Jeffery, 59

Jeffery, 59

The Word tells us that we are never alone, and through the current events of the day it surely could have felt like it.

Dear Family and Friends, 

It is my prayer that the Lord keep us and guide us as we enter into the dawn of another year. Let us shed the past as if an old coat and go strengthened and invigorated into a new day. Amen. 

Would you allow me a moment to say thank you all for your love and encouragement as the time served just keeps going? Many of you are saying that the time is winding down and in that hope we keep pressing on. October of The New Year would bring the 23rd year and you all have been a part of this journey and again, thank you so much for your sacrifice’s and the spirit that dwells within that you so unselfishly share this way inside the razor topped fences and prison walls. 

How do we move forward through the past few years? Time and events that remain lingering with no end in sight and the rhetoric changes daily while remaining the same. The line of division appears to grow at such an unprecedented rate and the world growingly left in turmoil. How do we smile when the clouds seem to just keep rolling along? “FINALLY, MY brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is save” [Philippians 3:1] 

If we only look at what has happened in our lives, in the world over the previous year[s] we could just continue in that same cycle of loss and misery. Thank God for those who have stuck by; those who keep giving words of encouragement while even their situation is often fare more bleak than is for us sitting in prison. You give such strength that is holding me up and pushes me through those moments when I am down and hurting. So it is that I strive daily to be that better man, a more mature individual and take responsibility, hold myself accountable. 

“If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” [Philippians 3:11-14 KJV] 

The word informs us that there is not one of who is free from sin; we all have fallen and come short of the glory of God. Though I can think of several people I admire that I don’t thing would fit into that category, however, the Lord knows all of who we are no matter what we may reveal to others. For the Lord has spoken, Amen. 

The part of being in prison is the punishment for the crimes committed and it was intended that while here undergo a time of rehabilitation. To commit ourselves to change mentally in that we would not reoffend or commit another violation against society. In the current times of corrections or just the way of life is in the world today, we must attain that elusive “rehabilitation” ourselves utilizing the programs offered; developing a better social and work ethic where there may not have been one prior to the incarceration. 

Another way or a very integral part of rehabilitation is taking responsibility for the offenses charged against us. Often forgetting how we can be so quick to point fingers at others for some offense against us and yet think it not robbery to deprive another of that which we as men, as adults are supposed to do and be. Now we cry for the children left behind, those strong women who loved us even as the little boys we were. 

The scripture reads in part, if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. That means to me that I must do whatever it takes to rise from that which held me captive in my past. Thank God for his grace  and mercy, Amen. 

“But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.” [I Timothy 6:11-12 KJV] 

The Word tells us that we are never alone, and through the current events of the day it surely could have felt like it. The world quarantined and left isolated in the home, not much different than being confined in a jail cell and no one committed a crime, so to speak…but we made it, you all have made it out there to keep pressing forward in life. A good man has told me on several occasions, “you made it through the yesterday to wind up in the today you are grumbling about”. By the grace and mercy of Almighty God we have arrived in our today so let us not grumble and find the comfort, love and that joy of serving the Lord who has not left us and has brought us this far. Yes, we have lost family and friends, some are still here and battling various issues with health, finances. Let us remember, trouble don’t last always, Amen. I love you and thank you all for holding me accountable. To God be the glory, now and forever.  

“Now, we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, conform the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men. See that none render evil for evil unto any man. Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you”[Thessalonians 5:14-18] 

Let us pray: 

I surrender, Lord God, we come before You in this season of closing out the past and entering a New Year. A season of forgiveness and purpose. We thank You Father for being with us during the difficult times and for holding us through when we were not sure on what the next moment would bring. We hold Your love ever present as we see that You have not left us, nor forsake us as Your Word tells us. 

Thank You Father for those who have stayed by our side and we give love to those who have gone on ahead of us. We lift up those who have had it a lot rougher than we who sit within the confines of a prison; and for those who are in perhaps another type of prison mentally. 

Lord, we pray that the days that are yet to come be full of joy and love and happiness. We ask that You watch over the families of those in prison and for those who are sick and shut in. We pray for the church body and seek to help them in ways the world may not be able to do for them. Keep us O Lord. Give us the strength to do Your will in these difficult times and please forgive us of any thought word or deed that is not of Your will in our lives. We pray this and all unspoken utterances in Jesus’ Name, Amen. 

