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.

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!

John, 64

John, 64

Meet John…

My fear is that I will not get a second chance to use all I know after prison.

John, 64
Incarcerated: 28 years
Housed: San Quentin State Prison

I thought I was going to be a great father. Turns out I was wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I was a great provider for my wife and two kids. I kept a roof over their heads. They got everything they needed, except for me. I had a great job, but it required me to work overtime, not just a few hours a week but sixteen hour shifts four to five days a week. I enrolled in a carpenters apprenticeship school and learned the trade at 18. I worked as a pipefitter during the winter months. I learned a great deal about pipefitting and plumbing. With some instructions from other welders, I became a state certified welder. That was a big day for me!

I believe if I had grown up with a fathers guidance, it would have turned out totally different. Life was hard growing up. I was abused by different men and women that my mom would bring home from time to time. I was lost. All I wanted to do was get away as soon as possible. I’m sorry to say it was no different for my older sisters. I left home at the age of 16. I worked odd jobs here and there with my uncle. I got married at 18. How did I get through all these hours? I got turned on to meth. It was at that moment my life changed forever. I became a different person. It led to all my troubles. When I fell, I fell hard.

I’ve been incarcerated for 28 years now. I’ve often thought about paroling and what I would do. My greatest fear and why I’m writing is to share my fears about life after prison. With all my skills and knowledge about pipefitting, carpentry, plumbing, welding and general supervision. I fear there won’t be anyone out there to hire me. I have a lot to contribute to someone that would give me a second chance. Who out there would want to hire a 67 year old parolee?

Erik, 52

Meet Erik…

Even though I considered myself a cis-gender male, I helped many members of the LGBTQ+ community gain acceptance and understanding from other inmates that, quite often, embraced preconceived bias toward the LGBTQ+ community.

Erik, 52
Incarcerated: 7 years
Housed: Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, Blythe, California

In the three years I spent fighting my case, I was the Head Trustee in the county jail dorm where I was housed. I was always doing my best for my fellow inmates and the jail staff alike, always letting my Hasidic beliefs guide me. Whenever a dispute arose, I would do all I could to bring the various sides together and help resolve differences. Through my actions, I gained respect, regardless of race, gender identity or creed. Even though I considered myself a cis-gender male, I helped many members of the LGBTQ+ community gain acceptance and understanding from other inmates that, quite often, embraced preconceived bias toward the LGBTQ+ community. One of my most profound interventions was when two inmates were preparing to fight. I brought the various groups rallying around their friends together and made a statement I know they will never forget, “You should settle this like men.” They took it as I imagined they would, thinking that I was promoting violence. After a dramatic pause I continued, “by talking it out.” I went on to explain the civilized way to settle differences is not through violence but dialogue. In their shock and awe many of those around stated they had never heard that phrase used like that before. I knew I had changed perceptions, minds and hearts for the better. I am happy to have contributed to a peaceful environment.

Before I became a trustee, there were fights every weekend in that dorm. After my appointment, we had roughly one fight per year in my two and a half years. I have found that by doing our best for ourselves and those around us we can make the world a better place, even while incarcerated.

 

A Love Everlasting

Passing through the realm of thought and action physical beings find a mutual attraction

Ride upon the pinnacle of sensuality, a culmination of geniality and rhapsody

Sense alive, pressed together, two bodies strive
Natural reaction to the spirit of Love inside
Eternity – a moment experienced at the same time

Protean movement, the climax they bring
Sentient emotions, desire and pleasure the well-spring

Souls born to this Earth at the right place and time
A euphoric, carnal connection
Their impassioned essence infinitely entwined

 

For the Sake of Love

If I look deep into those sky blue eyes. I can see the reflection of a dawning sunrise.

A brand new day to replenish our ways. A reprieve from what drew us apart.

The tumultuous road we found ourselves on. Past grievances and hurtful wrongs.

Our salvation knowing each other’s hearts. Find solace in casting aside the frivolous parts.

I go to her now to hold her hand. Fingers interwoven, like soft and lacy silk strands.

Bound together, our eternal true love.
A passionate kiss, two bodies pressed sung.

 

Remember the Night

In the heat of passion, bare skin glowing in the moon lit night.
Cool air and bright stars passing by, lost to the senses out of sight.

Skin soft and warm, supple to the touch. Eyes flash and shine tussles of hair lightly brush.

Every movement in unison and precise. Develop into feelings of mutual device.

Arms wrapped in a tangle of the love you both share.
Happy to use it all up, not a drop to spare.

The efficacious result a memory in time.
Renewed in the heart on a lonely, moon lit night.

 

Riding the Storm

On the shore of a raging sea
My thoughts are only of thee

As the tempest gains its strength
I hope for affection and peace, a love that shall never cease

In its height, crashing waves, high winds
can’t hear a sound
My voice so soft and timid, lost in the din, never found

Churning tides, whirlpool spin, icebergs collide
If only I could know the thoughts and feelings you hide

Boats capsize, lives gone by, breakers 100 feet high
Although you ignore me I still have to try

As the storm subsides, the clouds part, waters calm, the sun shines
Our love everlasting, overcome conflict and adversity all in due time

Adrien, 29

Meet Adrien…

Make peace with the parts of your life. Making peace makes life easier.

Adrien, 29
Incarcerated: 1 year
Housed: San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California

I was sitting in Reception, waiting to hear which prison I would go to, hearing what other guys were planning on doing when they got released. The last time I was arrested, I turned my life around: got my high school and medical assistant diploma, and worked for three and a half years in the medical field. I enjoy working in clinics, urgent care, primary care, giving injections, taking care of people. It made me proud, too. I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to work in the medical field for a while, but I brought this on myself. Once I get out I will start looking and going back to school. I told them, “Anything and everything is possible. You just can’t doubt yourself.”

I was born on a reservation in Montana, in and out of country jail since I was 18. When I had my first child, a daughter, I wanted to show up for her. She inspired me. I wanted to be a father, different from other fathers who aren’t in their children’s lives. My dad didn’t. He was in and out of prison, not there. I was motivated to do it differently. I have siblings, younger than me. I didn’t have someone to push me to be a better father or a better son. I only had myself and I learned from my mistakes. When I was 10, I had to do that for my siblings when no one else did. It prepared me for being a dad. I didn’t have a childhood. And that made me the father and son I am today. People ask me, “Why do you talk to your dad? If he wasn’t there for you.” But I say, “Why not? Why be petty? I have to be the bigger man, even though he wasn’t there for me, he can be there for his grandchildren.” Make peace with the parts of your life. Making peace makes life easier. When I was going to school I was tatted up, looking just like another gangster. I wanted to prove them wrong. It was a good motivator.

When I first got to San Quentin in December, they thought I was Mexican not Native American. White Eagle, one of my elders, brought me closer to my native roots. I’m his cellie now. I’m proud to be Native American, being here made me connect with my inner roots. I know how to help people now. When one of my four kids is hurt, they come to me. “Dad, what’s wrong? Make it better.” With Covid I helped them not be afraid of testing, of getting sick. I talked with my daughter, my oldest, and told her, “Don’t grow up too fast. Don’t worry. Just be a kid.” I’m getting out in 12 days, so I can be there for her and my other kids. I just found out that my mom was in an induced coma after surgery and passed away after the surgery. So maybe I can get partial custody of my younger siblings.

This incarceration has made my relationship stronger with my fiance. I had doubts, but I see she really does care about me. I can’t wait to get married. She really stuck by my side through this all and I am so thankful to have her. I keep believing, anything is possible.

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