There was a time my father and I shared thoughts under the same light. We stared at the heavens together and he pointed up above to the site of the space shuttle on its scheduled route that he had timed. I remember how still and dark the night was, void of any moon. The stars lit the sky. Just at that moment when we enjoyed a comfortable silence, we heard a horrendous noise of an explosive metallic scream. Two vehicles had collided head-on a hundred yards down the road. The traffic backed up as we ran to the crash site. I remember hearing a girl cry out loudly. She was not involved in the accident but was shook up from the graphic heap of smoking wreckage. I saw my first dead person that night. His neck snapped and he lay flat. His head dormant, sideways across his chest. The man, I learned, was only five miles away from seeing his family. He was driving home from an Army base somewhere in South Carolina. The man in the other vehicle, a sizeable Buick, was alive. In the shadow of a weak car light, he moved his arm slow like a praying mantis. I’m sure the young traveler didn’t feel a thing as his tiny yellow Pinto was consumed by the mighty old luxury car. The memory of the day is never far behind: the life leaving a man’s body and the smell of smoking antifreeze and oil, the crying and moaning of a woman, and the rare occasion of warm bonding with my father as we gazed at the heavens.
It’s been a year since I have been to the prisons. Some people joke that that’s probably a good thing, but what I have found with each passing month is that a part of me is missing. As an instructor with IPWW, I miss those days where I could sit in the classroom with twelve men and listen to them share their stories and struggles. I miss seeing them and catching up on their lives, making sure they are doing alright. I miss feeling connected to that collective creativity that would fuel my own desire to put pen to paper and gently beckon me to write. I remember the times holed up in my office, pouring over their writing until late in the night, reading it and then re-reading it and sometimes re-reading it again. It was never a burden; it was a joy and a privilege to be trusted with someone’s words. Sometimes the stories were just stories and other times the stories were someone’s reality and the pain in their words was palpable and you could sense the scars were still there. Those were the times when I put myself in their shoes, heard their voices reading the words on the page, saw their faces in my mind and cried. I have found myself blown away by their creativity and moved by their honesty. There is a unique connection you make with someone when they hand you their life story or share the difficult parts of their life with you that most people wouldn’t get to hear. You feel you know them on a deeper level. The trust I’m given with their words is humbling. To those men, I could just be some random person off the street who shows up twice a month to give them an outlet to write and give them feedback (albeit amateur advice at best), but I don’t think I am. I hope I’m not. I prefer to see myself as an encourager rather than an editor and a friend rather than a facilitator.
The class is twelve weeks long, but I spend the better part of a year with these men. Through casual conversations and a commitment to showing up each week, the men begin to trust me and consider me a friend. What I have come to realize is that friendships can be formed in the most unlikely of places. As with any friendship, you celebrate the successes and their happiness becomes your happiness. Being released from prison is the best reason for celebrating, but it can also be one of the hardest for me. A year has gone by. Most of the men in my class have either been transferred to another facility or released. I may not have gotten a chance to say goodbye. That’s where the human connection part of my volunteer work is difficult. I’m happy for them, but at the same time I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. I spend time wondering whether or not the workshop made a difference in their lives, or, if I’m being completely honest, whether I was able to make a difference in their lives? Will my words of encouragement be remembered long after their time has been served?
Sometimes I think, ‘Am I giving too much of myself to the class?’ If I’m so easily moved to emotion, maybe I need to take a step back. Yet, if I want honesty and vulnerability from the men I can hardly go in superficial and with walls built up around me. I know myself well enough to know that that’s not who I am and that my attempts at dissociation would be in vain. I love connecting with people. Writing connects people in a way that few other things can. There is something powerful about taking the words in your heart and putting them to paper and allowing your mind to empty itself – thoughts and emotions, memories and imaginings all pooling together to allow you to make sense of life. And then, on top of that, sharing your writing with others requires courage. I think even the most confident of writers feel those nervous flutters of uncertainty from time to time. The men in my class are no different. Each new day requires courage to face the challenges of life on the inside. I’m grateful that they bring that courage to class, open themselves up to others and, through their writing, build connection with one another and also with me. That’s when writing becomes more than just words.
