The Washington Post Magazine

‘I wanted to prove people wrong and take ownership of my past’

Personal essays and art by formerly or currently incarcerated Americans
“JAIL BIRDS” by Mark Despres: I see many birds as I sit on my bunk. The different birds represent how different we all are in here. We’re all cooped up. (For The Washington Post)

Teach a Man to Fish

One of the first things I learned behind bars was how to fish. Fishing is a way to share items and information with other inmates across the unit while confined to your cell, sometimes for 17 hours a day. We fished every day. Fishing created our community.

I was 16 in 2003 when I was charged and incarcerated as an adult at the D.C. jail. Back then, the cells had bars, so fishing was easier. Our blankets were long enough to reach the opposite side of the tier. You would just cast your blanket across the floor onto the thing being shared — a magazine, hygiene products, photographs — and then pull it back to your cell.

Eventually, the bars were replaced with solid doors for security purposes. So we had to come up with new methods, because the blankets were too bulky to fit under the cell doors. We replaced them with something we called a “line.” To make a decent one took at least half an hour. You’d make a string by cutting fabric from your sheet, using a razor they gave you to shave at shower time. You’d cut several strips and tie them end to end. Then you’d need something solid to use as a weight. A bar of soap was the best; even better if it was still in the plastic — that way you could crush it up real thin to slide under the door. You’d tie the line around the bar of soap, and you’d be ready.

Next you’d wait for another inmate to shout, “Throw your line!” You’d step back in your cell and slide the bar of soap under the crack and across the floor. If you were really good, it would go right into the other inmate’s cell. If you missed the door, you’d need some teamwork from your neighbors. I saw guys successfully fish from one end of the tier — 20 cells in a row — all the way to the other end.

Once the line reached its destination, the other inmate would tie the desired item onto it while making sure it was flat enough. You’d see guys smush whole hamburgers to fit under a door. When you got a signal that the line was ready, you’d start reeling it in to get the prize, which could be a Jet magazine, a letter, a fish sandwich or chocolate cake. We used to fish for batteries and foil; with those items and a little bit of toilet paper, you could build a fire to heat water for a cup of instant coffee.One of the more popular things was the sports section of The Washington Post. We bet on baseball, basketball and football games, using postage stamps as currency. Stamps are a hot commodity and could buy anything. The newspaper helped you decide which games to bet on. The best thing I ever fished for were the winnings from a bet on a Wizards-Cavaliers game. Washington won, and I reeled in 20 stamps off a three-stamp bet. I felt like I’d won the lottery.

Sometimes things were stolen from your line. In prison, we tried to respect one another because we were all in a tough situation. But you could be beefing with someone, and if they got the opportunity, they might confiscate your prize. You’d know when you were reeling in an empty or broken line. Other times, you might accidentally let go of your end and the whole thing would land in the middle of the tier. Man, that will make a person sad. (Some officers destroyed lines, but most just ignored them.)

Fishing is especially important when you are locked down. The darkest period of my incarceration was when I was transferred to a high-security prison. For more than two months, my cellie and I were in our cell for 24 hours a day. It was freezing and we were given paper shirts, paper pants and paper shoes. We were completely isolated and had nothing to do all day. No books, nothing. The worst part? Something was placed across the bottom of the cell so we couldn’t fish. We interviewed each other about anything and everything to pass the time.

Soon, my cellie just couldn’t take it anymore. He wanted to buck on the officers to get the emergency responders to pull us out. Officers would send in a response team for something as simple as not giving back your food tray. He didn’t care what they might do to us, as long as we were out of that cell. I just kept telling him, “Man, hold on. Just hold on!”

One day, I realized my own hope was finally running out. I said out loud, “I can’t take it anymore.” I’m telling you the truth when I say that at that very moment, a little mouse stuck his face under our door. I know many people panic when they see a mouse, but when I saw that little face, I smiled. I woke up my cellie, yelling, “We can fish! We can fish!” I knew that if we could fish, we would be okay.

Demetrius Beatty is a youth mentor, aspiring chef and soon-to-be father. He served a total of more than nine years in prison and jail for robbery and burglary.

“RESTORE JUSTICE” by Gary Harrell: With every breath I take, I try to do the right thing to heal some of the harm I have caused.

“BUTTERFLY” by James Pinder: Prison removes everything you’ve ever loved in life, but creating can never be taken away. Even handcuffed to a desk with only a security pen and official paperwork, anyone can find a brief escape and a moment of expression.

A Good Dad

What do you want your kids to say about you at your funeral?”

That’s a crazy question, right? Imagine trying to answer it while sitting in your first parenting class — inside a federal prison. I was 23 and the father of two children with another on the way when a judge sentenced me to more than 50 years behind bars for my involvement in a robbery spree. If you take a moment to do the math, you’ll realize that my children could be grandparents by the time I am released.

