David, 33

Meet David…

“There is no means for me to get an education or make money to send to my kids. People here are either innocent or guilty and have made honest efforts to change, but it’s never enough. Once you are seen a certain way, it’s forever.”

David, 33

Incarcerated: 3 years

Housed: Grimes Unit, Arkansas

I had a loving mother; my biological dad was never there. I never even met him. My half siblings’ father was an alcoholic and abused all of us, but somewhere inside, you would every now and then catch a glimpse of tenderness and love. His demons were too much for him and traumatized me and my Mom mostly. I was a mistake. A burden. A financial strain with cancer. I was victimized by people close to me a lot growing up. At 9, I lost the closest friend I had and my Mom got a divorce. We moved from San Antonio, Texas to Russellville, Arkansas to live with and help my grandparents. Mom met my new adopted dad, he was in the military but loving.

I hide my trauma with addictions. I started using pills at 15, then graduated to alcohol at 16, weed at 17. Realistically, you could recognize the change. My Mom couldn’t or didn’t have time. My adopted Dad deployed, my sister would run away for days, and my Mom dealt with a lot. Though I hurt and suffered and was drowning, I still managed to love and watch out for my Mom as best as possible. I didn’t ask for help. I felt I couldn’t; it’d be selfish. It would send her overboard. I would not function correctly without some substance. My dad made it home, little siblings came into the picture and I got my first vehicle. At 19, two months after graduating, I got someone pregnant. Her family pressured her into abortion and she did it without me knowing. I found out and disappeared for days, graduated to Cocaine, got blacked out, and never once talked about it to anyone. To me, it was mine to carry. I didn’t want to be a burden. I don’t want sympathy or worry. I don’t want my folks to know that I am not ok. Who wants their parents to know that? All that I grew up with and dealing with, was screwed up. How others screwed me is how I screwed me. I stayed strong for those around me. Don’t be a burden. I suffered under the hands, morals, and views of others. Of the bad. I was my worst enemy. I didn’t want this, and I didn’t want it for those around me. I secluded myself. Away from all I loved, I worked hard at jobs that I knew I could be under the influence because I couldn’t be sober. I learned to work hard. I learned to love those around me. I had good feelings in life, and they showed when I was around others. I put others before myself. Suffering between two lives. I knew God, but I didn’t deserve him in my life. That was my mind. 

At 21, I impregnated a one-night stand. I grew to love her compassion and personality, but I didn’t see a future with the birth of my daughter, the only light in my life at the time. My inability to seek help caused me to push them away. I didn’t want pain for her or anything negative. I was doing what I thought was right. She was safe. I paid support. I kept drowning. Kept pushing myself harder, using more. I was trying not to think but to be numb mentally and emotionally. But choosing this and the company I kept, I committed my first felony at a party. I was given five years probation; I dealt with threats, relapse, and the loss of the chance to be in my daughter’s life again. I was coping how I knew best, with sex and drugs. I even started having life-threatening thoughts and dating someone as unstable as me. I couldn’t find a place to stay and couldn’t maintain one job for long. I did a lot of bouncing around, so much so, that I forgot to report to my probation officer just one day late. I tried to play it off but it didn’t work. My probation officer, fed up with me, revoked my probation, and the girl I was with was pregnant. I got an FTR and probation revocation with three years in prison. I was told I would only do six months. A year and a half, I pursued change – real change. Prison saved me from myself, my addiction, and my life-threatening thoughts but it also changed me. I saw things. Prison takes from you what you struggled with, you can even grow in faith but it takes so much mentally away from you.

I got out in 2019 with a chance to acclimate back into society. I didn’t feel safe in crowds or outside or comfortable in the shower. A real shower. I felt judged and misunderstood everywhere I went. My Mom had even moved back to Arkansas to be there. That was one reason she noticed I wasn’t the same. Like most people who get out, they want their past in the rearview. I lived with that belief. I wanted to live not defined by my past. I got a job and a second one not too long after. Managing more responsibly. I was with someone I loved dearly; I had that glimpse of happiness. Then, after a restraining order by her baby daddy, we were forced apart. I loved her and her kids like my own. They brought brightness into my life I hadn’t had in a long while. When they were taken, that is when I thought of relapse. But, I kept it together. I got a place with a friend (Good friend). He helped me stay responsible, and made sure I didn’t spiral. Two jobs, paying child support on one kid and medical on another (willingly), and connecting with family. A month or so later, just helping support my ex, her kids, her sisters, and their friends, her dad had me holding onto false hope. I knew it was false hope but, I don’t know… He encouraged her sisters and friends to visit and make sure I was ok. I mean, they were like family. It didn’t bother me. One night, I was invited to the mothers house of one of their friends. She got to know me and my past, no problem. I got concerned because she was a user, the people she was staying with were dangerous and just put those kids and her through hell. They found out about my prior and threatened my life and theirs. They denied knowing the mother and kids even though they did. I took off that night. I didn’t know why, but it was too much. I relapsed hard. I had to call a woman I worked with to pick me up. I was that off and scared of myself and my state of mind. She got a hotel for us. It took care of me for a couple of days, she even followed up every day. I began building a relationship with her (healthy and strong), and the only thing keeping it from being official was that I was ready to go home. I had gone to such a depressed state I was ok with death. She and one other person were the only ones who knew. I prayed for it. I used it excessively as I used to and hid it well. I worked my body into the ground and gave my all to care for everyone else. But not myself. My ex, her sisters and friends, their Mom. My ex’s kids started coming around more, so you can imagine; now back into old habits, giving money, buying things for people, and being around kids. To me, I was helping, looking out. Living selflessly towards others. But in others’ eyes, I was a creep and still defined by my felony. I wasn’t dangerous, but to them, I was. Things were unreviewed; taken the wrong way. 

