Table of Contents
Introduction Renaldo Hudson
Editorial Note Katy Ryan
I’m Sorry Joseph Dole
Anguish Like a Fire in my Heart Jeffrey Boswell
Every Tomorrow George Whittington III
Second Chance Guadalupe Navarro
Level E Daniel Parker
A Secret Injustice LaJuana Lampkins
No Longer a Prisoner Scott Caro
True Power Donald McDonald
The Biggest Epidemic Marvis Alexis
Kidnapped Aryules Bivens
Still Broken Susan Daquila
Unseen Chains Timothy N. Dickerson
The Work is Ahead Donzel Digby
Drive Slow Tyrone Fuller
Thoughts to Things Vincent Galloway
An Angry Street Alan Garnett
Humanity is Never Lost Martell Gomez
Stop the Genocide R. Lalo Gomez
Strive for Perfection Kirby Griffin
Optical Illusion Stanley Howard
I Woke Up Renaldo Hudson
Doing the Right Thing William Hudson
Dog-Eat-Dog Raphael Jackson
That Bluebird Bus Gerald James, Sr.
Open Your Minds and Hearts Keith Kimble
Wisdom Ron Kliner
Momma’s Boy Andrew Maxwell
If I Could Gregory McMillan
Looking Back into the Mirror Tom Odle
God’s Grace Roberto Ornelas
Forgotten Child William Peeples
My Discovery Larry Rodgers
Lil Lloyd Lloyd Saterfield
Roller Coaster Ricky Tilson
Odyssey Shondell Walker
Coat of Many Colors Joseph N. Ward
Quest Eric Watkins
Mental Resurrection Ted Williams
Readers’ Comments Jennifer Jenkins-Bishop
Sister Helen Prejean
Introduction Renaldo Hudson
The concept for these essays came from a lesson I learned from Minister Farrakhan. He was teaching on the subject, Who are you, and are you good for nothing? This lesson on tape changed my life forever. So I wanted to give back from what I learned. I shared with Bill Ryan the idea to have an essay contest for Illinois prisoners, and he went about putting the judges and prize money together. Bill Ryan, we love you, and thank God for your heart and your willingness to continue working on our behalf.
I can tell you, the contest wasn’t about the money. I live here in the midst of these so-called “monsters.” Men came to me with smiles on their faces, like little children look on Christmas morning as they open gifts. They were saying, “Thank you, man. Sometime a brother just needs to be heard. Made to feel human again. The essay contest made me feel like a human again.”
I am extremely thrilled that we are able to share our thoughts and souls to the public in these essays. These men and women are so brave. I take my hat off to all of them. Daily, I hear the hearts of men losing hope and the will to live. At the same time, I see the growth in so many.
It is our hope that these essays will encourage others to think about who they are and what they can do better. We hope that you enjoy them as much as we did writing them. Please share them with as many people as you can. We want to grow. Help us to keep moving down the roads of positive change. May God bless.
There is little that cannot be learned from these essays about what it means to be locked up in the United States, to live, in the words of Jeffrey Boswell, with “anguish like a fire in my heart.” The writers discuss the forces in their lives that led them to the Illinois Department of Corrections and the forces that now keep them alive and hopeful. I was struck not only by the clarity and range of voices but by the repeated calls for justice—for children, for women, for the wrongfully convicted, for all of those living on the “modern day plantation.”
In the fall of 2003, news of the writing contest, initiated by Renaldo Hudson, traveled by word of mouth, and within a couple months, thirty-eight submissions, mostly handwritten, had arrived from six prisons in Illinois. Preliminary judges, Tony Christini, an English instructor at South Texas Community College, and Katy Ryan, an assistant professor of English at West Virginia University, selected twenty essays that were forwarded to the final judges—Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune, Cornelia Grumman of the Chicago Tribune, and Jeff Flock, the former CNN Chicago Bureau Chief. The winning essays, along with four essays named for special awards, appear in the beginning of this collection. Renaldo asked that his essay not be considered in the contest, but it is included here. And with it one of the most important lines in the book: “Who am I? I’m what the world says I can’t be: I’m a rehabilitated man.”
Since most of the contributors used the contest questions for their titles (“Who am I, and what can I do to be better?”), I selected phrases or words from each essay to serve as titles. Occasionally, for clarity’s sake, I made minor grammatical changes, which were approved by the writers.
The proceeds from Lockdown Prison Heart will be donated to Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR). Founded in 1976, MVFR is a national organization of people who have had family members murdered—by homicide or by state killings—and who work to restore communities by promoting crime prevention, opposing the death penalty, and helping victims reconstruct their lives
. (See Jennifer Jenkins-Bishop’s comments in the final section.) Our title, Lockdown Prison Heart, comes from poet Edward Bartόk-Baratta, whose brother John was murdered in 1984.
If you would like to contact any of the writers, you can find their information on the Illinois Department of Corrections website (http://www.idoc.state.il.us/), or you can contact Bill Ryan; 2237 Sunnyside Ave.; Westchester, IL; 60154; email@example.com.
It was a genuine pleasure to edit this book. Many thanks to the writers for sending their words out to us.
First Place Winner
Who am I? Well, I was a boy with a man’s responsibilities but now I’m a man that has lost his ability to be responsible. I’m serving a life sentence and am housed in a supermax facility. I have two beautiful daughters whom I can no longer provide for, hold when they’re scared, or take to the park. They are the sole factor that keeps me going and the main factor in my heart breaking continuously each day.
Who am I? I’m a changed man, one who has seen the errors of his ways, who can truthfully say, “I’m rehabilitated.” The only problem is that after my first felony conviction I was given natural life without the possibility of parole and, in other words, labeled as being unable to be rehabilitated.
Who am I? I’m a patriot who loves my country, even though I don’t feel I got justice from our judicial system.
Who am I? I’m someone who has failed my family as well as society, someone who now wants to give back to society and be there for my family but cannot. Someone who has learned what it really means to have your freedom taken away. Most people’s conceptions of being locked up are completely wrong. It’s not the physical things that you’re without that make it so hard to be incarcerated for life. It’s the fact that you’re helpless to take care of your family when they’re sick, to raise your children, to help in their times of struggle, and to give back to your community. Instead you’re a burden, a charity case, someone to pity. It strips you of your self-esteem and your self-respect. That is what breaks a man, not the absence of good food, alcohol, sex, or any of the other inconsequential things we may often wish we had to temporarily give us pleasure.
Who am I? Someone who’s looking to get back some self-worth by somehow giving back.
What can I do to better myself? Continue to learn. An ignorant man cannot be a teacher. The more you learn the better you become. If I’m ever going to be able to be a positive impact on my children, I must first make a positive impact on myself. If I have no self-respect, how can I teach my children to respect themselves? If I have no education, then how can I educate them? I can’t; therefore I must continue to learn. No one can ever know everything, but no one should ever stop learning. Once you stop learning, you stop living.
Who am I? I’m a father who loves his daughters.
Who am I? I’m sorry.
Second Place Winner (tie)
Anguish Like a Fire in my Heart
I am a man first and foremost.
I am a man seeking a better understanding of the Creator.
I am a man with few alternatives.
I am a man that is in struggle to regain my freedom.
I am a man that is constantly changing, learning, seeking, challenging myself to broaden my horizons and expectations of me. I see myself as a man that quickly establishes myself as a fast-track performer, tireless, relentless in what I’m doing. I seem to have an obsessive preoccupation with right and wrong. I have a moral code and work ethic I feel is leftover from another era. I’m a man with morals and principals and a philosophy in life which guides my decisions and choices, which I feel gives my purpose color, gives it tone, gives it direction, makes me stop, notice and listen and then to consider my options, examine the facts and apply my logic.
As far as a man of family and friends—it seems that ill-usage and the passing of this time has estranged me from the one and distanced me from the other. And now much of my experience even the most ordinary activities take on a dream-like quality. This is not to say that I find it difficult to distinguish reality from fantasy or the free-play of imagination. What I’m saying is that the outside world seems light years away. A Big Mac seems as remote as a world without prejudices. And thoughts of laying with a woman are likened to my mom’s homemade cookies. I know I’ve had some and I know it was good but the flavor is difficult to remember . . .
I seek a better understanding of the Creator. I feel when it is all said and done all earthly roles are stripped away, and the question becomes, “Who am I really?” and while I’m still among the living—simply put—I need help!!! I am a convicted man of a double murder. It was the moment at which my shabby box of hopes and wants—which had once seemed to be such a fabulous chest of bright dreams—was turned on end and emptied into an abyss, leaving me with zero expectations. In a clock tick, my future was no longer a kingdom of possibility and wonder, but a yoke of obligation. Anguish like a fire in my heart . . .
However, in the last 23 years I have remolded my character, polished my style, fresh with an appetite. I genuinely deserve a second chance. My concern, my interest, and yes my love for life, here and the hereafter, born of these particular circumstances in which I find myself alone, lonely, desperately seeking any type of kindness, and with a heart vulnerable to anyone who would care about my existence just a little. I suffer long periods of despair which I feel is put upon me by this system. Society simply fails to recognize my worth. I know this—as well as I know my own name—that additional time served in prison will be counterproductive with regard to my further development as a human being and a man with a sense of mission. I feel that in the not too distant future a hard bitterness will begin to pervade my spirit that could well blunt the sharp edges of all my creative energies. What is difficult if not altogether impossible to deal with is a life without hope. Such existence brings about a form of despair that is actually physically painful. It is a pain sooo great that death itself seems a reasonable alternative. I don’t believe I could tolerate such an existence for any more length of time . . . I’m a man that is in struggle to regain my freedom. It was thumbs down the final vote to cut my throat—life in prison. Man, this shameful place of steel and stone is not my home, where some live false elation on this modern day plantation, dungeon of mental and physical destruction. This is me and my dreadful situation. And it seems nothing will substitute for candor, nothing will dispel suspicion, restore tranquility, and confidence and reunify me with society except the truth. My desire for more of a life, for direction and meaning, is undiminished. I am in the nest of the enemy and my fear is great. Yet, it only feeds my rage. I am confident I’ll achieve my freedom of one kind or another, one way or another, and total financial independence within the next couple of years . . .
The thing that is most important to me is freedom from this hell. I believe that all of us must appear before Christ to be judged by him. Each one will receive what he or she deserves . . .When all is said and done, what is most important to me, is what will I deserve. What will I receive. The question is, Who are you? I feel I’m finding out second by second . . .
P.S. Regrets—limiting myself to a thug’s life.
What can I do better?
Continue my struggle!
Second Place Winner (tie)
George Whittington III
My given name is George Whittington III. My spiritual name is Ahmad Safdar Al-Ahad, which translates as “commendable soldier, the one and only.” I am a commendable soldier, but I am also so much more. Society has labeled me prisoner N72861, but I am so much more. I am a father, I am a son, I am good, I am bad . . .
