Antoine, 34

Antoine, 34

Meet Antoine…

Spending most of our lives being deprived of genuine love and acceptance left us devoid of a sense of identity, value, and purpose. This was one of the reasons why many of us, turned toward a life of drugs, money and flashy things, hoping to somehow fill that undesirable emptiness we felt inside.

Incarcerated: 13 years

Housed: Washington Corrections Center, Shelton

I hear – my mother overdosed on heroin, my father was killed in a Safeway parking lot, my uncle molested me when I was a kid – because I was hurt and embarrassed – I never told anyone. These traumatizing events are the reason many people are  addicted to impulsive behaviors. Unfortunately, the healing process for many people incarcerated will remain dormant as society continues to view them through the symptoms of their brokenness, rather than considering the root of their troubles. In my childhood being perceived as a thug, a hoodlum, or a lowlife was normality. I suppose it was a way for those who considered themselves “above me” to categorize my person as being unworthy or insignificant. Those who had frowned upon us kids had never taken into account that many of us were raised by struggling mothers and parents who had taken us in as we were being cycled through the foster care system. Those of us who had fathers, let’s just say that they were present, but never really present. Spending most of our lives being deprived of genuine love and acceptance left us devoid of a sense of identity, value, and purpose. This was one of the reasons why many of us, turned toward a life of drugs, money and flashy things, hoping to somehow fill that undesirable emptiness we felt inside.

As a result of what we lacked, we compounded the same hurt we sought to eradicate. The walls we built around our hearts to protect ourselves from pain had quickly become a prison, and the hurt we wore like a badge of honor was draining the life from those we claimed to care for. What’s worse, we had fallen for measuring our self-worth by the ever-changing opinions of other people. In a nutshell we were drowning, and no one stopped to throw us a life jacket to keep us afloat. The more I conversed with other men about the context of our upbringing, the more evident it became that we were all fighting the same silent battles. While our hearts cried for help, hoping to become something better, the fear of being vulnerable muzzled us from saying a word–toxic masculinity. We would rather look whole and be broken than to acknowledge our brokenness and risk the rejection of those we sought to impress. But I have learned over the years that if we can’t be real we can’t be healed. I mean think about it–why see a physician when you say you’re well? With this in mind I created Building Blocks. A curriculum that touches on some of the most unavoidable subject matters in life. These topics include everything from love, forgiveness and situational pressures, to identity, emotional intelligence and choices. It methodically blends biblical truths with relatable experiences, providing the reader with a space to be transparent, while offering them a sound perspective on how to better respond to various life circumstances. I have found that providing a platform for men to be honest, while offering them tools to become everything God created them to be has been unbelievably successful. My only goal is to promote edification and a solid foundation for healthy living. Showing love to the unloved, hoping to impact the world one life at a time.

 

Marcus, 25

Marcus, 25

Meet Marcus…

I’m currently using this time to better myself and put a smile on [my mother’s] face. Even though I am serving a life sentence I continue to break barriers. I refuse to let this prison sentence bring me down.

Incarcerated: 4 years

My mother and I have a bond that’s unbreakable. She’s my best friend. Being able to talk to her about anything has kept our bond and trust on a whole different level. Even though she never actually said it, I know I’m her favorite. As her baby boy and second youngest out of six, she did her best to keep me from following in my brother’s footsteps. Gangbanging was a common disease in my neighborhood and her worst nightmare for me. She did her best to protect and guide me in the right direction by watching me graduate from high school and sending me off to college. But still I ended up making unfortunate mistakes and fell victim to the prison system. I blame no one but myself for my situation. I’m currently using this time to better myself and put a smile on her face. Even though I am serving a life sentence I continue to break barriers. I refuse to let this prison sentence bring me down. Since being incarcerated I’ve completed a number of self help groups and college courses while pursuing an AA degree. I am creating a clothing line while fighting for my freedom, which makes me very proud. Seeing my mother in my clothes, when she comes to visit, reminds me exactly why I wake up everyday!

Aaron, 35

Aaron, 35

Meet Aaron…

I now stand for a cause I have dedicated my life to – making a difference in the lives of others, and I am unashamed of the God who reached into the pit of hell and salvaged my life. I no longer act out of insecurity of what others may think. Living to impress others isn’t my goal, and my identity is not found in substances, crime or what delinquent peers may say.

