William, 58

William, 58

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Meet William…

What on earth would make this young person, with so much life and joy ahead of her, want to keep in contact with someone like me?

William, 58
Incarcerated: 35 years
Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, IL

I met a young volunteer tutor named Annie during my final quarter in Northwestern’s Degree program here. Her forte was all things math related, and since my final course was psychology, she and I rarely interacted. We would smile and greet one another when our paths crossed, but we had almost zero instances of substantive discourse. On the last day of her tenure here, Annie and I sat across from one another, and talked. I learned how genuinely kind, empathetic and bright she was. I lamented that I wished we’d made time to talk sooner, and we’d had the opportunity to talk more often. To my surprise Annie replied, “I’m going to reach out to you William, this won’t be the last time we speak.” I smiled and nodded, but to be honest, I did not take her seriously. What on earth would make this young person, with so much life and joy ahead of her, want to keep in contact with someone like me? You see, I was rightfully convicted of first degree murder, sent to Death Row, had my sentence commuted to Life Without Parole, and have been locked up a total of 35 years of my life! So why would Annie want to know me beyond her duties as a tutor? Then, out of the Blue, I get a new contact alert on my prison issued tablet. Annie and I have built a symbiotic relationship of trust, honesty, respect and mutual encouragement. I give her counsel about boys and life, she teaches me through poems about the world and being human in this new and scary world. I’ve been absent for over three decades. I’ve told Annie in vivid detail, all about my past, the harm I’ve endured, and the harm I’ve unleashed on the world when I walked in pain, ignorance and addiction. Initially, I think I did it to shock her, may be run her away; but she’s stuck by me, saw me not for who I was, and what I’d done; but for who I am now, and the gifts I can give to the world in my healed and self-actualized state. Despite all the odds, I found a friend, I gained acceptance, and for someone I least expected it to come from. Picture is of William and a reporter from PBS – he was featured in a story on bringing back elder parole to Illinois.

Shawn, 46

Meet Shawn…

I’ve been known As “R227**” staff and prison officials only see me as a number.

Shawn, 46
Incarcerated: 18 years
Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, IL

I’ve been known as “R227**” staff and prison officials only see me as a number. Even though I have changed my life around completely, they still see the person that I once was. Instead of looking at me for the man that I am today, they see the uniform I wear, and the reason why I’m wearing it. I’ve never had anyone see me for who I am until I met this lady named Jennifer Lackey. She is a philosophy professor from Northwestern University and founding director of the Northwestern Prison Education program” it offers bachelor degrees to incarcerated individuals. She welcomed me into the college community. It sees incarcerated people for more than just the uniform we wear. She treated me with dignity and respect. Someone worthy of deserving it. For the first time in a long time, someone saw me for who I really am. She accepted me into the college program, giving me the chance to earn a Northwestern Bachelor’s Degree. I’m thankful for professor Lackey, she restored my faith in people. She’s also giving me a renewed purpose in life, And I can never thank her enough.

Taki, 45

Taki, 45

Meet Taki…

I am struggling to receive love because it falls way short of what defines love for me. This is where hard work and growth meet.

Taki, 45
Incarcerated: 28 years
Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, Illinois

I have learned alot about love. I have learned it is an action word. I can’t just say that I love you, I have to show you! Love is unconditional. Even if you can’t have a relationship with someone, you can still love them. It is selfless, pure, kind, honest and true. I have been sharing this insight with my brothers and family, and I thought I could share this here and really be impactful. For the incarcerated, we find it very difficult to believe people when they say that they love us, when their actions don’t match what we believe love looks like. This stresses us out and can cause us to ruin relationships we should cherish. The lesson I learned is this: Everyone’s life circumstances and experiences have shaped us, and ultimately help to formulate how we view love. It is not that people we deal with do not love us, they just do not understand love as we do, because we’ve had different experiences and concepts of what love is!