I am, I am . . . I am Nat Turner’s rage running rampant in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, I am Denmark Vessey’s vengeance unchecked and precise. I am the sword of Gabriel Prosser penetrating his master’s skull, I am every drop of blood sweat and tears the first and last slave ever shed . . .
I am Marcus Garvey’s vision for his people, I am Malcolm’s passion for truth, I am Che Guevera’s love for the people, I am Martin’s unfulfilled dream floating in the air here in 2003, I am George Jackson’s unbroken will and spirit, I am Fred Hampton’s resistance, I am Frederick Douglass’ persistence for abolition, I am James Byrd’s last breath rising up from that cruel highway in Jasper, Texas . . .
I am the pain Emmett Till endured in Money, Mississippi, I am the strange fruit Billie Holiday sung about, I am every Bob Marley song, I am the wrath Shaka Zulu brought to the British, I am the truth wrapped in grafted European lies, I am Jesus’s twin, feet of bronze, hair of wool just like the Good Book says . . . I am a scientist deep in my soul, a master mathematician made up by design to seem to be a master manipulator . . . I am a man short 40 acres and a mule and the tools to break me free, I am misery manifest manufactured by a mad scientist named Willie Lynch and his Uncle Sam. I am a mountain of grief soon to be a volcano of retribution and redemption, I am every scream yesterday ever produced, I am justice denied and delayed . . .
I am an untapped reservoir of black gold waiting to release riches to my people. But most of all I am every tomorrow until tomorrows cease to be and my redemption song is sung . . .
What can I do to make myself better? I can be my harshest critic and accept my shortcomings and faults and make sure an effort is made each day to improve upon my shortcomings and faults. I can strive towards love and charity for my brother man, accepting him and his faults.
I can immerse myself in truth and strive for justice while standing firm amongst this world and all its lies . . .
There are so many things I could do to make a better me, but the most important thing I can do to better me is to know and acknowledge God each day through prayer, studying his word and practicing his word at every opportunity, and believing wholeheartedly in him and the hereafter, because the life I now know will surely one day end and then there is only God and eternal paradise or hell and eternal damnation.
Third Place Winner
Who am I? That’s a question I’ve asked myself a million times. The truth is, I wasn’t always sure who I was. I knew that who I wanted to be and who people portrayed me to be were two different things all together. Who I am is a question with more than one answer, depending on who you ask. With time I’ve come to realize that even though a person may change, that doesn’t necessarily mean others will change the way they view you. Knowing that I can answer this question better than anyone on God’s green earth, I think it’s only fair I present myself from those many viewpoints, no matter how good or bad it may be.
To my parents, I’m the loving son that can still do anything if he puts his mind to it. Their beautiful baby boy who (ironically) can do no wrong, no matter how much wrong he does.
To my children, I am the Daddy that has been away at work for 32 months and can’t come home for another 39. In their eyes I am the coolest, funniest, and strongest man in the world! To their mother, I’m a man who told one too many lies, broke her heart one too many times, and swears he’s changed but just can’t be trusted.
To my friends, I’m the life of the party. The “down for anything” guy that always had a gun on him, an eye for trouble, and wasn’t scared of the law.
To the law, I’m a known gang member and criminal. A threat to the community. A danger to society serving time in I.D.O.C.
To the I.D.O.C., I’m inmate number R03908. A ward of the state. A convicted felon currently placed in the Pickneyville Correctional Center.
I am a man that knows pain, love, and hate all too well, but first and foremost I’m a man. I am a man that doesn’t always feel one, due to the fact that I can’t be there for my children and parents to love and support them, like they’ve always done for me. I am a man that has always tried to do right, be good, and make my family proud but always seemed to do wrong, be bad, and disappoint those who love me the most.
I’m not the boy I once was. I’ve grown and matured and have finally found sense and sent the meaning in all the lectures that were given to me when I was young and “hard-headed.” I’m someone that can no longer play with a lady’s feelings or break her heart because I now know what it feels like to have a broken heart.
I am one man that has truly changed but won’t receive a fair chance in life due to my criminal background and physical appearance. On the same token, I am a man motivated to overcome all obstacles and succeed because whether or not my chance is fair makes no difference. I’ll have a second chance regardless and I will make the most of it. I refuse to be a statistic or habitual offender with an excuse and sad story for all my problems. I am not the only one. I am only one of many. I am Guadalupe Navarro, a twenty-three-year old Hispanic man.
What can I do to be better?
Everything I failed to do before.
Lively Line Award
I tried to escape from Stateville in 1995, because my 23-year-old mind hadn’t accepted the 60-year prison sentence I’d been given. I immediately found myself classified as a Level E, which is an extremely high escape risk. My Level E classification defines me as a person in the eyes of the Department of Corrections. To them, I am simply a Level E, marked for retribution.
The fact that I’m a Level E overshadows my character and my deeds. The correctional officers are instructed to memorize my face. I often see the look of recognition in their expressions as I walk by. Usually they will point me out to each other, or they will search me before I am allowed to continue on my way. Sometimes I am searched by three or four different officers before I make it from my cell to the dining room. But these are minor inconveniences.
The real retribution is unleashed when I receive a disciplinary report, file a grievance, or submit for good conduct credit. Every hearing and evaluation is tainted by my Level E classification. Whenever I would go to a disciplinary hearing, the first thing that the hearing officers would notice was my Level E classification. The words, “Oh. He’s a Level E,” always let me know that I was about to receive the maximum penalties for whatever rule violation I was accused of.
Over the past five years, I have managed to stay out of trouble through countless prayers and teethmarks on my tongue. But I have learned that five years of good conduct are irrelevant to the Department of Corrections. I am still a Level E. When I submit for restoration of good time or file a grievance, I cannot escape the disapproving pen of the warden. No matter the issue, a Level E obtains the warden’s approval only by oversight or miracle.
The worst aspect of being a Level E is the visiting policy. Because I am a Level E, I am not allowed contact visits with my loved ones. I will probably never be able to hug my mother or grandmother again. They will probably be long-dead before the Department of Corrections finally decides that I’ve learned my lesson.
I am a man who can deal with all of this negativity and still continue to hope for a brighter future. Over and over I am shown that my good conduct is meaningless, but I haven’t run out of faith yet. There are a few people in this world who know my true character, but to everyone else I am just a Level E.
I dream of a someday when the Department of Corrections will tell me that I am no longer just a Level E. When that day arrives, I will have more room to grow as a person. I have to believe that holding onto my faith will lead me from here to there. But for now I’m just a Level E.
Women’s Issue Award
A Secret Injustice
When you take a mother and you put a gun to her head and you tell her if she does not cooperate, you’ll kill her children . . . she will comply. When you take a mother, as during slavery, and you tell her you will sell or whip, lash or lynch her children unless she meets your sexual needs, she will comply. A mother will do anything when her children are endangered.
When the police took me at age 24 years old in April 1982 into an interrogation room, slapped and kicked me, ordered me to tell them the whereabouts of my children ages 9, 4, and 1 years old, and brought them down to the police station, put my sons ages 4 and 1 years old, in that interrogation room, as I was handcuffed to the wall, whisked away my 9-year-old daughter to some “undisclosed” area, all men officers, and denied them food, beverages, sleep, or any female matron supervision, then stood over me yelling that if I did not cooperate, and “confess,” that I’d never see those children again, I never signed a statement, I never court-reported a statement, I could not get to a lawyer, and I faced the worst torture a human being could bear, I had a nervous breakdown and ended up with 60 years, on psychotropic medication for the first 5 years. No evidence exists against me. The statement doesn’t corroborate with the crime scene or pathologist report, because other than the information they told me, I did not know because I did not do it.
Your question is, “Who am I?” I am a woman, a mother, who found in your opportunity a chance to be acknowledged so I can hopefully be restored to the children, now also 6 grandchildren, that were once the weapons of torture used to put me behind walls for now 22 years for a crime I never committed. I am the female part of the broken system Governor Ryan forgot existed when he paraded numerous men across televised nationwide media and spoke of their torture, their abuse, their injustice, yet out of approximately three thousand women in the Illinois Department of Corrections, not one did he exonerate or acknowledge as also victims of a broken system. Did he only envision the system broken for men, and imagine that women had access to the true justice part? I am the voice of the women.
What can I do to make me better? I am praying through me that the boundaries of reform will be looked at by the overseers of law at both sides of the broken system, men and women equally, that the next time a statesman stands up for justice that it be for all, not one-sided. I am that skeleton in the system’s closet, that female version kept secret while all the noise was going on about the “broken system.”
No Longer a Prisoner
Yesterday I was a heroin addict. I could never manage a loving, caring relationship with another. My only relationship was with heroin. I slowly began to not care whether I lived or died. Yesterday I was lost in my isolated, painful world of addiction. Addiction is selfish, complicated, and in many ways masochistic. I reverted to having only an instinctual need to supply my habit. Yesterday criminal activity and lying were second-nature to me. I would lie, cheat, and steal; anything to supply my habit in order to avoid the pain of withdrawal. Yesterday I was ashamed without self-esteem. I didn’t have any goals or ambitions. Yesterday I was sick spiritually, mentally, and physically. Yesterday I was scared to live life on life’s terms. With two years clean I use the word “yesterday” because of how far I’ve come and who I am today. I can never forget yesterday, because it has made me a better person today.
Today I have love for myself and others. I’m no longer spiritually bankrupt, but very much spiritually aware. My physical freedom may have been taken from me as an inmate in prison, but I’m more free today than any of my days actively using. I’m no longer a prisoner to the disease of addiction. Today I have goals and ambitions. I’m blessed to be able to say I’m more than an inmate, I’m a college student. I’m focused on my dream of a college degree. Today, I have a relationship with family and friends. I’m a son, with proud parents. I’m a brother with proud sisters and brothers. I’m an uncle, with many proud nephews and nieces. I look beyond myself and want to help others. I see beauty in this world, and see God’s hand at work in my life. Today I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of the person I dug out from under years of drug abuse and neglect. I could look in the mirror and be happy with who I see. Today I’m no longer scared of reality, but meet it each day with a confident smile. Today I’m assured that I never again have to use.
I believe I could be a better person by sharing my experience and hope with others. I plan to pursue a career in drug counseling. I think by helping others find sobriety I’ll also be helping myself remain focused on what’s most important in life. I’ve been given a second chance at life and I plan to make the most of each day. They say it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. I can be a better person by sharing who I am and loving others. I want to be a husband and father. I want to recapture the dreams I once abandoned. I want to share who I am with the world. All of these things will make me a better person.
Who am I, and what would I do if I were free? Firstly, I am a caged idea, a cloud waiting to burst, raw energy wanting to be unleashed.
I was a dreamer afraid to explore my thoughts and take a chance that my dreams could come true. So I formed a false person, creating a sense of power by controlling those weaker than I. You know what I mean, the weak-minded and needy. Those rejected by their peers.
