Gunner, 32

Meet Gunner..

“To anyone I have hurt carelessly or under addiction, I pray you heal and learn to forgive. I never forgave those who hurt me, and it turned into poison. An apology is made through my life actions. NO ONE is truly free who cannot control themselves.”

Gunner ‘GT’, 32

Incarcerated: 7 years

Housed: Valley State Prison Chowchilla, California

Imagine if everything you have ever experienced was abnormal and nothing was normal by society’s standards. You just stepped into my shoes. From the age of one to the age of four, I lived with my poor drug-addict mother who loved men and needles more than me, leaving me alone to starve and get molested. Cops showed up and stripped my little fingers from the only thing that made me feel safe. I was taken from her like a state of emergency. I was taken to a place where I was held down, given shots, and told it was okay. Then, I was given to a stranger called father, and people I didn’t know who said “I love you” but yelled when I did anything. My father was a broken man. He had a wife and two sons, but she ran away to protect herself and the boys. I was this fix, but I had my trauma already. I was young, angry, and exposed to too much. My father inconsistently lost jobs by dropping liquor down his throat and meth through each nostril. How would anyone expect shit to go down?

One day in the winter of 96, I was in New Mexico, staying with my dad’s buddy and his two kids. One day while my dad was at work, we broke a window playing ball. His buddy duct-taped our hands and feet behind our backs and put us in the corners of separate rooms. Eight hours later, my dad came in from work: I’d pissed my pants, and my hands were numb. My dad beat the dude up and asked if I wanted to live with people I’d never met; I said yes. It was the only time my dad did right by me. Aunt Brenda and Uncle Ronny were bikers. I had my room, bed, and a home for two years. I went to school, and I had friends. It was my best life, regardless of whether it was still wrong. While I was living with them. I was almost killed four times by a dog attack; involved in a drive-by shooting, I was kidnapped and raped and nearly thrown off a building.

In the summer of 1998, my dad took me back, he wanted me, but he had nothing to offer but some bullshit. I fought at school every day. He would beat me; I would lie to authority about my black eyes. My family covered for him. One day, my dad came home, blacked out from drinking too much, and beat me to the point where I ran to 7-11 and called the cops.

From 12 to 18, I was forced to pretend to be perfect when I was broken. Years passed in that brokenness, and I lost the feeling of happiness and comfort. If things weren’t wrong, I felt something was wrong. I got kicked out and moved around to 17 foster homes. I needed help, not abandonment. At 18, I was indeed full of hate, looking for expressions to participate. I got arrested selling drugs and got lucky. It was the only time my skin got me out of an adverse fate. I used sex, alcohol, and drugs to silence the insecurities I called demons. I literally avoided my past, which caused a destructive present. I had no men who would teach me how to be a man, so I watched TV and made my own James Bond plans.

I did what I wanted, right or wrong. I was a raw street boy trying to be a man on my own two feet. Failures showed me how much I hated myself, so I gave up caring. When things went wrong, I shrugged, not giving a fuck, because I self-sabotaged, not trying pathetically in every way. Sad, angry, and fueled through aggression.

From 18 to 25, I was having fun doing what I wanted because of my youth’s lack of exposure and trying to make up for lost time. I was stunted in maturity. If I’d had direction, I would have been working in a union job, but I never knew what people called obvious. I never saw a way out to be successful. I tried two times to be a good guy. The first time she dumped me was when I was in the US Army. The second time, I blacked out and hurt a girl; it was 100% my fault. I take 100% responsibility for the harm I caused. I blame no one, factor traumas. I should have stopped out of fear and faced the pain. I spiraled in 2016 after my girlfriend moved out; I wrecked my truck, lost my job, lost the apartment, and was homeless, fueling my addictions. I was arrested for blacking out and hurting an innocent soul who didn’t deserve my stupidity of actions.

In county jail, I was given a razor blade and a bible, and for 28 days in isolation, I faced a crossroads: end myself or change. I prayed to God to change all of me and give me strength. On the wall was Romans 8:28. I have been sober since. I went to college and graduated with a 3.0 GPA, not bad for a high school dropout. I took every class to parent myself for everything I lacked or never knew. I seek to be loved and accepted; I desire to be the gap for the lost, outcast, rejected, and those who have made choices from factors related to unhealed trauma. To anyone I have hurt carelessly or under addiction, I pray you heal and learn to forgive. I never forgave those who hurt me, and it turned into poison. An apology is made through my life actions. NO ONE is truly free who cannot control themselves.