Over the past year when I found myself melancholy and missing class, I would pull out stories or poems from the men who were kind enough to let me keep copies of their writing and I would read them, slowly and intentionally, allowing their words to revive my spirit. I was thankful then for those streams in the desert that kept me fulfilled and inspired, and I am thankful now for the community engagement coordinator at the prison who has been gracious enough to allow me to send in writing prompts for the men to work on over the past year when we haven’t been able to meet in person. She then emails me any writing that the men want me to look over for them. It’s not a consistent thing, but when I do receive writing from them it makes me happy. One of the men recently expressed his appreciation for sending the prompts because he said it keeps him motivated. If he only knew that the appreciation goes both ways. Getting the opportunity to read their writing has helped fill a void in my life and keep me connected to them. Through their words, I am reminded why I give of myself and love what I do. Whether these men know it or not they are giving me purpose.
I served eighteen years in prison and came out totally lost. When someone asks how I’m doing I usually reply, “I’m good,” or “I’m adjusting” because it’s simpler than the complex truth which is, I have felt lost, rejected, and undervalued, but I never gave up.
As I approach two years from my release date, I refuse to be a statistic. Studies show, within 3 years of someone’s release, 2 out of 3 people are rearrested and more than 50% are incarcerated again.
Upon returning home, I celebrated but I also did some observing. And for every homie I had that was doing good out here I had a more that were doing poorly: people struggled with addictions, dire situations, and circumstances that left these fallen allies behind in an unforgiving landscape, trapped.
I came home at age 36 with no idea of how to be a responsible adult. I had never created a budget, been in a meaningful relationship, owned or rented property. I was constantly playing catch up and trying to relate to others but couldn’t. Overwhelmed on several occasions, I noticed some people had no regard for others, just their own personal gain at any measure.
I worked my first-year home at temp agencies because that’s the only way that anyone would hire me, and from that I also learned about office politics. I saw firsthand tactics some people use to get ahead in the workplace. Also, time moves differently out of prison. There’s never enough of it to do all the things you want to do and barely enough to get the things done that you must. It is hectic and relentless. Everybody wants something from you and most have nothing to give back.
After completing parole, I wasn’t living the life I wanted. I was just surviving, and for me that wasn’t enough. I needed to be building something for the future. I needed space to recognize this new terrain. I didn’t go out to parties, bars, or clubs. Instead, I stayed in the apartment I shared with my mother or I was at my sister’s house. I formed new bonds and began to relax. It was a wonderful feeling, but I wasn’t content. I needed to understand the concept of freedom. Then Covid-19 hit like an Atom bomb and the world changed.
The pandemic caused the world to stop. For a man who thrived in prison through every lockdown you can imagine, it gave me an opportunity to advance. I was able to build during a time when most were discovering what doing time in a cell was really like. Most people had never experienced that much time to themselves, and it showed. Boredom was at an all-time high and few people knew how to address it other than with TV, phone, or pass away time with sleep.
I read books and watched documentaries on subjects that would advance my knowledge. I wrote for countless hours on various subjects and even finally began to work on my book. I secured a good paying job in my field of cooking, created a personal budget, secured my own apartment and pulled myself up after sitting down for a year to figure this world out. I examined my strengths and weaknesses, and what I discovered was that I was stubborn and set in my ways, but also passionate, driven and I trusted my intuition so if I follow my own lead I knew I would be okay and eventually thrive.
In life, it’s good to reset, planned or unplanned. I am often called a living legend in my community because I have shown that no matter one’s circumstances, if you don’t give up – you can achieve anything. I came home with my dignity, mind, body, and soul still intact, and I couldn’t ask for much more than that. But I still continue to build, because I figured out that growth is a personal goal to be achieved from within, and that is where I finally found my freedom, inside myself.
“Have you been convicted of a felony?” I have found these words to be the most vicious words said to me since my release in February of this year. I sat there, once again, defeated as I typed in the answer to that question, knowing what the response would be: “How long ago?”