Never realizing what real power was, I discovered that true power comes from ideas that are an expression of my will. So I began to embrace my ideas and develop them. Allowing them to form concepts and follow those concepts to their logical conclusions. My will becoming a caged beast whose hunger must be sated. I have become what all men strive to be, willful ideas. Ideas that bring jobs and prosperity to millions of people that have lost their power as I had. Were I free, I would promote a barely noticed movement to explore inventions. Restarting industry by opening factories that manufacture those ideas. Opening stores that sell those inventions.
Factories and stores owned and operated by people from low-income communities that could compete in the new world economy. Communities that can use their greatest resources, dreams, ideas and manpower. Say I found a recyclable product to make furniture and I rent a building in a depressed neighborhood and hire the people from that area to build this furniture, using their own designs. Finally I would open stores in other communities providing jobs and building up that area’s economy.
Building up a community is done by creating jobs for the unemployable, not by filling the pockets of a few rich people who would only computerize and move to another country for their cheap labor. This is true power, not what you can get, but what you can give, not who you can trick, but who you can help to live.
So I dream about ways to provide a better life to those from my community, and I know I can make a difference with the power of my mind, and the force of my will. Caged no more, my energy longs to be free to create by the power of my mind and the strength of my will.
The Biggest Epidemic
Who am I? Well, to understand I must explain who I was and what I’ve overcome to be who I am now, spiritually and mentally.
As my parents’ first child and only son, I was deemed to be a reflection of their hard work and love to surpass their success in life, a greatness that they were unable to accomplish. But just like a lot of black families, they had beliefs and determination to get me out of the ghetto to give me a better chance at defeating the biggest epidemic since influenza, poverty.
It just wasn’t feasible at the time and to add to the problem destiny was playing against my mother and father being together. So bitterly they divorced. Now that left my mother to raise myself and my sister, who came four years before the divorce. The weight of the world now lay on her shoulders.
Providing for her family was first and foremost in her eyes. So she worked vigorously to make a way for us while at the same time going to school. That kept her busy almost always, which left the streets to somewhat raise me. I cannot make any excuses for my downfalls and bad decisions because my mother still tried to instill good moral values and the importance of a good education.
But my infatuation with the streets was slowly taking me under. I put her through a lot of hurt and pain with my decision to live a reckless lifestyle. For you see, the streets offer plenty of opportunities that introduced themselves to me, that would be the springboard to success, so I thought. But I believe the Creator had to show me that this life must be appreciated and used to do His will or it will be taken away in one of two ways—jail or death! As you can see, Death wasn’t His plan for me yet. So I sit behind these steel bars, my hell, to atone.
Now you ask me who am I. I am you and you are me. I am a man trying to survive in this life that has made mistakes and sinned against God! Who is being punished for those transgressions. I am all of your sons who struggle to find themselves and go through countless obstacles, doing it first before we can understand it may hurt! I am that rose growing in the concrete trying to defy man’s expectation of my kind. I blossom into something, nothing short of brilliance.
I am your brother seeking your love and support like extra legs. They are keeping me standing tall, when mine gives out. I may be just one grain of sand in a vast desert, but I am one that must play a role with others to hold together our people and make a solid foundation. With our uniqueness, we are still the same, children of God, similar to the rise and setting of the sun. We will fall and maybe fall again but we will rise again. I hope that when I rise again that I will know who I am.
Who am I? What can I do better? To answer these questions I must first briefly touch upon my past, in order to show my present self and possible changes I can do to be better in the future.
Living in public housing projects on public aid, in a single-parent family of eight children, I was the youngest male of three but the sixth child. Though we were without a lot of things, we were still close and happy children. However the tragic death of my seven-year-old baby sister dramatically affected me emotionally and mentally.
I entered high school depressed but an excellent student for the few years I attended. I did not make the popular list nor did I have many friends. I was shy and timid most of my life. Yet the second worst tragedy in my life occurred just three years after the first. I was basically kidnapped by law enforcement officers, beaten for three days and charged with the murder of an elderly white male. (In my poor neighborhood, Forty-first and Lake Park, in Chicago, any time a crime occurred on the lake front, which is just a couple blocks away, someone in the neighborhood would be falsely taken into custody, beaten, wrongfully held or convicted for it.)
This terrible incident coupled with my past struck one horrific deep cut of fear within me. Hate and low self-esteem grew within me. I could not get over being subjected to such brutal attacks and blatant disregard for my life at the hands of the people who were sworn to protect me. This nightmare of my teenage years closed after a public, family-humiliating, juvenile trial, where it was revealed that the alleged only eye witness was lying and statements were obtained illegally.
During these times, there appeared to be no one that I could have talked to about what was going on in me. Everyone seemed to know what was right for me, or how great my potentials were. No one was willing to hear or listen to what I had to say, what I needed to say. I felt like an outcast! abandoned, rejected! by my peers.
Life did not feel real anymore. Thoughts of joining my baby sister began to sound like the best way out of this horrible nightmare. My life rapidly became self-destructive and I could not understand why nor how I got myself into so many bad situations. (My life was no longer that hopeful, dreamed about Successful Future as an Architect-Computer-Technician, shared with my Successful model-baby sister.)
In the midst of this screwed-up life, I was blessed with a ray of sunshine, a beautiful daughter. However, my worse fears came to reality. Once again I was wrongfully accused, arrested, this time convicted and sentenced to natural life. Just as I was finally turning my life around. I had enrolled in the college of automation to pursue being a computer technician and spending more time with my daughter. But instead I was being wrongfully accused again!
Now, twenty years later (has made me WHO I AM!) I have acquired all the vocation and academic education that was offered in prison. I lost more family members to death, drugs, and alcohol. But through it all I found myself.
I cannot take credit because it is God that showed me who I am. God carried me through all these years of tribulations and troubles and used it to mold me into a strong spiritual man! He’s blessing me with the knowledge of his living word, and his way for me to live life, Amen! You see I came to realize that my ignorance and non-belief in God led me on such a self-destructive path, to the point of near death.
I know now I am a strong spiritual man with the Holy Spirit that dwells within me. Those tribulations were only to make me strong. Because of my faith and trust in my Lord, I know God will always take care of me and my family. God has a plan for all my life here on earth which does not include spending my natural life in prison. After all these years I was blessed with possession of exculpatory documents that were withheld by prosecutors which establishes my innocence!
These years of wrongful incarceration, although meant for harm, was turned and is turning into good. It taught me what I can do to be better is to learn to forgive and love as Christ did with those that crucified him. By allowing my hate and low self-esteem to die off I was made into a bold and courageous, spiritually strong man in Christ Jesus; still learning to forgive, from my heart, those who harmed or try to harm me. And learning to give love even to those who do not love themselves. This is what I can do to be better. This is who I am becoming and who I am.
Who am I? I’m a 49-year-old woman, who has lived a long, long life for my age. All my life, I have devoted myself to helping others even before my wrongful imprisonment took place. I found great joy being able to comfort or assist those in need.
My mother repeatedly told me, I couldn’t save the world, but I never gave up trying. For my 17 years of incarceration, I have devoted my time to helping others the best that I can. My goal in life is to fight against the unjust legal system for those who are enduring unlawful imprisonment. I want to reach out to the public and let them know the system is “still broken.” Another goal of mine is to fight the legal system for incarcerating young children. I do not believe a child should do numerous years or death row for crimes they’ve committed. What they need is love and understanding to help them grow into productive adults. Everyone deserves a chance no matter who they are.
People can change if there is someone to show them down the right path in life. We need more love in the world and less ignorance.
Timothy N. Dickerson
I am relentless in this quest for undivided attention with the hopes of also finding divine understanding. Incarceration has me bound and viewed as nothing more than a mere thought. My reality is another person’s imagination, enhanced by the adversary’s devilish plans to destroy my well-being. To escape this madness I embrace solitude with open arms, transform my physical self into written art, and take on a journey through the United States Postal Service. With that, let the records reflect that each and every word contained within these pages represents I. You have yet to understand me.
I’ve poured my heart and soul out in place of another man’s, so that he may gain trust and love from the woman he adores. Now she desperately wants and needs me even though we have never actually met. Precious moments tic-tock away leaving behind the sounds of loneliness, only I have heard. No one understands the systematical ways in which I function; therefore I am labeled insane.
Jealousy as well as envy present themselves in average, everyday situations, which in return results in hostile attitudes and unrighteous thoughts. Late nights I lay awake aggravated by the mindless babblings of a self-righteous individual lacking moral support and spiritual stability. Time itself seems to drag on in an endless attempt to disrupt and eradicate everything I love and cherish. I have been taken captive and swallowed alive by a beast that has influenced the entire globe. A beast referred to as “for the people, by the people.”
Man-made laws and policies are in total opposition to mine but the question still remains of who is truly right or wrong? Even though I am bound by unseen chains in this land of slaves, my thoughts and habits remain those of a free man. It is with pure curiosity that you question yourself as to how I still survive under these animal-like conditions. My dear reader, I am an adaptor.
Signs and symbols are keys for the conscious mind and are the same keys needed for self-preservation. In realizing these two things I have come to understand my current place and position. I realize that life is nothing more than a physical game of chess, designed to frustrate those who cannot wholeheartedly understand themselves. So yes incarceration has affected me in a negative aspect, because I’m angry with myself for not using the better part of my choosing, for if I had I could’ve avoided this collision with prison. It has affected me in the positive aspect because I have become more cautious in my thoughts because they become actions, actions become habits, and habits become my character.
The Work Is Ahead
I am a man serving a natural life sentence. The situation that brought me here was probably avoidable. I’ve experienced the feelings of guilt, which really don’t help at all. Wondering “what if” has also been no consolation, nor has the feeling that I was defending my own life. I bear no ill feelings toward anyone. The work is ahead.
It’s not a problem accepting who I am because, despite where I am, I am still the same man I was prior to my incarceration. I’m a father to three wonderful children who love me. My faith as a Christian has not been inhibited, nor deterred. God is still with me in this place. My life was very productive before, and still is. Working in the community, giving back the talents and gifts God has blessed me with, enabled me to develop the helping and sharing attitude that I use daily here in prison.
My situation hasn’t changed who I am; only where I am. Each new day brings a new opportunity to continue to help, serve, and be an example to those around me. I also look for learning opportunities. Are there some down times? Sure there are. Losing so much so fast, and having no power or control to change the situation, or go back, was initially devastating. That’s where my faith came in. I trusted God for strength, hope, and peace before. He still continues to supply all.
Prison can, literally, make or break you. My advantage has been coming into prison this time in my life; i.e., experienced in life’s issues, grounded in my faith, having many skills and gifts to share, etc. This place doesn’t have much to intimidate me. I treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and get the same in return. The shock of this place was brief, and I settled in; not with complacency, or trying just to get through by fitting in, but with a purpose; to not let the situation win.
My main decision was not to blame my incarceration on anybody; it’s no one’s fault. To place that burden on anyone would be wrong. Self-motivation has been my ally; along with my complete and total trust in God. I knew I’d have to maintain a positive attitude. I continue to set goals for myself. I have achieved a few; i.e., paralegal certification, ordained minister, stronger relationships with my children. There is still more opportunity to grow.