In His Love, 


Raheem, 45

Raheem, 45

This New City

After being in an abusive relationship for a couple of years, my mother decided to leave her boyfriend and move us to Miami, FL. it was 1982. I was overwhelmed by this news. But inwardly, I was happy for her. I would no longer have to see the bruises on her frail body that took days and sometimes weeks to disappear. I would no longer have to hear her frantic cries for him to “STOP.” I was liberated by her courageous choice and a piece of paper–a plane ticket that freed me from feelings of shame and helplessness for not being strong enough to help her. I despised this man–a man empowered by senseless rage and the false notions that led him to believe that beating women made him  a man. I was free; we were free.

 The district we moved to was called ‘Coconut Grove,’ an ethnic gumbo full of Haitians, Jamaicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans. I didn’t know anything about the ‘Red-Lining’ of certain neighborhoods, or the ‘Fair Housing Act.’ however, it became immediately clear that I had arrived in what might as well have been a foreign land– a congested metropolis full of poor black and brown people. Amidst the scorching heat and frustrating humidity, vacant alleys and lots were home to heaps of trash and public health violations. Something told me that the general public didn’t care. This was evident by the discarded needles which vastly outnumbered cigarette butts. Still, there was a certain beauty to the palm trees that danced in the warm winds, as the avocados and mangos hung low enough on most trees to reach. And when you breathed in on most days, you could taste the salt in the air—courtesy of the Atlantic coastline which was right around the corner.

Whether day or night, different sized lizards populated the cracks in between the pavement—speeding by you as if just to be seen. And if not them, colorful iguanas peeked down occasionally from phone lines or nearby branches. Gradually I was starting to understand the pace of this new city, which moved methodically to a new urban rhythm.

It didn’t take long for me to see what was going on in this city although I was just nine years old, and oblivious to Columbian Cartels, I was smart enough to know that the constant sirens, overdoses and squad cars meant something—a heroin epidemic. And as the sun set each night, this epidemic became more visible. Consequently, it equaled more crime and cops who tried to restore some sense of balance to this concrete jungle. It was in these early years that I began to see what poverty looked like, but what it felt like as well. Moreover, I understood the damaging effects of the drugs that swept through my neighborhood.

Lord knows I wanted things to be different for me.
Harry, 46

Harry, 46

I was sentenced for 33 years as a Third-Striker for a vicious assault on my girlfriend – a crime that should never have occurred, not when it came from a person she trusted. I will never try to create an excuse for my crime. There are, however, some circumstances that led up to those fateful decisions. 

I believe no one is born a criminal. No one is born with the sickness to go against societal norms and create havoc by breaking laws. Yet, there are situations that enable a person to think crime is okay. Here are some of my attributing factors that have been brought to light since I have been in prison. First, I was a very hurt individual. Secondly, I carried with me the abuse I suffered as a child. Third, I had little to no self-esteem. And lastly, I learned alcohol abuse was a poor coping mechanism, a self-medicating crutch that prevented me from being able to deal with my fractured soul. 

The one person who was always there for me and a positive light was my dad. I’d like to give proper attributes to my dad, who was a strong role model until I hit my terrible teens. During that period, I rebelled against everything that made sense. He did his best to teach me what it was to be a man. If I had listened to him, I would have taken a different path in life and I would not be writing to you from a 10’ x 5’ cell. 

During my rebellious teenage years, I succumbed to peer pressure and surrounded myself with criminals whose words validated my abusive acts. At a time when I was being physically abused by my girlfriend, my friends told me all she needed was to be smacked in order to learn her place. Their ignorance weighed heavily on my conscience and I took their foolish words to heart. I am sorry for the terrible acts I committed against her. The ripple effect from the harm I caused her can never be forgiven because I created a void in her life. By abusing her, my conduct spawned potential intergenerational domestic violence. If her kids perpetrated violence against others, that violence could be attributed to me. 