“Dad” is the most important name I have. After all is said and done, I want my kids to think I was funny, smart and the one they went to for help. A lot of guys in here think that’s impossible. It would be easy to give up and expect someone on the outside to take over and raise my children. But I don’t want my children to go through what I did.

My earliest memory of my parents is of them standing on our front porch, their hands cuffed behind their backs. I was 4 years old. My little brother Donny and I watched through tears from the inside of a police car. Our youngest brother, Derrick, had just passed away. Much later, we would learn that he had died of sudden infant death syndrome. But nobody knew it then. That night, the car took us away and we didn’t see our parents for more than a year.

When we all got back together, things were good until the “big fight”: Donny and I were playing with wooden blocks in our bedroom when we heard Mom screaming. I ran to the living room and found Dad holding her down on the couch. “Get a knife!” she yelled. Without thinking, I dashed toward the kitchen, but Dad slammed me into a wall. I was so scared that I hid under my bed. “Daddy is mad at me and Mommy,” I told Donny as we both cried. I was 6 years old and my family was never whole again.

When I was 9, my two brothers and I moved into a motel with Mom, where she had a job cleaning rooms. One day, she wouldn’t let me into the bathroom. At first, I didn’t know what the bad smell coming from the room was. Eventually, I found a glass pipe in the bathroom trash and an older friend, who sold drugs, told me it was crack.

Soon Mom was disappearing for days or weeks at a time. She would say she was going to get us pizza and not come back. Eventually, the hotel manager got mad and said we had to leave. Instead, I made a deal with him: He’d let us stay if I cleaned rooms, plus he agreed to pay me $1 for each room cleaned. I used that money to buy us food. We ate mac and cheese, mustard sandwiches and cereal. I made sure my younger brothers got to school every day while I worked. I dropped out of school before I even finished middle school.

Because I didn’t have any parental guidance as a child, I vowed that my children would never have to find their way in this world without me. Despite my promise, I made a horrible decision that left them without their dad. I was devastated. Every time I spoke on the phone with my oldest daughter, who was then 5, she asked where I was and when she could come see me. I didn’t know what to say, so I lied and said I was in the Army. But she continued to pepper her mother and me with questions until she was told the truth. During one phone call, she asked, “What were you thinking when you did that bad thing? Don’t you love us?” In that moment, I realized how selfish I had been. I later assured her that my love for them was everlasting, and promised to be honest from that day forward.

I recognized that I didn’t know the first thing about being a father; I’d had my first child at 17 so I enrolled in parenting classes and got a job in the prison’s education department. I figured that if I was surrounded by information, maybe I would start learning. In parenting classes, I discovered that communication is everything. Before I could develop a strong relationship with my kids, the communication had to be there, as well as listening. It’s how I can express my love.

I opened every avenue of communication available — phone, emails, letters. I talk to them every day. In the morning, I email wishing them a wonderful day at school. When they come home, another message is waiting. Each child gets their own 15-minute call to go over schoolwork with me, plus unlimited emails. We also work on personal projects together, sharing drawings and poetry. Expressing ourselves through art has drawn us closer.

Our calls aren’t about only schoolwork. I have given them advice about how to cook a new recipe or create a new hairstyle. We talk about music and even sing a few notes together. Sometimes we are so deep in conversation, we miss the beep warning us that the call is about to be cut off. The phone fees are costly in federal prison, but there is nothing I’d rather spend money on.

I have enormous admiration and respect for my son’s mother, as well as my fiancee, who is raising my daughters in their mother’s absence. Being a single parent is difficult, so I try to bear as much of the weight as I can from here. When my kids have arguments with friends or they are feeling down, they’ll email and ask me to call and talk it out. There are times when my daughters have stepped out of line at school and my fiancee and I coordinate cutting off their Internet access as a consequence. They know we always have a lesson to share with them.

Today, every decision I make involves my children. My life is dedicated to educating them and helping them reach their goals. My daughters are now 14 and 13, and my son is 9. The most valuable gifts that a parent can give are time and a listening ear. I have all the time in the world, and my ear is always here for them. When the day comes for them to speak at my funeral, I hope they’ll say I was the best dad.

Johnny Baker teaches, writes poetry, paints and enjoys spending time with his family. He is incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary, Atwater, in Atwater, Calif., where he is serving a 57-year sentence for aiding and abetting the possession of a firearm.

“NONE FOR YOU” by Todd A. Hollfelder: A year after my release, I was unemployed, staying with family and unable to find reentry programs. I felt, and still feel, as if I’d entered a new stage of imprisonment. You try to avoid disclosing your “felon” status, but are unsuccessful most times. Society hears that word and automatically assumes you are the worst of the worst. (wp)

The Memory Vault

For more than 10 years, I had the same nightmare. It started toward the end of my first detention at the Rose M. Singer Center, Rikers Island’s facility for women, and continued after my most recent release from prison in 2014, haunting me at least once a month. In the dream, I’m lying on my cot when a flaming red-and-orange fireball, like an enormous pinball, breaks through the back wall of the dorm. It rolls full speed in my direction, with no way for me to escape. I always wake up screaming and gasping for air.