Mostly what I can do to be better is not let a negative situation give me a negative outlook. I share my positive outlook with the young men I tutor in the GED classes. I let them know this doesn’t have to be an end, but a beginning. Through my Christian ministry I teach hope, and self-worth, and provide mentoring as the opportunity presents itself. I have gained a true compassion for the men here and pray daily for the best for their lives. My focus is set and I will continue to get better.
I was once a very confused young man, never having a clue what life was all about, always thinking I knew every single thing I needed to know, always wanting to prove myself to the streets! I made a lot of mistakes in my past that I’m not proud of. The streets were my family, my church, and my Hollywood.
I would always claim my decisions were based on me putting my family first. I was just using that as a reason to stay on the streets. I lived for fame in the hood, letting my needs, pride and greed control me, wanting everyone to see me and envy me, fear me and admire me. The guy nobody wanted to be like. Before I got arrested I was lost in a world that didn’t love me.
Two weeks before my incarceration, I was being pulled by God to see the light. I got baptized and went to church twice in a week. But I didn’t realize that He was what I needed. And it still took another year before I opened my eyes to see everything. He tried to show me then. When I got moved to division 11 and put on the Christian tier, it was a blessing because I began to learn about the Bible and then my relationship with God began.
But me being so young minded, I still continued to do what I wanted, forgetting about God. And it wasn’t until I made it to death row in Menard that I realized that something was truly missing from my empty life. So I began my change by getting to know and love me. When leaving everything in my past alone, gangs, drugs, and put my pride and greed aside, to love being real with myself and everyone in my life. And I started setting goals for myself to accomplish that will make me a better son to my mother, father to my kids, and friend to my friends and person for everyone I come in contact with. Losing the pride and ego, knowing that it’s alright to be sensitive, show affection and express my feelings. And realize that decisions I make affect everyone in my life. Everyone I see that I can help I do because I try teaching what I know, so that maybe I can a difference somewhere. Now I’d like to leave you with this piece I read in a book: A fast mind leads to a fast situation. A fast reputation leads to a fast proposition and then leads you down one-way streets that have dead-ends and nowhere constructive to go. So if I could do it over I would drive slow and obey the speed laws. Just something that helps me.
Thoughts to Things
I’m a 47-year-old Afro-American who is doing 80 years (life) for a murder and attempted murder. I was raised in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was a time of consciousness at every level of the struggle. The drugs came into the community and life changed.
I dropped out of high school and became a hustler (a capitalist).
Once behind these walls I looked at my life, got back into my studies. I also started to study the law and working on my case. I was sentenced to 120 years 100% in 1998. I’ve got my case back in court on a post-conviction petition.
I could become a better person if I could further my education while I’m in this prison. I’ve had to educate myself. The IDOC only warehouses individuals. They have no higher education behind these walls, only a GED program. I received my GED here.
We need a better law library, more law books and more support from the outside. We need a better general library and to be able to borrow books from outside libraries. We need jobs and job training to build self-esteem.
My health would be better if they had better health care, food, more yard and gym. Our thinking would change . . . Thoughts become things. Our lives are surrounded by an environment of thoughts that have become things.
An Angry Street
Who am I?
I really don’t know. My name is Alan Garnett, R17335. And this is my first time in prison. And hopefully my last time in prison. I suffer daily reflecting on the pain I caused others. Who am I? I can only state I was a good man that somehow turned down the wrong road. Who am I? I’m a man running down an angry street, trying to reciprocate the love I once had. I’m the person that ran my wife off, not realizing the true value of her, doing stupid things, too many to try to give a list. But here I have searched my soul.
What can I do to be better? In a few months, I’ll be free to search. I love my family—the family that prays together stays together. I can treat people with the love and respect I desire for my life. I’m in school. I’m listening to my soul more and not allowing my emotion to run wild.
Humanity is Never Lost
At the age of 23 I became one of the worst-of-the-worst in the Department of Corrections in the state of Illinois and was consigned to the six-year-old super-maximum (supermax) security prison located in the southern town of Tamms in Alexander County.
I am isolated with no human contact and extremely restricted communication and with uninterrupted surveillance and with no reformative programs. Solitary, not convivial; seclusive, not social; difficult, not easy. This is supermax life. The yoke of having been judged an incorrigible—a man beyond salvation. No saint am I but beyond salvation I am not.
Since I arrived to Tamms (in 1998), I have learned what it means to be human and have also learned the power of the human will to overcome and get through anything.
Although I have not committed a single infraction, my every request, attempt, and effort I have made toward my reformation has been denied, ignored, or blocked. Tamms’ prison officials want for me to understand “no” means “no.” Other than the basic services my body requires, my body has been the only thing worth providing for. It is worth thousands of dollars a year.
My family has been my only connection to reality and to hope. Whenever they can they take the long trip from Chicago and pay me a visit. They have never given up on me and they have never stopped encouraging me nor stopped reminding me I will one day come home.
Soon, I will come home. Not angry and vindictive but ready and prepared as best I can to take my place in the folds of responsible citizenship.
The greatest lesson I have learned is one’s humanity is not tested and proved in the fall but in the rise. Humanity is never lost.
So as long as there is breath, no one is beyond salvation. No matter the denial, the deprivation, or the circumscription, the will to better oneself is the sword that slashes down the odds. It is not to the world one has to prove his or her humanity, but only to oneself. The point as well as the end belongs only to him or her who overcomes. The hope for all humanity is that the efforts of all humans be recognized and acknowledged by compassionate eyes. After all, compassion is the beginning of humanity. Shared suffering.
Stop the Genocide
R. Lalo Gomez
Who am I? I am a former gang member who once foolishly played a role in the senseless genocide that is destroying our communities. A genocide that is the direct result of urban gang violence, drug trafficking, and drug abuse. At the extreme end of the continuum lies a force so destructive, so merciless, that it devours everything in its path and leaves in its wake pain, heartache and misery. Early death or lengthy imprisonment are the unmistakable consequences that await and befall those who needlessly allow themselves to become slaves of this destructive and merciless force.
What can I do to be a better person? Instead of being a part of the problem, as I once was, I can now be part of the solution. I can use the streetwise knowledge I have, knowledge I once used for all the wrong reasons, in a positive manner that will benefit society as a whole by incorporating that knowledge with the gifts God has blessed me with to reach out and help brothers and sisters who are lost and wandering aimlessly as I once was. God has blessed me so that I can be a blessing to others. I cannot think of a better way to be a productive member of society, to help make the world a better place.
How can I help to stop the genocide? If I can help just one person from ruining his or her life by showing that person from my own personal experiences that gang violence, drug trafficking, and drug abuse are NOT conducive to his or her spiritual, emotional, physical, financial, or social growth and well-being, then I am a better person because of it. And society-at-large benefits because of it.
That is who I am. That is what I can do to be a better person. This is how I can help to STOP THE GENOCIDE. Peace to everyone who reads these words.
Strive for Perfection
I believe this world could be helped by waking up the unconscious mind of our people so we can break this repeating cycle of history of waiting for a leader to rise or fall from the sky and the bones in the graveyard to be restored as warriors and realize destination lies in our own hands. By taking up the sword of action, Christ is then restored life through us. We need to stop lying to our children and raise them to be prophets to execute the messages spoken. Christmas was laid down for economical growth, just as the King taxed the poor. Individuals should be taught of their ethnic culture because the oppressors will make themselves look superior. It’s impossible to worry of China if we refuse to address our present problems.
Start teaching our kids they can be independent, because the public schools teach them to work for others, such as police and firemen, limiting their minds as children. Work to have better relationships with your children and vice versa. Stress drugs, firearms, and alcohol should be put down and books and science and prophetic thoughts should be picked up. Stop disrespecting our sisters and stop calling brothers “dogs.” If you take two kids and tell one he will be successful and the other not, they will come up different. Also, realize rainy situations will come, so stop looking for a fantasy and stick together through the storm.
We may not be perfect, but we can strive for perfection. Good hygiene can sooth the mind. We are shown for athletic entertainment, but where is the thought process of it all. If blacks dominate sports with its millions of dollars as well, why aren’t they given full ownership to that demonstration! We need free things for our communities where energy is spent on constructive things. What our kids lack is money! We can start charities for those who love giving to see matters work. Focus on things, ask for our communities. Are they to help or tax? Put all matters under the microscopic eye and ear. For I am not impressed with loud persuading voices. I am concerned with the message brought. Last is food matters. All the food trashed in this country in jails and restaurants. If 70 cents can save a life, imagine how much we can do to help them. When 30 minutes pass, do we trash items from our refrigerator. No, we realize 30 minutes won’t kill or harm health. It’s homeless people out there and animals. We can help.
I’m the child ordained to represent the love shared between my parents, born on the Southside of Chicago, Illinois, Nov. 6, 1962.
Like all starry-eyed little boys, I dreamed of conquering the world but later settled on protecting it, like the impressive “Officer Friendly” I met in grade school.
Life was carefree and full of promise and joy, until the world I wanted to protect began devouring my youthful innocence and molding my fragile and impressionable mind with the harsh realities of living life deep in the ghetto’s jungle.
They say, “It takes a village to raise a child,” but my village consisted of extreme physical and verbal abuse, and highlighted by gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, armed robbers, home invaders, alcoholics, drug abusers and dealers, gangs, killings, and death. I’m the child whose life was touched by few positive images and role models, but filled with pain, suffering and hopelessness.
I was always complimented for having “pretty eyes” (hazel, thanks to Mom—long curly lashes, thanks to Dad) but no one ever noticed the pain behind the lenses or heard their silent cries for help.
I’m the child who walked blindly in misery through the teenage years with a sour soul, a diary full of tears and contempt for the world that refused to love, protect and foster my tender mind during the most crucial and vulnerable years of development.
I reciprocated by not having any compassion or sympathy for the pain and suffering of others or for myself. I was numbed to pain and emotionally dead, and couldn’t love others because I had none to give—not even to myself.
Like the majority of my starry-eyed friends that I was raised with in the jungle, who are either dead, murdered, incarcerated or strung out on despair, alcohol and drugs, I woke up one beautiful morning in 1987 and discovered that my childhood dreams were an optical illusion that never had a chance of coming true—I was trapped on Illinois’ Death Row and facing America’s executioner for a crime I did not commit. The world I wanted to protect and had refused me protection was trying to murder me.
While clinging onto life with many other kids of lost dreams on Death Row, God dried my tears and took away the pain. He shined love into my eyes and renewed their starry luster, and made me a man.
Armed with this new knowledge and power of love (responsibility, compassion and remorsefulness), I’ve dedicated my existence to give love, joy and laughter to the world, especially to those who are silently suffering from the pain of having an empty heart and sour soul. By unconditionally loving myself and others, I’ll continue growing into a positive representation of my parents. I’m devoted to this dedication in the name of God and the starry-eyed little boy who wanted to protect the world.