Unfortunately, I led myself to prison. The cause of my actions came from carrying around too much pain and not having a proper outlet in which to release it. I wasn’t taught the coping skills I needed to deal with the pain. What I felt inside came from witnessing my abusive mother assault my dad. My mother would then turn her rage and anger onto me. It left me feeling powerless.  The actions of my mom left an impression on me at such a young age and stayed with me into adolescence and beyond. Her abuse fed my pain, cementing it in my mind and body to the point that I began to believe physical abuse was okay; it was a way to resolve conflicts. 

Prison has been a wake up call for me. Over the years, it dawned on me that I needed to change, and change I did.  I began by abstaining from consuming mind and mood altering substances, and I invested my time in pursuing an education. I have been sober now for over ten years, and I have made strides academically.  I even gave the graduation speech for Coastline College here at SQ in 2017. Can you imagine that? An introvert loving public speaking! In one of my pictures, it is of me graduating college. It was one of the greatest achievements I have ever accomplished.

Ever since I chose academics and recovery, my perspective has changed as well; I have come to realize that, even though my body is locked up, my mind has been truly set free. Moreover, I believe I am in the polishing stages of becoming the best version of myself possible. And I hope to leave a legacy where others might come to realize it’s still possible to succeed even in prison. In college, I was able to learn a great deal about the human condition. Specifically, I was made aware of the psychology behind and the cause and effects of my actions. Having reflected upon the underlying causes of my criminality from an academic perspective, I was able to develop a way to effect change within my daily living. I have earned three college degrees and I feel education is the only free aspect of a person in prison and their heart.

What has changed the most in me is the fact that I have learned to love myself. I have learned to speak about my pain instead of masking it. I have learned to control my anger. And I came to understand that anger is normal; it’s what you do with it that makes a difference.

One of the ways I learned to address my problems was through writing. This act of expression allowed me to channel negative, harmful thoughts and actions away from myself and others. It has been very effective in that I no longer choose to react to situations or circumstances using outbursts or by means of physicality; writing allows me a chance to respond to these challenges in a methodical manner.  Writing has been my gateway to freedom. I now write so others can see life through my eyes rather than feel pain through my reactions. I think my family would be surprised to know that I have been writing professionally for three years now.  

With these successes and breakthroughs and the fact of my meeting and marrying my soulmate, there remains the stark reality of being separated from society and my loved ones.  I miss so many things about being outside. Simple things like the smell of fresh cut grass. Being able to go fishing. The family gatherings over the holidays. I miss the memories that I could have built with my family. I missed the first steps of my kids and many other firsts in their lives. I miss being able to cook meals for the holidays and giving away more than we eat. These miss-vs-missed events also inspired me to change. It was the initial spark that led me to see that in order to fix my problem I had to first realize what was broken.

 My wife is helping me understand these things during our life journey and our pursuit of love. I appreciate the love she has brought to my life and I look forward to my time talking to her at the end of the day.  I see love differently now from anything I have ever known. I see the difference between loving someone and being in love with someone. I learned that I am worthy of love. 

As for my children, my daughter has really been a blessing, and she is slowly trusting me and allowing me into her life. I hope my son, on the other hand, will eventually reach out to connect with me in God’s time. 

 The things I go through are directed toward conditioning myself for my re-entry to society and having a positive attitude helps me get through each day. I think everyone has a routine. Without one, you’ll have many things that fail to get accomplished. My plans are to be an at-risk teen counselor when I am released. I feel teens need the most guidance so that they don’t end up having to grow up and mature in prison like I did. Hopefully, with the help of people like me, that scenario will be avoided. 

Louis, 60

Louis, 60

My name is Louis  and I am currently serving time in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on a 47 year aggravated sentence.  I am a Field Minister at my unit. I graduated May 2016 from Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary to be a resident, an inmate, and pastor. Upon my graduation I was assigned to the Mark W. Stiles unit Chapel of Hope. I have been serving this community for almost 5 years.

God had called me for His glory to be a shepherd and servant leader to the men here at my unit. I love my calling and it is a humbling honor to be of servitude to these men. I have many spiritually challenging ministry duties: On-call Biblical and Grief & Bereavement, Counseling, Hospice counseling, preaching, teaching life skills courses, organization of chapel programs and services, facilitation of anger ministry, facilitation of faith-based 12-step recovery programs (Overcomers & Celebrate Recovery), Closed Custody & Administrative Segregation ministry and courses, Tutorial Services for GED students, Facilitator of Talent Shows, playwright and Theatrical Workshops & Theatrical Company. Even though I am a Christian I teach and minister to all faiths, even no faith at all.