You’d know the boom squad was coming when you heard a dull roar in the outside hallway — the sound of the officers’ boots as they marched in formation to the dorm. The doors would slam open and in would come the charging squad, dressed in full riot gear: helmets with shields covering their faces, clubs, pepper spray and plenty of zip-tie handcuffs.

They announced their presence by screaming, “Male on the unit!” and instructing us women to get properly dressed. You could hear their dogs barking, the static on their radios and the squeaking wheels of the “boss chair,” a metal detector of sorts, being rolled in. We were told to stand up, put our hands on top of our heads and face the wall. Any sudden movement could result in being sprayed with Mace.

We were paraded into the bathroom, where groups of six or seven women would be strip-searched by female officers. You’d hand your clothes to the officer piece by piece. Pockets and seams were checked for weapons. If you were lucky enough to have an underwire bra, the wires were yanked out because they were considered weapons. You’d be standing there naked, and even if the heat was on full blast, it felt freezing — because of the shock of the experience, I think. At the same time, the squad would be going through our belongings, ripping sheets off the beds, throwing everything on the floor, taking contraband — handmade weapons, red pens, cigarettes, lighters, too many sanitary pads, too many bars of soap — and cataloguing it all. (I don’t remember them ever finding weapons in my dorm.)

After finishing the cavity search and leaving the bathroom dressed, with your hands on your head, you got in line to sit on the wooden “boss chair,” which could detect any metal inside your body. It reminded me of a royal throne without all the glitz, glamour and padding. If you were cleared, you went into the “day room,” consisting of a television and some tables and chairs. We’d have to stand in single rows with our hands on our heads again, and we still weren’t allowed to talk or move. Once the squad finished the dorm, the group routinely moved into the bathroom to pull down the drop ceiling tiles. The entire search took about 60 long minutes. I always tried to make myself go numb to get through it.

It all clicked when I responded to that Twitter thread. The fireball bursting through the wall was the boom squad storming the dorm. The fireball rolling down the aisle, knocking over everything in its path, with women jumping out of its way — that was the squad coming into our space and wreaking havoc. It also represented my feelings about being violated. At Rosie’s, the vast majority of us were in detention while our cases wended their way through the courts — meaning that we’d been charged, but not convicted. And we were still treated this way.

Since my release five years ago, multiple therapists have told me that I’ll begin to process everything that happened when I’m ready. I think of it as having a vault in my mind, where I’ve locked away all the memories of my detention and subsequent incarceration. Now that I am home and safe, memories are slowly leaving the vault. After my epiphany, I haven’t had the fireball nightmare. I let it out of the vault and finally got rid of it.

I now live near the beach, my safe place. I think of the broken shells scattered in the sand as those of us affected by the criminal justice system. We are one-of-a-kind, sturdy survivors of battering waves — storms out at sea that you may never see. We are the ones the ocean leaves behind after it has softened our edges, cleansed and healed us. I collect the broken ones and leave the whole shells for others.

Kathy Morse, who worked in various law firms for more than 25 years, advocates for incarcerated women and girls. She served a total of four years in New York state’s correctional facilities and 23 months in Pennsylvania, both on grand larceny charges.

“BREAST MILK” by Fulton Leroy Washington: This piece represents the many incarcerated women separated from their children following childbirth who suffer mentally and physically.

Creating a Comfort Zone

I had been home from prison for only two weeks when my sister Nikki sent me to AutoZone to get a part for her car. I was 32 and had spent the past 15 years behind bars; I knew absolutely nothing about cars. I had never even changed a tire. Of course, I couldn’t tell Nikki that. My assumed position as head of the family was thrust upon me, and I feared letting anybody down.

I walked into the busy store, uneasy and out of sorts. I felt like I was forcing my legs to move forward. “You gotta get used to crowded places,” I told myself. I found a line to stand in; my nerves were like a jar of mad bees. To me, it seemed like everyone else knew exactly what they wanted, moving with a sense of confidence and urgency.

My turn came at the counter. “How can I help you?” the clerk said. I looked from left to right before I asked, “Are a starter and an alternator the same thing?” “No,” the clerk said with a stale face. I didn’t know which of the two I needed. I just knew that Nikki’s car was having trouble starting. The clerk asked the make and model of the car. I barely knew that. “Pontiac Grand Am,” I finally answered.

“You still haven’t said which part you need. Alternator or starter?” he said. The crowd in the store seemed to tighten, like everyone had taken a step closer. I looked around at the frowning faces and fought to control my nerves. My heartbeat grew louder in my ears. “I think alternator,” I blurted out. “If not, I can bring it back, right?”