Who am I? I can proudly say to the world that I love, my name is Stanley Howard, Pardoned Illinois Death Row Inmate.
I Woke Up
For most of my consciously sober life, I have been searching for the answer to these two questions—Who am I, and what can I do to be better? Inward and outward my search has been relentless. Yet sadly I must confess, the answer has been fleeting. Each time I think I have touched the surface, the rolling surge of reality sends me back into suspense. Who am I? Maybe the mental exercise of this essay will unveil who I am.
The thought of searching out the real me and revealing him to the world can be frightening and very alarming. Because the world has been telling me who I am for a very long time. The world told me I was a monster the world should fear. But most of my life, I thought I was just a child no one held dear!
Yet, I’ll try to expose this man that I am, and how I came to be. The foolishness of my youth and the ignorance I so openly adopted as my creed was the picture the world saw of me. I made decisions I’m unable to escape; in fact, they placed me at death’s gate. Hazardous ignorance ran rapidly within the walls of my soul. If only the world wasn’t so cold. I was insanity, I must confess, with extreme hostilities I digress. My world was full of bombardments from hell. My only true freedom came from being locked in a cell. Who am I? The court is still out, and the jury is deadlocked.
Who am I? If I’m forced to tell, I’m the child screaming take your hands off me. You shouldn’t touch me there. Who am I? I’m that child with no one to tell. Who am I? I’m that man who was forced to look back over his life and see, I still don’t have a GED. Who am I? Some call me a grade school dropout. Some call me a cold and heartless killer. Who am I? I’m the man that woke up on death row. Trying to keep a grip on my life. I’m the man holding onto hope with a death grip!
I’m a man trying to honestly grasp the true meaning of remorse. I’m the man trying to recycle the remains of his life. In the midst of all of this madness, I came to realize I don’t have to continue suffering from the dimwitted syndrome. I woke up to the reality that I didn’t have to be a slave to ignorance. The more I read the easier it is for me to see true freedom. Who am I? I’m the man who has become stimulated with knowledge of self and others, which gives me more respect for others. Who am I? I’m the man who learned we must stop running from our responsibility. I’m the person accountable for my life. Who am I? I’m the selfish boy who has become a humble man. Who am I? I’m what the world says I can’t be: I’m a rehabilitated man.
What can I do to be better? I must continue to educate myself. I must make sure all of my dealings are free from selfish desires. I can’t allow greed to lead my steps. Or allow jealousy to run wild in my life. I must continue to share the message of accountability and taking responsibility with others that I come into contact with, like the general populations of the prisons. What can I do better? I can be an example to all around me, to let them know that no matter how far down you fall you can get up. Never lose hope. There is life after death. I should know. You see, I was once dead!
Who am I? I’m a man seeking wisdom. And I was told, Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.
Doing the Right Thing
I am William Hudson, I think! Born to two loving parents, William Hudson, Sr. and Mrs. O. Turner—I don’t know how to spell my mom’s first name! Anyway, I think if one is to know himself or herself, he or she must go back to the parent. First, they are the ones who make us who we are. First, to them I was little William, their son, not good or bad, but I went to live with another family as a kid and I learned a lot of bad things. I started to believe in being bad because it was getting me what I needed, I thought. One day I ask a old man, “Do you know who I am?” He look at me and said, “You are a bad mother (fu—).” So that was who I was then, and I tried to live up to that. I thought it was hard but it’s so easy to be bad. I know that now. That’s not who I am and I don’t want to be known as that.
As I got older, I started to see that, so I ask me, Who am I? I am little William, that’s who I am. I am trying to be a good man, hoping to hear people saying, “That just Mr. Hudson doing the right thing.” We know some of us take the wrong way in life. How often it is that a whim may alter the course of our existence. How often the simple decision whether to go right or left when one leaves a doorway can change so much a man. Turn to the right and walk straightaway into all manner of evil thing and go to the left to all manner of good things. Anyway, that’s how I got to be who I am today, a good man trying to do the best I can in this life. So who I am is just the son of two loving parents.
This is hard for me, you know. I don’t know if this is how one tells others who they are or not. I just hope it is. Anyway, I am a good man, that’s all!
Now what can I do to better myself. I try to read something everyday to better myself. I also workout everyday of the week. I do about 200 push-ups, about the same on the jumping jacks. I also run in place for about a hour. All that in my cell. Then I pray and read the Bible. Go to the yard where I run around until they say it’s time I come in. Other than that, I try to learn all I can so I can someday help others that may need help. All anyone can do is try.
The question, “Who am I and how could I better myself,” could only be answered by explaining who I was, am, and strive to become. To explain who I am forces me to expose the person I use to be for better understanding of why I am who I am today.
Who I was, was a thug that thought the world to be founded on the concept of dog-eat-dog, that my survival depended on the capitalization of the suffering and/or weakness of others, without regard to that person’s well being or feelings. Nor with regard to the spiritual and legal debt I would have to pay for my actions. I could use the conditions in the environment I was born into as the sole contributing factor for that attitude. Although it played a large percentage, I blame myself for falling victim to that environment. That’s assuming I had a choice.
Who I am is an individual that has grown to the point where I understand that I determine my future. That’s why I use the word “individual” to describe myself now, rather than thug. The thug that I use to be didn’t have an individual frame of thought. I allowed the principles and concepts of others determine my outlook on life. As an individual I see the mistakes that I made and how to avoid those mistakes in the future. Although I see the mistakes, it’s still difficult to overcome some obstacles. I’m 26 and have been incarcerated for 10 years. Most of my time incarcerated has been consumed with plotting and calculating different strategies on how to deal with the personalities of officers and inmates within this environment. Most of those plots and calculations were built upon that dog-eat-dog mentality. The individual that I am is caught at a crossroad. Trying to destroy but also retain parts of that mentality. Telling myself that to continue my growth I must destroy that mentality. At the same time telling myself that I cannot survive this environment without that mentality.
Who I’m striving to become is a man. There is a difference between a male and man. Reaching the age of 21 doesn’t make a man, only legal by man’s law. He becomes a man when he realizes and utilizes the principle of responsibility for his actions, family, and community. Bettering myself is continuing to strive for manhood by utilizing the principles of mind (to educate myself in areas that may be conducive to my community and family. To be mentally strong enough to stand as an individual), body (the willingness to make physical sacrifices to achieve my goal), and soul (using spirituality as the foundation to build a righteous life.)
So who I am is an individual who has grown out of the shell of my former self. Still striving to reach my full potential. Bettering myself by utilizing the principles of mind, body, soul, and responsibility.
That Bluebird Bus
Gerald James, Sr.
am an ex-gangbanger, ex-drug dealer, ex-thief, ex-gang chief, ex-drug abuser, ex-husband, and soon to be an ex-convict. For the eighth time in my life. I’m currently known and referred to as Inmate #A71301. I reside in Western Illinois Correctional Center, Unit R4, Cell D-60.
I’m also an ordained licensed minister with a Doctor of Divinity degree through the Universal Life Church.
I am in no way attempting to glamorize this story. As a matter of fact, I write it with great humility. Because I know better. I just failed to do better.
I’ve had the misfortune of boarding that bluebird bus at the backdoor of the Cook County jail on eight different occasions. “Could all those times possibly have been blessings in disguise?”
I’ve been serving time off and on in I.D.O.C. for the past twenty-six years. A life-sentence on the installment plan.
I’ve been paroled seven times and still haven’t been able to escape the stigma that tainted my future at an early age. I was convicted of second-degree murder and I still feel profound remorse as a result of that crime. Especially since I had the opportunity to be in the delivery room with the birth of my daughter and son. All life became precious that day!
I have less than sixty days left to serve on my current sentence. The conclusion of a drug charge I received after a friend offered to drive me to McDonalds and buy me dinner. He failed to mention the twenty bags of heroin and ten bags of crack cocaine that was under the passenger’s seat. “Guess what.” I never got that meal.
That wind I call freedom will grab me by the collar very shortly. Oh! And by the way that saying that goes, “If you look back, you will come back,” is not true. I’ve never looked back!
I have several shortcomings trying to play catch-up instead of trying to keep up, and my big ambitions that I must keep in check. Because my ambition is a vicious master, it pushes me in many directions, some of them aren’t so nice, but it’s a condition of society. So I won’t whine or tell a sob story. Neither will I blame others or social injustice. It’s all my fault!
I’ve made numerous attempts to become gainfully employed without success and I refuse to just exist in this world. Opportunities don’t elude me, they just tease me because of my criminal background. As far as society is concerned my debt will never be paid.
I earned a GED, compliments of the Cook County Jail and off I went to become a full-time student in the black man’s university (prison)! where I have become an autodidact (self-taught genius).
I will no longer allow something or somebody to control my destiny, except God. I permitted something that couldn’t cut, cry or bleed destroy my marriage, my relationship with my children and my siblings.
I have many regrets regarding my past. The majority consists of not being present to personally say good-bye to family members and friends that passed away during my incarcerations. I’ve learned to accept the bitter with the sweet and to forgive and recognize forgiveness.
I must admit I will always be a risk-taker and it’s possible I’ll never leave a stone unturned.
Doing things my way I created many unwelcome consequences. Now I’ve made a final commitment to God, to do things His way and every opportunity that knocks that will help me become a better person I will answer prayerfully and leave all my other affairs to God as well.
I now look at life as a precious coin that I can spend any way I choose but I only get one chance to spend it.
P.S. Nothing happens that God doesn’t want to happen.
Open Your Minds and Hearts
I am a thirty-one-year old man who is currently an inmate at Danville Correctional Center in Danville, Illinois. I am fulfilling a six-year sentence as punishment for a residential burglary that I committed to support my addiction to cocaine. It is very difficult for me to write this for so many people to read as I am not proud of my actions or being in prison and because I believe most people have a negative perspective or stereotype of prisons and prisoners. I am a person, man, individual, and human being who has feelings and cares for other human beings and for all of life and humanity and who like all humans makes mistakes, only my mistakes like so many others have led me to prison. Coming to prison doesn’t make one a bad person. I am not a bad person for what I have done. I have made bad choices and made mistakes in my life, which have led me in the wrong direction. I eventually broke the law by committing a crime which I got caught for and am being punished and held accountable.
In my case I am glad that I got caught and am being punished because it has saved my life. I was on the path to self-destruction and was very distraught, confused, frustrated, lost, and miserable. I’d had enough and I wanted to die. Getting caught and being punished by way of having my freedom taken away has given me a second chance at life and has made me realize a great deal about my life and my place in humanity and on this earth. It especially made me realize how much I truly love life and how much I have taken it for granted. I have unintentionally and unconsciously hurt people I did not know by stealing from them, and I have also hurt my family, friends, and loved ones by living my life this way and for that I am truly sorry. I wish I could take it all back but it is not realistic, nor is it possible. I can only learn from my mistakes and grow and change for the better and be the man I am and can be by living up to my full potential. I must forgive myself and move on with my life to be a positive part of the human race. For me coming to prison has been a spiritual awakening and has given me a unique opportunity of self-realization. This has cost me a great deal, my freedom which is priceless and also a great deal of pain and stress.
