Every time I hear about prison guards, my association is that this is going to be a story about abuse or torture (too much Abu Gharaib and Guantanamo). Here’s a story about a prison guard that changed my whole perspective.

Carl Cannon is a 44 year-old decorated corrections officer who works in Illinois for the US Bureau of prisons. Ten years ago he had an epiphany that struck him like a bolt of lightning. He was invited to make a presentation at a middle school during Black history month and chose to talk about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

To make the presentation more engaging he wore his prison officer’s uniform. When the talk was over he opened the floor for questions but the only thing the kids wanted to hear about was about prison life. Many of them thought it was a “cool place” to be, a kind of survival school for gladiators. Carl Cannon knew that most inmates, if they could do it all over again, would make different decisions. After that presentation he found a new mission. He was good at keeping people inside prisons, but he wanted to keep them out.

In 1995 Carl Cannon founded C.H.O.I.C.E.S., a nonprofit organization that targets young adults, with special emphasis on middle schoolers (www.Truth4youth.org). The program teaches students about the importance of making responsible, positive life decisions. Cannon has spoken to as many as 1,200 students for 90 minutes, and at the end you could hear a pin drop. He talks about the seduction of the “unguarded moment”, that fraction of a second when we get a chance to do the right thing or the wrong thing. Before you get sucked into the downward spiral, he helps them make better choices.

C.H.O.I.C.E.S. has an outreach program; in participating schools, teachers and administrators pick 2 students who have made the most progress in developing outstanding decision-making skills during the school year. Winners get to go on a shopping spree, receive school supplies, a computer, future tutoring and a two-year scholarship to Illinois Central College. Carl Cannon just received a National Caring Award, he said “it doesn’t get any better, than when a young person looks at you and says “thank you for believing in me”.

Here’s a prison guard Santa and his story embodies the Christmas spirit; where you start has nothing to do with where you can finish. Merry Christmas all.