Leon, 45

Leon, 45

Meet Leon…

 We are both successful service dog trainers and recruited to be featured in fundraising videos, which have had thousands of views on YouTube. It was the sibling rivalry that ignited our ongoing competition…

Leon, 45
Incarcerated: 18 years
Housed: Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington

It was in the depths of hardship and struggle when our unlikely friendship formed. Since 2007 we have lived, learned, grown, failed, and celebrated many successes together behind the fences of several different prison facilities. Most incarcerated people hold the philosophy that, “I came to prison alone,  I’m going to leave alone, and I’m not here to make friends.” We also felt that way, but over the years, we developed a brotherly bond as well as what you could describe as a sibling rivalry. We are both successful service dog trainers and were recruited to be featured in fundraising videos, which have had thousands of views on YouTube. It was the sibling rivalry that ignited our ongoing competition that led us to our current bet for which one of our videos will be the first to reach 20,000.

It became a daily taunting match. Mine has been out since 2016, so it had a significant number of views by 2018 when Randy’s was posted. Cleverly, Randy contacted a very popular dog rescue company in 2019, and they shared his video through their network. Randy’s video shot up to 9,950 views by 2020, while mine hovered at around 6,400. Calculating the current rate,  it will take Randy 21 years to reach the goal, but I will reach it in a little over 14 years. Randy still has some tricks up his sleeve and I have become wise. It is doubtful that our video views will continue to grow at the current rate, but what will remain the same is the unlikely friendship that we formed through commiseration during hard times. In addition, the competitive rivalry of our brotherhood will likely be with us for life. Therefore, the bet is on and the competition is unbending. To see the videos for yourself, go to Summit Assistance Dogs Monroe Partnership on YouTube.  (Leo’s is 2016, Randy’s is 2018)

Jarel, 45

Jarel, 45

Meet Jarel…

Social condemned people are humans too, who made some very poor decisions. Maybe befriend one of us. You may never meet a more loyal friend.

Jarel, 45
Incarcerated: 16
Housed: Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington

One of the biggest trials was becoming introduced to a wheelchair. I have not let this disability let me down. It has strengthened me mentally more than anything. I was young – 19 when I was incarcerated for the first time. I learned to grow up quickly. Drugs and prison gangs became second nature. Three years later I was released with a drug addiction and a big chip on my shoulder. After four more prison sentences, I ended up committing a heinous act of violence to where someone lost their life. I ended up in the place I hated the most, the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. I was sentenced to 30 years and lost everything I ever held close. My family, the woman I loved and my freedom. It took me several years of going back and forth from solitary confinement to intensive treatment units to finally pull my head together and search for a positive meaning in my life. Then, I started the very long process of mending all the broken fences. The first – myself and my addiction. For a long time I hated myself and was bitter. I pushed everyone away, especially the ones that tried to help. As a “socially condemned” person and incarcerated I started to build healthy relationships and take self-improvement classes. The teacher for a redemption class changed my life. I jumped in fully and after graduation I was invited to start the process of taking the classes needed to start facilitating the same class I took. It was an eye opener and showed me how to connect back to becoming a good person. 

Besides self-improvement I have found a new love in my life as well and that was accepting God fully and placing my life in his hands. I have found the strength to walk away from prison politics and to start mentoring younger people.  I have had blessing after blessing fall into my lap, as well as trials and tribulations. I now know how to deal properly with these trials. I have been clean and sober for over 13 years and have built a beautiful reconnection with my family, my beautiful fiance that I lost years ago and we are due to become married very soon.

Christopher, 42

Christopher, 42

Meet Christopher…

I want to change the culture in prisons, but it’s going to take an effort from the rest of the world as well. I want society to someday paint a different picture of prisons and prisoners.