“Who doesn’t know if he needs a starter or alternator?” the clerk asked in disbelief as his hand smacked down on the counter. “Just give me the f---ing part,” I flipped. Everything in AutoZone stopped. All eyes turned and focused on me. I must have looked like some raving idiot to these people. The clerk leaned back, appalled.

My eyes quickly scanned the room. Prison habit. Not only could I see the panic and discontent on people’s faces, I could feel the negativity floating around me. My throat closed shut. I couldn’t breathe. I turned to the door and hurried out. People were on their phones, and I feared they were calling the cops. I could sense eyes following me to the parking lot.

By the time I made it inside the car, my fingers had locked and my arms were having muscle spasms. I desperately fumbled for the keys. Despite how I felt, I still had the sense of mind to get away from there. My grandmother lived only a few blocks away, and I ended up in her driveway, sitting in the car, freaking out. My fingers were still curled up. I feared I might be having a heart attack, but there was no pain. I fought to calm myself, and gradually my fingers began to unlock. I grabbed a bottle of water and took a swig. Twenty minutes later, I had finally calmed down.

I quietly tried to figure out what the heck was wrong with me. I feared that if I told my family, they might think I was weak. Several of my friends had recently come home from prison, too. Each of us had done at least 10 years. About two weeks after the AutoZone incident, a group of us were sitting around talking and I asked if any of them had been feeling weird since release. “Hell yeah,” one friend said and gave me a look like I was reading his mind. The two others admitted to feeling crazy in crowded places and at family gatherings. One friend thought carrying a gun would help steady his nerves. The two others self-medicated by smoking weed like cigarettes.

More conversations revealed that many people I know were walking out of prison with undiagnosed anxiety disorders. I’m pretty sure I had developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Survival in prison mandates that you walk into a room and size up threats. You can quickly place a person by the group they’re associated with: basketball crowd, tattoo crowd, drug crowd, etc. On the streets, you don’t have that intel. Everyone is a stranger. It’s like computer overload.

Like my buddies, I had to find a way to cope. My way was a little different. I settled down with a woman and tried to live a normal life. I cleaned up an old storage room in our basement, adding a desk, a computer and a TV. I essentially re-created my prison cell. My girlfriend hated my little corner, but it was my refuge. It was my comfort zone.

Lamar L. Walker, who is from Detroit, writes novels and enjoys reading ancient history. He is incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio, where he is serving 10 years for drug charges and an additional five years for violating his parole on involuntary manslaughter charges.

“ANYONE” by Lee Jupina: Over the past few years, I’ve had some troubles: I broke my right hand and have little use of it, so I’ve learned to use my left hand. And, four years ago, I was assaulted. Some of my injuries were really bad, but the worst part is I’m now blind in my left eye. I can only use one hand and one eye, but no one has taken my love for art. (For The Washington Post)

“FREEDOM SPEAKS LOUDER FROM THE OTHER SIDE” by Natasha Kinion: I made this drawing during the 12th year of my incarceration. I felt like my body was trapped in a cocoon, being shaped and molded by time and experience, and it had altered my consciousness. It took me years, but one day I decided that my truth was going to be what I created: my writings, my artwork, my love, my hope, my children and family. (Prisoners/FTWP)

Stick With Your Own

When I arrived at the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison in Brooklyn, I was surprised to find myself in a maximum-security cellblock. I was a minimum-security prisoner and had expected an open dorm. I saw this as a double-edged sword. On one hand, sleeping in a cell is generally quieter than sleeping in a dorm, plus people are less likely to get worked up about petty things. On the other hand, movement is incredibly limited, lockdown is a big part of every day, and violence is severe and routine.

The guards directed me to my assigned cell, but it was full, with two occupants. They then assigned me to another cell, but it was full, too. The guards were dumbfounded. Finally, my third assignment had only one person, a Dominican guy from the Bronx with the last name DeJesus. Yes, “of Jesus.” He welcomed me with a warm smile and firm handshake. I immediately felt safe and welcomed. Well, as much as one can on their first day in a maximum-security prison.

Right away, he began encouraging me to attend a Christian prayer group with him. Before my federal indictment, I had gotten sober through a state-funded outpatient treatment program and a 12-step program, but I didn’t do church or prayer groups. However, there were zero recovery meetings or programs at this prison. After a few days and several invitations, I relented and joined him. I quickly learned that this particular group was very similar to the recovery meetings I had attended, except instead of “sharing” our stories, we were “testifying.” I quickly bonded with the men, and it became a great reprieve from the stress and monotony of prison life. It also helped me continue my recovery from a decade of active addiction.

