Derrick, 45

Derrick, 45

Meet Derrick..

“I know I can’t do it alone because I’m new to this spiritual journey. But I can visualize myself entering back into society, sharing my testimony in church, standing at the podium on stage in front of a crowd of believers.”

Derrick, 45

Incarcerated: 28 years

Housed: Hughes Unit, Texas

At a young age, around eight years old, I witnessed my mom shoot and kill her boyfriend for being abusive while we struggled with poverty living in the projects. That incident opened up some dark places in my life. I grew up running with a gang committing jackings, drive-bys, shoot-outs, and murder. I was actually in and out of juveniles, state schools, and even foster homes. I was beyond broken. I was deemed the worst of the worst. I knew how it felt when the adults in my neighborhood often told me that I wouldn’t live to see 13 or 14-year-olds, which led up to my incarceration.

I was banging and creating havoc in my own city over a color I didn’t even possess ownership of. When I came to prison back in 1995, I was so naive and lost in the sauce. I wanted to show boys I was good with my hands by fighting and wouldn’t back down from anybody. My mentality caught disciplinary cases repeatedly and was confined in administrative segregation for staff assaults and inmate assaults. I would not listen to the ol’ school convicts telling me I need to sign up for the law library and fight my murder case and try to give my 50-year sentence back. I was numb to the fact that it hadn’t been digested yet. I lost my first child while incarcerated and not being able to attend their funeral because my behavior forbade it; now that torture! That’s when I truly understood the definition of suffering, depression, loneliness, and suicide.

I’ve been in prison for 28 years and have nothing to show for it. I have no G.E.D. No trade. I haven’t attended programs to better my situation even though I haven’t accomplished anything propitious. At least I can say that I’ve surrendered my life to God. I got tired of being the problem. I got tired of being self-destructive. Instead, I chose God to take control of my life. I am tired of all the bitterness and darkness in my heart. I got tired of being labeled as that gang member tatted up. I want to be labeled as a child of God. None of the homies ever took the time to introduce me to Christ. None of them are going to lead me up to heaven, either. I’ve been doing the devil’s work all my life. I think it’s only fair to serve the lord now because I want peace in my heart. I pray that God provides me with a lady friend to come into my life. I promise I will serve him faithfully. I know I can’t do it alone because I’m new to this spiritual journey. But I can visualize myself entering back into society, sharing my testimony in church, standing at the podium on stage in front of a crowd of believers. This is a glimpse of my testimony. I hope you can relate to it. 

James, 51

James, 51

Meet James..

“Growing up too young, my life was defined by fixing items that most of society considered trash. This became my therapy, filled my pockets, and quickly became my favorite hobby.”

James, 51

Incarcerated: 21 years

Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, Illinois.

Today, I can wear growing up poor as a badge of honor, though I didn’t always feel this way. My parents were the too-busy type, allowing me to be a free-range latchkey kid happily. This enabled me to meet people from all walks of life. Our family of seven had a lovely home in Hoffman nestled between the affluent homes in South Barrington and Inverness, Illinois. In grammar school, we needed to help our parents keep the light and water on. My two brothers and I did this with many newspaper routes. Once I was done rolling up the papers, I would go garbage picking while they delivered them. The pickings were good in Barrington and Inverness, and the benefits of giving trash a second chance were better.

I was a resourceful WHY-WHY-WHY kid who saw all my neighbors as a network of knowledge that raised my profit margin. My neighbors taught me how to problem-solve and about diagnostics, what a drip of solder on contact will do, and glue under a screw is cheap. I learned what a $14 fuse, a new switch, or a power cord can do, or simply a little cleaning. If I couldn’t fix it, I researched the repair. I was selling my friends and neighbors fixed TVs, video equipment, curling irons, blow dryers, radios, stereos, toys, and vacuums. Most of all, I liked fixing bikes, power tools, and yard equipment. After all our hard work, the power in our house still got cut off occasionally. I noticed being handy attracts older friends. In junior high, one of my neighbors, Yaakob, loved my WHY-WHY-HOW questions. After answering all my questions, he dropped me twenty dollars in cash. I had a blast helping him with side jobs customizing limos and van upholstery. He would hold a coffee and cigarette in hand while racing me, cutting foam and material for the seats and winning. I loved hearing about his homeland of Turkey. Although, I wanted their cultural dinner leftovers more than money.

