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.

Amir, 72

Amir, 72

Meet Amir…

I stayed out of prison for five years and came back with a life sentence for attempted murder. For the first time I looked at who I really was.

Amir, 72
Incarcerated: 20 years
Housed: San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA

I am a career criminal, my history started in 1967. I was not raised to be a drug addict-alcoholic and a career criminal. My mother and father were hard working people. They provided for me, my sister and brother and we never went hungry. At a very young age I started to rebel at home, in school, and my environment. Stealing, gambling, ditching school, and at 14, I started smoking pot and drinking. As I got older all these behaviors escalated. At 16, my parents sent me to see a psychiatrist. This did not last long. After eight sessions I told my parents I was through with the psychiatrist, and they could give me that money. At 17, I went to a juvenile camp in the Malibu mountains for six months. Upon release I went right back into my dysfunctional household and environment. Within eight months I was in the Los Angeles county jail, for multiple robbery charges. My first county jail experience was fun-games-and insanity. By the time I went to youth authority I was a better crook and gambler. After 22 months at youth training school, I paroled in 1971. I learned a good trade, sheet metal. I was in between an apprentice and journeyman. I went to the local union for a job interview. I was denied based on my skin color, I knew more about sheet metal than the interviewer. One of my original pains was not getting that job, I still live with that pain today. I met a beautiful girl, got married and had two wonderful kids. I enrolled in college and was still drinking and using. My habits shifted to using heroin. I got hooked and dropped out of college. At 25, I went to prison for the first time. Prison a horrible scene in 1977, prison was what you made it. The adventure got better as years went by. I paroled in 1982. I did not try to find work of any kind. I started hustling and hanging out with the wrong crowd. My mantra. “Everything came out of the street, if I didn’t win I didn’t eat.” I went back to prison in 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1995. I stayed out of prison for five years and came back with a life sentence for attempted murder. For the first time I looked at who I really was. Full of a bunch of mental, emotional and spiritual garbage. I finally found out I know nothing. Fighting back I had to examine every aspect of my life. After twenty years of incarceration I’m still soul searching. I no longer have all the answers. I have turned all of my problems over to God. God is in charge and not me.

Victor, 54

Victor, 54

Meet Victor…

I scanned the dayroom, paying particular attention to people’s hands, looking for weapons, and to eyes and faces to see attitudes and signs of nervousness.

Victor, 54
Incarcerated: 27 years
Housed: Correctional Training Facility, Soledad, CA

Prison is a very dangerous place, especially in the crowded dayroom where we have to wait until the guards unlock our cell doors. So when my five foot, one inch, hundred and ten pound buddy, Cuba suddenly stopped talking and his sight appeared to see through me, I got a bit nervous. We had been talking for about five minutes and everything was fine. He was telling me about a funny incident that had happened at his job in the kitchen, and we were both laughing. I call him Mr. Magoo, he is a naturally funny guy. His strong Cuban accent and bubbly personality made his conversations extremely funny. That day, he made me laugh so hard I impulsively gave him a slight hug for a second or two, before backing up to continue laughing. That’s when I noticed something odd, “What’s wrong, is there a fight behind me?” I asked him. I quickly turned and scanned the people behind me. Everything seemed normal. The place was packed with inmates waiting for the cell to unlock but no fight or signs of any unusual tension. Cuba simply answered, “Nothing.” I still had some laughter to unleash. However, my little friend was still frozen and staring through me. I looked back again. This time searching more intensely just in case the possible danger was aimed at me. I scanned the dayroom, paying particular attention to people’s hands, looking for weapons, and to eyes and faces to see attitudes and signs of nervousness. Still, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary, “What’s wrong Cuba?” I asked again. “You’re making me nervous.” “Nothing” he answered, but he would not look at me. He was still staring straight toward the wall. I moved to his left side trying to see what he was seeing. He was in his 60’s, so I wondered if maybe he was having a stroke. I’ve seen people having strokes, and they just freeze and stay silent. So, I asked him, “Are you okay Cuba? Do you feel okay?” He nodded yes, but remained a statue. “Cuba, please! I’m concerned. You’re getting me nervous. Please tell me what’s wrong?” After a few seconds, he looked at me, and in a very soft and broken tone of voice, he said: “Biktor, I’ve been locked-up for over 23 years and this is the first time someone has ever hugged me.” This time, I was the one frozen and speechless. From that day, and until the day he went home a year later, I hugged him every time I saw him.

Todd, 36

Todd, 36

Meet Todd…

It is unnatural to me for a parent to outlive his child. Facing this harsh reality while incarcerated forced me to deal with it head-on.

Todd, 36
Incarcerated: 16 years
Housed: Valley State Prison, Chowchilla, CA

How do you mend a broken heart? This is a question that burns through the forefront of my mind. Everyday, I’m faced with the reality of unnatural loss. There was one event in my life that was the most unnatural, and no matter how hard I try, I just can’t make this situation make any sense. I’m an alcohol and drug counselor, a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree, a son, a brother, a mentor, and friend, but the title I enjoyed the most was father. I became so accomplished in prison because I wanted to show my son that he should never give up no matter the circumstances. My son was my identity in here, and he was my motivation.

My dear son recently passed away at the age of 1, and my life was flipped upside down. Suddenly I had to figure out why I do what it is I do. All the while though, my brain still can’t compute the passing of my son. It is unnatural to me for a parent to outlive his child. Facing this harsh reality while incarcerated forced me to deal with it head-on. I had to reassess my focus and drive. Instead of just being a positive example for my son, every young man I know took his place. I want to eventually get my master’s degree in social work, then become a licensed clinical social worker, so I’ll be able to help other young men, like my son, who were impacted by having fathers, who are serving long sentences in prison.

That’s where I’m at now. Thanks for checking me out, this is just a small glimpse into my life. I just want to be of service and help people. Please feel free to respond. I’d like to end by telling everyone, “Keep pushing because it is going to get better, and you never know who you might inspire.” Thank you!

Moonshadow, 43

Moonshadow, 43

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Meet Moonshadow…

That day taught me three things. It really is the thought that counts. Always be creative. A simple act of love and caring can bring a smile to another person.

Moonshadow, 43
Incarcerated: 26 years
Housed: Valley State Prison, Chowchilla, CA

I remember it being a hot summer day when my grandmother, my mom, and I were driving home from the store. I was around six and full of energy. That all changed when a tow-truck hit us from behind when we stopped at a light. My mother was hospitalized and I was placed in the care of my grandparents. That began six months of hell as I was forced to eat off of and sleep on the floor like a dog. I wasn’t even allowed hot water. The only thing that kept me sane was the thought of being back with my mom. Finally, my mom was allowed weekend visits with me. One particular weekend it was her birthday and I wanted to do something special for her. She always told me, “You’re not allowed to use the stove, no matter what.” So, I decided to get creative. I cracked some eggs, opened some hash browns and bacon, and poured a glass of orange juice. I covered it all up and ran to get my mom. To her surprise, she walked into the kitchen and there was a tablecloth on the floor. She lifted it up to find raw cracked eggs, raw bacon, and raw hash browns and a glass of orange juice on the floor. I didn’t even use a plate. “Happy Birthday Mom! I didn’t use the stove.” She looked back and forth between the mess and me. I really thought that she was going to be mad. She just shook her head and smiled. She gave me the biggest hug and told me that she loved me. That day taught me three things. It really is the thought that counts. Always be creative. A simple act of love and caring can bring a smile to another person. I carry this with me every day in life with the hope of bringing a smile to everyone that I meet. Rest in peace Mom… I love you too.

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