In this prison, like many others, people are expected to “stick with their own,” and for me that was the white guys. I was one of a handful of white men in a unit holding dozens of men. We consisted of two men in a white supremacist prison gang, a wannabe member of the gang, some men from New York City of Italian descent and me. I met and spoke with all of them, and ate with the Italian guys. But I felt truly drawn to the people in the prayer group, which was made up entirely of people of color, except for me. Despite the risk, I continued participating.

Within days of me joining, I noticed that one of the white supremacist gang members kept staring at me, especially when I entered or left the meetings. I knew I could be viewed as a traitor simply by attending. This increased my anxiety, and I began to question my decision. Over a couple of weeks, the man’s stares intensified, and I thought he might be getting ready to make a move on me. At first, he had just been glancing over, but now he seemed to be watching me. I had recently heard the screams of someone being stabbed by his cellmate in the middle of the night and did not want something similar to happen to me.

In the following days, I was torn between the relative safety of following the prison norms and following my heart. One day, I asked my cellmate to take a walk so I could be alone. I put one of my white towels over the window of the cell, which signaled to guards and the other prisoners that I wanted privacy. I then got on my knees in front of my bunk and started praying: “God, I have decided to walk down this path of recovery, healing, love and faith, and this prayer group is really helping. But I really don’t want to get stabbed, either!”

I did not hear the voice of God, but the answer was clearly and immediately revealed. I suddenly felt a sense of calm, and accepted that if I got stabbed because I was on this new journey, then I got stabbed. The experience reminded me of a 12-step recovery promise: “We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.” That moment remains the closest I have ever felt to God. When I stood up and stepped out of my cell, it was like a backpack full of bricks had been lifted off my back. I found complete faith and I was free, even though my body was still in prison.

The next day, the man whose stares drove my concern joined the prayer group. He had been watching me because he was interested. He just didn’t want to step out of the norm alone. He was seeing if I would stick with it, and, thankfully, I had. The man spoke to me more often after he joined. He told me that he didn’t want to hold anyone’s hands to pray but that he enjoyed attending. Germs were his explanation, but I think he was still clinging to a piece of his hardened facade. My recovery, healing and growth are an ongoing process rather than a single event. I imagine that he was in the first stages of his own transformation.

It was clear that I had made the right decision, and this experience further confirmed my new and positive life course. His joining the group strengthened my resolve. I knew that if I could do the “next right thing” under these conditions, I could continue to do so in the free world and, to the best of my ability, I have.

Christopher Poulos is a lawyer and the executive director of the Washington Statewide Reentry Council. He served 2½ years in federal prison for cocaine distribution.

“THE ARTIST HEADING OUT” by Mark Despres: I love storms and boating. When I leave prison, I’m going back to Florida. I see myself putting my boat into Tampa Bay and heading out. It would be nice for people to remember me just like this painting: Gone with the things I love.
“KING OF THE PRISON” by William Gaviria: When I was in prison, people used to break down my cell door to get artwork done. On the outside, it’s difficult to make a living. Although I hate to admit it, sometimes I think it was easier in there. (For The Washington Post)

The Job Application

After more than a year in prison, I applied for a job at the same fast-food restaurant I worked at when I was 16. Four years earlier, I’d been hired on the spot so I’d be lying if I said I expected anything different the second time around. Even with a felony on my record, c’mon, it’s flipping burgers. So I was honest on the application where it asked if I’d been convicted of a felony. I wanted to start things off right.

As the manager read my application — fast-food experience from four restaurants and scheduling flexibility from open to close all week, except Sunday mornings for church — she began to nod her head, silently assuring me. When she reached the section where the conviction box is located, her body tensed up. “Y-you will have to come and speak to the other manager on Thursday, thank you,” she said, her voice cracking. I told myself I’d persuade the other manager to hire me. I went back that Thursday and was told that he hadn’t reviewed my application. After days of follow-up calls and visits, I was finally informed that they would not hire me because of my felony.

I started lying on applications and was hired at an ice cream and burger restaurant, where they didn’t do a background check. But then I was forced to quit because I had to move to the other side of the city with my parents, my only housing option. I was only 21, but I felt worthless — I couldn’t join the Army, I couldn’t rent an apartment, I didn’t have any money.

As the financial pressure began to weigh on me, I reached out to a family member — a known drug dealer — for a way to make money. He reluctantly accepted so I jumped off the porch into the streets of Tulsa. I was fearless and had nothing to lose. My time in the drug trade was a short, impactful few years. My risk-taking elevated me in the business and eventually led to charges of trafficking cocaine and ecstasy and, separately, firearm possession.

While in jail awaiting two trials, I found Kelly v. State, an Oklahoma case where a police search had been overturned, which was similar to the search that led to my drug charges. I knew if they couldn’t do Kelly like that then they couldn’t do me like that. My drug case was dismissed in May 2008, but the district attorney got it reinstated and I went to trial. At 26, I was sentenced to 121 years for trafficking drugs and paraphernalia. (The previous year I had been sentenced to 10 years on the firearm charge.)