On March 12,2021, I was being accused of rape. Mind you, all I’d ever done was look out, but because of my prior charge, I was what they called me. I spiraled. No one believed I did anything, including my ex, my parents, and me. I got a call from my ex’s sister’s friend, crying and saying that her dad was making her and that she was sorry. I didn’t know what to say. I hung up. That was at 4:30 pm. At 7:00 pm, I O.D.’d, got a hotel room and called my Mom, informing her I had been accused and she didn’t even let me say anything, she didn’t want to hear anything. Pain and anger took over. I hung up. I had voicemail texts and phone calls, all threatening my life and my family’s. I called the officer who called me and I didn’t want to hear anything. His exact words were, “If I didn’t own up to it, he wasn’t responsible for what happened to me or my family.” I did what I had to to save my family. When I found out days later they had moved back to Pennsylvania, I knew they were safe. I talked to a lawyer and explained all of it. And he tried, but they would not negotiate. He said if I took it to trial, it’s her word against mine and they would already have their mind made up. I made the hard choice, given no other choice. I was given 25 years. I don’t hear from anyone in my family. No friends. I have a religious figure that checks in frequently from time to time.

I’m three years into a crime I didn’t commit because of hearsay. I’m deeply committed to faith and physical growth. I’m on psych meds and my son is currently in foster care because his mother can’t kick her addiction. I hurt cause I should be out there for him. People out there have their obstacles, as do those in here. The justice system isn’t just. There is no means for me to get an education or make money to send to my kids. People here are either innocent or guilty and have made honest efforts to change, but it’s never enough. Once you are seen a certain way, it’s forever. We want to show we’ve changed but won’t be able to because of excessive sentencing. Families are stressed, children are without parents. Hearts are broken. Minds cracked, changed or warped because vengeance is the basis of justice. The guilty will do time even when released. I know, in my initial crime, I was guilty. I regret it every day and it eats at me. Even having been forgiven by the one I harmed. Forgiveness. Real justice.

Giving people an honest chance to show they have changed, putting families back together, reuniting parents with their children, lower sentences and percentages, open doors for educational opportunities and income opportunities. This should be what people out there seek, not to make things worse. When the shoe is on the other food, they are seen, but why wait until it gets there? Why not strive to make an honest change for the better now? See with pure hearts. We are not what you think. To desire more extremes or desire politicians in office that will promote crooked justice; to support wickedness only makes these people promote this very nightmare they see us as. The nightmare they fear. Seek change for the better.

There are genuinely great people in here, myself included. At least the three years I’ve done so far and I’ve made drastic changes. You want awareness, and there isn’t enough; the sick are dying. We get bread crumbs worth of food and we believe in people out there to enjoy better in all areas, even the prisons. Imagine prisons empty. Don’t get me wrong, there are some wicked people, but 95% give or take, of those in prison aren’t. We’ve all made mistakes. I don’t even know you and can say you are forgiven in my eyes, and I believe in you, please believe in us. Prison is like a starving country. Lost; and survive as best you can. 

Anyways, to David: Despite the hell you put me through as a kid, I forgive and love you. 

Kim: Thank you. 

My family and kids: I love you always, no matter what. 

Angel, Ashlie and Nathaniel: Thanks for your friendship when I had it. I wish you all the best. 

Realvida: Thank you. 

And, of course, Humans of San Quentin – thank you for listening to me.

Maurice, 45

Maurice, 45

Meet Maurice…

“With the help of finding myself I had to understand that I needed to work on the way I perceived things. I must find something positive in every situation.”

Maurice, 45

Incarcerated: 6 years

Housed: Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan.