“Twenty-eight years ago,” I reply.
Then I do my best to give them the elevator speech I was taught in my pre-release classes. Abruptly, I receive an answer of: “What were your convictions?”
Feeling the sense of defeat turn to agitation, I remain calm as I answer, “At the age of 16, I was convicted of murder and robbery. I served 28 years and have recently been released.”
I am tempted to terminate the e-mail interview at this point because I dread the response I know will come. Within minutes, I see: I’m sorry, sir, we cannot hire you with a robbery conviction.
I thank them for their time knowing that they will likely not even read the last message I have sent. I turn to my notepad that has the many qualifications and notes I have made preparing for this interview and add a hashmark in the margin that indicates my 92nd denial for work due to a nearly 30-year-old crime.
I am once again filled with shame and loathing for myself and my past. As a dark cloud threatens my mind and all of the stability I have built there, I take a deep breath and start typing again. I remember my path, my mistakes, and my anger. I remember how easy it is to give up and live in those moments. Yet, I also remember people I barely knew cheering me on as I prepared for my release and how they were there to help as I struggled to change and understand the world.
In my darkest times, the memories I have are of the men left standing in that dark place wishing and hoping for that one chance to be free and thinking of all the mistakes they wouldn’t repeat again. My resolve hardens as I send yet another e-mail. I will make it. I will survive and prevail, if not for myself then for the man I once was who sat in misery wishing, hoping, and waiting for that one chance to be free again.
Prisoners put a lot of emphasis on food because, in prison, food is the number one priority. We wake planning the day’s meals and we go to sleep thinking about tomorrow’s possibilities. Like everything else you get what you pay for. Believe me when I say: It is a rare occurrence to get a good meal.
I watched the menu – a four week cycle – posted on the wall of the housing unit, with diligence for the few good meals Aramark served including my favorite meal. My favorite meal consisted of chicken patty, macaroni and cheese, whole kernel corn, salad, and bread pudding for dessert. I recall one time when my favorite meal was scheduled to be served then I laid down and fell asleep. When I woke and realized I had missed it, I was pissed, not only because I had missed my favorite meal, but also because I had to eat a chicken Ramen noodle soup. Now my favorite meal was being served again.
This time, I was bound and determined not to miss it.
On this day after being released to go to chow, I entered the front doors of the prisoner’s dining room. The dining room has two large arrays of twenty-four stainless-steel tables, one array on the right in the front of the doors and one array on the left near the serving window. An array of tables consisted of three four-man tables welded together and bolted to the floor so that nothing moved. As I entered the dining room, I felt confident that all was well. Nothing appeared amiss, although as a seasoned prisoner I knew what things could change in the blink-of-an-eye. I stayed on full alert.
I made my way around the wall of the dining room to the serving window where I received my tray. I sat down at the second row of tables in the array next to the serving window with my back to the front doors. That was unusual for me because I always faced the front so I could see what and who was coming and going. The food looked and smelt delicious. I had just taken my first bite when I detected that the rhythm in the dining room suddenly changed from a normal tempo to a hurried tempo. Looking up, I noticed that everyone directed their attention to the area near the front door. Instinctively, I knew it was bad news and I began eating faster. Only during the chewing stage of eating did I twist around on my stainless-steel seat to see three prisoners fighting. They were throwing blows in every direction and moving fast, and I could not tell, between bites, who was fighting who. I twisted back around to my tray and began eating faster.
I knew that any moment guards would run in and either run us out or start spraying mace. I waited a long time for this meal and I thought: I’m going to eat it even if it kills me. I filled my mouth, again, with food and while chewing I twisted back around to watch the fight. While chewing, I asked, “Is that Essex?” By this time, all manners about not talking with your mouth full were out the window. Essex was in my creative writing class and living the honor dorm and I couldn’t imagine him being involved in a fight like this.
Someone said, “Yes, that is Essex.”
When the guards ran in, they stood facing the fighters with mace in their hands and yelled for them to lie on the floor. Essex still had the poor albino guy by the head. He wouldn’t turn him loose and went to the floor with him.