I also have many beloved friends incarcerated with me who have different faiths, no religious beliefs, and theological differences. In light of this up-and-coming Presidential Election countered by the current condition of the pandemic, I strongly believe, articulate, and live by the saying former President Obama used, “We all need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.” My prayer is that someday our government & world leaders would adhere to that principle at the tables of diplomacy.

I am also teamed up with three other fellow Field Ministers to support and assist in the various ministry opportunities. The Chapel of Hope resident community that we serve has over 33 different faiths. I truly love these men and understand the plights and situations one goes through doing time. Unlike TDCJ chaplains or outside chapel volunteers who leave the unit after duty, I live with my congregation. I wear the same uniform, eat the same food, and experience the unpleasant circumstances of being incarcerated. 75% of this population is serving lengthy sentences.

The Chapel of Hope administration team of men, my co-workers, is a very close-knit group. We are blessed and fortunate to be under the governance of a TDCJ Staff Chaplain who treats us like human beings, not outcasts who fell from secular grace. We have seven Christians and one Muslim brother. We all respect and take care of each other. We hold each other accountable by maintaining the integrity of our leader (Unit Chaplain) and the Chapel of Hope. We live by the mission of our chapel: Redeeming Broken Lives.

The Chapel of Hope Ministry Team and I do not play church for appearance sake. This is not just a prison job to our staff. We believe all people have value, deserve mercy, and are loved equally by God, even the worst outcast and most forgotten! We help restore hope by sharing God’s redeeming grace with individuals and their families. By no means were we choirboys. Every one of us has a mighty testimony (ex-street and prison gang leaders, drug, alcohol and substance abusers, thieves and murderers and master manipulators) from our past. Heartfelt testimonies give a level of transparency to those we minister to.

Over the past twenty years of my incarceration I see that the faces entering the system are younger with more violent charges and extremely long sentences. They are confused, angry, prideful, aggressively violent and scared. In order to minister effectively to these residents, you have to first earn and gain their trust.  Trust in a prison environment does not come easy. You gain their trust by them witnessing you living consistently. In other words, are you living and walking the talk you preach and teach?

We prisoners are professional observers, especially observing those who claim to be Christian, Muslim, and Buddhists etc. One of the first characteristics you inherit by simply doing time is how to observe your surroundings, staff & other prisoner’s characteristics, what shift is one duty etc. Before you can minister to these men they have to observe how you live and if it is constant with the belief system you claim. As the scriptures say, “You cannot serve two masters.” Hypocrisy is frowned upon by members of my community, especially when the hypocrisy is used or hidden behind religion. There is a secular term here in prison called “being 100.” When someone witnesses for you and says, “That dude is 100” that means he is not fake. His word is his bond. As a shepherd pastor, teacher, and minister, I always strive to be 100 with my flock.

Let’s be frank, there are many people in here that are not in here for being very nice. Some of them wear my uniform and others wear a staff uniform. There are those who are predatory and look for vulnerabilities or weaknesses. You do not want to become a mark, a weakling, vulnerable, victimized or labeled as a sucker in here. There are a lot of broken men who enter these walls who have not dealt or made peace with their past circumstances or transgressions (illiteracy, poverty, child abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, addiction, broken families etc.) Please do not get the impression that I am making excuses or supporting the victim stance for criminal behavior or thinking. However, there is a cultural worldview mindset of relativism that prisons manifest. This detrimental mindset has adverse effects both on our free world society and within the walls of our prisons.

Every day I witness on the world and local news that there are no set moral standards. The mindset is “You Do You and I Do Me.” If you speak out against how I am living you are out of line. It may sound ridiculous but I often thank God I am in here, and not dealing with the ills of free world society. It seems a lot more viscous out there.

This individualistic selfishness is immediately apparent and manifested from the very onset you are processed in the prison system. No one gives you a training manual on how to Do Time. The only manual you receive is an orientation manual of institutional rules and violations. There are no smiling faces or welcome committee other than correctional uniformed staff.