I am from Detroit and have been in and out of prison and jail throughout my life. I am finishing my last three credits for my AA degree from Mott Community College and majoring in social work. Since I’ve been incarcerated, I’ve mentored young adults and teenagers. I have been allowed to teach an art class based on my curriculum, teaching the basic fundamentals of drawing. I am in the process of creating a nonprofit for at-risk youth in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The nonprofit is based on self-expression through the creation of art. I’ve learned that daily art will improve one’s focus and vision. In creating art, one will generate positive thinking. The process is a form of meditation and expression, resulting in self-improvement. I don’t look at incarceration from a one-sided perspective. I use my time to build a better me and to prepare me for the future. Prison can either be a university of self-education or a dungeon of deterioration. People are anxious to improve their circumstances but unwilling to improve themselves. With the help of finding myself, I had to understand that I needed to work on how I perceived things. I must find something positive in every situation. I like to say I am the director and producer of my play. This prison journey is close to being over. I have acquired everything I need to live a positive and productive life. The prison will give birth to the new me. Thank you for allowing me to express myself and hopefully be a light to someone else’s dark path. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to stand on this platform you’ve built for us to express ourselves and to be noticed.

Tam, 43

Tam, 43

Meet Tam…

Mr. Brown never judged me.”

Tam, 43

Incarcerated: 20 years

Housed: San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California.

I met Mr. Brown at the RJ Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. He was a correctional officer. He turned out to be one of the most positively influential male figures in my life. Mr. Brown was my work supervisor at the prison clinic. He was an older African American with a deep southern drawl from Texas. Somehow, he’d held onto that accent even after over 30 years in California. He was a charming, funny, inviting person who always smiled warmly for staff and the incarcerated alike. Still, he especially had a soft spot for the young female nurses. He was a huge flirt. For the first few months after meeting him, we had a cordial and professional relationship, talking mostly as a courtesy and to get work done. One night, he worked overtime in my housing unit. As he was doing the inmate count to make sure no one had escaped, he stopped in front of my door, looking into my tiny cell through the glass window in the door, and listened to me playing guitar and singing a song. He tapped on my window, catching my attention, and asked what song I was singing. I answered that it was something I had written. The next day at work, Mr. Brown initiated a more personal conversation than usual. We started talking about music we liked. He expressed that he enjoyed hearing me sing and was surprised that an Asian loved R&B and soul music. (Apparently, he thought Asians only listened to bamboo flute music from a kung fu movie.) It turned out that despite differences in race and being on different sides of the wall, an officer and a prisoner, we both loved Al Green, Albert King (the best King) and, of course, Marvin Gaye! Over the next few years, he shared about his life with me. I learned that he grew up in Texas, joined the Navy, and about his wife, Gail, and his kids. I shared with him my experiences of growing up in a domestically violent home, my mother abandoning me when I was 8, joining a gang to have a place to sleep, as well as the irrational reasons I had for attempting to take another young man’s life when I was 22 years old.

Mr. Brown never judged me. He encouraged and guided me by sharing his experiences of the good and bad choices he’d made as a young man and songs and lyrics he felt were relevant to how I was feeling. I looked forward to talking and laughing every day with this Ol’Man. I eventually dropped enough points to get transferred to a lower-level security prison. Mr. Brown retired shortly after. Whenever I hear Bobby Blue Bland, Mr. Brown’s favorite singer, or a Marvin Gaye song, I think about Mr. Brown. I am still surprised and eternally grateful for music opening the door to this unlikely friendship that influenced my maturity during one of the most difficult times of my life. 

Side note: The name of the song Mr. Brown heard me sing that night was “Wish You Knew”. I also wrote another song, Brutal Love, about Mr. Brown and his wife. Both songs can be found on my album titled “I’ll Write Myself a Love Song”, which is available on SoundCloud or Spotify. My other Album, “Over The Phone”, is also available on both platforms.

https://open.spotify.com/album/2T4aCI8szxPZBzw2L5NEZm?si=1lnx8X09RZ-XiKHg5W4A5Q

https://on.soundcloud.com/w4Wgi

https://open.spotify.com/album/7hHmH8x31K4OrdmH8Ie1AT?si=SlkmmyhCRhimCbTZYmjaDA

Sierra, 24

Sierra, 24

Meet Sierra..

“I’ve learned it is a natural human thing to want to reach out, help, and uplift those in need. ”

Sierra, 24

Incarcerated: 9.5 years

Housed: Topeka Correctional Facility, Kansas 

Being incarcerated at 14 and growing up in the system, navigating life came with so many obstacles and challenges. I am blessed to meet so many well-intentioned women who take me under their wing and do their best to help me realize my potential and guide me in the right direction. This experience is still ongoing to this day. I’ve learned it is a natural human thing to want to reach out, help, and uplift those in need. Whether it’s emotional, spiritual, or social. I’ve heard over and over how God works in mysterious ways. He works through those you’d least expect. Every day I wake up, I decide to be a better version of myself than the day before. Because of the grace and love shown to me, I choose to be someone who can extend that grace and love to others. I thank God daily for showing me mercy and allowing me to become the blessed young lady I am today.

