Chris, 53

Meet Chris…

“It was about the six seconds of compassion that my foster sister showed me and the courage to let her compassion flow through me.”

Chris, 53

Incarcerated: 17 years

Housed: San Quentin

I was shocked. My words had betrayed me. Words that rose from a place I didn’t know existed, “I’ll cut your hair,” I offered, and with those words, I violated the hard knocks street rule of minding my own business. Yet, it didn’t feel like I had broken a cardinal rule. It felt, well … right, like I was connected to this man’s suffering in a way that reminded me of my own. He was thin and unimposing. He had an unkempt afro and a long, ragged beard. All he wanted was a haircut so he could appear presentable before a judge the next day. Yet, none of the barbers would touch him. He couldn’t afford to pay for the store items they wanted. That’s when those four fateful words leaped from my mouth and landed in his ear. He turned to look at me and told me that he didn’t have any way to pay me. “That’s okay,” I said. I then spent the next three hours meticulously trimming his hair and beard. I had no experience as a barber, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was to humanize him to the judge, to himself, and to the barbers who had written him off. I know what it’s like to be written off; to be forgotten. My childhood and prison sentence tell me so. He shook my hand and thanked me, expressing gratitude towards a man that not even I had ever met. Something shifted inside of me as a result of that experience. It blessed me with a life-changing glimpse of the man I wanted to become: compassionate, connected, and courageous. Fourteen years have passed since that day and I have been cutting hair for free ever since. Each haircut lures me deeper, more intimately into my humanness and that of others. Every conversation reveals our sameness and stirs within me a deep sense of remorse for the harm I caused to people who were just like me.

Nathan, 57

Nathan, 57

Meet Nathan…

“I never saw them fight or argue. One day they just decided to be friends, which they stayed until Bob passed away, while I was in jail fighting murder charges.”

