Jonathan, 48

Jonathan, 48

Meet Jonathan…

I’ve been sober now for 12 years and have overcome the propaganda that ruled my thoughts. I have learned to care for and respect people for who they are, not the color of their skin or their ethnicity, but who they are as a person. These changes aren’t just behavioral, but a major paradigm shift.

Incarcerated: 27 years
Housed: Washington Corrections Center, Shelton

Not long ago my sister-in-law, Angela, came to visit me with two of my nieces, 13 and 10. It was my first time meeting them. I was a little nervous. Before I came to prison I was great with children, it was easy to relate, now so much has changed. My time in prison has not been easy. I quickly started on the wrong track. I sank further into my addiction, became a white supremacist; and dealt with problems the only way I knew how – by being violent, aggressive and abusive. It took years to discover who I really was. I’ve been sober now for 12 years and have overcome the propaganda that ruled my thoughts. I have learned to care for and respect people for who they are, not the color of their skin or their ethnicity, but who they are as a person. These changes aren’t just behavioral, but a major paradigm shift.

Since then I have created and facilitated programs that share a message of hope and healing to other young prisoners. I mentor people through education, recovery and sometimes health issues. Things many prisoners struggle with; things I have struggled with. Over the years one of the things I have spent a lot of time and effort on is communication. I have found this to be a key element in helping myself and others, and I have become an excellent communicator. Communication relies on language. I was concerned with the upcoming visit despite all my communications experience, I may not be able to speak the language of pre-teen girls. My worries were only partly justified. We had a wonderful visit. It laid the foundation for an open, honest and loving relationship between the girls and I. It is funny how my worries were so overblown, but justified. If you’ve been in one visiting room inside of a prison, then you’ve been in them all. Families trying to retain their privacy at nearby tables while enjoying a brief moment together. Spouses attempting to achieve personal intimacy in a glass bowl. Guards looming and lurking; but overall people just trying to share in a slice of normalcy. I can only imagine how nervous the children must have been, their first time in a prison, visiting an uncle they’ve only spoken to on the phone. Even though they were nervous, I am certain they picked up on my nervousness as well.

It was in this sense of awkwardness when a friend stopped at our table and asked me how I was. He was very polite, greeting everyone and then quickly moved on to his own family. When the youngest girl asked me who he was I told her, he was my partner. I told her that he and I worked together and were friends. It became obvious that both children were confused. They’d become withdrawn and pensive. I asked them if they were okay. They both murmured a yes but remained withdrawn. Angela noticed as well and assured them that everything was okay. When I asked again if they were okay or wanted to ask me something, they did. The eldest sat up straight, set her shoulders and looked me in the eye. She asked, “Uncle Jonny, are you gay?” They must’ve been able to see the shock on my face as Angela laughed. I was surprised, to say the least. Rarely am I at a loss for words, but there I was – shuttering! How am I supposed to approach this subject? I did not prepare for this. For the life of me I could not figure out how we got to this question in one visit. I do not happen to be gay, but I am not offended at the idea either. I am HIV positive; for 30 years now, and have a number of LGBTQ friends, and my half-brother has fully transitioned for more than twenty years. I am no stranger to the community. So, my surprise here wasn’t the question, just at how we got there – where did this come from? Fear not, the all-knowing mother came to the rescue. She said, “Jonny, out there the word ‘partner’…,” now I understood. We were able to have a much more meaningful conversation because of the desire to understand, and I got a lesson on how language has changed in the world. They have become my guide to a world I once knew so well, but have been so far removed.

Antoine, 34

Antoine, 34

Meet Antoine…

Spending most of our lives being deprived of genuine love and acceptance left us devoid of a sense of identity, value, and purpose. This was one of the reasons why many of us, turned toward a life of drugs, money and flashy things, hoping to somehow fill that undesirable emptiness we felt inside.