Incarcerated: 16 years
Housed: Washington Corrections Center, Shelton

The Department of Corrections refers to me as Offender #327076. Locked up since 2006, I was sentenced to 51 years to life for terrible crimes I committed as a youth. I stood for nothing – a stain on my community. With little hope of redemptive quality, I was condemned to a life behind bars. I’ve done horrible things and had them done to me. Sadly at 35, I am still reaping the consequences of my actions as a teenage drug addict. I grew up in poverty, overcoming fatherlessness, mental illness, addiction and hopelessness. I survived amputation and severe burns in a traumatic explosion. I’ve been shot, stabbed, pepper sprayed, robbed, mauled by dogs, jumped, kicked and stomped. I endured brain damage, riots, attempts on my life, long stretches in solitary confinement, and hundreds of dehumanizing strip searches. I’ve been afflicted by suicide, betrayal, plagued by depression, banished from society, and branded a sex offender for the rest of my life. Hey, who hasn’t been through a few things? I was called a monster during my criminal trial. At the time, I believe the title was a fair assessment of my character, or at least an accurate description of the acts I was responsible for. My sentence was not imposed for the purpose of rehabilitation or recovery; It was meant to remove hope, incapacitate dreams, and cripple my ability to have a family, rejoin society or have any possibility of a second chance or meaningful life.I grew up in a prison. I became a man in prison. I developed purpose in a prison. However, it is not prison I credit for who I’ve become today. I represent a small fraction of incarcerated individuals who have chosen to excel while living in squalid conditions. We have rehabilitated in spite of a failed blueprint of “corrections”. Oppressed, abused, and forgotten, we are housed in the belly of the beast, longing for the opportunity of freedom, and the ability to live a life of meaning, beauty and positive impact. We wait for the chance to give back to the communities we once caused trauma to; A chance to right the harms we inflicted. For me, that day is April 23, 2053. I will be 67 at my earliest possible release date, barring a resentencing.

Shortly after my arrest, I was determined to become a Difference Maker. I confronted my demons, focused on accountability, and forged a new legacy. A legacy that changed my life and path, and assisted others struggling to face the harm they’ve caused. Weeks into my jail stay, I read my first book – yeah, the first book I had ever read from cover to cover. Today, I am a mere few credits from receiving my first degree. As a special needs mentor, mental health coach and prison preacher, my message is simple, “while there is breath in your body, there is hope for your life.” I now stand for a cause I have dedicated my life to – making a difference in the lives of others, and I am unashamed of the God who reached into the pit of hell and salvaged my life. I no longer act out of insecurity of what others may think. Living to impress others isn’t my goal, and my identity is not found in substances, crime or what delinquent peers may say. My life is driven by what I give and add the world in a positive way, not what I extract from it. My path is not a popular one. It is beyond rare in prison, but any decent person can see that our society is in dire need of such Difference Makers – transformers, individuals willing to change themselves and help those around them lost to the same battles. While I wait for this freedom, it is a small token of satisfaction, being able to help others. Many will soon be released, and it is my expectation that they will pay it forward – allowing their ripples to spread in the very community I so desperately want to be a part of. I’ve intentionally structured my life in a way that every activity I engage in is either investing into the lives of others, or equipping myself to better do so, and be of greater service. This is a service I owe to society, in the form of daily installments for the rest of my life. Some investments take time to bear fruit, while others are immediately rewarding. I especially enjoy the ones that take time to grow and develop. My favorite by far is the service dog training program I volunteer for.

I work with dogs that will eventually go to disabled vets, people with PTSD, children with autism, and those in need of emergency alert assistance. It is an understatement to say that this program has impacted me. Reduced stress, anxiety and depression, with increased peace, joy and purpose has been my experience in a nutshell. I also garden, exercise, give regular messages in Church, and create content on several platforms, all while working a fulltime job as a workforce development assistant, helping prisoners prepare for release. So, behind this razor wire, King Kong size walls, guard towers, and an ERD of 2053, why should I care? Why not say FU%K IT!? Many do. In this school of criminality, filled with loathsome activity, violence and bitterness, why do I try so hard at being the best man I can be? Because, I now love myself, and who I’ve become. I understand God’s plan and purpose for my life. Knowing that makes me want to teach others to do the same. That’s where true change takes place. If you learn to love yourself it is impossible to do anything that could harm yourself and others. Even though I was 18 – an adult according to the law – I was lost, troubled, and an addict to drugs since age 12. I was not a real man, nor did I have the ability to love myself. I’m not speaking of the world’s image of a man, full of bravado, but the type of man and human being representative of a permanent spot in society. A person who seeks to make his community a better place to live, and pours his time, resources and life into those around him. A real Man does what is right, no matter the opposition of others. A real Man doesn’t give up, even in the face of certain defeat. When we’ve erred, and done wrong, we make every effort for as long as it takes to make recompense for such wrongs. I do not know when my opportunity for freedom will come, but when it does, I will make the most of it, continuing as a Difference Maker. In the meantime, there is much to do, and many to help.