A big, fat female guard sprayed him with mace. It shot out in a wide, reddish-purple stream. The effects of it soon saturated the entire dining room. Prisoners ran to the back of the dining room choking and coughing. I had only a slight cough but kept eating my favorite meal. I looked around my table and everyone was gone except for one guy. He said, “You can tell who has had tear gas training in the military from those who haven’t,” and then he left. I finished my meal and twisted around to watch. Essex still had the poor albino by the head even after being soaked with mace. The guard pulled out a taser gun that gave out an electrical shock and tasered him. He screamed like a wild Comanche and turned the albino loose. The guards took the three fighters away. I reasoned the mace hadn’t bothered me because of my years in the military. I walked to the back of the dining room where everyone else stood coughing and choking. The dining room was a mess with half eaten trays left everywhere. I remembered thinking: It’s going to take some time to clean up this mess.
The guard opened the back door and let us out. Fresh air filled my lungs. It felt good. As I walked back to my housing unit, I felt content about having finished my favorite meal.
Forty-eight years ago, in 1972, I received a life sentence, and even though I have been eligible for parole for twenty-seven years now, I remain in prison. So, “What does one do if he or she has years or decades on the ‘inside’ or may not be able to leave?” The question makes me wonder, “Do people in the free-world believe there is a difference between their life and incarcerated life?” Life is life, regardless of one’s circumstances.
On this day, I’m sitting on my bed, back against the wall, tablet made in China, paper and pen in hand, looking out the window at the forest on the far, back end of the prison. My constant oversight supervises its growth and I see the beauty of life change through passing seasons. In the beginning the trees were just shrubs, but now they are giants. I love the view of the forest. It takes my mind off the concrete, brick, and steel that represents prison. A desolate landscape. In the spring, the trees of the forest begin to bud, and in the summer buds turn into green leaves. In the fall leaves turn yellow, orange, and red before falling off, leaving the trees bare again. It almost erases the sight of oneself in a cell for decades.
There are greater restrictions on an incarcerated life. Among the most pronounced is no intimacy with the opposite sex and the loss of personal decision-making over one’s own life. But neither of these major restrictions in my life bring to it a screeching halt. Everyone’s life has restrictions. A person living in the free-world cannot live in a house unless they work and pay for it; they cannot eat unless they work to buy food; and they cannot jump in their car and go as fast as they want when they want because there are speed limits. I have speed limits in prison, too. There is no running in prison, except at the rec yard. They assume if you’re running you’ve done something wrong. I can’t stop on the controlled walk to talk. If I’m on walk, I have to keep moving. So, as an incarcerated person doing decades, “What do I do?” It’s simple, I accept the restrictions on my life because it’s the only life I have to live at this time. Maybe tomorrow will bring a different situation.
In truth, what I do in life is not much different than what most who strive to survive life do. I have hope, which is essential to surviving decades in prison. Hope tells me that someday the prison doors may open. It reminds me not to give up. Hope enables me to live another day. When I came home from Vietnam, I had problems coping and adjusting. I showed signs, documented by the Judge, of severe PTSD which contributed to my crime. I was confronted with the death penalty. But, before my trial began, the death penalty was struck down as being unconstitutional. I know, deep in my heavy heart, that warehousing people without a glimmer of hope is wrong.
Throughout my life sentence, I’ve upheld a strong connection to faith. In Vietnam, I had Marine brothers stand beside me shot dead. I returned home without a single, physical scratch. Later, when I worked for the power company framing 50’ poles, a fellow lineman argued with me that it was his turn to climb and frame the next pole that I was glaring up to climb. I stepped aside, and the pole that was supposed to be stable and set in rock, fell over and crushed him to death. Faith has guided me through, provided purpose. In prison, I’ve seen men stabbed and beaten to death. I have come to know my fellow inmates well as they allow themselves to be known. Their backgrounds cover a diverse spectrum: drug dealers, middle-class types, gang-bangers. Though each man’s story is unique, they are all viewed as evil and worthless.