Incarcerated: 10 years

Housed: Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington

It’s refreshing to know that many people who come to prison, for whatever reasons, often uncover the lies we’ve told ourselves in order to live with the truth of our pasts. For me, this is what caused my life to become a path of justice. as a lifestyle. I’ve heard people say over the years, “I’ve served my time and now my debt is paid,” but the truth is that no amount of time can constitute payment for some of the things I’ve done. In fact, from my study of mathematics, I see this as being similar to an infinite limit, where although we continue paying towards the justice of our past.. although our debt to the world may become smaller and smaller, there is no point in our lives where we can say, “The debt is finally paid, it’s time to kick up my feet!” I think we should live in a way that contributes positive value into the world, a byproduct of a better way to live! My way of life is wrapped around the world of mathematics where I live my justice in the pursuit of beauty. I’m more free doing this, than I ever was while lost in addiction. I want to change the culture in prisons, but it’s going to take an effort from the rest of the world as well. I want society to someday paint a different picture of prisons and prisoners. I  want prisoners to realize that it’s our job to serve the Justice for our crimes.. not our department of corrections number. We need to be responsible and accountable to allow for enough forgiveness – for ourselves – so that we can heal in a way where we can fix those flaws that led us here. That’s our responsibility, it’s a necessary part of actual Justice. I know that this is an uncommon story of “me” in prison, but this is more “me”than any life story I can sum up in a few paragraphs. I see organizations like HUMANS, the Prison Mathematics Project and the Prison Journalism Project as doing their part to change the culture of prisons through altering the lense for which the outside world sees prisoners for what they actually are… humans.

 

Christopher, 40

Christopher, 40

Meet Christopher

I sometimes wonder how I got here. Not the fact that I’m stuck in a prison cell with a 45-year sentence, I know how that happened – greed. But how I came to a place where my voice has far exceeded that of this tiny cell and the towering prison walls that surround me.

Today, I’m all the things I was always meant to be: a mentor, a scholar who’s only a few classes away from a Bachelor’s degree (after dropping out in the 9th grade, far sooner if you count when I actually stopped trying), a journalist who’s byline holds some of the most coveted publications on the planet (The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and many more), a loving husband with a wife who’s amazing, loving, honest and loyal, a builder, an archiver, an artist, and so much more.

But most of all, I’m blessed because I finally learned how to love myself, and that’s what has allowed me to learn to love others – the most rewarding gift bestowed upon us in this life. And the gift that allowed me to finally find the path I was meant to travel. I wonder why I couldn’t see this confident, empathic, smart, and caring person when I was free – young and full of life. Why’d it take this – incarceration – to reach my full potential? What was it that stopped me from loving myself back then? Was it the struggle to survive?

I often tell people, only now do I actually feel like I’m living my life, before I was merely surviving, lost and confused. Jordans, cars, and fancy material positions were all I seemed to see.

Growing up poor has that effect – duct-tape on your shoes and what not. I remember being so embarrassed, the broken-down Honda my mom drove, the cheap clothes I wore to school, watching my mom struggle to pay the bills. The list was endless.

I swore I would never live like that when I was older, little did I know, prison would be my home – almost the grave, if I wouldn’t have survived that bullet! What was I thinking that night? Almost all of my friends have been shot.

I thought that was normal while growing up, like a rite-of-passage or something. Where I come from — The HillTop area of Tacoma, Washington – you get cool points for surviving a bullet, the more the better. I now recognize, it was the toxic masculinity that controlled my life, something I never learned about until my 30’s. Once I realized it ruled my life, I was able to start making changes, and that’s when all of who I was meant to be started taking shape.

Today, I fight for equality – something greater than myself and my past desire for personal gratification. I’m surrounded by good friends, people who love me for who I am, not the car I drive, shoes I wear, or any other foolish material items. I also realize that this is all that ever mattered. I wasn’t searching for money and material positions, I was looking to be loved – truly loved.

I caused irreparable harm along my path to get to where I am today. Some of the harm I’ve caused can never be reversed. I sit with it everyday, and I’ll continue to do so for the rest of my days. But this I know: I’ll never harm another in the ways of my past.

I’ll spend my life being a transformer, working to shape and shift the lives I cross paths with in hopes of helping those who look as lost as I was before I found my true self. And just maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll have a chance to help them before they reside behind these cold steel bars with a 45-year prison sentence – forced to live with the guilt of a harm caused that can never be repaired.

We are all somebody special, and each and every one of us has something incredible to share with the world. We should encourage each other in positive ways. We should call out those who cause harm, even if it doesn’t feel like the “cool” thing to do. Most of all, we should be ourselves, because that’s when our true colors shine! Love yourself, because that is the key to truly loving others.

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