 

Raymond, 42

Meet Raymond…

When he stopped I was prepared for the worst. The guard says, “I didn’t know you played guitar.” I exclaimed, “Neither did I,” and we both had a laugh. This wouldn’t be the last humanizing moment paying guitar brought, nor the last time music broke barriers in my life. I treated learning like a fulltime job. I played every moment I could. 

Incarcerated: 16 years

Housed: Washington Corrections Center, Shelton

I want to play my guitar. I hear of  places like Austin and Memphis, filled with dimly lit, seedy jazz and blues clubs – the echoes of great music soaked in the wood and rafters. I want to stand where greater musicians have plucked strings and had the approval from strangers. I crave that stage. I have something to say – even if I don’t always have the words – I can bend the note, I can make it sing, but there is nothing diatonic about how I found my music. Like many, I always “wanted to learn guitar” and just “never got around to it.” I remember the moment when desire turned to decision and my life changed forever. I was 32 years old. It was 2012 and I was sitting in my cell in Walla Walla. PBS was showing the Joe Bonamassa concert. I thought to myself, “I want to be like him when I grow up.” A kind of joke for a near middle aged man. Still, I knew this was my vibe, he had something I was missing, and that something needed to get out. Getting a guitar was my first obstacle. I had a job in the prison making signs for the community; I saved my money for months. I got a little Epiphone Special II, color – heritage cherry sunburst. Honestly, it was horrendous. Probably what I get for telling the company to send me whatever color they had. Still, I was proud of that guitar. The humanizing effect of music started for me right away. One day after I got the guitar, a guard stopped at my cell. I had tablature of some song taped to my wall; I’m squinting trying to make sense of it all. I looked startled. Here is this guard in my window – a real hard ass, the kind that says nothing to prisoners unless he is barking an order. When he stopped I was prepared for the worst. The guard says, “I didn’t know you played guitar.” I exclaimed, “Neither did I,” and we both had a laugh. This wouldn’t be the last humanizing moment paying guitar brought, nor the last time music broke barriers in my life.

I treated learning like a fulltime job. I played every moment I could. I bought books, learning CDs, anything I could to improve. I wish I could say it came easy. It did not. Have you heard of people playing until their fingers bled? That was me. Six hours of straight practice will do that. But battling through the pain and frustration was a good outlet for me. I found freedom in the notes and a sense of accomplishment as my capabilities increased.

When I became good enough to construct songs they flowed right out of me. I’m now 42 years old and have written a lot of songs. I wrote a song for my son titled Outlaw Man wherein I caution him, “Don’t be the man my father was, running and shooting guns and drugs -ya just like – like I’ve done… overcome the gene – of the outlaw man.” Many of my songs serve to tell my stories and help me work through the broken pieces of my life. I found songwriting very therapeutic. It turns out that music was the outlet that I needed since I was a child. It is a hell of a thing to realize in your thirties you have a talent that – if cultivated earlier – would have changed the trajectory of your life. The cliché “better late than never” comes to mind here. I know there are youth today with untapped talent, hard lives of their own, and unmet needs for outlets of expression. Another cliché I connect with, “music calms the savage beast.” Music did more for me internally than any of the prison programs or classes I took. Through learning guitar I have become less violent and less impulsive. Because of music I share joy and connection with all kinds of people in prison – people I might not have spoken to otherwise. I found that music in prison lets people see past the barriers that divide us. When the music feels good, there are no guards and prisoners; there are no blacks or whites; there is no Other of any kind. There is only the beat, the rhythm, and harmony, Well, unless you miss a note. But even side-eyes from band mates after misplaced notes in practice is a form of growing together often unavailable in other venues of prison. During my time inside, I outgrew the need for my confinement. Music is a huge reason why that growth was possible. Now, I just want to leave this prison – I want to share my music and my experience with the world. I don’t aspire to be famous – rather, only present. I want to be there; on the scene; learning and sharing with other good musicians; entertaining in some smoke filled blues or jazz club. Where there is this community of good people with open hearts and good rhythm – that is where I belong. I just want to play my guitar.