Staff is trained not to trust you and not to befriend you. It does not take very long to realize you are alone, especially if you do not have any spiritual foundation. You learn to live by a set of endless forever changing rules and regulations called “The Prison Code.” There is no abridged edition to this manual. It has never been published in print. It is handed down verbally and the contributors are numerous authors who have earned their PhD’s in the “PRISON CODE OF ETHICS,” accredited by “Penitentiary State University” of “Doing Time.”

Your mind can quickly become a battlefield of bamboozled clichés tricked and fed by your emotions, environment or circumstances, such as how you represent your hood, street, set or barrio at all cost. Watch your back. Do your own time not mine.  Trust nobody but yourself or your homie. Worry about no one else but yourself.  Look hard, tough, resilient & un-vulnerable. You can take on the victim stance of living, the “because I” excuse for not taking responsibility. Because of the white man, because I was poor, because I am black, because I am Hispanic, because the DA was out for blood, because my mom was a whore, because my father was not there, because I lived in the hood or barrio. There is an endless cycle of excuses for taking no responsibility and believing, “Society owes me something. After all they are the ones who put me here.”

I am a firm believer in the positive flourishment of my community. The reality is that this temporary residence is my community. I have a moral and spiritual responsibility for its reform by promoting hope in an environment that often dictates hopelessness.

Our unit has a high rate of suicides, HIV, Hospice patients, mental health and health care challenged residents. Prison is not very encouraging. The surroundings, barbed wire, steel cages and fences, overcrowding, punitive systematic policies, substandard healthcare, mental illness, family loss and separation often makes emotions unbalanced.  Feelings of hopelessness settle in. Suicides start to peak and men develop self-destructive habits: drug abuse, substance abuse, increased gang activity, violence, and staff assaults.

Unfortunately, too, the COVID-19 outbreak had an adverse effect on our resident community and its members. Systematic lockdowns for positive outbreaks from COVID means no outside visitation, limited commissary privileges, and inconsistent preventive measures imposed upon residents. The realistic situation of overcrowding and prison living areas were not designed for “social distancing. Unrealistic staff enforcement of preventive measures can stress out residents and uniformed staff members. There is an old saying “Idle Minds Do Idle Time,” which is often an excuse for self-destructive behaviors to take over and cause substance abuse, depression, self-pity, suicide, homebrew, gangs, isolation, bitterness etc. 

Men continuously make bad choices. Not owning up to their God-given responsibilities, they end up in here!!

Sometimes we make choices and sometimes we allow our choices to make us. I teach fatherhood principles in a Christian based all faiths welcomed program called “Quest for Authentic Manhood.” Men have a problem with the concepts and responsibilities of true manhood. You see many men have no idea what the true definition of manhood is. After 24 weeks of genuine classroom mini-group interaction they come away with a clear definition of Manhood to include reward, God’s reward. One must learn to deny self without excuse. I challenge my flock and it is a humbling experience to be in the position to do so. I love teaching and I don’t take my calling under God for granted.

However pastoral care can be overwhelming. Like I said earlier I live with my congregation and earned trust requires patience, listening skills and a genuine heart for service. In the free world pastors can take a sabbatical and get away to refuel. I do not have that luxury. I live with my congregation 24 hours a day. So to decompress I do a lot of reading.

My favorite topics of interest are African & American History, autobiographies, and biographies. I am also a playwright. I love to make people laugh. I have a background in theater and enjoy doing stand-up comedy, hosting unit “talent shows” for the men. I pray one day that my plays might be copyrighted and published. I facilitated, directed and wrote two plays performed at my unit. I was blessed with a very good solid dedicated group of 40 men to formulate “THE UNCOMMON MEN THEATRICAL COMPANY.” Both performances were sell-outs during the Christmas season. It is amazing how many men here have never seen a live play performance. It is extremely rewarding introducing them to a cultural experience. I was in tears when I saw my ideas brought to fruition by my guys. They worked very hard, studying and memorizing their lines, and doing costume prep. We formed a brotherhood. People who view the prison environment from false misleading depictions from T.V. shows and the media really don’t realize how many gifted and talented men and women are behind bars. 