I spent my time in the prison law library continuing to research case laws and criminal statutes. I was determined to prove that the court got my drug case wrong and that the police conducted an illegal search of my vehicle. In 2010, I won my appeal using a Supreme Court case, but I wasn’t released until 2012 when I fulfilled my firearm sentence through good behavior.

Once again, I arrived home and didn’t know what to do for work. This time, I didn’t want to give anyone an opportunity to send me to prison again. But I was a high school dropout, and I didn’t think I had any special skills. Then my dad said to me, “You do have a skill. You know the law.” I realized he was right and decided to enroll in Tulsa Community College’s paralegal program.

While I was a student, I found a part-time job as a janitor, scrubbing toilets for a third-party cleaning service with a department store contract. It was disgusting work, but it was an honest wage. After a few months, the company sold its contract to a larger janitorial operation. We were told they would hire everyone who was employed under the contract. After a background check, I was sent a denial letter saying they couldn’t keep me on. Basically, because I’m a felon, I’m not good enough to scrub toilets.

I felt like I couldn’t be viewed as any lower, smaller or more worthless than that. I knew that it may not be a one-time occurrence. I wanted to prove people wrong and take ownership of my past. I saw the rejection as a steppingstone to reach greater heights.

I graduated from the paralegal studies program with honors in 2015. Now six years after I was let go, my office has two plaques representing my life: the denial letter from the janitorial operation and my degree.

Richard Zobon Baxter is a freelance paralegal and founder of the nonprofit organization #racismstinks in Tulsa. He served more than a year for a weapons charge and, later, almost five years for trafficking cocaine and ecstasy, and other firearm and drug-related offenses.

“HUMANITY LOSES TO PROFIT” by Yeniel Hernandez: With this, I wanted to illustrate many broken systems. I depict anger, sadness, a false sense of pride and profit outweighing humanity. The more I illustrate, the more peace and joy I experience even during bad moments. It’s like the chains break and no matter what is done to me, my pain is turned to purpose.

“MAYBE WE SHOULD LEAVE HIM BE” by William B. Livingston III: This piece represents the thoughts I often have about getting out of prison. I worry after such a long time incarcerated that I will have difficulty coping with the world and will end up spending most of my time alone to maintain my sanity. (JHCC PHOTO CLUB/wp)

The Visiting Room

I was sitting across from my girlfriend in the visiting room of the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Stillwater three years into my stay there, nodding in understanding as she vented about her latest drama with co-workers. My gaze drifted over her shoulder and landed on a couple and their kid while they all posed for an inmate photographer. As the small family smiled for the camera, a memory jolted loose: I suddenly remembered being in this same room 20 years ago, as a 6-year-old.

I spent the remainder of my girlfriend’s visit distracted, trying to recall all the details. When I was a kid, there was a large play area here, decorated with a mural of the Smurfs; it has now been reduced to a lone children’s bookshelf. I remembered people mingling freely. Physical contact was allowed then, and proud fathers bounced their kids on their knees and lifted them into the air. Couples made out like lovestruck teenagers. One of those couples was my mom and stepdad, Hermón.

It’s not that I completely forgot that my stepdad served time at Stillwater, but I hadn’t realized I had been meeting my visitors as an adult in the very same room. In that moment, I registered the significance of a space that was both anchored in nostalgia and a symbol of my rock bottom.

After my girlfriend left, I dug through old photographs in my cell and found one that took my breath away. In it, my sister is clinging to one side of Mom’s hip as I rest on the other side. We’re all dressed up: I’m wearing a clip-on tie and gray cowboy boots. We took this photo at our apartment before we drove to Stillwater, where my mom married Hermón in the visiting room. My mom was 27 when this photo was taken — about the same age I was while holding the photo in my cell.

How could I have missed this? Being at Stillwater as an adult and an inmate is, of course, completely different from visiting Hermón as a young child. My memories of childhood are filled with warmth, while my adult experience is defined by my restrictions. I can’t leave my seat, and I can hug only at the beginning and end of visits. And I had been too wrapped up in my own grown-up tragedies to think about much else. I had been working on unpacking the baggage I carried through the gates, trying to make sense of a wayward life. I live with eternal remorse and regret, knowing that I can’t change anything that happened. But recalling that memory, and finding that photo, made me confront how I resisted contemplating the external influences that affected me as a kid, for fear of making excuses for my actions.

When I was a kid, Stillwater was shrouded in mystery. Its tinted windows held the electricity of an exclusive nightclub. Our apartment was peppered with gifted prison novelties: photo frames woven out of Newport cigarette packs, envelopes adorned with exquisite roses and elegant cursive, artwork featuring cars and skulls drawn in delicate pen strokes.