For those of us incarcerated, especially those of us who have been gone for a long time, we appreciate things on a much more intensive level than most human beings. Our deprivation of not having the things that we want so much causes us to hold, treasure, value, and love things on a much deeper level than the average human being. Our love is intense. To hold people who haven’t been shaped by the same experiences as us, to our standards of love, isn’t fair to them, or to ourselves. We have to learn how to love and be loved from the place in which that love resides. I am struggling to receive love because it falls way short of what defines love for me. This is where hard work and growth meet. Now I have to do the necessary work so I can get to a place of peace. Sharing with you has already helped me through my personal revelation, thank you.

Bradley, 34

Meet Bradley…

For seven miserable years I lived my life how I saw fit and turned my back on everything I had ever been taught. My moral compass went completely off the rails. The biggest regret during this time were the choices I made that led to the loss of my amazing and beautiful wife.

Bradley, 34
Incarcerated: 7 years
Housed: Danville Correctional Center, Illinois

The biggest life event that shaped me into the man I am today is one that gets me through the hard days and has had an everlasting profound impact upon my life. I grew up in a Christian home with two wonderful parents, I was saved and baptized at an early age and attended a private Christian. It was during my junior high years that I began to act out and began to doubt my Christian upbringing. 

I was around the age of eleven and the school year was  ending. Our class had been studying different world religions. As I studied, I began to have serious doubts about my own faith. Some of the questions that swirled through my mind were: is God really real? Or, have I been brainwashed, is Christianity the right religion and are we seriously the only ones who have it right? Is there really only one way to heaven? These questions occupied my mind so much that it was all I could seem to think about. 

One Friday night, just before bed, I was saying my nightly prayers. I suddenly recalled the Bible story about Gideon and his fleece. I thought I too would pose my own test for God. God are you real and if so is the Christian faith the right way to go? God, if the answer is yes, then send me a rainbow as a sign. Oh, and God, make it appear on a cloudless sunny day with no rain. God, I’ll give you three days to answer. Wow, was I ever bold, like I could test God and tell Him what to do. How foolish I was, I don’t recommend anyone ever trying this approach. After prayers I proceeded to fall asleep, and by the next morning I had totally forgotten about my prayer. That very Sunday began like any other typical Sunday for my family. I begrudgingly went to church with my family, and immediately after we met my grandparents for lunch. As we traveled on that hot cloudless and perfect sunny day, I was busy entertaining myself and my younger sister in the rear of my grandparents’ huge Chevy conversion van. Suddenly, from up front, my dad said, “Kids, come up here and see this rainbow”. This got my attention and suddenly I remembered my prayer from two nights earlier. As I stood in the center of the van, peering out the front windshield, crowded between my father and his father, sure enough, off in the distant blue yonder there it was a big beautiful rainbow, perfectly positioned just off to the left. Then, to my surprise, and what made this so impactful, my mother said, “oh, look there’s another one over here, have you ever seen anything like it”? So, as I ran over to the mid passenger side of the van, to peer out,  sure enough, there was another big beautiful rainbow in that perfectly blue, sunny sky. Instantly, I again thought about my prayer. Technically I did ask two separate questions, I suppose that this would mean God said yes to both. However, I kind of felt like He may just be showing off, just a little bit. After a few minutes the excitement wore off and I went back to playing, I pondered the goodness of God and that my prayer actually worked. 

Sadly, as the years went by and I married and started a family of my own, I found myself living the double life that far too many so-called Christians try to live. We’d go to church regularly on Sundays, but the second we were dismissed we’d live like the devil for the rest of the week. I was such a pro at this, so much so that when my riotous living placed me into a situation that got me falsely accused of a crime I didn’t commit, I was stupid enough to think that the God I only worshiped on Sundays for an hour would rescue me. When my actual innocence failed to come to light and I was convicted, just like a three year old, I threw a royal tantrum. I became angry at God; I cursed Him and told Him I no longer wanted anything to do with Him. I was so angry, and I felt so betrayed by God for Him not getting me out of my mess that I literally, and I say this with deep sadness, flipped Him the Bird!