 Since my incarceration I decided not to remain enslaved to criminal thinking patterns or to do my time in idle mode. I did not come to prison to continue doing wrong. The only way to do that was to deny the narcissist pattern of thinking that got me in this situation in the first place. I came from a good solid loving middle class family and now I would be a disgrace to the family name. I let down my ex-wife, children, family and friends. I make no excuse or blame anyone. I am extremely remorseful for the victims of my crimes, the hurt and pain. I begged Christ for His forgiveness and asked my victims’ forgiveness, some in person and others in prayer.

I decided to make peace with my past and everyone by completely surrendering my life to Christ. Again, this is no temporary jailhouse religious journey. I had to complete the will of surrender. My life was completely dedicated to be obedient and in service to Christ Jesus.

I was first incarcerated in Arizona at 41 years old. I never before then was arrested nor had ever been inside a jail cell. However while sitting in the county jail of the notorious Sheriff Joe Apiolo, I was at an all time low. Clothed in prison chain gang stripes, pink underwear, pink t-shirt and socks with bright orange flip flops. The cell was cold, clammy, and nasty and the roaches were Special Forces members of Navy Seal-Team repelling off the walls (smile). I was coming down from a bad substance abuse habit and was unsure if my life was worthy of continuing. I made a promise to God. “Lord please lift the power of addiction from my life and I will forever be of service to you and your people.” Praise be to God that was twenty years ago, no drugs, no hooch, no pills.

I am smiling when I say that even on clean air I am still crazy.

In closing, sorry if this letter was too long. You are probably saying, finally, man this dude can talk. I need a bathroom break. Seriously, if God one day releases me from inside these walls, I will forever be of service to Him and involved with a prison ministry. His grace sustained me all these years.

I am blessed to have an 82 years young mom, a loving brother, two grown sons and two little girl princesses, my grandchildren. I will not leave Jesus at the gate upon release. My prayer is that this is good enough for publication and will inspire someone inside and outside of these walls.

In closing: “You have my permission to contact me if you desire.” If anyone else would like to contact me, they have my blessing. You may give them my information. I pray that your family and staff remain safe, healthy and blessed during our country’s time of unrest.

Fabian, 43

Fabian, 43

My incarceration has been a very long road, sometimes easy and often uncertain, but one thing it hasn’t been is a waste of time. At the beginning, as a screwed-up teenager, I looked at prison and the thirty flat years before I saw parole as a great behemoth that would surely crush me. Now I can’t imagine what I would have become without it.

Born and raised in Houston by loving grandparents, I fell into depression and drugs as a teen. With no genuine friendships or romantic relationships, I was a wayward, thwarted youth—my own worst enemy. My downward spiral resulted in a murder when I was nineteen. I received a ninety-nine-year sentence, of which I have now served twenty-four years now. I’m forty-three.

With the undying love and support of family and friends during the early years of my incarceration, I managed to overcome many dark, burdensome years of guilt, shame, and self-hatred. For a long time I couldn’t imagine the light at the end of the tunnel, but gradually I rekindled my love of art, which helped me gain control of at least a minor part of my life. In turn, I recreated myself from the inside out. In the mid-aughts, I exhibited drawings, collages, and watercolors at countless grassroots venues and prisoner-support events around the country. 

Emboldened by a greater sense of self and purpose, I began volunteering in the chaplaincy department to run sound for religious services, family day events, and GED and college graduation ceremonies. More recently, I have used my airbrush skills to paint sets and costumes for the unit’s drama club, which opened the door to the position of assistant director. I paint signs or murals for the wardens and other staff. Along the way I discovered a new passion as well: scriptwriting, with the future goal of directing. I’ve nurtured this dream for about fifteen years now, writing countless crappy scripts, studying movies on dayroom TVs, reading every film-related book in the unit library, and asking my family for subscriptions to movie/filmmaking magazines (they spend more on this than they do for commissary, which irks them).

All of these learning experiences have led to new opportunities. By running sound for events through the chaplaincy, not only did I learn sound fundamentals that would help me in my own films, but I also became a member of the prison leadership community, which earned me an invitation to a mentorship conference sponsored and hosted by outside groups. A former boss recommended me to a sign shop on the strength of my trustworthiness, work ethic, and passion for art—so I learned airbrushing on the state’s dime, and now I’m a proficient portrait artist who does work for fellow inmates and staff alike. And in 2009, I entered my first script excerpt to the PEN American Center’s annual prison writing contest, and was enlisted in their mentorship program.