 

Shea, 36

Meet Shea..

“I don’t know if there is any direction or positive behaviour going forward that could help to atone for my actions that day, but I think it would be foolish to not explore anything that might rebalance the scales towards righteousness.”

Shea, 36

Incarcerated: 4 years

Housed: St. Albans, Victoria, Australia

I am currently four and a half years into a 22 year sentence for murder. Sadly, this lone fact has come to represent my identity to society at large and a stigma I shall likely wear until my own demise. As much as I would like to avoid that being my legacy, it is a reality. I took an innocent life and severely ruined the lives of those intertwined with them. The guilt will forever haunt my soul, and a portion of my heart is now irrevocably broken.

My story is not unique; it is possibly even a standard tale of loss, in all the forms it can manifest as within these walls. Loss of freedom, loss of comfort, loss of luxury, loss of love. At times it feels like all I have left to live is the final few chapters of a book that no one has bothered to continue reading. Ironically, as you feature in each and every national newspaper, and your name and face are plastered over each TV news bulletin, your personality and any opportunity for public expression are being stripped from you. Strangers begin writing the only real remaining narrative of your existence. The only word I ever uttered in court has come to define me. “Guilty.” In a world of black and white, wrong and right, I have become tarnished. A bad egg. I don’t know if there is any direction or positive behaviour going forward that could help to atone for my actions that day, but I think it would be foolish to not explore anything that might rebalance the scales towards righteousness. The anonymity of incarceration feels at times like a cloak of invisibility has been thrown over you. I am thankful for the efforts of those like yourselves and the newsletter, Paper Chained, who seek to give us a voice that can escape through the cracks in the walls and past the razor wire. Without the possibility of redemption; with no capacity for change, comes the allure of nihilism and defeatism. If our flaws and mistakes forever define our role in society, how are we to even consider reintegration? We are human, as capable of error as any other given the circumstances. As with anyone, we have needs and desires; though we are now often denied both. Should I ever walk free, the level of appreciation I have for the basics of life itself will surely be immeasurable. “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” All I hope for in the future is relative stability and a personal support network of friends in place of a defined biological family. There is still love and care in my heart for others, and I hope that I can find some in kind. Thanks for reading, and giving other prisoners an outlet.

Arsenio, 60

Meet Arsenio…

I looked for God in several religious groups but never found Him. So, I cowardly evaded justice by running to Mexico after committing my last crime in 1993.

Arsenio, 61
Incarcerated: 9 years
Housed: San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California

My life’s greatest tragedy

I received my spiritual awakening by accident. I was soul searching because I felt the need to understand why I committed my life crime back in 1990, so I tried something I never tried before and that was to look for God. Every day I was feeling guilt and shame because I could not understand where my destructive behavior was coming from. I looked for God in several religious groups but never found Him. So, I cowardly evaded justice by running to Mexico after committing my last crime in 1993. After a couple months there, I got into a physical altercation because of my Spanglish accent. I was about to move on to another state due to the violent experience I had.

A young friend of mine visiting his family in Mexico  invited me to have dinner with his aunt and grandmother just before I was to depart on my trip. After dinner while helping his aunt pick up the dinner table, she asked what my plans were in life. I responded to move on to another state. She then said there is no need to move away, the person I had the altercation with was her brother, and that he would not look for revenge. She then stated that maybe I needed God in my life. That was a special sign for me. She then invited me to a Christian congregation meeting that weekend.

I attended the Christian meeting and I was so, so happy I did! I was completely devastated emotionally due to all the hurt I had left behind in the states. I was moved by all the Christian love I felt from the brothers. I thought I was in another world. I found out after the meeting that all these loving people were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I am very grateful with our Creator Jehovah God and His son Jesus Christ. Due to His loving organization, support from the brothers, the biblical truth I learned and the Holy Spirit, I never committed a crime ever again. I also was able to let go of all the anger, resentment and low self- esteem I had lived with for so many years. I was baptized as a Jehovah Witness on February 1st, 1996. My young friend’s aunt became my wife three years after I met her. We raised three beautiful children together.

