We all fear rejection.  Humans are social animals.  As such, we desire the company and approval of fellow humans.  Many of my decisions in life were rooted in the desire to please others:  Spouse, children, bosses, co-workers, subordinates and even total strangers.

The perception of peer pressure is a powerful force.  Humans will fall in line, often against our will, because we perceive compliance is what our peers demand.  But what if those around you are simply waiting for you to take the first step.

The reality of our situation is we are in a physical prison.  Our bodies are incarcerated in an extremely negative environment.  Many around us feel the need to enforce compliance to their negative world view.  I’m going to let you in on a secret:  They’re scared.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Hatred is often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of fear.  The more he fears, the more he will hate.  And hatred is also a great anodyne for shame.”

Now is the time to start a revolution!  A revolution against hate and fear.  A revolution of courage against peer pressure.

I started attending Miracle Place Church after I was arrested.  Like many of you, I sought answers to why I made the decisions I did.  At one week night service I arrived early to pray.  Alone, in my corner at the back, I silently pleaded for a sign that my prayers were heard.

“God you know I don’t take hints very well.  So please don’t ‘suggest’ my family and I will be okay; Let me know for certain that you have heard my prayers.”

A frail 84 year old woman named Ms. Dorothy knelt at my feet as I sat in my chair at the end of the service.  She put her hands on either side of my head, pulling me forward until our foreheads were touching.  In a firm voice she said, “I don’t know what this means but God says he heard you the first time.

Courage to break the norm.  Courage to take the first step.  Courage to approach a stranger to deliver a message of encouragement.  Do you have the courage of an 80 year old woman?  Need more encouragement?  Let’s look at the health benefits of social contact.

The Donner party is a group of men, women and children, some married, some single, some family, some strangers just along for the ride.  In the early 1840’s they became stuck in the Mountains due to early snow storms and bad advice.  By the time members of the party managed to reach help, more than half the party had died.  The survivors had resorted to cannibalism.

Critical analysis of this tragedy reveals the following from the book “The Indifferent Stars Above.”

“Male or female, those who traveled with a large family group had a better chance of survival than those who were on their own.  This is in keeping with other studies correlating survival with the size of social networks.  Scientists are not sure why this effect takes place.  Theories point to better sharing of critical information and scarce resources, better mutual aid in emergencies, better emotional support, and the possibility that the immune system is physically stimulated by close proximity to loved ones.”

Imagine that, being surrounded by people who like you increases your own chance of surviving hardships.  If you are too timid to reach out to another person for their benefit then do it for yourself.  Build your base of friends, your social network, to improve the quality of your own life and advance your own longevity.

Want more health benefits?

Doctor Caroline Leaf states in her book “The gift in you:”

“There is a massive ‘unlearning’ of negative toxic thoughts when we operate in love.  The brain releases a chemical called oxytocin, which literally melts away the negative toxic thought clusters.  So that rewiring of new non-toxic circuits can happen.  This chemical also flows when we trust and bond and reach out to others.  Love literally wipes out fear.”

“Dopamine works with oxytocin.  It flows as we expect and anticipate something.  It gives us a thrilling surge of energy and excitement and confidence and motivation to carry on.  Then when we experience what we anticipate, endorphins and serotonin are released that make us feel great.”

Dare to be different

Whom do you admire?  Michael Jordan of sports?  Jack Welch of business?  Steve Jobs of technology?  Warren Buffet of investors?  Dr. King of civil rights?  Gandhi of social change?  Why?  Because they dare to be different.

Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you are trying to create.”  You must dare to be different.

It is not enough for us to talk about the ignorance of prison mentality.  To change prison thinking we must live the change.  Each of the leaders I mentioned weren’t elected to their role.  They dared to be different in their respective fields.  They saw a better way and made the change.  They led the way out of the trap of “group think.”