Family has stood by me during my long prison sentence. Over the years, time has taken most of my immediate family, but nieces and nephews have stepped up to fill in. Such is the hallmark of a good family. My family send me “icare” food orders each month. These food orders consist of triple, bacon cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets with ranch dressing, nacho platters, French fries, to name a few. In all of this, the greatest gift of all that they send me is love. I know they will be there for me when others won’t. And yet men, like me, who have been locked up for more than forty years believe that the steps we’ve taken to redeem ourselves will matter to someone, someday. As long as there is life, there is hope.
As I look over the vast forest from my cell window, I admire the changing leaves. In the rebirth and dying of trees in the forest, I see the mimicking of human life. In the evenings, the deer come out of the forest to eat the sweet, tender shoots of grass that grow alongside the road that lie in front of the forest. If I’m lucky, Mama will bring her baby fawns out with her for me to see. There are some differences in our lives – mine and yours, but restrictions in life are constant. One can adapt to circumstances. Life moves on no matter where you sit.
In life, there are many hurdles to jump. Some people make the jump and some take the fall. Some who take the fall get back up and re-join the race, but some who fall are broken and must knit themselves back together before ever thinking to race again and even then seem to never fully heal.
Which one will fair better in life: those broken and mended or those who merely stumble and keep running? As one who was broken and mended many times, I can tell you I prefer the company of the broken. No one can truly know what you’ve been through, but the shadows that lurk within the minds of those who have been broken are all the same. Those who feel broken or have experienced depths of pain and suffering know this: if you have been shattered that means you have more dimensions of character and a bigger heart than those who haven’t been. Some wounds remain so close to the surface. Beauty often requires a kind of devastation. Maybe the saddest terrain are always the most beautiful. And for those who reveal their scars: there’s more of you to learn about and more of you to love. I’m not broken; I’m simply divided.
On February 24th of this past year I was released from what I thought a dismal existence. After 28 and a half years I got out of prison. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion where I screamed to the heavens about the freedom I had been given. Instead I have remained subdued. The world is unkind to those of us from within the system, and I quickly realized that I would receive no quarter. Immediately I was opposed on all sides by challenges and goals that seemed impossible to overcome. I could understand where a man with nothing would choose to remain or re-enter the system as opposed to deal with the kind of issues that we are faced with. I was sent by parole to get an ID card. But I had no social security card, so I couldn’t get an id. The social security office would not give me a card because I had no id. So it went until I had to rely on the parole department to supply the information in order for them to believe who I was.
From there things only got worse as I attempted to find work (without a way to get there and back) and found myself looking at refusal after refusal. It turns out that if a business hires felons, it only hires certain felons.
So jobless and struggling I found myself thinking about prison life. I’m not going to lie, the lure was there, all you have to do in prison is exist. That is it.
Darkness overcame my thoughts as this time passed over me and I began to think I’d be better off going back to that simple existence; to be a number not a person. I began to look through the paperwork that I had brought with me from the joint and found my creative writing folder. I began remembering the people who tried so hard to help me, to bring me out of the “convict” mentality, I remembered the writing classes and Tiffany and Debra and the others in the class with me. A lot of us are out and I began to wonder about them.
My mind began to wander as a voice within me started telling me to stand firm.
I had weathered 28 years and 6 months in prison and now I was going to give up cause things got a bit out of my comfort zone? No fucking way.
This is where I am less than 6 months out. I have a job working for a towing company, I own my own place, no payments, I own a car, I own a truck, and I have a beautiful girlfriend to top it off. I go fishing when I want to and play when I want. I sleep when I want to and all those things I took for granted in prison are now cherished by me every day.
Expect to exchange one set of problems in life for another, no one is exempt from this rule and all things will change like the weather, the key to survival is perseverance and belief that while bad times are surely coming, better times can be had by plowing through them.