Nathan, 57

Incarcerated: 15 yrs

Housed: California Correctional Training Facility, Soledad

My mom Jamie was 16 and my father Abe was 31, neither were honest about their age. They both claimed to be in their 20’s when they met. Abe was a heroin addict and my mom’s parents were both alcoholics. They loved Abe. My grandma Vivian was beautiful with a great intellect, she was kind and thoughtful when sober. When drunk she could get really mean. She told me Abe was a good man, overly intelligent, he loved me and took care of me. My mom said he was the one to get up with me at night. Abe was from a wealthy Jewish family, I’ve never met because they disowned him over his heroin addiction. Abe fled the country to avoid prosecution when I was two. I have no memory of this, but have to imagine this must have been traumatic, as I never heard from him again. My mom has never been a drug user or drinker. She had to take care of her own parents and mothered them at an early age. She never had any judgment about others drinking or using drugs. My mom met Bob and he promised her he would never have any trouble with the law and he kept that promise. I never saw them fight or argue. One day they just decided to be friends, which they stayed until Bob passed away, while I was in jail fighting murder charges. Bob had a jewelry store, pet shop, pawn shop, antique shops, he ran a hotel and bar when he met my mom. He dabbled in stocks, cars, and real estate. He was successful at everything he did. Bob was not affectionate, but he always helped out and gave good advice. Bob was a good man, a better man than I have been. He tried hard to instill his good character traits in me. Though he did tease me when I was young, calling me Suzy because I was wimpy. I was a very scrawny and sensitive child. He was never unkind, he just grew up during a less sensitive time. To him calling me Suzy was innocent, maybe a little humorous, but with no ill intent. I can look back now and see where that might have been a contributing factor to my own distorted self body image, where my fall began. I believe I can trace back my fall to its very inception. One single thought that I believed to be true but wasn’t. All it took was for one doubt to sink in: “That I wasn’t good enough as God created me, that I was too skinny.” My mom met Tony when I was eight. Both Bob and Tony have been good fathers to me, Tony and my mom are still happily married. Tony is also a man of good character, honest and always ethical, but very proud and stubborn. I have a great love and respect for him. My mom went to catechism and her first communion until she was 10. At that age, she saw a car accident where a little girl’s head went through a windshield. She couldn’t understand how the God she was being taught about could let such a thing happen. She told her mom church was a waste of time. She never gave God or the Church another thought. My own belief in God was innate, it was as if I was born with it. My parents never tried to influence me in any way, however, I have been inquisitive. As a small child, I would contemplate the universe and infinity. I couldn’t comprehend infinity, so I would have to imagine what was at the end of the universe, there had to be something. I would imagine a wall. But then if there was a wall, there had to be something on the other side of the wall. So, I not only couldn’t comprehend infinity, I couldn’t comprehend not infinity. I thought, if this is the case then I had to believe I was foreign, and limited in my ability to comprehend. I would try to imagine what the world would be like if I no longer existed in it, I tried to imagine my non-existence. My conclusion was it didn’t matter. I knew my mom didn’t believe in God, so every chance I got to talk to a priest, a Christian, or a Catholic; I would always ask the same question: what happens to someone who doesn’t believe in God? The same answer always comes back; they go to eternal hell. I would always answer back; “but what if they are a good person?” I would get the same response; I’m sorry, I wish everyone could go to heaven, but non-believers can’t. None of this changed my belief in God, and I am grateful that God is not how man would make him out to be; because if that was the case, we would all be in real trouble. What it did do, is give me an unhealthy disdain for religion, especially the way Catholicism and Christianity were taught. At 8, I had a friend Bobby, who invited me on a one-week camping trip. Late the night before we were to leave, his mom dropped off a list of things like games and cards that couldn’t bring. My Mom thought it was odd and told me that she didn’t think I should go. I was packing my magic tricks and things that I would not be able to bring. She said she had a bad feeling about this and I really shouldn’t go. I whined and cried telling her Bobby and I have all these great plans. She gave in, thinking how bad it could be. She said if I had any concerns to call her and she’d come pick me up immediately. When I arrived, I found out it was a Christian camp. Which was deliberately withheld from me, my mom, and possibly Bobby by his family. I was deceived intentionally. I refused to cooperate in their games and demanded to be able to call my mom to pick me up. For a whole week, they never let me use the phone. I was basically kidnapped under false pretenses, and held against my will. When I was brought back home, my mom said I must have had a good time because I never called her.  I said, no I didn’t, everyone including Bobby had to give their lives over to God and I refused, because I thought it was stupid, and I’m never speaking to Bobby again. Can you imagine if this was done to a child today? Don’t get me wrong, I am a follower of the teachings of Jesus. I love Him as an elder brother.  My mom and Tony always do right by others, not because of any religion,  it is the right way to be, they are just really good human beings. Much better than I have been. Neither believe in or give thought to God or an afterlife or think there is any kind of reward for being selfless. It is just the way they are. My mom believes when we die that is it, we no longer exist. I cannot even comprehend that thought. My mom’s Christian friends tell her that she is a better Christian than most Christians they know. She has always had a great wisdom about her, much greater than could be acquired in this lifetime alone. She is always so busy, she barely has time to do the things she would like to do. She belongs to a women’s club and they do charity work for the homeless, cancer and heart patients, and work with other charities that bring aid to foreign countries. She is always donating her time. They give scholarships away for kids to go to college. Something she never had the opportunity to do herself. She is just such a beautiful human being.

Ron, 60

Meet Ron…

“I learned…to give love unconditionally, because you need to understand that love goes both ways.”

