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.

Ramon, 63

Ramon, 63

Meet Ramon…

The life of a death-row prisoner is harsh, restrictive, isolated, and lonely. So moving out into the mainline environment after 24 years of death row continues to shock and amaze me, most so because I had never been to prison before so I never knew what mainline had to offer.

Ramon, 63
Incarcerated: 27 years
Housed: Donovan Correctional Facility, San Diego, California

The life of a death-row prisoner is harsh, restrictive, isolated, and lonely. So moving out into the mainline environment after 24 years of death row continues to shock and amaze me, most so because I had never been to prison before so I never knew what mainline had to offer. So my experience is vastly more astonishing than someone who’s been in and out of institutions. Tidbits sneak up on me from time to time where I say to myself, “I can’t believe I’m doing this right now.” The decades locked away had conditioned me to not expect certain things and be content with nothing. Now the ice in my heart has started to thaw and sunshine begins to brighten each day. It’s pretty sunny now! I continue to marvel at the vast changes my transfer has provided me, like walking on grass for the first time in decades. I find myself in the dirt with a blossoming ‘garden’ of sorts enjoying touching the grass, soil, and pulling weeds. Who would’ve known? We have specific tables each ethnic group hangs out at, but my table has huge mint plant patches accompanied by a few green onions, bell peppers, jalapeños, flowers, and other random seeds I wanted to see if they would germinate. No other table compares, it’s the talk of the yard. Other inmates stop by to check it out while officers and free-staff make positive comments too. Maybe in my cynical death-row way of thinking someone will be malicious or vindictive and stomp my little garden to oblivion, but I have gotten a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction creating and nurturing something beautiful and unique that previously never existed. Death row consists only of steel and concrete, and the only dirt available is the dust that accumulates in the cracks of the cement when the wind blows. Now I have four acres of land at my fingertips that helps me pacify my days.

Death row is very punitive and restrictive. I have seen guys written up for ‘dangerous contraband’ for things as harmless as a paper clip, a metal envelope clasp, or a wooden ruler with a metal guide strip. Imagine my disbelief and awe when I’m outside swinging an aluminum bat at a baseball game. How about using a shovel and rake to tend to my garden? Real solid implements forged from sharpened steel. Is this legal? I always felt like I was doing something wrong. I recently worked on a ladder the other day, something a death row person would NEVER be allowed around let alone touch. There’s always some apprehension about handling ‘tools’ around my wrists every time I left the cell.  I haven’t touched a set of cuffs for the last three years. Imagine how liberating that now feels. My existence now is just normal everyday life here without the stress, worry, harassment. I have interactions where some officers and free-staff call me Ramon instead of Inmate Rogers. I am considered more of a human in my new environment treated with a semblance of respect and dignity. I jumped on an electric golf cart the other day to the other side of the yard to deliver supplies and part of me felt like I was making the great escape. Being condemned never in my thoughts would I imagine being able to do these things that I do now. On death row our day is done by noon, we are locked inside the remainder of the day. Someone asked what I was doing in the middle of the yard staring skyward. It had been decades since I saw the night sky, the moon and stars, to smell the night air, to hear the subtle cadence of nocturnal creatures and who would ever tire of the majesty and spectacular hues of those regal sunsets? Nature has its own unique and unmatched awe and beauty but all that has been taken away from the life of a condemned. Words cannot express how amazing and stunning the world is viewed through renewed eyes after being locked away from it for decades. It’s like a whole new world I’ve had the privilege to be invited into. I’m thankful for the invitation back into reality. As this uncertain journey continues my eyes will be opened wider each day, not taking anything for granted.

I’m sure you are aware that me and the other death row inmates who left on the pilot transfer program are still classified as condemned inmates. The amenities, privileges, freedoms, and programs are far superior but we are still death-row inmates just living in a different institution. Many inmates and staff think we will be off death row and no longer condemned, but that’s not true. Technically we are out of San Quentin, but our classification hasn’t changed. 

Jimmy, 61

Meet Jimmy…

The thing I miss more than anything being on the outside is being able to help people who are unable to help themselves. Those types of people were my family. 

Jimmy, 61
Incarcerated: 28 years
Housed: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas

Before I came to prison, I always had the desire to help those who were unable to help themselves. I made it a point to take homeless people to my favorite places to eat: Burger King or Church’s Chicken. I would then run errands for elderly people, cut their lawn throughout the summer and shovel snow off the sidewalks and driveways. Those were my after school duties I volunteered to do. Helping people was something I wanted to dedicate my life to.

