Cameron, 39

Cameron, 39

Cameron, 39

Meet Cameron…

“What comes to mind is peace, and a sense that everything is going to be ok. What comes to mind is, that what’s in the past needs to stay there if I want to have a future, if I want to be grateful for today and for the fact that I am no longer the person I once was.”

Cameron, 39

Incarcerated: 13

Housed: Correctional Training Facility, California

SOFT IN A HARD PLACE

Prisons are not soft and cuddly. 

All across the world prisons are built from cement and steel. They are stocked with hard people doing hard time and ruled with iron fists. In a place where toughness is mandatory and brutality is a virtue, those who do not affect a spiritual exoskeleton and fashion their minds and bodies into weapons held ever ready to fend off the assaults of a hostile world that values strength alone are seen as lesser, as contemptible, as objects of scorn, as prey.

Perhaps prison could have persisted indefinitely. Perhaps these hard places filled with granite hearts and iron wills would never crumble. Perhaps these mean lives born out in the closest proximity to our fellow humans, these callous existences devoid of compassion where we could not so much as acknowledge the struggle, the despair, the suffering of those beside us as they were subjected to the same indignities and cruelties that we were, could have kept on without diverging, and the prison mentality could have maintained its crushing grasp upon us, enforced its illogical directive that humans – a species by all accounts predisposed to seek softness, warmth, and comfort, not stone and steel and solitude – be hard, be cold, be heartless.

Perhaps. But then there were cats.

At first there was just one, a wary orange tabby that prowled the yard between human hours and haunted the forbidden spaces beyond the fences like the phantom of a world long forgotten. We watched from behind glass and steel and wire and cement, watched her romp about, watched her chase birds and share a meal with us. She grew, fed both by pigeons and state food offered by many hands, though in time we realized it was not the meager scraps of unidentifiable meat which made her fat.

The blessing she bestowed upon us for our gifts was delivered, appropriately enough, in an unused locker on the yard’s religious grounds. From the moment the litter of kittens arrived, there existed a covenant among all her feeders and fawners and fans: we shall belong to these cats.

Thus the ensuing weeks were heavy with the sounds of crinkling plastic as not just state food but canteen and package morsels were brought to the site of the pilgrimage, set like sacrifices upon the altar of this mysterious beast who walked among us. We watched in quiet awe from behind our stoic masks as the kittens opened their eyes and emerged to take their first steps, as they explored the world they now shared with us and grew into rambunctious, playful beings of wonder.

Then, of course, we pet them.

I had not until a small orange cat wandered over to sit with me in the grass, had the divine pleasure of petting a cat in fifteen years. I am a writer by trade but to describe the experience leaves me scrabbling for words. Simply, it reminded me that I am alive. It instilled in me a raw, unbridled happiness that I had never felt, not even as a child. I spent many hours with those cats and still, I am amazed at how perfectly they reject everything it means to be in prison: they are playful and unselfconscious, curious and silly, soft and cuddly and so damned schmoofy that if I had a thousand of them I would delight in being buried alive. But even one is bliss.

Sometimes it is even more interesting to watch the interactions of my fellow prisoners with our cats. All those hard cases doing hard time melt like butter on a summer sidewalk when they visit the cats, when they feed them and watch the chasing bees and birds when they make toys to entice the cats to play with them (as I have done – it is too fun for words.) Engaging with a fluffy ball of innocence that offers no judgment whatsoever, stony visages finally bear smiles.

And I understand. I don’t think about the past when a cat hops in my lap. I don’t think of what I should or could have done. I don’t think about courts or life sentences or parole boards. What comes to mind is peace and a sense that everything is going to be ok. What comes to mind is that what’s in the past needs to stay there if I want to have a future, if I want to be grateful for today, and for the fact that I am no longer the person I once was.

The cats, of course, already know this, but they are gracious enough to spend their time with us so that we might learn, and so that we can enjoy a few quiet moments of warmth, of softness, of non-judgment. Of freedom.

Every prison should have cats.

Joel, 31

Meet Joel…

“Being gone away from the world that I once knew for so long will make you feel forgotten.”

Joel, 31

Incarcerated: 9 years

Housed: Arkansas Dept of Corrections, Grady

Being gone away from the world I once knew for so long, will make you feel forgotten. Learning that life doesn’t stop because I got popped is something that opened my eyes to a lot about life. I got in my jam a few days before my 22nd birthday and sad to say- I’m still stuck in 2014. Being incarcerated it seems that I don’t age mentally. In my mind, I’m still that 21-year-old about to turn 22 and still childish. I like to think outside of the walls that bind me to this place. Let me tell you this place will sharpen up your imagination after so long. You sort of become your own best friend cause you can’t trust too many people. I find myself daydreaming all of the time about when I was free or about when I got my freedom back. Like today,  I daydreamed about my first love and our first encounter. How I wish sometimes I could just stay in that thought forever. I see it all as clearly as I see it today. I mean Bre is so beautiful and happy. The music that was playing was Sure Thing by Miguel. I pull up in the car with my homeboy at the time, and I see her for the first time. I remember thinking that’s my sure thing right there and she was. I was shy back then,  so I didn’t know how to approach her, so I sent one of my little guys over to tell her that I liked her and to come talk to me and she did. It was crazy how we talked to each other. I remember us being so alive. I mean she was so outgoing compared to me. I loved that and wanted her around me all of the time. She was the total opposite of me. My better half. I love you Bre wherever you are. I find this to be crazy how being incarcerated, men tend to try and bury these kinds of thoughts and emotions in fear of looking soft or even weak but not me. I welcome them proudly!

 

Albert “RU-AL”, 59

Albert “RU-AL”, 59

Meet Albert…

Albert “RU-AL”, 59

Incarcerated: 30 years

Housed: California Death Row, San Quentin

I am a success story. I’m Albert “RU-AL” I’ve been on Death Row for 27 years. I’m the author of ten self published books. When I first got to San Quentin in 1996 I knew this was going to be a long and slow ride to getting my freedom back for a crime I didn’t commit. I knew I had to find something to do  knowing the state wanted to execute me and 600+ other people. I heard a few guys had written books so I knew there was no gang banging here. I decided it was time to write my autobiography. I’m going to be the only black man on any death row in the world with ten self published books. I’m going to make history as well as leave a positive legacy for my great, great, great grand kids.

Below is a little bit about each one of my books. 

“Put On The Shelf To Die” A trilogy about my family, my trial and my conviction and my first 15 years on Death Row.

“10 Toes Down” My gang life on the streets, told like no other gangsta books before this one.

“Behind These Walls” After being in six other prisons before this one, my ganglife in these prisons.

“I’m In God’s Confinement” How my faith in Jesus has kept me safe in this hell hole of a place. The real me.

“S.O.D.R Spiritual Testimonies” I collected real testimonies from men about how their religious beliefs have helped them in this dark place. These testimonies are powerful and can be inspirational. .

“Our Last Meals?” I asked guys for one or two of their best recipes. Good cooked meals.

“I Survived Covid-19” How so many guys got sick and 19 on Death Row died.

“S.Q.D.R. College Graduate 203 G.P.A. ” It took me 11 years to finish but I didn’t quit. I have a double major in Social and Behavioral Science and Business.

“My Last Meals” The meals I cooked in the 25 years I have been on Death Row. .

All my meals.

“Eugene and Emeire” A four book series about my two oldest grandkids, Christian Children books, Bedtime stories and Sunday School Stories.

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. 

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