From my experience I am the exception as I do not find or talk to many inmates who see or are using their experience as I am, as another chance at redeeming their self-respect and dignity and changing themselves for the better. I believe a great deal of the problem is that prisons are very oppressive and have little-to-no rehabilitation programs available to the inmates, thus the revolving door of correctional and judicial systems, which have a very low success rate. These very harsh and sad realities are becoming more visible and recognized to the general public, which I hope will lead to various reforming of the system. We as inmates who are serving punishment for our crimes need help in the way of understanding and compassion and a full-scale intelligent rehabilitation programs with a wide range of educational and vocational training as incentives to do well and improve ourselves and utilize our time in the corrections system positively so we are better equipped and prepared for when we get out.
This would cost a great deal financially but these are United States citizens we are talking about who are going to be released back into society. Wouldn’t you want them to succeed positively rather than going back to their old ways! This will later pay for itself in time as less people come to jail and less crime is being committed. I want nothing more in my lifetime than to do good and be a good person, one who is a positive and productive member of my community, nation, and humanity as a whole.
It is my sincerest desire and hope to help people/society to understand its many social ills and harsh realities, such as crime and punishment, and to help devise new laws and plans to heal these tragic realities so that we can live in a better and safer world. The corrections systems of the United States need a great deal more financial, material, and human resources to seriously address the difficult problem of successful rehabilitation of criminals. People like myself who are nonviolent offenders and without a strong foundation or positive direction who are rehabilitatable and want help would greatly benefit from humane and intelligent help. Programs that would help us to redeem ourselves by rebuilding our self-respect, dignity, integrity, esteem and confidence, and giving us an education on which to build. I believe the results would be tremendous with positive and humane programs designed to rehabilitate and recondition individuals much moreso than most present corrections systems.
I hope to help others like me who are lost, confused, frustrated, in pain, and without a positive direction or foundation in their lives to change and improve themselves and to live peaceful, positive, productive, healthy, and spiritual lives. I want to be a friend, mentor, guide, and positive inspiration to people, especially children to help them realize their spirituality and potential and the beauty of life and the great things it has to offer if we are open to it. Simply show people that there is a better way to live that is more fulfilling with balance and harmony. I want to encourage and empower people to live fuller, happier, and healthier lives so that they can heal and be part of their communities and help to give back and be part of something positive and great. The children are very important because they need a positive influence to help them be strong and not easily succumb to bad influences or negativity.
I would like to challenge the readers of this essay whether you are somehow involved in the system, are a victim of crime, are related to someone who has been affected by a crime or an inmate, or what have you, to open your minds and hearts and try to fully understand how inhumane our present system is and change your views on crime, criminals, and punishment, and help to advocate for better rehabilitation programs in our nation’s prisons and alternative sentencing. We as inmates need your help and understanding to heal and by helping us you would be helping your communities and nation. Please do not judge me but try to understand and forgive me and help me and others like me to change and improve. I may be a criminal and have done wrong but I am also a human being. I never wanted to become a drug addict or a criminal. I made several mistakes and I need my country’s and government’s forgiveness. The odds are against me and people like me. We need your help.
When I read this, “Who are you?” I said to myself, When? Who am I now or who was I then before I was wrongfully charged, convicted, and sentenced to death for something I did not do. Am I to forget that because of where I am now? Or, keep hope alive in my heart, soul, and mind because I know that I am innocent and that all is for a reason and who am I to know what it is? I keep my faith nonetheless in the man upstairs.
When I went to court to testify in an ongoing evidentiary hearing, I was asked, “Where do you live?” To which I answered in the present tense, “In a jail cell at Stateville prison.” But who am I is a different question because I am, regardless of where I am or what I was to be executed for. I am a father to a son who is now thirteen years old and who I just got to see for the first time in some ten plus years. I am a son to my parents, a brother to my brothers. I was a husband to a wife until divorce broke my heart due to where I am at and “this” when I shouldn’t be here to begin with. I often think, “What if”—what would it be like if I was not here or to have even been killed for what I did not do. I think often of the Jimmy Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, or the movie Compulsion with Orson Welles after Leopold and Loeb and at the end when Welles tells them about God, “Did you ever think of how those glasses were found or left by you at the crime.” And I think of the hair left in the gloved hand of the victim in the case I am charged in and the DNA testing done now shows I am not who left that hair nor did this crime. And I think, wonder, and hope. I keep my faith nonetheless in the man upstairs as my faith in the court system is non-existent and for good reason in Illinois.
Who are you? I am still and was a real estate broker who ran a business and helped people buy and sell homes, rehab property, and work and kept a second job for many years. I built what I had from nothing. I was then some twenty-something years old. I am now forty-two and can’t get the time back. I pray to God. I keep the faith and that all is for a reason.
I had my share of trouble in my life. Regardless I overcame it and went to college, grad school, and did the best I could from the Goodfella-type neighborhood I grew up in and from the guys there.
I am locked in a cage and had waited to die by lethal execution for some seven years and now am rotting away in maximum security with hopes that a broken system will work and a new trial be granted, my innocence be shown, proven, and I vindicated so I won’t have to spend the rest of my life like this, to die here.
What can I do better? In all things and despite this and through this and onto life no matter where or what I say, simply and beautifully: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. This I say each and every night, no matter where I am or what is being done to me, and, with great faith in the man upstairs—all is for a reason.
I don’t let many people inside of me but I’ll do it this time. The incentive is, once upon a time, many people felt that I was worthy of death—hopefully, before the end of this missive, you’ll notice why I am worthy of life.
I have a confession to make. Well, maybe not a Ten Commandments-type of confession, the kind where you seek repentance. Then again, it’s not really a confession at all. It’s more of a declaration, a coming-out of sorts, something to celebrate and be proud of. In fact, it’s a bold announcement that could shock millions and start debates in the bedroom of every home.
I’M A MOMMA’S BOY!
Always have been. Always will be.
There, I’ve said it. Now that could be the end of me and the false façade I built upon.
But let me first say that there is nothing wrong with being a momma’s boy. I’ve actually grown proud of it. And wear it as a badge of honor. It’s my claim to fame . . . As a friend, a brother, a son obviously, a father, a boyfriend or husband (one day), and last but far from least, A MAN!
If I had happily accepted, instead of strongly rejecting that I was a momma’s boy before my confinement, I strongly believe that it would not have been a limit to my success and happiness. Not to mention that I would have been a person you would have loved to meet and be around.
But all is not lost because I will make a difference wherever I am. As long as I continually hear men (society’s so-called worst) say to me, “I love you,” “I trust you,” and “believe in you,” I will continually believe that I have greater purposes in life. What purpose do we really serve if we’re not a positive influence for at least one person?
So you ask what can I do to be better. Well, that’s simple. Your trust and belief in me. There is really no me without that.
This is who I am and what I can do better.
If I Could
My name is Gregory McMillan. I am the son of Mr. and Mrs. McMillan, born in Kentucky. I am the fifth boy of nine. I am the seventh oldest of thirteen. I have four sisters, two are older than I am and two younger. I have five kids that I don’t even get to see because I am incarcerated.
They said that they would help me but all they did was give me life. I did not have to be here. But I know that I am sick and I did not want to hurt anyone else.
What can I do to make it better? First of all I would let my mom and dad know what I was going through. Then I would go to school for as long as I could cause if you cannot read and write you are out there and no one will help you when you cannot help yourself. I would tell the young people to get all of the school that they can get. I would be the first to love. I would be the first to be excellent. I would be the first to be moral and generous. I would try to be more important in the neighborhood. I wish that I knew more about accomplishments and the dramatic change that would become of my life of racial segregation and injustice. I would become more religious instead of hurting myself and others that were around me. I would be more respectful to myself as well as to others.
I am not a killer but I have killed. If I could take it all back I would. I would not let my dream get to me as I did. I would try to be like some of these African Americans, like the first one to do open-heart surgery, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. Like the brother who was the first black physician and the black man who invented the fire escape ladder and the first African American astronaut to fly in space, Guion S. Bluford, Jr. Or the first female to join the medical profession or the brother who invented the incubator, brother Granville Woods or brother Ronald McNair, an astronaut who perished in the space shuttle. I would try to be more like these African Americans. I would be more of a father to my girl and be a grandfather to her kids, so they won’t be out there on their own like I was. I would make up to all of the families who I have hurt. I would do all this and more. If I could I would listen to my mom more and my dad and all the other people that was trying to help me before I blew up my life. I wish I could go back and change. But my God has put me in here to do and be the best that I can be so I will. God is good. God bless you.
Looking Back into the Mirror
Who am I can be summarized in many different words depending on the person you are speaking to about me, as in some opinions I am someone who has caused great pain and suffering in their lives for the past 18 years, or I am the one who stole money from his grandmother to support a drug habit I would not acknowledge I had, or I am someone who broke some young girl’s heart by not caring about her emotional attachment to me as I was only thinking about what was in it for me, or I am the son who shamed his father in front of his friends by selling them stolen goods which the police had to come later and confiscate, or I am the person who had his life laid out in a court of law and a Judge saw no redeeming qualities in it so I was sentenced to Death, so I am the one Society has shunned and cast out to never return again.
So as you can see, I am a lot of bad things to some people but not everyone, since there are people I am positive for, like I am a loving husband to a very beautiful wife. I am a good friend to some people. I am forgiving to those people who have done and do me wrong. I am a family member who cares for his family. I am admired for my artistic talent, but I cannot be as bad as those who see me in that light think I am.
Many people have their opinion of me and I am possibly all of those things if not more to them, but as I see myself is a whole different light, such as I see myself as a person constantly dealing with guilt and remorse for what put me in the current situation I am in now. I am a person seeking and searching for atonement. I am an artist who expresses himself on the canvas. I am a person who has made plenty of mistakes that I wish I could change and soothe the pain that I have caused throughout my life. I am a person who has learned to deal with all the abuse, anger, and hate given to me by my parents. I try to help people that ask me for help because there was no one there for me whenever I needed help. I like sports. I like a good book. I like a good movie, a good joke. I am just an average, ordinary guy who cannot be as bad as some people make me out to be.
Looking back into the mirror stares back someone I can now say I kinda like the appearance of, both inside and outside. Through the years I have done very wrong things and had them done to me but that is not an excuse, just the reason behind the actions. As I have grown older, I see things should be done with patience and forgiveness even though it is hard sometimes, and even though I wish there was some sort of time machine to take me back to change a lot of the things I have done. I must continue through each and every day with the knowledge I have gained, and somehow become a person who others can look up to for advice and a way to live their life.
I am a human being made in the image of God, of Mexican ethnicity. Before I learned of my identity and pilgrim passing through the earth, in the free world before my lockup, I struggled with “bettering” my human nature. Very young from the southeast side, I studied self-helpisms, sought help through psychological rehabilitation, Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous as well as educational means.