Skateboarding past my neighbor Wendel’s home one day, I gained another mentor by helping him hang a punching bag. He told me how loud my skateboard was on the sidewalk next to his window and that my girlfriend’s car was loud dropping me off at midnight. I would drop by to hit the heavy bag and weight lift and help him with home projects. While discussing planning a family and his career, it didn’t take long for my 14-year-old arm to outdo his 24-year-old machinist arm.

I got many invites, having my garbage-picked dirtbikes and having my own money. Having my booze and weed certainly helped, too. Volunteering to help a high schooler fix his truck got me invited on their camping trip. The older ladies were a tough crowd! They all picked on me until Todd told everyone I was his mechanic who fixed his truck; I enjoyed conversations with older people, even today. I received many life lessons on this trip. A guy, Dave, sat next to me on the picnic table, telling me how embarrassing it was for his Dad to hit and kill a pedestrian while driving home drunk. He went through all the emotions as I put myself in their shoes. My eyes were opened to the reality of our actions. He was telling me how unfair the system was not allowing him to interact with the victim’s family. Someone declares from the next campsite over, “HEY-HEY, I remember you!” starting over at me; my gut sank further when he yelled over,” I was in sixth grade when you were in first!” This got everyone’s attention from all four campsites. Laughing now, he yells, “We were playing tether ball while you were sitting on the curb with David’s sister Kim french kissing, fingers tangled in each other’s hair.” Everyone burst into laughter, including the tough crowd of ladies. I didn’t receive a single jeer being dragged to the lake by a group of female mentors who wanted to give me a swimming lesson.

When I went to high school, I kept in touch with some of them, although I kept all the memories and life lessons. As a hyper high schooler, age didn’t matter; it was all about daily celebrations of life. I happily jumped in between many uplifting groups of friends, keeping the vibes positive, staying busy, learning, helping, and fixing trash because the rewards were more significant. I loved fixing anything with an engine. It was easy to replace it with a bigger engine and make it stop faster. When my parents divorced, my Dad was stingy with his money, so I helped by renting a garage bay from my mom. While in high school, I opened a mechanic shop with all the tools I had accumulated. Cash was good, with my many legit side hustles and one organic one that wasn’t. Many would guess when I grew up, I would’ve become a mechanic, appliance repair man, or garbage man; however, I loved remodeling more and restoring homes to better form and function. I built room additions and custom homes bigger than I would ever want to live in.

I once added a bunch of classrooms and a gymnasium to the school. I built a vast medical center in Tucson, Arizona. Nonetheless, restoring and depositing the checks were more rewarding at the end of the day. I enjoyed fixing basements, kitchens, and bathrooms, adding entertainment centers, bunk bed shelves, custom closet cabinetry, libraries, studies, home offices, and wet bars, and many customers were happy to pay me. Working in oversized homes, I learned first-hand why garbage picking was so good in a disposable society that loves filling garbage bags and landfills. My excellent customers would pay me to remove construction debris like cabinets, wood scraps, appliances, granite vanity toppers, expensive faucets, and other trash; I would then recycle or sell them. If their generosity wasn’t enough, they would ask me if they could fill my construction dumpster with a broken mower, vacuum, electronics, and some of my other favorite trash to fix and sell. Some of the stuff I didn’t even need to fix. Growing up too young, my life was defined by repairing items that most society considered trash. This became my therapy, filled my pockets, and quickly became my favorite hobby. However, today, I’m rotting away in the Stateville Prison Dump in Illinois, hoping to be recycled or fix my situation by showing the courts the value of the truth of my wrongful conviction.