Twenty-eight years. That’s a long time for a man to live his life behind bars. It’s also a long time for a man to be alone with his thoughts. But twenty-eight years is how long one of the men in my writing class waited for his freedom, waited to rejoin society, waited to once again be seen as a human and not an “offender”. This past Sunday, Danny walked out of prison and into a cold, clear Indiana night. I imagine it like The Shawshank Redemption where Morgan Freeman’s character, Red, steps past the prison gate after 40 years and looks around in wonder at the world around him. It’s the same outside world it’s always been but now, somehow, the world looks and feels different; there’s a shift in the atmosphere and life hasn’t quite come into focus. I think of Danny beneath that inky night sky exhaling years of oppression, exhaustion, and affliction and inhaling…hope.
Hope is an amazing thing. It has the power to propel us through dark days and unimaginable tragedies, but also manifest itself in the rising sun of a new day. I think I notice it most when December closes out the present year and January ushers in a new one. People are ripe with hope. With every New Year’s resolution and every promise to change, comes hope. It’s the possibility and opportunity to improve our circumstances and overcome our challenges. On the outside, hope is prevalent. We are surrounded with family and friends to help us accomplish our goals and fight our battles. We have access to the means necessary to guide us, heal us and support us. But what about those who live life on the inside? Surely the idea of hope must be a pipe-dream to someone facing decades in prison. How can one possibly find hope when life as they know it has been stripped from them and instead, of the promise of a new day, they are forced to accept the fact that they very well may die behind those prison walls – alone.
But, you know what? Hope is powerful. It has a way of seeping in through concrete walls and razor wire and transforming broken spirits. Hope is bigger than what we can conceive or imagine. Hope has purpose.
Time and time again, I hear inmates say the one thing that gets them through their sentence is hope. Hope is different for everyone. To me, hope is knowing that this life isn’t all there is. God gave my life purpose beyond what this world can give and He placed eternity in my heart; I know I was made for something more. I can’t imagine waking up every day and thinking this world is all there is, so I’d better make the most of it, be the best, achieve all I can because when it’s over it’s over. I would be so depressed!
For the men in my writing class, hope is evident in their words:
“For me, hope is all around in the expectation of things to come and in my desire to make those things happen.”
“Hope is having things to look forward to: family visiting, having good friends, going to church, and having a release date.”
“My hope comes from God. Having faith in God gives me all the hope I need.”
“My hope in prison comes from within my heart – my desire to live and be free.”
“Hope requires faith, if not, belief, that there is a chance things will get better.”
“As long as I have breath there is hope, and no matter what you take from me or where you put me you cannot take that.”
That last one reminds me of the conversation between Andy and Red (in the prison movie The Shawshank Redemption):
“In here is where it [hope] makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.” says Andy.
“Forget?” replies Red.
“Forget that there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. It’s yours.”
“What are you talking about?” asks Red.
Danny had hope too. Despite his almost thirty years behind bars, he had this to say about hope:
“Hope comes from knowing that because I can do this, because I can lose everything and everyone, and still get up in the morning to face the world, there is the possibility that things will change. Hope comes from hoping and wishing and watching your dreams and wishes fade away. The next time…next time it will work out. The absolute refusal to allows life’s misfortunes to destroy the light within your soul.”
I believe the poet Alexander Pope (1732) was right: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Life is unpredictable. Each day is rife with ups and downs and clad in uncertainty. But, we possess something beautiful, something powerful that surpasses human understanding. Deep in our souls, we have this adept ability to harness hope and allow ourselves to believe in a better tomorrow. Regardless of how many obstacles we face, if we allow it, hope will bubble its way to the surface and refresh us with a sanguine spirit.
Perhaps Andy Dufresne said it best:
“Hope is a good thing – maybe the best of things – and no
good thing ever dies.”
Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption
Not too overly ambitious, I have a burning desire to go to Utah to see the Arches National Park. To witness the breathtaking view of fifty miles from the south rim of the park. After hiking over petrified sand dunes for two hours I’d come to a cliff that overlooks the Colorado River and a 5,000 foot drop, and it’s bound to be amazing. The dry, clean air that has swept and carved those rock formations for a billion years would enhance the water in a canteen to taste sweet. Eye candy is that way, too. It makes the whole day taste sweet. Dark absurdities and blessings disguised as disappointments vanish to make way for the naked beauty of the landscape to comfort me.