I once had a battalion commander shut the door to my office and plop down in front of my desk. “Roy,” he started, “when you look at 2nd Battalion, they are always at the top; physical fitness, marksmanship, unit readiness reports, always number one.  Others are always shooting at them, trying to tear them down off the pedestal.  On the other hand, if you are always at the bottom then people look down at you and wonder why you’re so messed up.  I think it’s important that we aim for the middle.  Not the top, not the bottom, but in the middle where we don’t draw any attention.  Understand?  I’m glad we could have this talk.”

He walked out of my office leaving me to meditate on the mysteries of mediocrity.  I got his message.  I had pushed my soldiers hard to be the best.  I wasn’t satisfied with sloppy seconds.  I wanted to be first.  His philosophy was to aim for mediocrity.  Once you fight your way to the top its hard work to stay there.  He did not have the will to be different.

There is a fable of a weary traveler that wandered into a village one evening.  There in the center of the village was a pit filled with warm sewage.  Thirty or forty people were in the pit with the filth up to their chins.

Unable to believe his eyes, the traveler got too close to the edge and fell in.  Immediately he clawed at the sides of the pit doing everything he could to get out.  The nearest villager shouted, “Calm down, you’re making waves.”

Is that where you are today?  Happy in your warm pit of filth as long as nobody makes waves.  Or do you have the large pair of solid brass orbs necessary to be different.

Don’t wait for the wizard

In the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” each member of the traveling party had something they desired:  The cowardly lion – courage, the Tin man – a heart, the Scarecrow – a brain.  Dorothy just wanted to go home.

In the end, each member of the Oz party discovered they already possessed the desires of their heart.  All they needed to do was exercise it.  The Lion didn’t need the wizard for his courage.  It was in him the whole time.  Likewise, each of you possesses the ability to influence the life of another person on this compound.  Don’t wait for the Wizard; make a difference today.

Like Dorothy, we all desire to go home.  The men in this room have already taken positive steps to make that transition a success.  When I leave these meetings I feel good about our futures.  I know I’ll take a lot of lessons learned with me, as will you.

However, what we take with us is not nearly as important as what we leave behind.  Will this compound be a better place for you having been here?  Or will you have made no difference at all.  Like a canoe slipping across a still pond in the early grey fog before sunrise:  minutes after you’re gone there is no memory of your presence.

So set goals to make a difference.  Like the little girl and the starfish, maybe you can’t make a difference in everyone’s life, you can make a difference to one.

When you walk into a restaurant you don’t say, “bring me some food.”  Instead, you are very specific – you pick exactly what you want from the menu.

Right now I want you to set a goal to do one act of kindness before you get back to the unit.  Introduce yourself to someone and make a concerted effort to remember their name.  Then call them by name when you see them around the compound.  Hold the door open for someone and let them go ahead of you. Give a legitimate complement to someone you don’t ordinarily speak to.  Now set a goal for everyday this week.  Every day, make the effort to be a difference maker in someone’s life.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of California – Riverside recently completed a study called “Kindness counts.”  One of the things the study showed was that participants experienced significantly increased feelings of happiness and satisfaction after one month of documenting three acts of kindness per week.

But when compared to a control group, who documented three pleasant places they visited per week, those who performed and documented their acts of kindness were liked and accepted to a greater degree by their peers.  On average, they gained 1.5 friends during the four week period.

Dale Carnegie is quoted as saying, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

Need Help?  Try one of these

–          Write a friend to say that a song or movie reminded you of them.

–          Shut up and listen

–          Help carry the trash out

–          Give someone a book that had meaning to you

–          Tell someone about the qualities you admire in them

–          Introduce someone to another of your friends

–          Hold the door open

–          Write a letter to someone you admire telling them how they touched your life

–          Let someone go ahead of you in line

–          Clean out your locker, give unused stuff to someone else

–          Smile, make conversation


I noticed a relatively new guy to our unit had not quite integrated after a couple weeks.  He sat by himself, rarely conversing with those around him.  I was even witness to a tense exchange of words between him and the medical staff.

I used the incident as an opportunity to start a conversation with him.  We walked to dinner together, ate together, and walked back together.  At my cell we parted ways.  I observed him make it about halfway through the unit, turnaround and walk back to where I was standing.