After being on the run for more than twenty years, I was arrested for my crimes pending in the U.S. I am happily paying my debt to society. I am making daily living amends and being of service to my community here at San Quentin Prison. This is the only way to give honor to all my victims, and I will continue to do so for the rest of my life…

Verne, 70

Verne, 70

Meet Verne…

I have stabbed five or six people and immediately after each one, I felt no guilt or remorse, almost as if I were a psychopath or a person not conscious of wrong or right.

Verne, 70
Incarcerated: 28 years
Housed: California Health Care Facility, Stockton, California

I have stabbed five or six people and immediately after each one, I felt no guilt or remorse, almost as if I were a psychopath or a person not conscious of wrong or right. I did many things I am not proud of, but back then I gave very little thought. This is how I existed for thirty or forty years in and out of prison.  This was my life when I vaguely understood the way thought was processed. I came to prison in 1994, and for 26 years I maintained that same unaware demeanor. Then, in 2019, someone sent my name and number to the Syda Foundation, and in four years, they have vastly expanded my perspective and guided my understanding of my own mind.

Now please allow me to share with you some of my new perspective. I now understand that no one’s perception creates my reality except mine, and my reality is what I believe to be true. The way that reality is manifested into one’s experience is through his or her emotional excitement of that perceived belief. I now understand that you will receive no more out of your mind than you put into it, and to change one’s outlook, the thought perception has to change. Now I know what emanates or vibrates through one’s system and then reverberates back out through the aura is what is instilled.

This is what I have been instilling and its emanation is my total transformation: appreciation, kindness, compassion, thankfulness, harmony, humble humility, gratitude, gratefulness, loving understanding, friendship, respectfulness, spreading joy, inner laughter, consideration, humane kindness and last but not least – loving all with no exception. I have learned through the foundation that the meaning of a word provokes an emotional feeling. Then it reverberates back out in the form of energy where it is felt by all other forms of energy which is what connects humanity. Now that I have this new understanding, the energy flowing through me is totally positive. Now a flood of emotion has begun to surface, and remorse and regret have entered my conscious awareness. I feel sorrow for my past, and I ask for forgiveness everyday. Now I am a much better human being. The real reward is the positivity I am receiving from other people. That is the real blessing. Now I know I can return into society with a positive outlook and I know that positivity creates positivity. 

Sammy, 54

Sammy, 54

Meet Sammy…

I received a letter from my 19 year old daughter, Jazzy, asking me the most insightful question a father would ever have to answer, “Who are You?” And for the life of me, I could not write her a response.

Sammy, 54
Incarcerated: 22 yrs
Housed: Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining, New York

As a byproduct of the foster care system, I know what it is like to be frightened, saddened, and unbeknownst of what is to come. I know about the exhilarating feeling of being adopted and properly raised by a devout and loving Christian family. Unfortunately, since 18, I have been a career criminal gripped and enslaved to the disease of heroin addiction. And as a result, I mentally and physically wounded too many good-hearted people, especially those I made out to be victims when I needlessly took the life of another human being. I am currently serving 25-years-to-life. Even after that horrific and needless part of my past, I still continued with drugs and criminal thinking. In 2009, I received a letter from my 19 year old daughter, Jazzy, asking me the most insightful question a father would ever have to answer, ‘Who are You?’ And for the life of me, I could not write her a response. Instead, I was miraculously drawn, in tractor-beam force, to look in the mirror in my 8’x8’ cell. As I took an honest look – the image that gawked back, was just a shell of me. I then began to walk the journey of honest self-introspection, which allowed me to stop blaming others for my negative thoughts and behaviors. Instead, I took responsibility for the harm I caused by first abstaining from drugs. Since, I have become a facilitator for the Alcohol Substance Abuse Program, obtained college degrees and am working on my master’s. Do those accomplishments make up for all the harm I caused others – of course not. It is the only concrete way in which I can add substance to the words ‘I’m Sorry’ to all I have harmed. Today, the answer to my daughter’s profound question: I am an individual who is not defined by my bad decisions, yet my past experiences have molded me into a proud, loving, and remorseful Latino father of six wonderful kids and five amazing grandkids. I am also intelligent enough to know what my limitations are – and that recovery from the disease of drug addiction cannot be done alone. God has gifted me with the humane blessing of using my past to help others better themselves.