The guy the world knows as Prince was a friend of mine. Not as close as I would have liked it to be, but the association we had was okay. The thing that bothered him the most was that he didn’t understand how I could work so hard and then give my money away to strangers I never knew. I couldn’t understand why he found what I was doing was so confusing. I thought I could get him involved by handing him a bag or two to give to the homeless. I thought it would help him feel some kind of way, and it did– he never went with me again. When I saw Prince at school on Monday morning, I asked him why hadn’t he shown up at Kings Park to go downtown with me. He responded, “No one would give me a job anywhere so nobody cared for me and nobody is ever going to care for me.” I stood quietly staring at him thinking about what he’d just said and concluded he was kind of right. Nobody would probably ever care enough for me to help me when I’ve needed help, but nonetheless, I continued doing what I loved doing the most, helping those who couldn’t help themselves. Believe it or not, those were the most words I’d ever heard Prince say at once. But those words came to pass and they stand this very day.

The #1 thing I’ve learned since I’ve been in prison is, I had an anger issue, which I was in denial of until I was enrolled in Anger Management. From there I participated in Cognitive Intervention where I learned about cognitive thinking. From there I enrolled in a Jewish Bible College Seminary where I continued my education, obtaining my Doctorate in Christian Education. Afterwards, I went on to obtain my Master’s license in Life Coach.

By this time, I’d written three, Christian inspirational books. I  sent them to someone to publish, only to get them stolen. I learned to develop my writing talent here in prison only to get disappointed. 

There are many things my family has been surprised about. They know that I’m a Christian sold out to God. They know that I have forgiven those who have falsely accused me of my crime. They now believe I’m innocent and that I’m no longer focusing on that. They were surprised when I told them about all of my accomplishments. Although I don’t see any of my family members, I talk with two of my aunties, who have done this time with me. I talk with my sister Gale about every other week, and to one of my sons when I can afford it. Phone calls are $1.80 plus tax which comes up to about $2.00 a call.

The thing I miss more than anything being on the outside is being able to help people who are unable to help themselves. Those types of people were my family. 

One of the incidents that had an impact on me was back in 1998 when I revived one of the meanest hateful female guards on the Mc Connell unit and I got attacked, beaten horribly by a bunch of the guards who had arrived on the scene.This didn’t seem to be a Christian lady so I wasn’t ready for her to go and meet the Lord. Just to be able to help her recover was the most impactful for me.

I see love as the most precious gift we’ve ever been blessed with and because it’s a command of Christ Jesus, “To love one another as He has loved us…” Love is an act that will cause people to go above and beyond to meet the needs of others. Above all, I see God because the Bible says, “God is Love.” Love is an act of gentleness, kindness, caring and being patient with one another. Meeting your wife’s needs so she’ll never be in want of anything. Love is something to be expressed to your wife and children before they get a chance to express it to you everyday and the last thing you express to them before they go to sleep.

My childhood memory that still haunts me to this very day is being sexually assaulted by my babysitter who was my sister’s best friend. My sister who I loved so much and protected me, the one I was warned not to tell about the things my babysitter was doing to me. One day, I fell down on my face and cried out about the frightening event I’d been going through, and that was one of the worst mistakes of my life. My sister returned me to our house, took our clothes off and put me on top of her, telling me there was nothing wrong with that.

I was beaten at the age of 5 yrs old so bad that I began urinating blood. I was forced to look inside of a five gallon can that my brother and his friends were pouring gas-o-line inside of and throwing matches in it, entertaining themselves by the explosion. They forced me to look inside by threatening to hit me with some huge rocks. Looking inside that can was the last thing I’d seen or heard for only God knows how long. I was much too young to know days, weeks, months and years. but I know I was 5 because my grandma was taken away from me. Death by starvation at the hands of her own children. No good childhood memories until I was old enough to work and care for those who couldn’t help themselves.

The thing that gets me through the day is my Lord and my God. I’m now active in two different prison programs. One is Prison Fellowship Academy and  Leadership Academy being taught through Mr. John Maxwell’s Curriculums. And now writing more books (unpublished).  Writing is my escape, the same method I used as a child who created stories of a world the way I wanted it to be.

Ahesha, 40

Meet Ahesha…

 I had to learn to love myself to become the mother I am today. It is a real cold feeling sitting in this 4’ x 5’ room with all my thoughts.

