I wonder about the power of strength. Is strength measured by physical stature? Is it mental fortitude, or the ability to endure emotional hardship? My life has been one hardship after another with no big windfalls, or high points – only a constant struggle.
In prison, it was easier to be strong physically and not care mentally as one’s path was laid out, and that used to be my foundation for survival. For better or worse, it was comfortable enough. Now, plagued with uncertainty, I find myself drowning in a world I do not understand and with problems I was never taught to fix. Every job denial – because of my criminal history – is a slap in the face. The cracks in the wall grow deeper, exposing the shadows and darkness within of defeat. Still, I push on.
What will I become? Will I be reduced to nothing and fade away as the light shines upon the places I hide. Will I regress into what I had once become in the name of survival and embark on a mission of self destruction? Or will I rise once again and rebuild with greater strength than before?
I remember getting a whooping for doing something I had no business doing and my grandaddy would always say, “Take the trash out son, and I’ll give you a dollar.” So I would take the trash out, he’ll give me a dollar. Then, he’d tell me to ask my uncle Charlie to walk me to Walgreens to get me some ice cream. He knew I loved ice cream.
I remember the very first and last time I ever saw my grandaddy run full speed. He used to work for Salvation Army, ringing bells during the holidays. He was supposed to meet my grandmother and I at the bus stop when he got off work, but we didn’t see him. Then, my grandmother said, “Look, there he is.” He was racing to the bus stop wearing a full Santa Clause outfit, beard and everything. She said, “Run Forrest Run.” We all burst into laughter.
I remember my grandaddy used to eat raw onions like they were apples. He was a savage. He would sprinkle on a little salt and pepper and devour them. The way he ate them made me curious. I had to try it. I went to the refrigerator, grabbed an onion, peeled it, and sprinkled a little salt and pepper on it. I bit into that thing and felt sick. I was so mad. I tossed the onion in the trash and my grandmother caught me and of course I got a whooping. My grandaddy told me, “Take the trash out son, I’ll give you a dollar.” So I did, then asked my Uncle Charlie to walk me to Walgreens so I could get me some ice cream.
I remember – when I first had girl problems – moping around the house. My grandaddy asked, “What’s wrong, son?” I told him that I was going to break-up with my girlfriend. His response, “You only had one girlfriend?” I told him that you’re supposed to only have one girlfriend. He said, “Son, just imagine that you’re going on a road trip, and one of your tires go flat.” My eyes went wide, like I figured out what he was saying. I said, so I’m supposed to have two girlfriends grandaddy? He said, “Son, you’re listening, but you’re not paying attention.” So now I’m confused. He said, “What if every tire on the car goes flat?” I’m good at math and did my calculation. Am I supposed to have eight girlfriends? He laughed and said, “You’re damn right!”
I remember the day my grandmother passed away. My little sister and I were at school and our stepdad came to pick us up early. When we got in the car, he broke the news. I screamed at the top of my lungs. My little sister was confused and I repeated what our stepdad said. “It’s grandmother; she’s dead!” He told us that she suffocated. When we got to the house, my entire family was there. It was the first time I saw him cry. When it came time for us to leave my grandaddy asked me to stay. He didn’t want to be left alone. He said, “Take the trash out son, I’ll give you a dollar. There’s ice cream in the refrigerator. You can eat as much as you want to.” So, I took the trash out, he gave me a dollar, and I ate ice cream until I fell asleep.
The pain is unimaginable. I close my eyes. All I can see is the face of an angel. I see my grandmother’s face, but she isn’t here. I scream for her at the top of my lungs. Tears drop down my face, falling like treacherous rain, but the skies are blue. Clouds look like pillows floating in an ocean of my emotions. My grandmother still isn’t here. I’m screaming for her like I know for a fact that she’s going to come rescue me from this pain. A pain that I’ve never felt before. My eyes are closed, like vault doors trying to hold back the tears. I feel someone grab my hand, and tell me that everything is going to be okay. I open my eyes, and there she was. My angel. My grandmother. She held a wet cloth, and a band-aid. Even though the pain was still there, it didn’t seem so bad anymore. My tears slowly stopped falling because somehow I knew that everything was going to be just fine. I mean who knew that scraping your knee would hurt this much. To a five-year-old, it felt like my world was crashing down. I had jumped my neighbor’s fence to get my football, and when I was climbing back over, my foot slipped. I slammed my knee into the top of the prongs of the fence. I still have the scar.
The day of my release was a blur. The anticipation of that day made the reality of it hard to process. The state employee driving me and two others was lost in his own thoughts. The other two guys babbled on about mundane topics barely earning my attention. My senses were feasting. It was July and the sights of beautiful straight rows of corn fields, waving grain, and rivers flowing beneath the bridges, along with clean smells and new sights kept my focus. As I arrived home, the businesses seemed different as did the road system entering my small town. Processed for probation, I was fed a dose of harsh talk and browbeating by my new Big Boss Man, my corrections officer. Being very used to that narrative, I smiled and nodded my head. A friend picked me up and we went to a nearby convenience store where I became a kid in a candy store. There were piles of everything at my disposal, but I opted for a fountain Coke, and although I hadn’t smoked in years, I bought a pack because I could. I recognized a toothless girl in line and asked her for a kiss. She beamed and gave me one! Two blocks down the road, my friend stopped again to enter his apartment and fetch a guitar for him and a harmonica for me.
“But what if I forgot how?” I winced.
“Shut up and play.”
As he started playing a blues riff in C., with a tear in my eye, I realized you never forget.
Since that day, life has been a journey. The smell and taste of delicious food, different each day, has made a distant memory of the terrible prison food as well as of my waistline. I desire to spread love to friends, family, and even strangers each day and to fill the void of a life without drugs. The hardest transition so far is the one that everyone is in – social distancing. I want to smile, talk, and hug, but the world is different. I am now financially stable and healthy. What did I gain from prison? I count my blessings now instead of assigning blame or finding fault. I am now a glass-half-full guy who finds his purge from any anxiety encountered by letting my pen hit the paper thanks to the Indiana Prison Writers Workshop.
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.
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.