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.

Nathan, 57

Nathan, 57

Meet Nathan…

“I never saw them fight or argue. One day they just decided to be friends, which they stayed until Bob passed away, while I was in jail fighting murder charges.”

Nathan, 57

Incarcerated: 15 yrs

Housed: California Correctional Training Facility, Soledad

My mom Jamie was 16 and my father Abe was 31, neither were honest about their age. They both claimed to be in their 20’s when they met. Abe was a heroin addict and my mom’s parents were both alcoholics. They loved Abe. My grandma Vivian was beautiful with a great intellect, she was kind and thoughtful when sober. When drunk she could get really mean. She told me Abe was a good man, overly intelligent, he loved me and took care of me. My mom said he was the one to get up with me at night. Abe was from a wealthy Jewish family, I’ve never met because they disowned him over his heroin addiction. Abe fled the country to avoid prosecution when I was two. I have no memory of this, but have to imagine this must have been traumatic, as I never heard from him again. My mom has never been a drug user or drinker. She had to take care of her own parents and mothered them at an early age. She never had any judgment about others drinking or using drugs. My mom met Bob and he promised her he would never have any trouble with the law and he kept that promise. I never saw them fight or argue. One day they just decided to be friends, which they stayed until Bob passed away, while I was in jail fighting murder charges. Bob had a jewelry store, pet shop, pawn shop, antique shops, he ran a hotel and bar when he met my mom. He dabbled in stocks, cars, and real estate. He was successful at everything he did. Bob was not affectionate, but he always helped out and gave good advice. Bob was a good man, a better man than I have been. He tried hard to instill his good character traits in me. Though he did tease me when I was young, calling me Suzy because I was wimpy. I was a very scrawny and sensitive child. He was never unkind, he just grew up during a less sensitive time. To him calling me Suzy was innocent, maybe a little humorous, but with no ill intent. I can look back now and see where that might have been a contributing factor to my own distorted self body image, where my fall began. I believe I can trace back my fall to its very inception. One single thought that I believed to be true but wasn’t. All it took was for one doubt to sink in: “That I wasn’t good enough as God created me, that I was too skinny.” My mom met Tony when I was eight. Both Bob and Tony have been good fathers to me, Tony and my mom are still happily married. Tony is also a man of good character, honest and always ethical, but very proud and stubborn. I have a great love and respect for him. My mom went to catechism and her first communion until she was 10. At that age, she saw a car accident where a little girl’s head went through a windshield. She couldn’t understand how the God she was being taught about could let such a thing happen. She told her mom church was a waste of time. She never gave God or the Church another thought. My own belief in God was innate, it was as if I was born with it. My parents never tried to influence me in any way, however, I have been inquisitive. As a small child, I would contemplate the universe and infinity. I couldn’t comprehend infinity, so I would have to imagine what was at the end of the universe, there had to be something. I would imagine a wall. But then if there was a wall, there had to be something on the other side of the wall. So, I not only couldn’t comprehend infinity, I couldn’t comprehend not infinity. I thought, if this is the case then I had to believe I was foreign, and limited in my ability to comprehend. I would try to imagine what the world would be like if I no longer existed in it, I tried to imagine my non-existence. My conclusion was it didn’t matter. I knew my mom didn’t believe in God, so every chance I got to talk to a priest, a Christian, or a Catholic; I would always ask the same question: what happens to someone who doesn’t believe in God? The same answer always comes back; they go to eternal hell. I would always answer back; “but what if they are a good person?” I would get the same response; I’m sorry, I wish everyone could go to heaven, but non-believers can’t. None of this changed my belief in God, and I am grateful that God is not how man would make him out to be; because if that was the case, we would all be in real trouble. What it did do, is give me an unhealthy disdain for religion, especially the way Catholicism and Christianity were taught. At 8, I had a friend Bobby, who invited me on a one-week camping trip. Late the night before we were to leave, his mom dropped off a list of things like games and cards that couldn’t bring. My Mom thought it was odd and told me that she didn’t think I should go. I was packing my magic tricks and things that I would not be able to bring. She said she had a bad feeling about this and I really shouldn’t go. I whined and cried telling her Bobby and I have all these great plans. She gave in, thinking how bad it could be. She said if I had any concerns to call her and she’d come pick me up immediately. When I arrived, I found out it was a Christian camp. Which was deliberately withheld from me, my mom, and possibly Bobby by his family. I was deceived intentionally. I refused to cooperate in their games and demanded to be able to call my mom to pick me up. For a whole week, they never let me use the phone. I was basically kidnapped under false pretenses, and held against my will. When I was brought back home, my mom said I must have had a good time because I never called her.  I said, no I didn’t, everyone including Bobby had to give their lives over to God and I refused, because I thought it was stupid, and I’m never speaking to Bobby again. Can you imagine if this was done to a child today? Don’t get me wrong, I am a follower of the teachings of Jesus. I love Him as an elder brother.  My mom and Tony always do right by others, not because of any religion,  it is the right way to be, they are just really good human beings. Much better than I have been. Neither believe in or give thought to God or an afterlife or think there is any kind of reward for being selfless. It is just the way they are. My mom believes when we die that is it, we no longer exist. I cannot even comprehend that thought. My mom’s Christian friends tell her that she is a better Christian than most Christians they know. She has always had a great wisdom about her, much greater than could be acquired in this lifetime alone. She is always so busy, she barely has time to do the things she would like to do. She belongs to a women’s club and they do charity work for the homeless, cancer and heart patients, and work with other charities that bring aid to foreign countries. She is always donating her time. They give scholarships away for kids to go to college. Something she never had the opportunity to do herself. She is just such a beautiful human being.