Eric, 52

Eric, 52

Meet Eric…

And you know, I like to get A’s. I’m an A student. I work hard and I started having this pride about submitting my work, I’m eager to know how I did. I say, “I know I perfected, I got this, I aced this.” So now I understand why the recidivism rate is lower. You develop character, you change your thinking.  And you’re escaping, like I said earlier, the ills of prison and you’re removing yourself from that environment. And you become mature.

Incarcerated: 10 yrs

Housed: Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining, New York

Diane: Tell us about your family.

Eric: All my family members pretty much dwindled during the course of my incarceration. My mother has passed. She’s a 9/11 survivor. She worked at Meryl Lynch across the street from the towers. She inhaled the polarized glass fumes that subsequently caused fungus in her lungs. She passed from COPD due to complications of 9/11. I do have a brother. He’s out of state in the Navy. He’s touch and go, though. I’ve pretty much been all on my own during most of this bid. Despite all that, I’ve had to kick off the dust and move forward. College was definitely a way to escape the ills associated with prison. I don’t hang out too much in the yard. I only socialize with people that are like minded and want to go in the direction of making the best of this experience. We try not to go out the same way we came in.

Diane: Is there anything you want to share about your mom? 

Eric: Before she passed I remember being at her deathbed. I was able to get that visit. She said, “I’m very proud of you.” She knew that I was pursuing my education. She said, “You know, I’m sorry that I failed you.” 

I said, “No, you did not. It was all on me.” She did nothing for me to move in that direction. I said, “Mom, I’m gonna be okay.” And she passed like that. 

Diane: What made you enroll in school?

Eric: The parole board looks at education as a way to lower the recidivism rate. I wanted to assure them that I’m not coming back. I went to school solely for that purpose. It wasn’t that I had a passion to learn about things, right? But as I started, my thinking started to change and I started to have to critically think. I had to be responsible. I had to do my papers. And you know, I like to get A’s. I’m an A student. I work hard and I started having this pride about submitting my work, I’m eager to know how I did. I say, “I know I perfected, I got this, I aced this.” So now I understand why the recidivism rate is lower. You develop character, you change your thinking.  And you’re escaping, like I said earlier, the ills of prison and you’re removing yourself from that environment. And you become mature.

Joseph, 68

Joseph, 68

Meet Joseph…

I have always been a proponent of pro-choice; and if anyone ever asks me what my feelings are on the abortion issue, I’ll firmly tell them that; but I’ll also have to tell them about the love I have for the girl who never was and how very much I miss the times we never shared together.

Incarcerated: 16 years

Housed: California Men’s Facility, Stockton 

I firmly believe in a woman’s right to choose, but difficult choices sometimes come with adverse emotional effects. I also know from experience that difficult decisions can come with consequences. Sometimes those results are fleeting, at other times they affect who and what you are. Following is my experience with an abortion, and how it affected me. Some years ago I met Joy, a woman who shared my love of the written word, as well as my joie de vivre. We shared our dreams with each other and began discussing a possible future together – even making plans to retire at some point to somewhere remote and beautiful where she could write her stories, while I put mine down on canvas. We talked excitedly about taking trips afar and sailing my yacht to distant ports to seek inspiration for our endeavors. 

Unfortunately, circumstances caused us to split up. Even though we were far apart, emotionally and geographically, I knew that I was in love with Joy, and was certain that she felt the same way about me. I kept in touch with her via email, often attaching stories and poems I’d written expressly for her. Some of the writing I did during this period was the best I’d ever done, because it was sincere and from the heart.

Two months after our split I was surprised by a call from Joy, who informed me that she was pregnant, and already being a single mother, wanted an abortion. Since she seemed rather flustered and apprehensive, I offered to make all the arrangements for her and pay for any costs involved with the procedure if that’s what she really wanted to do. She assured me that she wanted to get it done.