He stuck out a hand the size of a Virginia ham.  As I attempted to shake it he said, “Thank you for having dinner with me.”

I looked into his eyes well over a foot above my head and could see a difference had been made in the life of one starfish.

Make today the turning point; the riot of 2013.  The day the BOP will come to recognize inmates instituted positive as the norm, rejecting negativity as acceptable.

I finish with a quote from Dr. Seuss:

You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes

You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

You’re on your own and know what you know

And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.


LOST AT SEA by Richard Roy

If a man had done his best, what else is there?  -General George S. Patton

Come back to the place of safety, all you prisoners who still have hope.  -Zechariah 9:12

Through the inky blackness of the night a small ship sails, tossed side-to-side, cresting and falling, wave and trough. Sailors fight to keep the ship together, lashing cargo, manning bilge pumps, sliding across worn decks slickened by the turbulent sea.

The water engulfs one sailor just as he releases his grip on the rail. His intention is to help; his action ill-advised. The wake of the ship pulls him under. He struggles against the forces of nature. The water parts above his head.  He gulps to fill his oxygen starved lungs.

The ship sails away.

The sailor, whose love has always been the sea, now finds the embrace of his lover more than he can bear. He screams to the ship for help, but the fight to save the ship and the salt water he swallowed has hoarsened his throat. The sound, had anyone been around to hear it, is terrifying. He curses, cries, pleads, screams and curses some more.

The lights of the ship, when visible, continue to dim as it moves into the distance.

The storm abates, waves calm, the eastern sky lightens, the last visible speck of the ship blips into the horizon. The sailor treads water.  He is exhausted from the fight but has established an ebbing equilibrium. It’s inevitable that he will, at some point, slip beneath the surface, nothing but a memory to those now abandoned.  For now though, he copes with what he has been given.

Your husband (son, father, friend) went through a turbulent time before coming to prison. Some break down, some express bravado, some resign themselves to fate and still others spew vitriol toward the system, family or friends. But all are souls tossed from the ship of society. Only the reaction to his plight is different.

It may be hard to know how to interact with your inmate. Human nature will not make this task any easier. You will experience phases of emotion much like the Stages of Grief: Denial, Pain and Guilt, Anger, Depression, Working Through, and Acceptance.  Understand, your inmate is feeling these same emotions. It is precisely this understanding that will carry you through.

Don’t give up. Contact with those who have meaning in his life is important beyond measure. We are exposed to others’ conversations while waiting at the phone bank  I am often dismayed by what I hear: abusive language, unreasonable demands and ultimatums from the incarcerated to the free world. I can’t imagine how it is received on the other end.

If this is something you have experienced then allow me to explain:  you are hearing the cries of the drowning man, the desperate, the powerless. These men used to earn a living.  They controlled what they ate and when. Entertainment wasn’t limited to one movie on Saturday night selected by an unknown person. Your inmate used to have choices:  freedom to work hard, earn money, pursue a dream. He also had freedom to slack off, abuse his choices and put his family through misery. Now all freedom is gone.  The choices he is allowed to make are petty. Eat, don’t eat. Work, don’t work. Exercise, don’t exercise. As far as the B.O.P. is concerned his only requirement is to breathe in and out occasionally.

Here’s where you come in. It is up to you to keep your inmate engaged; actively involved in the outside world. Start with regular correspondence. It doesn’t have to be an epistle, a simple note or newspaper clipping sends the message that someone cares. You cannot imagine how it feels to hear your name at mail call. Not organized? I get a one page letter from my sister every month, nearly the same day of the month. Knowing my sister, she has set up an email reminder on her work computer. I don’t care how she remembers, just that it is important to me that she does. Celebrate special days with a card. Purchase them in advance, sign them and put a Post-It Note on each to remind you when to send it.

A hometown newspaper subscription keeps your inmate aware of the community goings-on.  Prison is a time machine. The induced isolation gives the perception that the outside world is in a state of suspended animation. I suspect many felons return to prison as a result of the disorientation experienced to realize the world has moved on in their absence.  Soldiers experience this as well when they return from a long deployment.