When spirituality troubled even deeper, I went to Church to seek through my Catholic background spiritual guidance. Upon my incarceration I picked up the Bible and studied it as just another so-called sacred writing among all the rest. Upon the testimonies of Christians and seeing their peace, I was drawn towards that calling. After receiving Jesus as my personal Savior, I noticed a change in my behavior and desires.
Now on the right road of “betterment,” I tried the concepts of philosophy of the Bible and experienced a far-reaching affect that no other remedy I tried can do, but all came short.
I see everyday with my walk with the Creator of the Universe, there are character flaws in my personality that I must hand over to Him to mold or purge out that either steals my joy and peace.
Some things I’ve learned can’t be bought or copied. It is placed in my heart. Prayer, reading His word and fasting helps me whenever I become stagnated in my journey through this earth.
I found out education wants to reform us. By other means, the world wants to conform us. But God’s grace transforms our very being into the image of His Son. Now that I am complete I stretch forth my hand to the upward calling.
Also, if I might add, now that I seek to further my education, I have a sure foundation as my standard to weigh my treatment of my fellow human and to know what is right and wrong in an age of relativism. My meditation on His word helps me first to be true to Him who has called me and to be more accountable for my actions and what I say out of my mouth.
This walk is an everyday process that must not pause but keep on moving forward, never backwards, because to do such would be like a dog returning to his vomit.
I am a flawed human being, the product of generations of societal decay and moral malaise. I am the result of failed social programs like “head-start,” and the public school system in the urban jungles of America, where monies for books, qualified teachers and a safe learning environment are abysmal and poverty, depression and crime are astronomical. I am a man convicted of murder, a member of society’s “Least-Wanted.” I am the “Monster under the bed” that politicians use to remain in office and justify draconian laws and punishments that are racially/economically biased. Laws and punishments that do nothing to lower or prevent crime; but instead serve as an illusionary panacea for what ails our crime-infested neighborhoods.
I am a component of the “New Industry” used to economically resuscitate depressed rural communities. I am the means of employment for hundreds of otherwise skill-less and unemployable drones. I am society’s “forgotten child,” warehoused and left to die in sub-human conditions. Conditions that include lack of educational furtherance or any programs designed to rehabilitate me and insure that I am afforded positive pursuits through which I can advance myself and occupy my time. I am a human being capable of mental/spiritual resurrection. I can be developed and prepared to serve as an asset to my community, and society at large.
What can I do to be better? I can stand up and be a man, the man that Allah (God) created me to be. I can civilize and refine myself, showing myself worthy of being among other civilized peoples. I can alter and redefine my behavioral paradigm that fosters criminal behavior, and self-destructive practices. I can apply myself to self-correction and self-discipline, holding myself accountable for my actions. I can live each day in atonement for my moral lapses and failures of responsibility to my God, myself, my family and my community. I can become an example of repentance and moral rectitude, doing what is morally correct when no one is watching. I can strive daily towards self-improvement for “chance favors the prepared mind,” and I want to be prepared when the opportunity is given to me to bring some lasting good into existence. I can refuse to be defined by my worst mistakes, and instead aspire to be a living testament to the transmogrifying ability inherent in every human being, no matter how far he/she has fallen. I will continue to evolve day-to-day, because everything that is not changing, growing or adapting is dying slowly but surely.
First I give honor and praise to Jehovah, who is my Provider, Protector, and my God of Peace during these trying times.
Who am I? Well, all of my life I have asked myself this very same question. Now, I will try to define who I am in 500 words or less . . .
For the past ten years, I have been really searching and repeatedly asking myself, “who am I?”
On the surface, I can easily say my name is Larry Rodgers. I’m 37 years old, born August 10, 1965. I am a father to a 22-year-old son, a husband of 18 ½ years to a wonderful wife. I’m a recovering heroin addict of 16 years clean. I’m serving a 60-year sentence for murder, and I’ve been behind these walls since 1987.
It’s pretty amazing when we consider that who we believe we are affects every aspect of our life, i.e., how we feel about ourselves, how we treat others, who we gravitate towards as friends, and even how we use our time here on earth.
Too often we think we know who we are when all we’re doing is defining ourselves by outer qualities. But by gaining a deeper understanding into who I am, naturally I find myself feeling freer and better about myself. I am less controlled by circumstances and more in control of my life.
I have learned that my destiny is not my desire but my discovery!
I believe I was created for a very specific purpose, and my true freedom and fulfillment is only possible as I discover and understand my true purpose, doing what God has called me to do.
What can I do to be better?
I believe it’s my calling to teach God’s word, and I diligently study to arm myself with the Truth and Knowledge of God that I may open my mouth boldly to teach the Gospel.
God has blessed me with a unique talent to write and reach others, and I want to share with everyone the life-changing power of God that I am experiencing.
I want to educate and inspire incarcerated men so they will know they’re children of God, that their loved ones have not abandoned or forgotten them. Therefore, they will not go back into the communities as thugs, predators, gangbangers, or dope dealers, but as responsible fathers, providers, protectors of their women and children, and as wise, compassionate, loving men of God.
I pray and look for ways to promote more Bible studies, more fellowship, and more brotherly love, unity, and positive Christian economics to help during these trying times for those of us who have no family support.
What can I do to be better? Continue to change the world one inmate at a time.
Who I am. I some time have to ask myself. I know who my mother would say I am and that is Lloyd Saterfield. Who would you like me to be? I learn that you have to be what it is that is around.
So when I was little in the group home I was called crybaby or crazy boy. I heard it so much that I thought it was my name. I some time use to answer to the name. I got out of the group home one day and got home and my mother and father had names for me. Lil Lloyd was one of the names. The other was motherfuck or asshole or bitch. I did not like all of the names but I did like one and that was Lil Lloyd and that is the only name I answer to.
I got in school and the other kids would call me other names but I would not answer so I got in fights and would go home and get hit again. So I ran away and got in a gang. I thought that they was going to give me a new name and I told them Lil Lloyd and they said Lil Lord. It was not my name but it was ok. And I did not care that much. So I had some more fights and made them call me Lil Lloyd. But by then I was a bad boy and they put me back in the group home and I made them call me Lil Lloyd, even the staff had to call me Lil Lloyd or I would hurt them and others. So I got older and came back to Chicago, still with DCFS [the Department of Children and Family Services]. I was put in Hull House but I did not need to fight because they called me Lil Lloyd, and people on the west side call me Lil Lord because they knew I liked to fight and that I was in a gang. So I got older and got locked up in jail and I have a new name. It is Big Lloyd. Why? Because that was my father’s name and I love him so much and he died and I took his name.
How can I help? So we come to the second on the list. People of the world, we need to think about this. Been in the jury and seen the truth. We need for you not to let the police convict the innocent. I know it hurt when you see the victim or their family cry. I know it hurt when they tell you or you see pictures of how the victim died. And that is when you send the innocent to jail for the crime. That is when you need to stop and rewind, look at the evidence in the case. And don’t make a verdict by looking at the victim’s crying face.
How can I help? When people still are sentenced to death. How can I help? When innocent people still sitting in jail. How can I help? When some of these people don’t even care. How can I help? How can I help?
Last but not least, brother and sister, look at Leviticus 19:18. And remember the speech of Dr. King and don’t forget he had a dream.
For the people sentenced to death, I help you. For the innocent sitting in jail, I help you. For the people that don’t even care, I help you. So how can you help? One voice can make a difference.
My name is Ricky Tilson. I am a 27-year-old man and the father of two children. The only difference between me and your neighbor is the fact that I’ve been to the penitentiary four times. I am from the southwest suburb of Chicago, Justice, Illinois, and a heroin addict. I am not so much a bad person, but a victim of today’s drug scene. In the next few paragraphs, I will tell you who I am and how I could do better.
I am a very fun-loving, caring person. I love my kids more than anything. I am a very hardworking person and generally fun to be around. I did not have your storybook childhood, but did know right from wrong. You may wonder how such a person ends up in prison 4 times. If I knew the answer to that, I would not be writing this. The only conclusion I could come to is my equal love and hate for drugs.
I was your typical likable kid down the block until I started heroin. Mind you, I had already done drugs such as weed and alcohol, not to mention I had also dropped out of school. I think I was just experimenting and got hooked. Before I knew it, heroin was a way of life. Things just got progressively worse.
I do not have enough space to write about all I did to get in and out of jail, but it boils down to a roller coaster ride of ups and downs landing me in prison four times for numerous burglaries and stolen cars. I did these crimes knowing they were wrong and the consequences behind them. My only defense is a person so strongly addicted to a drug has no conscience.
Since this incarceration, I have enrolled in a drug program, have got my GED, and I am a tutor for the GED program so I can help others obtain theirs. I hope to take parenting classes and utilize any programs to better myself.
In closing, I could only say that I do not think that one person in prison is not sorry for what they have done. Everybody’s reason is different. Some are sorry they got caught, some are sorry for the victims, some are sorry for themselves. I’m sorry I had to put my family and most importantly my children through all this. I know deep down the person I am and all the programs I am utilizing to make me a better person. I should have no problem being a normal person in society, if not be able to help a few people instead of taking. I guess I could be a politician and promise you what the future holds for me, but in the end only time will tell. God Bless.
Sitting here silently and afraid, afraid to finally reveal to the world who I am, but since given the opportunity to explain to the world who I am, I am more than anxious to reveal who I am. After being vulgar in my way, after bearing the brunt of a broken home, after enduring so much despair, and after enduring countless years in prison, the man whom I became is far from the man that I ever thought I would know.
I am compassionate, humble, thoughtful, somewhat brave, and apathetic to no one. Mistakes have plagued me throughout my childhood, and despair has befriended me for years. My struggles are sometimes cantankerous but manageable. As a child, I had no guidance. As an adult in prison, I am self-taught. Through fear, self-hate, and determination, for years fellow friends looked down on me as a nonentity. But I am somebody, maybe not infallible, but an individual who has been deemed a villain by society. For my mishaps I blame me. For my misery, I blame me. For abandoning a child before she could even leave the womb and grow up with a father’s love—whose love for my child would have never ceased—for not knowing my child and never ever seeing her to this day while the tears roll down my eyes because of it, I blame me. Being looked upon as mere filth has only made me stronger. Being deemed unworthy has only progressed my worth. And I shall continue to strive for ways to aggrandize my life, since it has been so full of strife.
Ambiguous and rather obfuscated, I honestly feel as though I can do more to improve my productivity and creativity by setting goals and having morals and principles and by assisting others who desperately are in need of urgent help. Being a brother to everyone I encounter and at the same time being amicable while unveiling my hospitality. I begin this odyssey by loving my self, then I will love others and make important things in life a priority, such as family, God, human entities, my career, and giving my all to all of those in need of it. I seek not money for this essay. I seek just to enlighten people on who I am and what I’ve become. I look back in retrospect of what I once was and who I became, and I am pleased with the results of today as opposed to the times of antiquity. I leave those times behind me as I move on continuously in search of self.
