LANCASTER-While most 19-year-olds are considering college or career choices, Kenneth Hartman found himself sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Convicted of beating a homeless man to death in a Long Beach park, Hartman has spent the last 25 years in some of California's toughest maximum security prisons.
He's seen a lifetime worth of violence and chaos. Unlike most inmates who accept life "on the inside," Hartman decided to make a change in how he thought and how he behaved.
"I will probably spend the rest of my life here. That's my reality and I don't want to live in a world of chaos," Hartman, 44, said last week in his second-floor cell at California State Prison-Los Angeles County. "I don't want to live like that."
For 15 years, Hartman has been writing about life in prison, about the drunken, drugged-up murder that landed him there and about the changes he saw as necessity for California's correctional system.
A recent essay, "A Prisoner's Purpose," won Hartman a $10,000 prize in a writing contest in the Power of Purpose Awards sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. The money will go to Hartman's wife, whom he married while in prison, and their 9-year-old daughter.
The essay discussed Hartman's personal experiences in prison, what he has seen and felt since being locked away and how he was one of the originators of a prison program he says gives inmates a greater chance at staying out of trouble once they leave the prison system.
The program, which is in its fourth year, is called the Honor Yard: 600 inmates who have promised to avoid drugs, gang activity and violence against each other or prison staff and who live in a section of the prison separated from the general inmate population.
The prison is the only California state prison that has an Honor Yard program, and Department of Corrections officials want to establish similar programs at other prisons because of its success, prison Lt.Ken Lewis said.
Hartman was one of the inmates who promoted the idea.
"The ideas were brought by the men's advisory council, a group of inmates that brings prison issues or program issues to staff's attention. Some of those guys helped work with prison staff to establish the Honor Yard program," Lewis said.
"It's to help inmates recognize their achievements. It helps them to recognize that they could change their social factors, so to speak. They can change within themselves. They are willing to stay away from drugs and gangs, they are willing to intermingle and work together as a group, and it's just overall; it's a better prison environment than that of a normal prison environment," Lewis said.
Of Hartman, Lewis said: "He's a mild-mannered person. He is very smart. He's one of our clerks on the Honor Yard. He tries to be helpful. He's helpful to staff and supports a lot of programs on the Honor Yard."
Hartman's concept for the Honor Yard was to "treat civilized men as civilized men."
"Guys who conduct themselves in a civilized way get treated like civilized people," Hartman said. "We've taken guys who have a chance to make it in the free world and removed most of the stress they would experience in other parts of the prison and given them a chance to concentrate on transformational change."
Hartman's dream is living out his remaining days free of violence and able to spend his time writing.
"We've had a lot of support from the institution but none really from the Department of Corrections," Hartman said. "They haven't torpedoed the project but they aren't helping. I'd like to see this program take off at other institutions and grow here. We need outside support."
Hartman said he became concerned about 10 years ago when the Department of Corrections began cracking down on inmate misbehavior by punishing them in ways like taking away radios and hot plates.
"If you take these guys who spend all this time in prison and just beat them over the head, you're going to see them right back here after they're released," Hartman said.
Prisoners who already have lost everything don't have a motivation to behave, he said.
"They need to stop and think, hey I don't want to lose my visitation or I want to be able to go to that creative writing class I'm almost done with."
Hartman teaches a creative writing class to Honor Yard prisoners. Prisoners also can take vocational training and art classes.
"There's no supervision and no censorship," Hartman said. "It's just us writing what we see and what we feel."
Hartman's writings have been published in newspapers, national magazines and online writing Web sites. One work is a children's book, written for his daughter.
He is organizing his writings for publication and is also collecting his students' essays and hopes to have them published in a book.
To view Hartman's essay on the Honor Yard visit www.powerofpurpose.org
Staff Writer Karen Maeshiro contributed to this story.
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