Don’t coddle. Hiding bad news is ill-advised. Your inmate is an adult, treat him like one.  Inmates need to assimilate the same information you do in order to see future decisions from your point of view. Dog died, finances tight, unexpected pregnancy, these are a part of life. It may not be welcome news but it must be dealt with regardless. Small doses over the course of an incarceration are easier to digest than a heap to choke down upon release.

Involve your inmate in family decisions. Keeping him actively involved reassures his delicate sense of manhood. Consider his input regardless of what you ultimately decide. Then follow up, especially if it is not aligned with his desires.  Even seemingly small decisions become a big deal when an inmate has nothing else to focus his attention. The take-away? Involve, don’t tell.

Prison is a tough love situation. The vast majority of us put ourselves in this situation through our self-centered behavior. Your job is to no longer tolerate self-centeredness. Your inmate may need financial support to get set up initially, for stamps and phone calls. Commissary purchases are nice, and make prison slightly more tolerable, but aren’t necessary to sustain life. Your inmate will not starve to death. Your tax dollars are not paying for steak dinners but most meals are edible. Be careful in your monetary support. The same temptations that exist in the free world exist behind bars. The weaknesses your inmate had out there are the same ones he will have in here.

I wish I could report that every inmate is penitent and uses his time behind bars to develop his strength of character. However, inmates are still human and still subject to making poor decisions. To move in a positive direction he needs a base of support: you. You are his connection to the outside world. You are his link to civilization. His successful re-entry depends in large part on how you handle his incarceration.

Now a word to my fellow inmates. You made your decisions while free, man-up and live with the consequences. Nobody on the outside owes you anything.  Don’t like your situation?  Resolve not to come back. The root of the word penitentiary is penitent which means “suffering pain or sorrow for sin with will to amend.” Amend means “to free from fault or error; to correct; to improve.” So if you are suffering in your current situation then count it all joy to have this opportunity to free your thinking and behavior from fault and error.

Write home regularly. So what if you don’t have anything to say. Clip meaningful cartoons from the paper or retell funny jokes. Your family wants to hear from you. Relate the things you are doing to better yourself. Sure there are a million negatives in prison but most of them you should keep to yourself. Look for the positive things to share.

Call those you love as often as your finances will allow. The few minutes you have are precious and expensive. Use your time wisely. Lift up those we abandoned. Listen to what they have to say. They are hip deep in bills, doctor visits, work and school. Hear what they have to say and understand they are making do without your help. The last thing they need from you is verbal abuse or instruction on what you think they need to do. Start and end conversations on an upbeat.

Don’t make demands. You are a ward of the government. Your family has no obligation to support you. Focus on living within your means. Honest, dependable, hard workers are respected everywhere; even in prison. Use this as an opportunity to develop your character and your needs will be met. Best of all, your family will respect you for it.


Land of Lost Opportunities – by Richard Roy

“I was naked and you clothed me; I was in prison and you came to me”.
Matthew 25:36

“The secret of success is focus of purpose”.  Thomas Edison

      The big time has come to FCI Oakdale. A local Toastmasters club, part of Toastmasters International, is sponsoring a club ‘Inside the Fence’.

      This is a huge commitment on their part. These unpaid representatives donate their time, subject themselves to background checks and undergo physical searches just to get in the gate. All this on the off chance there might be men on the inside worth reaching, and wanting to be reached.

      Over 120 inmates attended the information session; men hungry for opportunity. By the end of the meeting, 30-40 men expressed an interest in moving forward to form a club. Most of who fell by the wayside are challenged by the $36 semi-annual dues and a one-time $20 materials fee. Most inmates earn 12-17 cents per hour and work a lot less than 40 hours per week. Twenty paid memberships are required to establish a new club.

      Being in Toastmasters in the free world, I was sorely disappointed to find no formal social organizations exist behind the bars at FCI Oakdale. In the state prisons of Louisiana there are numerous groups allowed to organize as a way to normalize inmates back into society. Speak up Jay Cees, Veterans Groups and Toastmasters make their organizations available as a means to introduce inmates to opportunities they may not have previously had on the outside.