As I write this, collaborators on the outside are shopping some of my scripts around to producers—fingers crossed. I’ve just finished a new script that I’m super hyped about; on my “break” before I begin the next one, I’m on the second revision of a self-help book that shows prisoners how to live their prison time better by seeing it differently, as well as catching up on portraits for guys in here (I never get ahead) and creating art for a friend and collaborator (and former employee of the Met in New York) who has exhibited and sold my work since 2004.

Social awkwardness was always my handicap: I was a naturally introverted kid, and it only worsened in prison as I tried my hardest to stay away from gangs and negativity. But I was determined to be a film director someday, so I joined Toastmasters to learn public speaking. I was scared as hell, but I did it anyway. I struggled and sweated for a year and a half until I received my Competent Communicator certificate—and two years after enrolling, I was voted club president. In addition to becoming an effective public speaker—something that has since helped me in meetings with producers, investors, and actors—I also became something I never thought possible: an effective mentor. An effective human being. Naturally, a new passion sprouted: motivational speaking.

In dramatic writing, you’re taught that the protagonist blindly struggles toward something they think they want, but by the story’s end their eyes are opened and they discover what they had truly needed from the start. Sometimes life can be a gift like that.

As the great director Stanley Kubrick said: “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

Thomas, 48

Thomas, 48

Growing up, the two primary male role models in my life were my father and stepdad. Ultimately, from these two men I learned what it meant to be a man. My father was always a good financial provider; however, he was also an abusive alcoholic. His neglectful and abusive lifestyle led to my mother divorcing him. Thus, since the age of four, I grew up in a broken home. This may seem normal to some people, but to me as a young child, it did not feel normal.

My mother immediately entered into another neglectful and abusive relationship with a man who became my stepdad. Unlike my father he was rarely physically abusive to my mother, nor was he an alcoholic. However, the emotional abuse that he subjected my mother and us boys too hurt just as deeply. For reasons that I’m unsure of he had dropped out of school in the eight grade and became addicted to various drugs. His idea of communication was, “because I told you so” and “go outside.” For several years following the separation from my family, I felt confused as to why my father and older siblings (five in all), and especially my sister Tammy who is eleven years older than me, never came to visit me. I felt lonely, and abandoned, but over time I learned to pretend those feelings didn’t bother me.

Throughout those years we moved several times, and were regularly on welfare. My mother worked on and off, but my stepdad seldom worked. This left him a lot of time to lie on the couch, watch television, and yell at my mother, me, and my younger brother. I remember that when I was about the age of nine, I told myself that I would never become like my parents.

At the age of thirteen, I learned that my mother and stepdad had been using drugs throughout the  years. This made me feel disappointed and resentful because I believed they chose to spend their money and time on drugs rather than on me and my younger brother. It was then that I promised myself that when I grew up, I would never use alcohol or other drugs.

By this time in my life I had suppressed a lot of anger. So when my mother and stepdad demanded that I begin to stand up for myself and younger brother to protect us from being bullied, I began fighting at school. At first I was afraid, but afterwards, I noticed it felt good to let out some of my hurt and pain onto others. My parents who seldom communicated with me, and who were, for the most part, uninvolved in my life, began to praise me for standing up for myself. Their praise felt comforting, and needing more of their acceptance and attention, I continued fighting.

At the age of sixteen I moved from Red Bluff to Yuba City to live with my father who remained single and lived alone. I believed by moving in with him that I would have a better quality of life by providing me with the emotional and financial support, and encouragement that I needed and wanted. At first, life was great. My father encouraged me to earn good grades and to participate in sports. Wanting to make him proud, that’s what I did. However, within the first couple of months my father slipped back out of my life and back into his lifestyle of addiction which consisted of working during the day, and drinking alcohol in the evenings. Consequently, he became uninvolved in my life which left me feeling rejected and lonely. Being the new kid in school, coupled with the loneliness and rejection I felt at home, I decided to attend my first teenage party. The acceptance I felt was a powerful motivator for a teenage boy.

At the age of seventeen, I began using alcohol, marijuana, and methamphetamine on a regular basis. Though I did not know it then, it was providing me an escape from the emotional pain I had harbored for years.

