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.

 

Michelle, 41

Meet Michelle..

“Just because I am wearing green and hidden from society, inside this cell, does not make me a monster or a bad lady.”

Michelle, 41

Incarcerated: 2 ½ years

Housed: Taconic Correctional Facility, Bedford Hills, New York

As I sat in this eight by ten-foot cell, locked in for daily count, I began to ask myself, “Where did I go wrong?” I’m aware of my crime and who I’ve hurt, and I take full responsibility for being incarcerated. Yet the same question blows around in my mind like a storm. Was it when I was born on drugs, taken from my biological mother, and placed into the foster care system only just a first few breaths in this world? Was it when my mother’s boyfriend was molesting me during unsupervised visits at the age of eleven? I was afraid to tell because I would never see my mother again, so I endured his abuse for years. Was it when I and all my belongings were in another CPS worker’s trunk, and I was off to another foster home family? As I looked out the window each time, I’d ask myself, “Will this family care? Will I be able to trust anyone?” Was it when I lost my brother in the system that separated us? He was adopted, and his name was changed, never to see him again?! Was it when my biological mom pushed on the plunger of a syringe and released drugs into my system at 13 years old, and all I wanted was her love? Was it when I felt so alone in this big world and had no one I thought I could trust? Was it when my biological mother passed from liver failure, and I could never tell her, “I forgive you, Mom, and I love you?” Was it when the one man I believed loved me broke my ribs? Was it maybe when I stood outside my home of ten years and watched everything  I worked so hard to burn to ashes? Or perhaps it was when I walked into my daughter’s room to see the man I laid next to for 13 years molesting my firstborn daughter? He was immediately put into jail, where he is today! Sometimes I ask, “God, why am I here?” Why was I put through so much pain, hurt, and disloyalty? Since I was in prison, I have found God, and he is my higher power. He helps me get up and put my feet on the floor each day, the strength to embrace whatever or whoever may cross my path each day, whether in prison or the world. I can’t quite pinpoint when or where it began to go wrong for Michelle, but what I can do is move forward. I want to be a good mother, a trustworthy friend, a loyal wife, a patient listener, an on-time employee, and an average citizen. I want to be someone I’ve never tried to be, and that’s a WHOLE NEW ME! Sitting in this cell, my own little hell can be turned around into a place of growth, my own little sanctuary, a place and a time to be a better woman today than I was yesterday. Just because I am wearing green and hidden from society inside this cell does not make me a monster or a bad lady. It’s giving me time to heal and be a new, more beautiful woman every day moving forward. I am not what I’ve been through. Thank you for listening to my story.

 

Carol, 52

Carol, 52

Meet Carol..

“I feel like I have been in prison all his life and I need to make up for all of that.”

Carol “C”, 52

Incarcerated: 15 years

Housed: Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, York

I am serving a 20 year sentence and am a cool fly person. The crime I am charged with is manslaughter but this doesn’t mean I need to be a bad person or keep getting persecuted. I have one son living and a son who passed away while I’ve been here. I lost my grandmother and my father while I’ve been in here too. I have lost so much being in prison, but gained a lot by meeting true people. I have spent my time taking classes here not wasting it. I am also a spiritual person, God is my higher power and one guy I need in my life. I plan to get a degree in business and want to start three businesses when I get out: a flour company, a food truck and a lawn care service to help the elderly. I hope to give money to the children’s hospital, pet rescue center and a homeless shelter. I want my victim’s family to know that I am sorry for all that I have caused and the pain. I know that I can’t say any amount of anything because of the anger I have caused their family. All I can say is, please have forgiveness in your soul. I have forgiven myself and I can’t bring back your family member. But I have changed my life for the better. The classes I have taken have made me realize that I have self worth and I don’t need to beat myself up any longer over any crime or my life. I have lost enough myself too. If anyone can forgive me for anything it’s my son, who lost the most out of all of this. I feel like I have been in prison all his life and I need to make up for all of that.

 

Larry, 69

Larry, 69

Meet Larry..

“One man’s love for the Lord, who shared his testimony with me changed my life forever.”

Larry, 69

Incarcerated: 20 years

Housed: Lancaster, CA

I grew up in a Christian family. Over time, I gradually moved away from the church. I felt I didn’t need it. I began to put myself first above God, my family and friends. I thought I could do it alone. Due to the bad choices I made and horrifying actions I committed, I ended up in the San Mateo County Jail in 2004. I started attending all religious services, mainly just to get out of my cell. Something amazing happened to me at one of these services and I almost stayed in bed. I had never attended a bilingual service before (Spanish / English). I didn’t understand much. The guest speaker was a short bald-headed, 60-year-old Mexican Christian named “Jame.” He shared his testimony in Spanish. I really wasn’t paying much attention. I was the only non-Spanish speaking person in the room. Eventually, he turned to me and in broken English described a crime committed against his family and him. It was nearly identical to the terrible crime I did, but he was on the receiving end of it. He talked about all the pain and hurt his family and he experienced. The ruined and changed lives. I began to cry quietly. Then, he continued to tell how he had forgiven the person. I could tell he meant it. He was staring at me the whole time, no one else. It touched me deeply. I started to sob uncontrollably. My life changed forever at that moment. I decided then and there I’d accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior and put him first in my life and I truly repented. Since that day, peace and comfort has filled the hole in my heart. I now have a reason to keep going, a reason to live and a reason to love. Since putting God first in my life, instead of my selfish self, everything has fallen into place. My spiritual walk with the Lord continues to grow daily. One man’s love for the Lord, who shared his testimony with me changed my life forever. I truly believe he was an angel sent from heaven. God works in mysterious ways! Any time and anywhere! 