Coat of Many Colors
Joseph N. Ward
Who am I? And what can I do to be a better person?
At first I had to be comfortable with who I was. The decisions I made, right or wrong, define who I am. I became a better person after I acknowledged there is a power greater than me; God had a purpose for me. I found my niche, something I enjoy doing because I am focused doin’ it. Through it all I know who I am.
My name comes from my father, Joseph, which means a coat of many colors; Nathaniel means the watcher; Ward means the keeper of the garrison or prison.
I am the second oldest of five children. I have one brother and three sisters. The eldest sibling is forty-one years old. The youngest is thirty-one.
Growing up in the late ‘60s, thanks to my parents I saw life through an Afrocentric perspective. Sometimes we ate breakfast sponsored by the Black Panther party. We went on family outings to a concert, heard a famous speaker, or even a movie. This taught me “culture awareness.”
Through several outings I met other black kids which developed into friendships. These friendships stayed with me from elementary, middle, and high school.
It wasn’t until I reached puberty I found out girls liked athletes. So . . . I played football, basketball, and ran track. I’m not gonna say it kept me out of trouble. In fact, due to my parents’ profession and me being skinny, I had more fights. And I wasn’t about to give my lunch money. I set a record for seventh grade detention too.
I tried to be cool in high school but my “roughneck ways” stayed with me. I still played ball, went to class to stay eligible, but I made wrong decisions. I developed low self-esteem.
Even as a young adult I hung with men and dated women who thought like I did; I didn’t care about anything. It caught up with me, landed me in prison.
It took several years, letting go and letting God into my life. I took some psychology classes, started writing, and I went back to school. I changed! Change, Christian or not, as long as it is positive, is good for anybody. I learned to accept responsibility for my actions.
Yes, I was still challenged by deception of bad influences, yet with Jesus I weathered the storm. It didn’t happen overnight. I had to learn self-discipline. It made me a better soldier, a better man, and a better writer. It helps me channel my anger and frustrations.
Having distanced myself from the norm and allowed me to stick to my own guns, I stayed clear of misery. See, there are several adults who feel better only when they make someone else feel worse.
In closing, I continue to be a better person by remaining encouraged. See, it takes a real soldier to remain humble in the midst of scrutiny, “player-hatin,” and defend the right cause. This is who I am!
The contest title (Who am I, and what can I do to be better?) is indeed a tough question. And the root word of “question” is quest. And many throughout the ages have undertaken such a quest. Even journeying into the ends of the earth, in search of one of mankind’s greatest treasures: the answer to “Who am I?”
Having been presented with this treasure hunt, I too set out to explore the depths of humanity. Let’s begin first with the compound question at hand (“Who are you, and what can you do to be better?”) In order to become better, knowing who you are, and then seeing the need for improvement, are the first and foremost steps toward infinite riches.
After reviewing a world of roadmaps pointing in opposite directions, I narrowed it down to two groups, evolution and creationism.
While walking down the beaten path of evolution, I found a cliff where the reason for my existence falls off. Where life was just a haphazard event without purpose or design. If there is no purpose to my life and the lives of others, then rehabilitation and becoming better or regression and becoming worse are both equally good for nothing. Thus, making the latter half of our question futile.
So, I journeyed on that dead-end to find the living God and designer of who I am, and the passageway was crowded with many travelers and guides and gurus, making it tough to navigate through to the truth.
And many were blown off course and shipwrecked their faith, ending their search. And even I became discouraged and seasick from being tossed to and fro amongst many waves of doctrine. Almost out of rations, I thirsted and hungered for answers and sailed on. I started reasoning about truth. Truth in and of itself must be absolute to be truth. Like the fact that I exist. Truth. And since God exists, there must be distinguishable attributes and absolute truths about God. This helps in narrowing down misleading avenues because everything that goes against truth is false; then every religion built upon things that are against the absolute truths of God and His character is self-deception and falsehood.
When arriving at this conclusion, storms subsided and waves calmed. And the map I had in hand seemed to point to an X that “marked the spot.” But as soon as I came closer the X began to look like a cross. After shoveling and digging through the Bible pages of my map, I struck pay dirt at the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I discovered that all of my seeking for God was God seeking for me. Pursuing me with a thirst and a hunger inside of me for Him; and I was his lost treasure.
So, what can I do to be better? Let God polish me off so that He can see Himself in me; that I may shine.
Who am I?
I am a man who believes in the truth of the Bible, but I believe it has been tampered with and must be reinterpreted so that mankind will not be snared by the falsehoods that have been added to it. I am also a man that believes in the resurrection of the dead—not in the physical resurrection but in the mental resurrection.
What can I do to be better?
“Change.” All growth is change, and that pattern of growth and change is dictated and directed by the evolutionary law of God that exists in nature and in all of his creation. Chance will always be with us. Why then is there a challenge attached to change? In the Bible, God said that in the beginning he created the heavens and the earth and the darkness was upon the face of the earth. He said let there be light. Later on the first day, everything he did, he said was good. He was appreciating his work. Then he said let us make man. However, he didn’t say after he made the man that it is good, but it is implied that it is good because it came from God. God created us to live in accordance with his teachings. He challenges us in our wickedness to change. This is what I can and will do to be better—accept God’s challenges to change my wickedness into Godliness, goodness.
Lockdown Prison Heart
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation
When family members of murder victims struggle to face life after the tragedy that ended the lives of their loved ones, they must live with what some of us call “the new normal.” Our lives now contain a grave, which shapes us forever after the murder. Part of that difficult new reality is the fact that the offender often remains alive while their family member is dead. Yet members of MVFR firmly believe that vengeance and more bloodshed is not the answer. We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. We know, more than most, how wrong it is to kill. We seek to reconcile ourselves to working against the cycles of violence that caused the death of our loved ones to begin with. We work to support each other as we struggle to cope. Many family members of murder victims need, more than almost anything sometimes, to understand why these horrible events occurred. And many of them long to hear words of remorse from those that hurt them the most. When my sister Nancy, her husband Richard, and their unborn child were murdered, her final act of life was to draw a Heart and a “U” in her own blood – her last word on life was LOVE in the face of great evil. She shared a profound truth with us in those final moments of her life: that love is the most important thing in the world. In the face of that, I hoped that their killer could come to realize the full measure of what he had taken. And since that time, I have come to know many of the prisoners whose writings are contained in this book. I cannot imagine anything more meaningful to victims of violent crime than to hear these words of responsibility and remorse, of healing and seeking forgiveness, of courage and growth. Finally, these writings are a redemption of tragedy. I am grateful to the writers herein for their decision to give the funds from this book to MVFR, and for the ways that they are helping all of us to heal.
Jeff Flock, former CNN Chicago Bureau Chief
The written word can have tremendous power, particularly when it carries great emotion and great truth. Both are present in these essays. Powerful writing doesn’t require good grammar, clever prose or even proper spelling. It comes from people who have something to say. And the men and women in these pages have much to say, primarily from personal experience—most of it experience they wish they’d never had.
Spending time with the people who populate prisons and particularly those on the former death row has reaffirmed for me a guiding journalistic principle: that all should have a voice regardless of color, race, opinion or what they may have done in their lives.
These essays give voices that are often silent the chance to be heard. We are better for the listening.
Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking
The United States incarcerates 2 million people. Here are the voices of thirty-eight of them. These men and women heard about a writing contest that asked them to reflect on who they are—and so they did. Reading their accounts of struggle, loss, injury, faith, and hope, I am compelled to ask the same question to those of us who live outside prison walls: Who are we, and what can we do better?
Bill Ryan, Advocate and Frequent Visitor to Illinois Prisons and Jails
Renaldo Hudson and other inmates have provided me with genuine inspiration. Renaldo is the most truly spiritual person I have known. Reading the essays contained in this book will provide insight into the minds and thoughts of men and women in Illinois prisons. There are the stories of the guilty and the wrongfully convicted, of those who accept responsibility for their actions and those who seem to blame others. All the stories speak to the pain and suffering of the victims as well as those who cause the violence. Hopefully, some of you will be inspired to learn more about the individual writers, the criminal justice and prison system in our country.
My journey with prisons and death-row inmates began about eight years ago when our daughter Katy sent me a book entitled, Dead Man Walking by Helen Prejean. I had spent my lifetime in child welfare services where my focus was on trying to protect and support children and families and not giving much thought or consideration to the criminal justice system. I was moved reading Dead Man Walking and called Helen. During the conversation, she suggested I visit with people on death row. I contacted the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and discovered that two executions were scheduled in Illinois the next week. The parents of one of the men to be executed wanted to visit their son but had no transportation. I agreed to take them to visit their son. The first time I walked through the doors and into a visiting room with a sign “Condemned Unit,” my knees were shaking and heart pounding. I met Hernando Williams and Jim Free who were to be killed by the state in two days.
The day after they were killed, I had a phone call from William Peebles, one of the essayists in this book, who called to thank me for taking Hernando’s parents to see their son. I made arrangements to visit with William, and he introduced me to Renaldo and several others. As a result of getting to know men and women in prison, I became active in the abolition movement in Illinois and organized a death penalty moratorium movement. I became friends with each of the seventeen innocent men who had been sentenced to death in Illinois and were later exonerated, and I knew six of the thirteen men who were executed. I recall Walter Stewart putting his handcuffed arms around me the day before he was killed saying, “Don’t cry, Bill. I am alright, I am going to Jesus. You go home and have a beer.”
Former Governor George Ryan on January 30, 2000, declared a moratorium on state killings and on January 11, 2003, commuted the sentences of each of the 167 men and women on Illinois Death Row, pardoning four men. After leaving death row and being assigned to a different prison, Renaldo told me he wanted to have an essay contest so people can learn more about prisoners. I said I would be glad to help out, and this book of essays was conceived. Maybe, just maybe, someone else will begin a journey of learning about the reality of prison life and the humanness of the people living there.
If any readers would like more information about any of the essayists or any others issues, please feel free to contact me. Bill Ryan, 2237 Sunnyside, Westchester, IL, 60154; 708-531-9923; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katy Ryan, English Professor, West Virginia University
From Tamms, the supermaximum security prison in southern Illinois, Jeffrey Boswell composed an essay, submitted it, and soon was notified that he had won second prize. He wrote to my father, who was helping organize the contest, and asked if he would send him back a copy of his essay. Jeffrey had mailed the original. My father put Jeffrey’s essay in the mail, but it was returned to my father with a form letter explaining that inmates cannot communicate with other inmates.
Such obstacles and delays are routine when dealing with prisons, but this one has stayed with me for its metaphorical potential: Can an imprisoned person communicate with herself or himself? This collection assures me the answer is, With perseverance, yes.
Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune
This book has inspired creativity and productive thought, highlighting the humanity of prisoners. To make society better, prison must make prisoners better, and this kind of effort points us in that direction.