Stillwater seemed to be a source of happiness for my mother. On the days we went to visit Hermón, Mom lightened up. She yelled less and laughed more. Sometimes she’d even play Nintendo with me beforehand. During the long drive, Mom always played Janis Joplin’s song “Mercedes Benz” to cap off our family singalongs. Something in Janis’s roaring voice spoke directly to my mother. “Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me …” was the only time I heard my mother pray. When she sang, a longing within her came alive and whatever she chased must have come into focus for just a moment.

Mom had only recently met Hermón, a Cuban refugee, while he was at Stillwater. At the time, I didn’t know that the marriage was more about his citizenship than love. Whether she fully understood that, I’ll never know. It was several months of visits entangled in a childhood of welfare stamps, WIC vouchers and subsidized apartment complexes. Soon it would all be drowned out by Mom’s subsequent battle with cancer. She died at age 32. I lost the person who meant the most to me when I was 12, and a darkness grew within me.

It’s all too simple to say my mom sealed my fate by taking me to Stillwater with her. In the street culture I grew up around, you didn’t vilify prison, because you’ve known and loved so many people caught in its cage. What a privilege it must be to explain to a child that “prison is a place for bad people.” I saw what happened when police came and left our household worse off than before. I didn’t need anyone to tell me what I already knew: We were the bad guys.

I now sit in prison wondering what I’m supposed to be doing. What’s the worth of enduring a harsh environment for what could be the majority of my life if I can’t pay forward on an insurmountable debt? I’ve made the most of the sparse programming prison offers. I’ve reached my limit of formal education while growing as a writer and artist. I feel a responsibility to do better, to be better. I owe more to humanity than abiding by prison policies. I know that redemption isn’t a destination, it is a lifelong pursuit — but I feel like I’m hitting the ceiling in here.

C. Fausto Cabrera is a restorative justice advocate and member of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. He is serving 24 years for second-degree murder and 15 years for first-degree attempted murder at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Rush City.

“WATER CREATURE” by Carole Alden: This work was a collaboration between myself and a diverse group of enthusiastic New Orleans community members. We primarily used debris left behind by Hurricane Katrina. I wanted to take things that have been discarded by society and create something delightful. It’s similar to how I perceived myself upon release from prison. (carole alden)

Leaning Into Love

I was sitting with a date on a packed cafe patio when I noticed a homeless man standing in the middle of traffic. His arms were thrown out and his head tossed back like he was Jesus on the cross. Fellow customers mocked him, but I felt compassion for him. I was trying to settle back into society after serving seven years in prison for bank robbery; I understood what it was like to feel alienated from the social norm.

Then he crossed the street, stepped onto the patio and sat down at a table. I heard the staff talking disparagingly about his odor and debating whether to serve him water. I turned to him and nodded respectfully, hoping to signal that I saw his humanity. He quickly spit out a clever string of racist insults at me. I don’t know if it was the betrayal I felt, or if it was simply the stark racism, but in that one moment, my solidarity vanished. My muscle memory kicked in, and all I wanted to do was stab him with my fork, like I’d stabbed my father when I was 16, after enduring a particularly brutal beating.

At a certain point in my childhood, my internal compass had become defective by trauma — the death of my mother, physical abuse, divorce, foster care. After the stabbing, and throughout most of my prison years, I became a get-back artist. Whenever I felt angry, desperate or confused, I had only one response: make a victim. You did something to me, you paid.

But I’d transformed behind bars. Meditation and journaling led me to discover my anger-disguised wounds — the wound of interpreting my mother’s death as her “abandoning” me, or the wound of feeling betrayed by my abusive father’s punches and kicks. I began to understand that things I would normally have perceived as threats were in fact someone acting out their own wounds. I started to have compassion for myself and other people, and it gave me hope that maybe I could stay out of prison.

Nonetheless, in that moment at the restaurant, I was still stunned by the zero-to-100 propulsion of my rage. What I was feeling in my body was so strong that I knew I could easily throw my freedom away. I told my date that I had to get out of there: I threw cash on the table and asked her to meet me at the car. I still felt like I was close to a panic attack, though, and feared that the congested fury would only prime me for the following morning when banks opened and I could quell my helplessness. I dropped her off and apologized for my silence.

I immediately called my brother and father and described my anguish. I told them I was on my way to pick them up for a sleepover and to grab their sleeping bags. My dad and I were working on a fresh start. A couple of months before I got out, I told him over the phone that he’d done bad and I’d done bad, and that we should simply “let our sins cancel each other out.” Nobody more than your family knows if you’ve really changed. This time he noticed that I no longer resembled the impatient guy who once smashed a TV because my team was losing.