                                                   

A Heartwarming Christmas Story…

My wife and I used to purchase one nice present for our children and one nice present would come from “Santa.” Every year our three children woke up early on Christmas. Usually, they just ripped the paper off the gifts to see what was inside. This one year our oldest daughter, April noticed our wrapping paper was the same as “Santa’s” wrapping paper. She put two and two together and figured out our secret. I took her aside and asked her not to tell our two younger kids. In exchange, next Christmas she could be my “elf” and help me fill the stockings. She agreed. The following year as we were hanging up the stockings I said, “I hope Santa and his elf put a lot of candy and small toys in them!” I looked at April and she had a huge smile and a twinkle in her eye. Merry Christmas and a happy new year to everyone! 

 

Story #3

The above picture was taken 11 years ago at a Half Moon Bay Christmas tree farm. Since then, April has graduated from the University of Oregon, Gina is a sophomore at San Diego State University and Joey is at Riordan High School in San Francisco. I’m enjoying all the groups and classes offered here at Lancaster. I’m learning new things and staying busy. A dog program started on June 1st. The ten dogs actually live in my building! We train the dogs that were scheduled to be euthanized. Now because of us, they are adopted. Their barking is music to my ears! My after-dinner dog strolls continue to be exciting and locating the constellations and various planets is fun!

Merry Christmas and a happy new year! God bless you all.

Raheem, 46

Raheem, 46

Meet Raheem..

“As each bird flew off with a piece of bread, I would get the feeling that I was doing my part, that I was playing a small role in a much larger picture. In the process, I couldn’t help but think that they were flying off with a piece of me too.”

Raheem, 46

Incarcerated: 16 years

WHEN FEEDING THE BIRDS IS A CRIME

One of the deepest regrets I have as a prisoner is that, when I was free, I spent most of my adult life detached from the beauty of the natural world. I was born in Buffalo, home to some of the harshest winters, a place that still reflects the era of steel mills and abandoned manufacturing plants. My early memories of engaging with nature involve encounters with law enforcement. In Coconut Grove, the area of Miami where I lived, playing on the Atlantic coastline often meant being picked up by police. The beach areas were marked “PRIVATE PROPERTY.” I learned that nature was private and exclusive, that it belonged to those with wealth. I moved again, to San José in the mid-80s, where the same dynamic played out.

Being raised on the West Coast certainly provided me with many opportunities to explore nature. However, I wasn’t always enthused by or able to take advantage of them. Aside from occasional camping and fishing trips with my father, my contact with nature was sporadic at best, a lot of this had to do with how crowded and congested San José was. With the emergence of the tech industry in Silicon Valley, there was always a need to take up more space-all to speed up economic growth. Visiting the few areas that did exist for outdoor exploration, like creeks and mountain regions, usually came at a cost. I can still remember being shot at with salt pellets by park rangers for strolling through a wooded area near my house; it was a shortcut and safe haven for kids who cut school. According to city officials, this area was private property. Looking back, it was a biological Eden, teeming with different life forms; there were gophers, salamanders, frogs, and creepy spiders that descended inconspicuously from strange trees. Unfortunately, previous experiences on private land helped to deter me from fully connecting with uninhabited spaces-thus creating a mental fence which equated nature with confrontation. 

While in high school, most of my time was spent playing sports. If I wasn’t doing that, I was chasing the girls in my neighborhood. At the same time, I was slowly moving towards a destructive street culture, one that normalized crime, violence, and drugs. It was this antisocial behavior that contributed to my self-centered ideas. Everything was about my emerging ego, which excluded everyone else (including nature). Eventually, my actions, in conjunction with a flawed belief system, led me to prison.

This was a tipping point: either I could plummet further into a world that justified harming others, or I could let go of the pride and selfishness I’d held onto for years.

When I arrived at Pelican Bay Prison in 2005, I didn’t receive a warm welcome. There is a reason for that: it’s one of California’s most violent prisons. After months of solitary confinement, I was finally able to reckon with the fact that I had deprived my victim’s family of peace, along with my own family and community, and ultimately, myself. In part, it was due to a raging war inside of me, one based on years of guilt, pain, and insecurities.

In the process of putting the pieces of my life back together, I started studying the religion of Islam, which comes from the word, “Silm,” meaning “Peace.” One of the first things that resonated with me about this faith was its obligation to give charity-giving unconditionally to those who are less fortunate. I would later learn that this aspect of charity wasn’t just confined to human beings; but to everything in creation.