————-

Sammy, 54

Incarcerated: 22 yrs

Housed: Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining, New York

Who am I?

I wasn’t born to be a heroin junkie, career criminal, or a murderer, yet the consequences of my deviant thought process and bad decision making allowed for my loved ones and society members to appropriately label me as such. The question that needs to be answered: Who Am I? Why would a young innocent child labeled as a “Mama’s boy, jokester, and decent kid,” turn out to cause so much harm to civilized members of society, his loved ones, and to himself?

At the age of four I was displaced from the care of my mother by the Bureau of Child Welfare, after it was revealed that my single mother was endangering the lives of her sons by physically and sexually abusing them. The blemish of that part of my story is that I had become a product of New York City’s foster care system. The unforeseen benefit to that sadden event was that I was chosen to be fostered by a loving, supporting, and devout christian family. I had adjusted well to being raised by a  Roman Catholic family of six (foster mother/father, and two older foster sisters and brothers); in fact, life for me was going extraordinarily well. I was nurtured, my immediate needs were met, my academic studies in elementary catholic school was good, and I was as happy as a kid of my age should have been. Unfortunately, that positive lifestyle drastically changed when a family court judge made the notice. I had developed the tendency of not voicing myself when addressed by my family, teachers, community members, and psychological medical staff whenever I committed a wrongful act. Soon thereafter, said caregivers had started to witness the beginning stages of my juvenile delinquency. For example, stealing snacks from the local neighborhood bodega, money from family members, and more frustratingly to them, I had developed the harmful tendencies of emulating the criminal behaviors that were associated with the hoodlums in my East Harlem housing projects. As a result of my poor school grades in elementary school, my parents had to enroll me in a public high school. They got me into the best one that had an R.O.T.C. program; and the plan was for me to go straight into the military after obtaining my high school diploma. Remarkably, that plan went extremely well throughout my freshman year. I had excelled in my academic studies, and I was enthralled with the dynamics associated with the R.O.T.C. program. That was until in my sophomore year when I had impulsively given into those negative childhood tendencies of emulating those neighborhood law breakers that my parents did their best to shield me from.

Consequently, upon getting a pass to go to the bathroom from class one afternoon, I had walked right into those same types of individuals my parents had warned me to stay away from. What was more troubling, they offered me to smoke marijuana with their crew, and my immediate response was, “Yeah!” Having never actually smoked weed before, as soon as I lit that joint and inhaled it too hard, everyone in attendance knew because it looked like I was trying to cough up a lung. And rather than run out that bathroom red-faced with embarrassment, I instead laughed right along with them. Instead of feeling like a loser from them ridiculing me, I ridiculed them back, and in that moment, I had finally lived out my mental fantasy of being accepted by a group of respected and feared bad-asses from my neighborhood. That same warped process of mine had led me to drop out of high school on the second day of my senior year; it had also been the beginning stages of the many negative thoughts and bad decisions of my youth, and ultimately my adulthood.

On my 18th birthday I tossed my clothing out of my parents’ 14th floor apartment so that I could run amok in the streets of East Harlem. And as a result, I caused my mother to painfully cry in a way that still haunts me to this present day. I had also defied the words of my father, when my mother had been pleading with him not to let me go, as he said “Let him go, he won’t last a day in those streets.” I had proven him incorrect, but it came with the cost of me causing too much hardships and harm to my family, friends, community and society members, and me. One of the proud moments from those years was the birth of my children, but they too ultimately were subjected to needles, heartaches and let downs from their dad. Aside from that, there were many times where I attempted to live according to the 9-to-5 working class norms, but it was short-lived, regardless of how good the job or life was. I had consciously decided to commit myself to a life of criminality.  I became chemically dependent on the nasal usage of heroin. I got arrested for possession of narcotics, with an intent to sell. I pleaded out and received five years probation. Again, I was arrested for the same charges two days before my youngest son’s 1st birthday – I pleaded out and was sentenced to serve two to five years in the state prison. I completed the Shock program and was back in the streets doing the same thing with the same people, places, and things, ten months later. While on parole, I was once again convicted of the same charges and sentenced again to state prison, in which I served two years with the same outcome. While on parole, my chemical dependency went to the extremes. I had a $100 a day heroin habit and nothing else mattered in my life except finding a way and means to support said habit. In fear of violating the terms of my parole, I successfully completed a detox program and went directly into a residential drug treatment program. Unfortunately, that program was located a block away from the same neighborhood where I harmed too many people. And as a result, I was confronted by a drug dealer that I had once robbed and it ended in a violent altercation that was not favorable to the aggressor who tried to attack me. Fearing the worst, I left the program because I did not want any of the residents getting hurt in case he came back to retaliate while I was in the program. Against the advice of the staff members, I went back to living in that neighborhood and I dealt with the matter at large. Consequently, I relapsed with my heroin addiction in the worst way possible. 

