A PhD From Prison – By Eric Burnham

Eric Burnham

For over 20 years now, I have been inmate # 12729124, but my name is Eric. I am serving a 25-to-life sentence for second-degree murder. On September 5, 2001 I took a man’s life during a fight that I started while drunk, creating a ripple effect of pain and suffering that damaged countless lives. I take full responsibility for how my violence harmed others, and early in my prison sentence I made the decision to do something about it, although back then I didn’t know what.

When I was arrested, I was 21-years-old, staggeringly narcissistic, addicted to alcohol, marijuana, and methamphetamines, lost behind the mask I used to hide my shortcomings, and profoundly undereducated–I didn’t even have a GED. I acted out in ways I thought would effectively conceal my insecurities, and I pretended to be someone I am not.

I was broken, and wounded people tend to hurt others. Once I honestly took responsibility for my selfishness and violence, however, I regained the power to determine my impact on the world. I may have ended up in prison, but prison is not the end of my story.

My first few years of incarceration were chaotic as I adjusted to my new reality and the fact that deep down I knew I deserved to be in prison, but I knew I didn’t want to be a man who belonged here. A few life-changing experiences led to some deep personal growth, and I learned how to make better decisions. While it took time to gain momentum, I was able to overcome the swamp of inner turmoil and the darkness of my environment.

In 2003, I earned my GED, and I began working as a tutor in the Education Department in early 2008. I began taking college courses and earned an Associate of Arts degree in 2013. I went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2015, graduating Summa Cum Laude with a 3.98 GPA. In 2017 I completed my Master of Counseling degree, and on December 10, 2021 I graduated with a PhD in Psychology and Counseling from Liberty University, the culmination of a long and demanding journey of self-discovery, personal growth, and educational achievement.

I could not have done it alone.

I am so grateful for the financial assistance of my mother who completely paid for my education–every penny from the first course in my associate degree program to the final practicum of my doctoral program. Her investment in me and in my future was not only a vehicle for my transformation; it very likely saved my life. I also must extend my gratitude to the Blue Mountain Community College instructors who staff the Education Department at EOCI. I will never forget them, for they are real-world life-changers.

Prison can be deeply toxic and ruthlessly oppressive, filled with hidden exploitation, normalized dehumanization, arbitrary rules with inconsistent enforcement, and an inflexible power structure that often folds resentment and rage into the personality of the incarcerated. Adversity does not adequately describe the pursuit of a college education while incarcerated; resisting the temptation to become callous in an effort to remain physically and emotionally safe has literally changed my life. When I arrived at EOCI, I was empty and without purpose, and in my spirit I knew I offered nothing good to the world. I only consumed, never contributing much of substance or worth. I did not know how to be anything other than what I had always been, and within a few years of being here, I reached a point where I did not want to live anymore.

Yet, through my studies in psychology and philosophy, I have found not only understanding, meaning in my mistakes, and purpose in my pain, but also the insight and skills needed to use my experiences to help others. Many steps along the way have seemed insignificant and very difficult, but looking back on how far I have come, I can see how each one mattered. Today I no longer need to hide behind a mask or find refuge in a pretense of violence or in the numbness of intoxication. I can be my authentic self, allowing empathy and compassion for others to take root within my personality.

I have made so many mistakes, but through my faith in God and my education I have found the strength to keep moving forward. I can never repay all that I have taken, but I am committed to spending the rest of my life giving all I can to make the world even just a little better. My future may be shaped by my past, but it will not be defined by it.