The more I internalized this concept, the more I began to realize that my detachment and self-interest was only serving as a barrier to the greater external world that I am a part of. I was starting to examine my humanity through a different lens-a unifying factor that connected me to everything living.

Some years later, when I was transferred to another prison, I noticed that there were some small birds flying around in the building. The fact that they couldn’t get out of a single door that only opened a few times a day made them prisoners just like me. I tried to imagine their hunger, thirst, and frustration with seeing freedom through windows, but not being able to obtain it. I whistled through a small crack in my door, hoping to somehow get their attention. “Man, them damn birds ain’t gonna fly over here to you,” my cellmate said while lying on the top bunk. He laughed for a few seconds, with an annoying smirk; he couldn’t wait to prove me wrong. But just then, a few of them responded with curious chirps of their own as they flew several feet from my door. Shocked, I quickly reached for a pack of bread on my locker; I crumbled up a slice and threw it under my door. Each bird took a piece in a hurry, chirping once again as they took flight. “I’ll be damned!” my cellmate replied. I smiled, as a warmth moved through my body.

Over the years, I continued this habit of feeding the birds at other prisons_not the seagulls that crap on you when you least expect it, or the pigeons that feast in a flock, but the finches and tiny song birds. They nest outside in nearby trees, or high up in mud pebble shelters attached close to the roof of my building. Eventually, this small gesture allowed me to reconnect with my inner nature, although confined to a limited world. This reconnection became spiritual, even compassionate. As each bird flew off with a piece of bread, I would get the feeling that I was doing my part, that I was playing a small role in a much larger picture. In the process, I couldn’t help but think that they were flying off with a piece of me too.

Despite my efforts to help sustain life and reconnect with the natural world, there is one little thing I left out. Feeding the birds, geese, pigeons, or any other type of animal in prison is against the rules. It can be deemed a disciplinary infraction and result in a “write-up.” Sadly, while performing my janitorial duties the other day, I was caught breaking this rule by my boss, a high ranking officer in corrections. “Now why would you want to go and get yourself a write-up for that?” There was a slight sense of humor in his tone, which made it difficult to tell if he was being serious. A part of me was convinced that he wasn’t, because most officers wouldn’t waste the ink, effort, or paper to type up such an infraction. I stood under the tall tree with birds at my feet for a few seconds, completely puzzled. Nevertheless, I immediately stopped and reported to my job assignment.

After following the officer into the office a couple minutes later, I asked for a mask, like I did every morning since they began giving them out to limit the spread of COVID-19. He reached for the bag of masks and nearly handed me one, but the incident with the bird crossed his mind. “Oh no!” he said, as he shocked his head with a look of contempt. “You were feeding the birds.” He can’t possibly be serious, I thought to myself.

Sensing his irritation, I stood up straight, and said, “Hey man! You said it wasn’t cool to feed the birds. That’s when I stopped-that was the end of it.” The officer was now standing up behind his desk, insisting that I pack up my belongings, the coffee cup, newspaper, and sack lunch that I arrived with every morning. He was going to personally escort me back to West-block, my housing unit. As we walked down the long concrete path to my building in silence, a rage swelled up inside of me: my heart pounded furiously, a tightness in my chest made it hard to breathe. My light brown complexion had suddenly been hijacked by an instant flush. Here I was being criminalized for a simple act of kindness- an act that often provided me with moments of solace, an act that I was now being robbed of.

Although I didn’t receive a write-up for this incident, I thought about it for several days; it troubled me deeply.

But why? After thinking it over, a bigger picture began to emerge. This story is bigger than the birds under the tree that I was feeding. It was about a California Department of Corrections  number and a prison ID that had deemed me incapable of any act of mercy or compassion. The underlying message was now clear to me: You don’t have the right to be humane or empathetic to anything inside or outside of these walls! In all honesty, I may have forfeited my freedom, but never my right to care or reconnect with the elements of nature that make me feel whole. To believe that, is to say that I am incapable of redeeming myself, which ultimately points to a conflict in the current standards of rehabilitation. According to these standards, I’m supposed to be accountable, remorseful and empathetic. Based on this logic, I am troubled by any policy, whether implied or explicit, that promotes the idea of me being less than human and incapable of change. If this holds true, even if just for a moment in the minds of prison officials, then the prison system itself becomes guilty of pouring enormous amounts of energy and funding into rehabilitative programs that the incarcerated community will never be able to apply.

Although I’m still confined behind huge concrete walls and iron gates, I take solace in the few moments that I do have each day to honor the natural beauty in things. Whether it’s a California Condor soaring above or new geese hatchlings that walk on the prison yard for the first time, I’m reminded of how precious life is. Even the way the sun shines through a dark cloud some days is enough to leave me awestruck. And although still inside, I’m comforted by a feeling of not being alone.

As far as my job, I QUIT! It was never about the 24 cents an hour they were paying me. It was all about the birds, nature, and restoring a part of me that had been lost for far too long.

 

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