My addiction to meth soon consumed my life. I used it everyday for the next five months. I went from earning a 3.8 GPA the first semester of my junior year, to dropping out of school the following semester. My father then kicked me out of his house and sent me back to live with my mother and stepdad. I did not realize it then, but I was becoming the man whom I had promised my younger self I would never become.

Within the following year and a half, I had been arrested a number of times, including two DUI’s, assault and battery, and brandishing a firearm. I was eventually sentenced to six months in jail. Up until then, those were the longest days of my life. While incarcerated I told myself that I would never again be locked up.

Prior to my being sentenced to six months in jail, I met two young men, Mike and William who became my best friends. I also met a young lady, Shauna whom I soon fell in love with, and we began to date. With Shauna in my life I felt loved and accepted which provided me with the sense of belonging that I had not felt since I was a young child. For the next seven years all of us spend nearly every celebration and holiday together.

Within the first year of Shauna’s and my relationship, I began to neglect and abuse her. It began with ignoring her and calling her hurtful names. Afterwards, I would feel convicted and ashamed, so I would apologize, promising that I would never speak to her like that again. In my mind I attempted to justify my behavior by telling myself, “at least I don’t hit her like dad and pops (stepdad) use to hit mom.” However, I never truly intended to change. As time passed, though, I eventually became like my fathers. I began to physically abuse Shauna. I attempted to justify this abuse by being a financial provider, and minimizing my actions by saying to myself, “it’s not that bad.” But deep down inside I knew I was wrong. I attempted to hide from the shame I was feeling by consuming larger quantities of alcohol and maijuana.

The cycle of domestic violence that I witnessed in my family throughout my childhood and adolescent years, I was now inflicting on the woman I loved. The years of neglect and abuse that I harmed Shauna with caused her to develop deep emotional resentments, insecurities, and shame that ultimately pushed her out of my life. After seven long-abusive years, she ended our relationship which caused me to feel devastatingly heartbroken. Two days later my father passed away. I attempted to escape the compounded feelings of grief and loss by increasing my consumption of alcohol and marijuana. During that time, in my mind I thought, “I’m going to end up just like my father,” who, following the separation of my mother, lived the remaining twenty-two years of his life a lonely alcoholic.

Shortly afterwards I learned that one of my best friends from the previous eight years, William, was dating Shauna. Over the following two weeks my internal dialogue of negative self-talk, and self-doubt, kept me from taking responsibility for the years of domestic violence I had subjected Shauna too, and in doing so I had no right to decide who she could date. This way of thinking also kept me from reaching out for help, finding closure, and walking away and starting my life anew elsewhere.

Grieving the loss of my relationships of Shauna, William, and my father, I was depleted and left with obsessive thoughts of jealousy, loneliness, betrayal, shame, and hopelessness. I misled and deceived myself into believing that I needed to “stand up for myself”, and I was entitled and needed to get revenge. I committed the worst crime imaginable. I murdered two innocent, kind human beings, William who was only 29, and Shauna who was only 24. Never once during those times did I ever stop to consider how many lives I would painfully affect and impact through my selfish and cowardly actions.

Becoming The Man I Never Thought I’d Become 

Part Two

Arriving at prison seventeen months later with a thirty-four years to life sentence, I felt hopeless, depressed, and completely out of place, the place I told my younger self that I’d never again be locked up. I thought about suicide, because I could not imagine living the rest of my life in prison. My first year in prison (1999) all I could think about was myself, my troubles, my fears including how I was going to survive. At that time I was housed at Pelican Bay in which riots and killings were “normal.” The prison atmosphere was new to me, but not the violent life, although that too was different.

My mother, sister Tammy, and brother William were the first to visit me. During those visits, I remember watching them cry each time they would visit me. I knew they missed me, but I didn’t understand why they cried.

Following my participation in a riot, I was placed in Administrative Segregation (the hole). It was at that time that I began to realize that my family was going to be worried about me. My violent lifestyle was continuing to harm those I love. As I thought about that over the following days, I began to understand that my family and friends were also doing time with me. That my incarceration was causing them to feel similar feeling I felt. They felt worried about my safety. They felt helpless because they could not bring me home. They missed me when they celebrated Christmas and other special holidays together. There I sat putting even more burden on them.

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