Strengths In and Out of Prison
July 11, 2014 by VIA Institute on Character ·
Nearly fifty years ago, Art Winstanley decided he wanted to be a Denver Police Officer. As a young man in his early twenties with a wife and two young children, he liked the idea of having a secure job that also offered adventure and power. He was athletic, energetic and eager to please, so it wasn’t long before he was putting on his uniform and sitting shotgun in the squad car.
As rookie cop, Art found himself enamored with his fellow officers. He craved their attention and soaked up all the information, inside jokes and Denver “dirty laundry” that he could. He reveled in the camaraderie and thrived on the respect he commanded from local folks. But, sadly, it wasn’t long before this young cop found himself engaging in activities that were far from respectable.
Foxes in the Hen House
It began with a couple of after hours, safe-cracking escapades with a fellow officer. They’d hit small mom-and-pop shops at first, then moved on to bigger restaurants and department stores. As their successes grew, so did the stakes. And the dangers were far beyond Art’s naive comprehension. Eventually, he was caught, a large safe falling right out the back of his pick-up truck. He was the first of 750 of Denver’s police officers arrested and sent to prison — the largest case of police corruption in US history.
Life Behind Bars
“There’s only one thing worse than being in prison,“ Art says, “and that’s being a police officer in prison. The other inmates had been arrested by a police officer. They hated me. I couldn’t trust anyone. The guys in the cafeteria wouldn’t put food on my plate for three days. When they finally did, the inmate behind me spit on my food. It took everything I had not to cry.”
Art endured heartbreaking loneliness, several fights, solitary confinement. When he was eventually released, he returned home with no job, no money and a wife who wanted a divorce. He fell apart. He robbed again. He was arrested and sent right back to prison.
Art was eventually released for the last time, nearly 40 years ago. Though it wasn’t easy, he turned his life around and recently decided to write about his experiences in the hopes that it might help others avoid making the same mistakes. While writing the first draft of Burglars in Blue, he sought editorial help from writer Mary Judd, who also happened to be a Positive Psychology coach who uses the VIA survey in much of her work. She suggested Art take the survey to see how his strengths could keep him focused and also how they had helped him get to where he is today.
A Hard Look Back
When Art looked at his top five strengths – Kindness, Humor, Love, Zest, and Hope – it caused some deep reflection. How could he be so good at heart but have made such bad choices? “When I look at the list, my heart aches,” he says, “I think if I had an awareness of my character strengths back then it would have made me think of myself in a way that would have stopped me from going down the road I did. Imagine what my life would have been like if I had known these strengths and how to direct them — believed these strengths as mine — before I joined the force.”
Art can see that he was so eager to please, so unsure of himself. “It’s obvious I relied on my humor and zest to impress the guys, but instead landed in deep trouble. I’d kidded myself I was being kind to my family by bringing home more money. But I was being so unkind to so many innocent people.“
“And love? Imagine the pain of hurting your family, completely humiliating them, dragging your names and theirs through the worst mud you can imagine. Imagine doing that AND having love as a top strength. I look back at that time through that lens of strengths and I have no doubt that not being able to be there — to love and be loved by my family and friends was by far the hardest part of all the years in prison.”
Helping Others Through Strengths
Taking steps to turn his life around from inside a prison cell wasn’t easy. “My hope and optimism got pretty low at times, but there was enough there to keep me from giving up completely. And fortunately, my true kindness got a better outlet when I got to help others with things like reading. And, my humor came out in letters home where I’d say things like, “It’s nice to live in a gated community!”
Today, Art keeps a close watch on his strengths. He feels like he keeps himself in check with deliberate use of gratitude, especially for the support and love of his second wife. He also relies on his zest to stay in shape (loves to rollerblade!), and takes pride in the fact that he now uses his deep well of kindness, love and zest in his work with criminal justice workers and students.
“I’ve spent more than half my life trying to make up for my past,” he says. “Knowing I really am helping others keeps me going.” He is grateful to Mary for introducing him to the life changing knowledge about his strengths. He feels strongly that young people and prisoners could benefit tremendously from taking the VIA survey and getting guidance on how to survive and thrive with their strengths.
Filed Under: VIA Strengths general