For seven miserable years I lived my life how I saw fit and turned my back on everything I had ever been taught. My moral compass went completely off the rails. The biggest regret during this time were the choices I made that led to the loss of my amazing and beautiful wife. I destroyed my family and like too many families these days mine was torn by an ugly divorce. Interestingly, enough during my divorce I started to pray again and seek comfort in the church. This didn’t last very long, for when my marriage wasn’t saved; it left me feeling stupid and foolish for even thinking that religion would work.

Eventually, I found myself in another jail cell with nothing but a Bible to read. I figuratively blew the dust off the Bible, and opened its precious pages for the first time, in a very, very long time. That is when in His graciousness, God began to lovingly deal with me as I read. I came to the ugly realization that my way wasn’t working and that His way was best. Right then and there I promised to serve Him for the remainder of my days. I knew it would be hard, and that I couldn’t do it half way. I was in it for the long haul, it was all or nothing. I wound up being convicted and sent to prison, but I totally deserved that. In prison I attended every church service and Bible study I possibly could. I enrolled in correspondence courses that taught me more about God and required deep studies in His word. I grew so much, in that short period and the time seemed to fly by. Soon, I found myself being released. Sadly, my freedom didn’t last. Three months after release, I was sent back to prison for violating parole and was facing the possibility of new criminal charges. Those charges were undeserved, I prayed mighty hard, but I was convicted. 

This was the ultimate low point, alone in a dark prison cell. I began to question whether or not God could really forgive me. Could He really change my life and turn it around? How can God use someone like me? I’m an outcast, unforgivable, undesirable, and undeserving, I am scum, no I am lower than scum, I’m the scum on the bottom of the scum’s shoe. Then a chapel line was called, I’m not sure even why I went, was it boredom or some misguided obligation I felt toward a God I thought couldn’t possibly want me. Yet, I went, and as I was sitting in that hard plastic chair in the prison’s chapel, feeling lower than scum, the minister took the stage and he began to preach. He preached about Israel and how they were consistently rebellious toward God. Yet, time and time again, God was patient with them and when they’d repent He always took them back. Suddenly, somewhere a hope buried deep inside of me began to stir. To this day I can’t honestly tell you what that preacher preached about for the remaining time. Instead my thoughts were drawn back to those two rainbows and God’s answer to my childhood prayer almost twenty years earlier. Like lightning it struck me, seemingly out of nowhere! By the direction we were traveling those years ago, almost due north, that first rainbow I saw was located on my left side, meaning it would have been in the western sky. The second rainbow was on my right side, and there in the eastern sky. So what’s that got to do with anything you say? Do you know after the lightning comes the thunder clap? Get ready for the thunder! In Psalm 103:11-12 God says “for as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is HIS mercy toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions (sins) from us” What this is that I’m one hundred percent forgiven, and as long as God is on His throne, nothing can ever change that! As my eyes blurred and the silent tears began to fall down my face like a raging river, tiny rainbows reflected from the ceiling lights began to appear as I lifted my head upward and mouthed my prayer of eternal thanks to the… one true God.

Marshawn, 37

Marshawn, 37

Meet Marshawn…

What gets me through each day is my family and hope. It’s hard but I constantly tell myself it could be worse.

Marshawn, 37
Incarcerated: 15 years
Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, IL

What gets me through each day is my family and hope. It’s hard but I constantly tell myself it could be worse. I haven’t always had hope. Prison is a very dark place and can suck the life out of you. For the majority of these 15 years, I’ve dwelled on my past, wishing I had listened to people. That I’d done things differently. Constantly thinking of my past has held me back from progressing  and has led me to make some poor decisions. Today, I try to take it one day at a time focusing more on the things that can make me better and have a more positive future! I now see light at the end of the tunnel. So many things are changing in the prison system. People are going home now, which I didn’t see as much in the beginning. It helps me visualize being freed, as well as my family, who have stuck by my side. They have given me the push when needed, this place is hard and distractions are everywhere. God is still giving me the opportunity to breathe, for that I put my best foot forward and continue to fight this fight to the end! 

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