Ahesha, 40
Incarcerated: 6 months
Housed: Gloria McDonald Women’s Facility, Cranston, Rhode Island

I’m not defined by my crime. I’m a beautiful mother of 10. I have learned I can prosper in the worst conditions. I had to learn to love myself to become the mother I am today. It is a real cold feeling sitting in this 4’ x 5’ room with all my thoughts. Time has helped me process my bad feelings and the pain I’ve been putting my mother and kids through. Now I have graduated from all the bad things I have done. I’m trying to work on my bachelors degree. I know when I am released in 18 months that I’ve put my loved ones through a lot of pain. When I was standing in front of the judge and he gave me 18 months and said,  I am sorry it had to go this way but it’s for the best, it made me feel alone, like nobody cared, it made my little heart hurt. I was afraid of what I might go through when I started my sentence. I really didn’t know how I was going to feel without my mother, who is really sick with only one leg. And without my children, who are being taken care of by friends and family. My kids are 25, 24, 20, 18, 14, 13, 11, 9, 7 and 5 and I know they wonder why I’m not there to take care of them, like only I know how. When I look at my childrens pictures, they are my motivation to stay strong, to stay happy and to stay stress free without crying. I won’t say to my mother how I should have done this and done that. I’m reminded daily of the bad things I did to get this sentence. Yet, I am motivated by all the good things I’m going to do with my bachelors degree and be there for my kids. I want my kids to be so happy and proud of me. I really want them to know that I have achieved my goals and they can achieve theirs. I’ll be a free woman ready to do the right thing. I will never forget there is hope, faith and purpose! I have the power to change and I am determined to keep bad people away from me. I have learned a lot of new things because knowledge is my liberation. 

Randy, 29

Randy, 29

Meet Randy…

Randy, 29
Incarcerated: 14 years
Housed: San Quentin State Prison, California

Better Than Freedom Cake

I made the cake a few years ago. The first time I was at work it was my co-worker’s birthday. The only ingredients we had on hand were a Honey Bun and cookies. I made it from scratch off the top of my head, thinking if this is all we have, maybe this is something we can do. It just came to me to combine the icing, leave the Honey Bun at the center and make a type of dough with the cookies.I made it for him and it ended up being really good. He said it was so good and suggested I should sell it on the tier because people would pay a lot of money for it. So, I made a hustle from it, and it was something I supported myself with for a while because people did love them and they sold for a lot. People would damn near harass me for these things. They always sold out. I started doing special orders for people for their birthdays. I actually became known for these cakes. I had an opportunity last year on my birthdays: on my birthday to make one with my wife. We each made one at the same time, and I walked her through the instructions over the phone. We both ended up making one, she lit the cake and sang happy birthday. We made a whole event out of it. The cakes are not difficult to make, but the first time you make it, it’s going to be a mess. Even the time I walked my wife through making it, it came out sort of messy. The first time it will be a little lopsided and difficult. I’ve taught a few cellies how to make them, and without fail, something always goes wrong. The biggest issue I see, and I’ve experienced myself many times is adding too much water. I try to point out that you can always add more water, but you can’t take it out. If you put too much, it becomes mushy, and the whole cake is ruined. Other than that, it’s just molding it. Some people mold it and it comes out sloppy. Making the cakes themselves is pretty simple once you get the hang of it, but expect the first one to be a fail, and the second one to be the one that comes out right.

Better Than Freedom Cake

Makes 2 servings


30 chocolate sandwich cookies (such as Oreos)

1 Iced Honey Bun



Remove filling from cookies and place in a mixing bowl. Remove the icing from the Honey Bun, add to the cookie filling, and mix until smooth.

Crush the cookies thoroughly by placing them in a storage bag and pounding with a heavy pan, rolling pin or meat pounder. Place the cookies in a separate bowl.

Add water to the crushed cookies, one tablespoon at a time, mixing after each addition. Continue to add water just until the mixture forms a dough that holds together without crumbling. 

Shape the dough into two cakes slightly larger than the Honey Bun. One of the dough cakes should be slightly larger than the other. 

Set the Honey Bun on top of the smaller dough cake, ensuring there is a margin of dough around the edge of the Honey Bun. Drape the larger dough cake over the honey bun and join the edges into the bottom half, pressing together to seal to make one hefty cake. 

Editor’s notes:

  • Iced Honey Buns can be found in the baked snack food aisle of grocery stores. They can also be purchased online.
  • When adding the water to the cookies, do so slowly – you can always add more, but too much water will make the dough too soft.

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