Incarcerated: 13 years

Housed: Washington Corrections Center, Shelton

I hear – my mother overdosed on heroin, my father was killed in a Safeway parking lot, my uncle molested me when I was a kid – because I was hurt and embarrassed – I never told anyone. These traumatizing events are the reason many people are  addicted to impulsive behaviors. Unfortunately, the healing process for many people incarcerated will remain dormant as society continues to view them through the symptoms of their brokenness, rather than considering the root of their troubles. In my childhood being perceived as a thug, a hoodlum, or a lowlife was normality. I suppose it was a way for those who considered themselves “above me” to categorize my person as being unworthy or insignificant. Those who had frowned upon us kids had never taken into account that many of us were raised by struggling mothers and parents who had taken us in as we were being cycled through the foster care system. Those of us who had fathers, let’s just say that they were present, but never really present. Spending most of our lives being deprived of genuine love and acceptance left us devoid of a sense of identity, value, and purpose. This was one of the reasons why many of us, turned toward a life of drugs, money and flashy things, hoping to somehow fill that undesirable emptiness we felt inside.

As a result of what we lacked, we compounded the same hurt we sought to eradicate. The walls we built around our hearts to protect ourselves from pain had quickly become a prison, and the hurt we wore like a badge of honor was draining the life from those we claimed to care for. What’s worse, we had fallen for measuring our self-worth by the ever-changing opinions of other people. In a nutshell we were drowning, and no one stopped to throw us a life jacket to keep us afloat. The more I conversed with other men about the context of our upbringing, the more evident it became that we were all fighting the same silent battles. While our hearts cried for help, hoping to become something better, the fear of being vulnerable muzzled us from saying a word–toxic masculinity. We would rather look whole and be broken than to acknowledge our brokenness and risk the rejection of those we sought to impress. But I have learned over the years that if we can’t be real we can’t be healed. I mean think about it–why see a physician when you say you’re well? With this in mind I created Building Blocks. A curriculum that touches on some of the most unavoidable subject matters in life. These topics include everything from love, forgiveness and situational pressures, to identity, emotional intelligence and choices. It methodically blends biblical truths with relatable experiences, providing the reader with a space to be transparent, while offering them a sound perspective on how to better respond to various life circumstances. I have found that providing a platform for men to be honest, while offering them tools to become everything God created them to be has been unbelievably successful. My only goal is to promote edification and a solid foundation for healthy living. Showing love to the unloved, hoping to impact the world one life at a time.

 

Aaron, 35

Aaron, 35

Meet Aaron…

I now stand for a cause I have dedicated my life to – making a difference in the lives of others, and I am unashamed of the God who reached into the pit of hell and salvaged my life. I no longer act out of insecurity of what others may think. Living to impress others isn’t my goal, and my identity is not found in substances, crime or what delinquent peers may say.

Incarcerated: 16 years
Housed: Washington Corrections Center, Shelton

The Department of Corrections refers to me as Offender #327076. Locked up since 2006, I was sentenced to 51 years to life for terrible crimes I committed as a youth. I stood for nothing – a stain on my community. With little hope of redemptive quality, I was condemned to a life behind bars. I’ve done horrible things and had them done to me. Sadly at 35, I am still reaping the consequences of my actions as a teenage drug addict. I grew up in poverty, overcoming fatherlessness, mental illness, addiction and hopelessness. I survived amputation and severe burns in a traumatic explosion. I’ve been shot, stabbed, pepper sprayed, robbed, mauled by dogs, jumped, kicked and stomped. I endured brain damage, riots, attempts on my life, long stretches in solitary confinement, and hundreds of dehumanizing strip searches. I’ve been afflicted by suicide, betrayal, plagued by depression, banished from society, and branded a sex offender for the rest of my life. Hey, who hasn’t been through a few things? I was called a monster during my criminal trial. At the time, I believe the title was a fair assessment of my character, or at least an accurate description of the acts I was responsible for. My sentence was not imposed for the purpose of rehabilitation or recovery; It was meant to remove hope, incapacitate dreams, and cripple my ability to have a family, rejoin society or have any possibility of a second chance or meaningful life.I grew up in a prison. I became a man in prison. I developed purpose in a prison. However, it is not prison I credit for who I’ve become today. I represent a small fraction of incarcerated individuals who have chosen to excel while living in squalid conditions. We have rehabilitated in spite of a failed blueprint of “corrections”. Oppressed, abused, and forgotten, we are housed in the belly of the beast, longing for the opportunity of freedom, and the ability to live a life of meaning, beauty and positive impact. We wait for the chance to give back to the communities we once caused trauma to; A chance to right the harms we inflicted. For me, that day is April 23, 2053. I will be 67 at my earliest possible release date, barring a resentencing.

