Lifeline to a Soul: The Life-Changing Perspective I Gained While Teaching Entrepreneurship to Prisoners Book Review

Full disclosure: I was given a free physical copy of this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve reviewed memoirs in the past, but there’s one type that I haven’t covered: the stranger-in-a-strange-land subgenre. This discusses how a person went to a place that they’ve never been in before and what they’ve learned from the experience. This kind of memoir is nothing new, so the titles have to stand out in other ways. John K. McLaughlin published a memoir in this subgenre recently called Lifeline to a Soul: The Life-Changing Perspective I Gained While Teaching Entrepreneurship to Prisoners. It’s an easy-to-read tale about a life-altering experience with a realistic depiction of prison life and an emphatic portrayal of the inmates.

Lifeline to a Soul: The Life-Changing Perspective I Gained While Teaching Entrepreneurship to Prisoners is exactly what it says. After spending half of his life developing his start-up business into a multi-million dollar industry leader, John wanted a change in his life. More specifically, he wanted to teach business to others. Because of his lack of teaching experience, the only job that was available to him was as an entrepreneurship instructor at a minimum-security camp in North Carolina. John gradually builds an effective program until a scandal involving the prison officers blindsides his progress and threatens to bring his teaching career to an abrupt end.

When I began reading Lifeline to a Soul, I initially worried about how much business jargon was going to be in it. I know only so much about that subject, so I felt that it was going to be hard to follow. However, it was comprehensible. The main goal that McLaughlin would have for his students was for them to each create a business plan. This included “a feasibility blueprint and [followed] with a business profile, a business model, the business structure, risk management, money management sales and marketing, and, finally, an executive summary” (p. 57).

This makes sense. He would help them design this during the course, which usually lasted 11 weeks, to get them to think about their potential businesses in a realistic manner. McLaughlin kept the business language to a minimum since his main focus was on what he learned as an entrepreneur teacher in a prison.

Throughout the memoir, McLaughlin compares his perceptions of what prison life was like on television to what he actually experienced. For example, when he was on a tour of the prison as an interviewee, one of the first things he noticed was how immaculate the landscape was. According to McLaughlin, it contained “patches of daisies, tulips, and pansies all mixed together with a budding sunflower centered perfectly in the mix” (p. 11).

There wasn’t a single weed in sight. He later found out that a prisoner named Kendall Willaimson ran the garden, and he was devoted to that.

In another instance, McLaughlin discusses how he saw prisoners as “crazed killer[s] wearing … orange jumpsuit[s] and shackles and constantly looking for an opportunity to escape” (p. 219).

This perception came from the shows that he watched on television. Over the book, he gets to know the inmates and realizes that many of them came from broken environments and/or didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that were given to them if any. Honestly, I had a similar perception of prisoners because the only experience I encountered outside of television and movies was my friend working at a prison library.  At the end of the book, he proudly states the views that he gained after teaching entrepreneurship in a prison like humanizing the prisoners, giving them second chances (even if not all of them can be helped), and teaching them financial literacy (p. 220-221). It’s clear that teaching in a prison had a profound impact on him and that he’s willing to be an advocate for that kind of reform.

Finally, what made this book truly work is how he shows the inmates themselves. He wanted to humanize them, so the majority of the stories were about them and their goals for their businesses. Some of them even had epilogues, and he displays their logos they created for their business plans. As I mentioned earlier, Kendall tended to the garden at the penitentiary. He grew flowers as well as fruits and vegetables. According to McLaughlin, he talked about “his plants as if they were children” (p. 136).

Above all, Kendall was a religious person and wanted to continue his ministry after he got released. McLaughlin was able to search for some suitable property, in which the inmate jumped on the chance to purchase it once he was free.  Another inmate that made an impression on the author was Josh Proby. To the author, Josh came off as intimidating and seemingly aggressive with not smiling nor breaking eye contact. Soon after, McLauglin found out that the inmate was planning to write a book with each chapter dedicated to “a charitable cause and compare the disease or problem the cause stood for to a personal problem that needed to be overcome by the reader” (p.68).

McLaughlin realized that he mistook Josh’s determination for aggression. Before Josh got released, the author helped him with his business plans and any questions about publishing his book. After his release, Josh published his book The 30-Day Journey From Prison to Spiritual Peace, ran a successful trucking business, became a motivational speaker, etc. McLaughlin even used clips from Josh’s speeches for his classes to show them that inmates like themselves can make it if they put their mind to it. Josh even confided to the author as to the root cause of why he acted the way he did at one of his presentations. There were so many other prisoners that McLaughlin got to know, but listing all of their stories here would be impossible. Without knowing the stories, it would feel like a savior narrative like Freedom Writers.

Lifeline to a Soul: The Life-Changing Perspective I Gained While Teaching Entrepreneurship to Prisoners by John K. McLaughlin is a powerful tale of one man instructing business classes in a minimum-security prison camp. The author makes his work accessible with the language used. He also confronts his previous conceptions that he had about prison life. And most importantly, he portrays the prisoners as humans, many with ambitions and goals that they wanted to get off the ground once they were released. I would recommend this to those like reading about prison life, teaching, and giving second chances. This is definitely a standout in the stranger-in-a-strange-land memoir. It was published last Tuesday, April 4, so go get it wherever it’s available.

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Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

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