99 years in prison!
My heart lurched as the judge pronounced my sentence. I couldn’t believe it. Surely he misread the jury’s verdict? Maybe they meant 9 years instead of 99? I heard my breath, hoping it was a mistake, but it wasn’t to be so. One terrible choice, and at the age of 16 I was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Make no mistake about it; I would be in prison for a long, long time.
I sat in stunned silence as the overwhelming guilt of all the bad things I’d done ran rampant across my conscious mind. Regret and shame pressed down, crushing me beneath their heavy yoke. I struggled to breathe as it felt like a massive boulder pressed against my chest, squeezing all the air from my lungs. Black flecks flittered around my eyes as I tried to understand what had taken place. My mind screamed in panic while my body refused to move. My life was about to take a drastic turn for the worse, and I was not going to enjoy the ride.
Have you ever seen a rock crusher at work? Whole stones are dumped in and pulverized; dust comes out the other side. That is how prison transforms people. They enter as stone and are spewed out as dust.
Prison is a traumatic event for anyone. For me it was even worse. Because of the seriousness of my case, I was sent to one of Texas’ most violent maximum security prisons. I am not arguing that I did not deserve prison time, because I certainly did. I was legally tried, convicted and sentenced for murder. I deserved punishment, and it was a bleak future that I brought down upon my own head.
As a small, blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid in prison; my circumstances were very dangerous. I repeatedly suffered from assaults, mental cat-and-mouse games; and I lived under the constant threat of rape. My only option was to fight with every ounce of my being. Despite my greatest efforts, I lost most of those fights which encouraged others to try and “break” me. It’s a difficult situation for a small teenager to fight against a full-grown man, and it’s even more impossible when several men join in. At the first sign of weakness I would be in serious trouble. No matter the odds, I fought until one day I was no longer the new guy, and the sharks moved on in search of easier prey.
After saying that, surprisingly, the physical part of serving time is the easiest. It is the mental and emotional struggle to keep your sanity in an insane place that takes its toll. I was a child in an adult world with all my hopes and dreams dashed because of my stupid decisions. All those dreams were traded in for a lifetime in prison.
Since that time 28 years of incarceration have slowly trickled by. The 16-year-old boy who entered prison is now a 44-year-old man remaining in prison. For a time, a long long time, not only did I lose hope, but I lost myself too. In a twisted desire to fit in, I became someone totally unlike the real me. I embraced the cold, calloused prison code of conduct like it was the Ten Commandments handed down directly from God. That code is a perverted form of discipline that makes perfectly good sense inside but is absolutely ludicrous on the outside. For example, I once stabbed a man because he stole a set of $3 headphones. The act was acceptable behavior in here but would be crazy anywhere else. As I look back over the years lost to the sands of time, I realize that I have no happy memories of family vacations or lakeside BBQs. My memories revolve around race riots, fights and stabbings on some of the worst prisons in Texas. I became a man on Beto, Ferguson, Darrington, and Connally prison units. Those harsh places were my terrible mentors, teaching me what a man should be. I stayed in trouble so that disciplinary court became my oft-visited stepfather who was trying to punish me into acting right. I believed that I had nothing to lose so I refused to listen to correction from anyone. The more I was punished, the worse I acted.
Gang life beckoned me like a siren perched atop deadly shoals. I answered that call by running my tiny boat right onto those shoals. I joined the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang in an effort to fill that empty void deep within the center of my being. The void remained hollow, and I discovered that gang life was another bad mistake atop many prior mistakes. I performed a lot of terrible things in the name of the brotherhood, but I refused to care, believing that I was better than others and that they deserved less consideration than me or my “brothers.” The truth is, I was worse than others. I was a lost soul whose shameful actions cause me to spend 13 years of incarceration confined in Administrative Segregation (ad-seg is Texas’ version of long-term solitary confinement).
In Ad-Seg my foolishness continued. Despite the restrictive environment and close scrutiny by the guards, I figured out ways to assault prisoners and guards. Because of that, I was treated as a dangerous prisoner. That treatment twisted my mind further astray until I became a bitter animal waiting for the next opportunity to attack. I would attack, and the guards would beat me into submission. It became a game; attack, receive a beating, submission; attack, receive a beating and submission….
Even my drug-use continued and even escalated. As a gang member, I had easy access to drugs. In 1995 I beat a case for stabbing another prisoner. My celebration of the not-guilty verdict consisted of drinking some hooch (homemade wine) as well as shooting-up coke and heroin. I overdosed.
As I lay on that prison stretcher waiting on death’s cold embrace, I realized that I wanted to survive. I needed to live a better life and to be different. I needed to change. My life must become much more than racism, fights, and drugs. I knew that there was more to life than those things, and I wanted more. I desperately needed more.
Regretfully, after the overdose, the madness resumed. It was like two people living inside my head at the same time. One person wanted change while the other wanted to lash out and blame everyone else for the desolation that my life had become. The latter won out, and I sank into a stinking cesspool of anger, rage and bitterness. It boiled within me like a witch’s brew, and I wanted to pour it out on anyone who crossed my path, even those I loved. Long-term isolation finally broke me like the stone in the rock crusher. I became dust, but it was dust that I needed to become before I could embrace change.
When I was finally crushed beyond repair, I began listening to that soft whisper of God speaking into my life. The encouragement and unceasing love from family and friends taught me that I am loved despite all the things I’ve done to deserve otherwise. When I embraced true love from God and man, true change emerged.
Previously I sabotaged my own success because I felt undeserving of anything worthwhile. Now I fought to make it happen. As I changed, my sanity returned; and I even worked my way out of Ad-Seg in 2006. After the isolation this transition to “freedom” was very difficult. Still, it was a necessary and needed change.
There are many unchangeable parts of my life that hurt to admit, but I do look at and use those painful memories as reminders of who I once was and who I never wish to be again. I constantly push to not only better myself but to better everyone around me.
My life has come full circle. I lost everything but gained even more. My prison resume once labeled me as the worst of the worst, but not it shows things like a facilitator of multiple faith-based programs, Toastmasters Club president, Teacher’s Aide, Diesel Mechanic, and college tutor. I’ve developed from a 6th grade dropout to a college graduate. I am a leader of positive change and growth within the prison walls. Because of my past, no challenge is too great, nor is any duty too low for me to perform. Pride has no place in my daily life.
While my life as a rotten rock may be over, I’ve discovered that the dust of gold is a precious thing to have. All people have gold in them; it’s up to us as fellow humans to find it and bring it out.