      Is it worth it? One study indicates an astonishing 1% recidivism rate for those inmates actively participating in Toastmasters while incarcerated. I’d settle for that.

      A large percentage of my fellow inmates will benefit greatly from a little constructive work on vocabulary and grammar. It is a constant source of dismay to hear virtually every statement include the analogy of intercourse with a parent: “Hungry as a m- -f- – er”, “Hot as a m- – f – -er”, well, you get the idea. Exposure to creative word choices abound. Should one choose to document, one would learn of a “squizz; “as in “can I get a squizz of that cheese”. Cheese purchased from the commissary comes in a squeeze bottle so a portion of squeeze cheese becomes a “squizz”. “Skrate”, as in “not left or right but skrate”, is another expression that grates like verbal sandpaper.

      The need for education as a method of rehabilitation stands readily apparent. GED  classes have a long waiting list. Conversations defy logic. Grown men are amazed that Thanksgiving Day this year again falls on a Thursday (actual conversation overheard in the chow line).

      In 1970, 73% of Americans thought the primary purpose of prison should be rehabilitation. By 1995, only 26% of Americans believed in rehabilitation (Hallinan, Joseph T.; “Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation;” New York: Random House, 2003).

      I admit it; I was naïve before coming into the system. I envisioned the opportunity to leave here armed with new found knowledge and introspection. I reasoned, surely the Bureau of Prisons is loaded with experts and the latest techniques to rid men and women of their anti-social attitudes and behaviors. The experts would be backed by officials, political and bureaucratic, eager to release productive citizens back into society to make amends. Just like Hokey Pokey Anonymous: A Place to turn yourself around.

      Instead, no support groups exist; Alcoholics Anonymous? Uh-uh; Al-anon? Nope; Narcotics Anonymous? Ha; Sex addicts Anonymous? Why are you even on my compound; serious psychological issues? We’ll try to squeeze you on the callout for next week. The little help that is available requires waiting months to move to another facility hundreds of miles away where you wait many more months to be accepted into the program; provided you meet the restrictive parameters for admittance.

      Even minimal education opportunities are squandered. Want to see a Vo-Tech program where building maintenance students never pick up a saw or turn a wrench? Or how about a Horticulture class that doesn’t grow anything? And how is it a population with a literacy rate of 47% produces class after class of perfect 4.0 students? What would you say to an adult education book, and test, on ‘Integrity” that has the answers annotated so the test taker is not required to actually read the material or engage in critical thought? Read the institution’s admission and orientation handbook. The A&O manual references an Apprenticeship Program in many areas such as HVAC and Plumbing. Now use the Freedom of Information Act to see how many graduates completed the program in the last two years. I’ll save you some time; the answer is none.

      Congratulations to Chaplain Madrid for facilitating Financial Peace University. This is a 13 lesson program from common sense finance guru and national talk show host Dave Ramsey. But why are there only 15 men taking the course? Why isn’t this a prerequisite to release? Why wasn’t an announcement placed on every bulletin board in every unit? The bocce ball tournament announcement seems to make it there.

      There are many well-meaning people employed by the Bureau of Prisons; some of them work at FCI Oakdale. These individuals do their best to not become cynical in their daily interaction with inmates. The American public owes those employees a debt of support. We must change the political will of the people back to one of education as a method of rehabilitation.

      Educate, financially responsible people who have paid their debt to society can only result in a win-win for all parties. I do believe a rising tide raises all ships. But if the ship is still tied to the dock by a lack of education or understanding of debt then the ship will only rise so far before it takes on water and sinks.

      I send kudos to Warden Ask-Carlson of FCI Pollock (formerly of FCI Oakdale), unit manager Mr. Pierce, counselors Papillion and Smith and the others working to establish Toastmasters in this institution. There are men here who acknowledge we screwed up. Now we desire the opportunity to fix it. We need your help.