Shortly after my arrest, I was determined to become a Difference Maker. I confronted my demons, focused on accountability, and forged a new legacy. A legacy that changed my life and path, and assisted others struggling to face the harm they’ve caused. Weeks into my jail stay, I read my first book – yeah, the first book I had ever read from cover to cover. Today, I am a mere few credits from receiving my first degree. As a special needs mentor, mental health coach and prison preacher, my message is simple, “while there is breath in your body, there is hope for your life.” I now stand for a cause I have dedicated my life to – making a difference in the lives of others, and I am unashamed of the God who reached into the pit of hell and salvaged my life. I no longer act out of insecurity of what others may think. Living to impress others isn’t my goal, and my identity is not found in substances, crime or what delinquent peers may say. My life is driven by what I give and add the world in a positive way, not what I extract from it. My path is not a popular one. It is beyond rare in prison, but any decent person can see that our society is in dire need of such Difference Makers – transformers, individuals willing to change themselves and help those around them lost to the same battles. While I wait for this freedom, it is a small token of satisfaction, being able to help others. Many will soon be released, and it is my expectation that they will pay it forward – allowing their ripples to spread in the very community I so desperately want to be a part of. I’ve intentionally structured my life in a way that every activity I engage in is either investing into the lives of others, or equipping myself to better do so, and be of greater service. This is a service I owe to society, in the form of daily installments for the rest of my life. Some investments take time to bear fruit, while others are immediately rewarding. I especially enjoy the ones that take time to grow and develop. My favorite by far is the service dog training program I volunteer for.

I work with dogs that will eventually go to disabled vets, people with PTSD, children with autism, and those in need of emergency alert assistance. It is an understatement to say that this program has impacted me. Reduced stress, anxiety and depression, with increased peace, joy and purpose has been my experience in a nutshell. I also garden, exercise, give regular messages in Church, and create content on several platforms, all while working a fulltime job as a workforce development assistant, helping prisoners prepare for release. So, behind this razor wire, King Kong size walls, guard towers, and an ERD of 2053, why should I care? Why not say FU%K IT!? Many do. In this school of criminality, filled with loathsome activity, violence and bitterness, why do I try so hard at being the best man I can be? Because, I now love myself, and who I’ve become. I understand God’s plan and purpose for my life. Knowing that makes me want to teach others to do the same. That’s where true change takes place. If you learn to love yourself it is impossible to do anything that could harm yourself and others. Even though I was 18 – an adult according to the law – I was lost, troubled, and an addict to drugs since age 12. I was not a real man, nor did I have the ability to love myself. I’m not speaking of the world’s image of a man, full of bravado, but the type of man and human being representative of a permanent spot in society. A person who seeks to make his community a better place to live, and pours his time, resources and life into those around him. A real Man does what is right, no matter the opposition of others. A real Man doesn’t give up, even in the face of certain defeat. When we’ve erred, and done wrong, we make every effort for as long as it takes to make recompense for such wrongs. I do not know when my opportunity for freedom will come, but when it does, I will make the most of it, continuing as a Difference Maker. In the meantime, there is much to do, and many to help.