On April 1st 2001, I was out scheming for a way to get my first heroin fix of the day and I got involved in a situation where I needlessly killed a person who was once a friend of mine. The end result was as follows:

  • On April 11th 2001, I was violated by my parole officer, then picked up by the 32nd precinct homicide division and interrogated for over 17 hours.
  • On April 12th 2001, I was arrested for murder in the second degree.
  • On April 3rd 2003, after a jury trial, I was convicted of that crime.
  • In May of 2003, I was sentenced to serve 25 years -to-life in state prison.

Throughout the two years I ran rampant in Rikers Island, and the first six years running wildly in several state penitentiaries, I always found a way and means to continue with my chemical dependency with heroin, even though it came at the expense of risking the freedom and livelihood of others. After being found guilty for my fourth positive urinalysis offense, I was once again sent to solitary confinement to serve a 60-day sentence. At mail time in my cell one afternoon, I was delivered a note from my 19 year old daughter Jasmine. In that letter she challenged me to answer for myself the most profound question a father should ever be asked by his daughter – “Who Am I?” And for the life of me, I could not write her back an honest response. Jazzy challenged me with that profound question. It stunned me in such a way that I instinctively walked up to the mirror in my cell so as to take an honest look at myself. And because of me not accepting the image that gawked back at me, right then and there, I vowed to do an honest introspection of self, so as to get the answer.

Upon release from Rikers solitary confinement, I was transferred to Clinton Correctional facility where I began a self-introspection journey for  Narcotics Anonymous. One year later I was transferred to Sing Sing Correctional Facility where I utilized the rehabilitative self-help programs that solidified my efforts towards understanding who I am. In fact, the central part of my cognitive therapy treatment came from the Alcohol Substance Abuse Treatment (ASAT) counselors in Sing Sing, and practicing the nine competencies of drug treatment. I came to the revelation that my flawed thought process and bad decision making need not define me but instead prove who I am today. Therefore, I formulated a plan of action that could transform those negative experiences of my past and transform them into a positive educational learning experience. I adopted the habit to always ask myself, “What can I do next towards the goal for positive growth and development?” This has led me down a productive path to a Master Degree in Professional Studies.

On completion of documenting my journey towards an honest introspection of self, I can now answer with confidence and certainty that profound question that my then 19-years old daughter Jazzy had once challenged me to answer for myself,  “Who Am I?” To begin with, I must accept the fact of who I am not. Today I am not a heroin junkie, I am not a career criminal, and most of all, I am a man who has learned to understand there will never be any justification for why and how I needlessly took the life of another human being, regardless of traumas that were associated with my past. The trials and tribulations of my life experiences have molded me to become a remorseful, loving, moralistic, and fun-loving person. I am also a goal-oriented individual who strives for personal success, while supporting the journey of others who are striving to better their lives. Moreover, today I understand that the words “I’m Sorry” have no sentimental value unless there is some concrete evidence to support such remorseful language; evidence such as converting the negative labels of my past and transforming them into credentials for my future endeavors. Credentials that can open the doors of opportunity for me to work with those that are presently fighting against risk factors that prevent them become better people in society. I know that I have what it takes to be a father to my children, a laudable son and family member, and a potential credible messenger who will always do my best to not repeat the bad decisions of my past, but use them as a harm-reduction educational experience for others.

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