Ron, 60

Incarcerated: 26 years

Housed: Valley State Prison, Chowchilla. California

As a child dealing with years of domestic violence and other forms of abuse, I managed the courage to run away from home at 14. I slept with friends and on the street. I began to deal weed so that I could get an apartment. Hollywood and San Fernando were the worst places for a child to be alone. I was managing my life, working day labor with side jobs at the studios. I made it to 16 before I got in trouble, then arrested for having a concealed weapon. I ended up getting released with time served because it was a misdemeanor. I had my mom sign for me to go into the Army. I was placed into violent situations all the time and got the attitude, ‘if you’re not on my team, then you are nothing more than a bag of meat’, and that was how I treated everyone. To say the very least, I was very angry and expertly trained to be a heartless and cruel person, and along with all the alcohol abuse, I truly enjoyed it all. Surprisingly, after my time was up, I was honorably discharged. I was arrested for a high speed chase and sentenced to 25 to life under the three strikes law. Now with a PTSD disability, readjustment disorder, years of jail and prison, the hate in my heart needed to change.This time in prison I found myself in an unlikely place: the prison’s hospice care unit. As I was being trained by Nancy Alexander, a team member of Elizabeth Kublar-Ross I found the change that I desperately needed. I learned to be a human again. I spent countless hours training, I sat hundreds of hours of vigil bed side with strangers. In doing this I learned to better understand how to care for someone on a level that can only be human. To give love unconditionally, because you need to understand that love goes both ways. You have to give as well as receive. I have learned that all the journeys we take in life end in the same way, in death. So keep in mind that death is as big a part of life as being born. And it will change the hardest of hearts.. respectfully.

Michael, 40

Michael, 40

Meet Michael…

“What I do know and am sure of, is that night despite being discarded by family, left to fend for ourselves, scared, uncertain of our future, and up against the world. We banded together, faced whatever came our way, and prevailed as a family.”

Michael, 40

Incarcerated: 12 years

I’ve never felt so afraid, rejected, or abandoned in my life. The things I’ve endured no one, let alone a child, should have to experience. What makes matters worse is that my younger sister Connie, and little brother Josh, are also with me. We were in Sacramento, California, starving in an abandoned duplex our mother was renting before her arrest. The electricity was just shut off, there was no food in the refrigerator, and we were camped out in our mother’s room. The three of us were cold, hungry, and confused. What was I going to do? How were we going to survive? My 14 year old brain was overloaded with questions that I didn’t have answers for. My mother has been incarcerated for a few months now and our aunt, who was supposed to be caring for us, had abandoned us a couple weeks earlier. I was so hurt and angry at her. My other two siblings and their father had driven away leaving us all alone on the porch. I’m brought out of my thoughts by brother Josh’s voice, “I’m hungry, what are we going to eat?” Before I can answer, my sister Connie says, “Mike, I know where some money is. Remember when I dropped a dollar in one of the bedposts?” As she says this, she jumps up and heads to the room we shared before our lives were turned upside down. The three of us went to work on that white headboard with red trim as if we were a demolition crew. With the help of a wire hanger and some scissors we retrieved that dollar bill as it was a long last treasure. Along with some loose change we scraped up from all over the house, we were able to buy something to eat for the night. I’m not sure exactly what we bought from the store other than a bag of potato chips. What I do know and am sure of, is that night despite being discarded by family, left to fend for ourselves, scared, uncertain of our future, and up against the world. We banded together, faced whatever came our way, and prevailed as a family. I’ll never forget that night and 26 years later, myself, Connie, and Josh continue to beat the odds, we are there for one another, and we come out on top.

Jesse, 37

Jesse, 37

Meet Jesse…

“I’ve seen people lose themselves in here. Prison can change people for the worst. I never wanted that to be me.”

Jesse, 37

Incarcerated: 12 years

I told him I would because I love to write. Writing is more for myself than for the reader, but strangely I write to be understood by who or for what reason, who the hell knows. I’ve always kept my word. Even though all these years of being away. I guess it’s who I’ve always been and I’m afraid of losing that.  I’ve seen people lose themselves in here. Prison can change people for the worst. I never wanted that to be me. I have accepted my reality in here, but I do not believe in this false prison world. Everything in prison is a mirage, “It’s real but it ain’t.” My truth is on a beach somewhere relaxing with a beautiful woman beside me drinking cold beers and eating shrimp tacos. I am almost home…

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