 

Raymond, 42

Meet Raymond…

When he stopped I was prepared for the worst. The guard says, “I didn’t know you played guitar.” I exclaimed, “Neither did I,” and we both had a laugh. This wouldn’t be the last humanizing moment paying guitar brought, nor the last time music broke barriers in my life. I treated learning like a fulltime job. I played every moment I could. 

Incarcerated: 16 years

Housed: Washington Corrections Center, Shelton

I want to play my guitar. I hear of  places like Austin and Memphis, filled with dimly lit, seedy jazz and blues clubs – the echoes of great music soaked in the wood and rafters. I want to stand where greater musicians have plucked strings and had the approval from strangers. I crave that stage. I have something to say – even if I don’t always have the words – I can bend the note, I can make it sing, but there is nothing diatonic about how I found my music. Like many, I always “wanted to learn guitar” and just “never got around to it.” I remember the moment when desire turned to decision and my life changed forever. I was 32 years old. It was 2012 and I was sitting in my cell in Walla Walla. PBS was showing the Joe Bonamassa concert. I thought to myself, “I want to be like him when I grow up.” A kind of joke for a near middle aged man. Still, I knew this was my vibe, he had something I was missing, and that something needed to get out. Getting a guitar was my first obstacle. I had a job in the prison making signs for the community; I saved my money for months. I got a little Epiphone Special II, color – heritage cherry sunburst. Honestly, it was horrendous. Probably what I get for telling the company to send me whatever color they had. Still, I was proud of that guitar. The humanizing effect of music started for me right away. One day after I got the guitar, a guard stopped at my cell. I had tablature of some song taped to my wall; I’m squinting trying to make sense of it all. I looked startled. Here is this guard in my window – a real hard ass, the kind that says nothing to prisoners unless he is barking an order. When he stopped I was prepared for the worst. The guard says, “I didn’t know you played guitar.” I exclaimed, “Neither did I,” and we both had a laugh. This wouldn’t be the last humanizing moment paying guitar brought, nor the last time music broke barriers in my life.

I treated learning like a fulltime job. I played every moment I could. I bought books, learning CDs, anything I could to improve. I wish I could say it came easy. It did not. Have you heard of people playing until their fingers bled? That was me. Six hours of straight practice will do that. But battling through the pain and frustration was a good outlet for me. I found freedom in the notes and a sense of accomplishment as my capabilities increased.

When I became good enough to construct songs they flowed right out of me. I’m now 42 years old and have written a lot of songs. I wrote a song for my son titled Outlaw Man wherein I caution him, “Don’t be the man my father was, running and shooting guns and drugs -ya just like – like I’ve done… overcome the gene – of the outlaw man.” Many of my songs serve to tell my stories and help me work through the broken pieces of my life. I found songwriting very therapeutic. It turns out that music was the outlet that I needed since I was a child. It is a hell of a thing to realize in your thirties you have a talent that – if cultivated earlier – would have changed the trajectory of your life. The cliché “better late than never” comes to mind here. I know there are youth today with untapped talent, hard lives of their own, and unmet needs for outlets of expression. Another cliché I connect with, “music calms the savage beast.” Music did more for me internally than any of the prison programs or classes I took. Through learning guitar I have become less violent and less impulsive. Because of music I share joy and connection with all kinds of people in prison – people I might not have spoken to otherwise. I found that music in prison lets people see past the barriers that divide us. When the music feels good, there are no guards and prisoners; there are no blacks or whites; there is no Other of any kind. There is only the beat, the rhythm, and harmony, Well, unless you miss a note. But even side-eyes from band mates after misplaced notes in practice is a form of growing together often unavailable in other venues of prison. During my time inside, I outgrew the need for my confinement. Music is a huge reason why that growth was possible. Now, I just want to leave this prison – I want to share my music and my experience with the world. I don’t aspire to be famous – rather, only present. I want to be there; on the scene; learning and sharing with other good musicians; entertaining in some smoke filled blues or jazz club. Where there is this community of good people with open hearts and good rhythm – that is where I belong. I just want to play my guitar.