Over the years, I’d heard horror stories about abortions, so after hanging up with Joy, I felt compelled to research the procedure and investigate facilities in her area. After conducting this due diligence, I set up an appointment for her at a clinic near the university she attended. I then called Joy to let her know about setting up the appointment, and to alleviate any trepidation she may have had, told her what I found out about modern abortions: it involved the ingestion of a medication that aborted the fetus. If this wasn’t successful within a few days, she would have to return to the clinic to do it again. I offered my moral support and told her that I’d drive her to the appointment. Joy seemed relieved to not have to go through the experience alone, saying that she appreciated my support.

I began pondering something over the next few days and called her a few days before the appointment to share those thoughts with Joy. I told her that if she wanted to do so, I would love to have the child with her. She gave me an emphatic “No.” So I picked her up at her house the next day to take her to the facility that was about forty minutes away. As we drove, I reiterated my desire to have and raise the child with her ; but she wouldn’t be swayed, so we continued on to our appointment.

When we got there, I was glad to have done the research I’d done on the clinic – it was very professional. In light of the emotions involved with the procedure, it was important to me that Joy was comfortable, and more importantly, safe. There vere about a dozen other women in the waiting room. Only one was accompanied by a man , and he looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there. Like many other medical facilities I’ve been to, the room temperature seemed rather cold. I imagine that if you are experiencing any fears about what was about to happen, it would seem even colder. Joy did seem apprehensive, and sidled up close to me; so I put my arms around her as I assured her that everything would be fine. As we waited, I started to feel uneasy about the situation. Up to that point abortion was just a concept to me, now it was a reality. I thought about the fact that there was a tiny person inside of the woman I was holding- a woman I was in love with. I felt revulsion that there might be as many as two attempts to terminate this potential person. I turned to Joy again and asked, “Are you sure about doing this?” 

She hesitated for a moment, but said, “I have to do it.”

Just then a door opened, and a nurse called for Joy. She got up and followed the nurse through the doorway into the operating area. As she did so, she looked back at me and I saw uncertainty in her face. My heart felt like it was in a vice.

As I had feared, the procedure didn’t take, so we had to go through the process again. There was no question about going through with it this time since there was a high probability that the first attempt had caused irreparable damage to the fetus.

Because an appointment I had ran late, I missed my flight and had to meet Joy at the clinic. I felt awful during the first appointment, but the second one was so much worse for me. Joy later told me that she had felt the same way. That’s a thought that haunts me to this very day: a sense that we’d made a little girl, and she seemed to have fought to live.

After the appointment, Joy told me that she had a sitter for the night, and asked if we could go out for a bit. We drove separately to have dinner at her favorite restaurant followed by a movie. After the movie, Joy called home and after hanging up she told me that the sitter was willing to stay the night, so we could stay out as long as we wanted to. I drove to a nearby casino, where we caught a lucky streak and had a great time through the early morning hours. 

When we got back to where Joy parked her car, I walked her to her vehicle, opened the door for her and shut it after she got in. I motioned for her to roll her window down, and when she did, I kissed her goodnight and she willingly kissed me back.

As we drove away from each other, she went to her home and me to the airport, we talked on the phone like we used to do- full of laughter and animation. On my flight home, I was glad that Joy and I seemed headed for a reconciliation; but that elation was countered by the overwhelming feeling that the abortion had been a terrible tragedy. I agonized over the fact that I hadn’t been able to talk Joy out of going through with the abortion.

Joy and I eventually married, and a year and a half later we had a beautiful little girl. I just couldn’t imagine this incredible child not being part of this world.

Because of the incredible relationship that blossomed between my daughter and me, I often think about what might have been with the little girl who had not been given the chance to live, love, be loved, and become the person she had the potential to be. Although she was never born into the light, I often imagine what her birth would have been like, and the journey she would take into adulthood. I think often about all the questions I would have answered for her, the things I would have shown and taught her, and the places we would have gone to together.

I envision being with her at birthday parties, Christmas celebrations, playgrounds, parks, and on vacations. I picture myself laughing with her, teasing her, comforting her when she is hurting physically or emotionally, and staring in awe at her as she makes new discoveries and learns all that she is capable of. As we are the sum of our experiences, she is a part of who I am. I feel a love for her as any father would love his daughter, and feel the paternal instinct to love, teach and protect her even though she’s not there. I have always been a proponent of pro-choice; and if anyone ever asks me what my feelings are on the abortion issue, I’ll firmly tell them that; but I’ll also have to tell them about the love I have for the girl who never was and how very much I miss the times we never shared together. “The most painful state of being is remembering the future; particularly the one you no longer have. ” Kierkegaard