Michael, 40

Michael, 40

Meet Michael…

“What I do know and am sure of, is that night despite being discarded by family, left to fend for ourselves, scared, uncertain of our future, and up against the world. We banded together, faced whatever came our way, and prevailed as a family.”

Michael, 40

Incarcerated: 12 years

I’ve never felt so afraid, rejected, or abandoned in my life. The things I’ve endured no one, let alone a child, should have to experience. What makes matters worse is that my younger sister Connie, and little brother Josh, are also with me. We were in Sacramento, California, starving in an abandoned duplex our mother was renting before her arrest. The electricity was just shut off, there was no food in the refrigerator, and we were camped out in our mother’s room. The three of us were cold, hungry, and confused. What was I going to do? How were we going to survive? My 14 year old brain was overloaded with questions that I didn’t have answers for. My mother has been incarcerated for a few months now and our aunt, who was supposed to be caring for us, had abandoned us a couple weeks earlier. I was so hurt and angry at her. My other two siblings and their father had driven away leaving us all alone on the porch. I’m brought out of my thoughts by brother Josh’s voice, “I’m hungry, what are we going to eat?” Before I can answer, my sister Connie says, “Mike, I know where some money is. Remember when I dropped a dollar in one of the bedposts?” As she says this, she jumps up and heads to the room we shared before our lives were turned upside down. The three of us went to work on that white headboard with red trim as if we were a demolition crew. With the help of a wire hanger and some scissors we retrieved that dollar bill as it was a long last treasure. Along with some loose change we scraped up from all over the house, we were able to buy something to eat for the night. I’m not sure exactly what we bought from the store other than a bag of potato chips. What I do know and am sure of, is that night despite being discarded by family, left to fend for ourselves, scared, uncertain of our future, and up against the world. We banded together, faced whatever came our way, and prevailed as a family. I’ll never forget that night and 26 years later, myself, Connie, and Josh continue to beat the odds, we are there for one another, and we come out on top.

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