 

Marques, 43

Marques, 43

Meet Marques..

“I currently practice self-control with incarcerated self-awareness, and I’m able to remain calm in the heat of the moment so I don’t let temporary feelings cause permanent damage.”

Marques, 43

Incarcerated: 10 years

Housed: California State Prison, Solano

What have I learned about myself in prison?

Since my conviction, my life has changed in so many significant ways. I am no longer the same person that I once was before coming to prison,

When I committed this crime, I was impulsive and acted first and thought later. Now, I know better than to do that. I’ve learned to think first before reacting. I currently practice self-control with incarcerated self-awareness, and I’m able to remain calm in the heat of the moment so I don’t let temporary feelings cause permanent damage. At the time, addressing violence with superiors seemed like the right way to handle the situation, but it wasn’t. I have identified my internal and external triggers such as feeling insecure, powerless, ashamed, unheard, vulnerable, and sometimes fearful. I was being ridiculed or threatened by people around me, being called a liar, being insulted, being yelled at, and called weak. I’ve also developed healthy coping mechanisms that prevent me from returning to criminal behavior whenever I’m tempted to do so. Some coping mechanisms include but are not limited to: 

1) Positive self-talk. When feeling insecure, I remind myself I am not a negative thought or feeling. I am more than my past, and I am learning while growing. 

2) No matter what is said, I stop personally taking people’s words or actions. 

3) I pause to observe and process my situation, feelings, and my body’s reaction (heart rate increases, breathing quickens) to remain calm and avoid reacting impulsively. 

4) Breathing: when I feel overwhelmed or anxious, I pause to take deep breaths and meditate. 

5) Listening with understanding and empathy when others express their thoughts or feelings. 

6) Taking the necessary time to assess different opinions or conflicts in a given situation. 

7) Things I’ve learned in self-help groups also work for me: Thought stopping, thought replacement, walking away, speaking calmly, and exercising.

I’ve matured in areas of the utmost importance when it comes to my conduct and behavior. By completing several self-help classes, I’ve acquired the necessary tools to modify my behavior and rebuild my life from the ground up. I took the time to dig deep within and was able to identify my many weaknesses, turning them into strengths; rather than being problem-focused, I’ve become solution-minded.

Today, I’ve learned to identify the root causes of my choices to be violent and to trace back the origin of my criminal thinking, which was that violence and committing crimes were the best ways to address whatever external problems I was facing. I have learned to recognize my feelings and thought patterns, and by doing that, I’ve learned to control the impulses that triggered my violent behavior.

I’ve been incarcerated now for almost ten years; the last five years have been disciplinary-free. I’m housed here at CSP Solano in the programming facility yard, where I can participate in various programs and receive certificates of completion. They teach me life skills and how to cope with life on life’s terms. I do my very best and let God do the rest. I was baptized here at the prison chapel, where I confessed my sins, asking God for forgiveness. I attend service regularly, where I help mentor the youth by using my own life story and my trials and tribulations to serve as a living testimony to those younger men who look up to me. It helps keep them out of trouble and brings them closer to God, our creator. I take a correspondence course called PREP Turning Point that teaches me anger management, parenting, conflict resolution, listening, critical thinking skills, and more.I completed a yoga class where I learned breathing techniques and how to remain calm while always in control. I was also taught how to meditate and relax my body and mind. By thinking clearly before reacting, I can make better decisions.

I’ve been a married man for the last four years, and I get to attend overnight family visits with my wife and children, bond and socialize with them, maintain my family ties, and spend quality time with those I love most. I have a lovely home to return to and plenty of love and family support. It’s very important to have housing, reliable transportation, and financial support upon release. I have that. I also have a post-release plan of action that will help solidify my successful reentry into the community. I recently graduated from the DJ program at CSP Solano called Uncuffed and I created an hour-long radio set from start to finish. My completed set aired on KALW 91.7 FM in September 2023. The Radio station provided a platform for us to be heard beyond these prison walls, and I used it to become a voice for the voiceless. This was a huge accomplishment for me and has given me the confidence to pursue a career in audio engineering. When my family and friends heard my creation on the Radio, they were so proud of me. I’m currently enrolled in the Solano Community College program, where I’m pursuing an associate’s degree in sociology and maintaining a 4.0 GPA. Now that I’ve acquired the necessary skills, knowledge, and tools to be a positive, productive, and proactive member of our society, all that’s left is for me to be afforded the opportunity to do so!

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