Once we all got to my tiny studio apartment, I asked one of them to sleep by the window and the other to sleep by the front door. “No matter what, do not let me leave,” I implored. Then I fell on my bed in the middle of the room and went inward, not paying attention to my dad and brother. I grappled with two voices in my head: Edgy Voice called me a punk for letting that bum get away with his taunts. Tranquil Voice warmly encouraged me to reframe what occurred into compassion for him.

On that bed, I released my anger by telling myself that the homeless man had a terrible life on the streets, and that no matter how threatened I felt on that patio, he lived with threats every hour of every day. I knew I didn’t want to create any more victims; the grief in my heart for those I’d injured was already too intense to handle. I gave myself a pass for my reaction. Breaking old habits is exhausting work, and I finally crashed into a deep slumber.

I awoke the next morning to see my dad reading a book on his sleeping bag and my brother brushing his teeth at the sink. We hugged it out. That was the morning I broke the cycle of recidivism in my life. Three stints in jail and prison was enough. I leaned into their love and used the resources that are most powerful to any ex-prisoner: a cadre of kind folk upon whom we depend for care.

The average hapless ex-con has to contend with many outside forces. Sadistic parole officers. Endemic racism among patrol cops. Known and unknown enemies on the streets who want us dead. But most of us don’t need those outside forces to create epic fails in our lives. Too much morbidity in the home and years behind bars spell doom for us. We are shipwrecked before we climb aboard.

Every parolee, I believe, confronts at least one moment of potential fatal peril, an instant when they will have to choose whether to stay out, or go back inside. Every successful parolee I’ve known found a way to alter their imaginations about their place in the world without the state’s help. And they surrounded themselves with people who genuinely love them, and leaned on those people mightily.

The relief I felt that morning with my dad and brother was so overwhelming that it was like a fever breaking. The tempest transitioned into a state of calm. I had a healthy example to build on, plus my support system proved strong. And it worked. Not only have I not gone back to prison, I’m no longer in bondage to my wounds.

Joe Loya is author of the critically acclaimed memoir “The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell” and host of the new podcast “The Bank Robbery Diaries.” He served seven years in federal prison for bank robbery, 20 months in state prison for bounced checks and grand theft auto, and completed a 90-day sentence in a county jail for grand theft auto and strong arm robbery.

“MAILING THIS OUT” by David Saucier: When I first started doing time in jail, I made my living drawing on envelopes and handkerchiefs because I didn’t want to ask my family for money. I had to draw all the time to make my way.

Art contributors

Carole Alden: Alden is the mother of five and has worked as an artist her entire life with no formal training. She served 13 years at Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah, for second-degree manslaughter.

Mark Despres: Despres has been making art since he was a young boy: “I’ve always said that God gave me my artistic ability, because no one taught me. I could just do it.” He is serving a 45-year sentence at Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, Conn., for murder.

William Gaviria: Gaviria is going to school to become a drug treatment counselor and volunteers with the prison arts program at Community Partners in Action. He served six years in Connecticut state prison for the sale of narcotics.

Gary Harrell: Harrell plays and listens to the blues to escape prison life. He is serving a sentence of seven years to life at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., for murder.

Yeniel Hernandez: Hernandez is a painter and professional tattoo artist. He served two years at Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County, Fla., for armed carjacking.

Todd A. Hollfelder: Hollfelder was a guest docent at “The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison” when it exhibited at the Milwaukee Art Museum. He served three years and two months at multiple correctional facilities in Wisconsin for seven drunken-driving offenses.

Lee Jupina: Jupina, who does pencil and pen work after years of airbrushing motorcycles and trucks, is dedicated to “being a very grateful and good grandfather and artist.” He served two years in Cheshire Correctional Institution in Cheshire, Conn., for commercial robbery.

Natasha Kinion: Kinion, who works as an executive assistant for a life coaching business, has four children and two grandchildren. She served 13 years at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Conn., for first-degree manslaughter.

William B. Livingston III: Livingston, whose artistic inspiration comes from music, was born in Joplin, Mo. He is serving a 15-year sentence at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington, Okla., for first-degree manslaughter, and 10 years for leaving the scene of an accident.

James Pinder: Pinder, who aspires to be the Norman Rockwell of prison life, works as a graphic designer in an industries shop in prison, where he makes signs, banners and posters. He is serving a 40-year sentence at Cheshire Correctional Institution in Cheshire, Conn., for murder.

David Saucier: Saucier, who trades portraits and decorated envelopes for toiletries, snacks and other prison commissary items, exhibits his personal work at an annual art show in Connecticut. He is serving a 20-year sentence at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, Conn., for robbery.

Fulton Leroy Washington: Washington, who goes by Mr. Wash, is a self-taught artist and an advocate for criminal justice reform. He was sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense and served more than 21 years in four federal prisons before receiving clemency in 2016.

“SAY GOODBYE” by James Pinder: Friendships in prison can become close quickly. When a friend is transferred, paroled or released on probation it can feel like a death in the family for the one left behind. Due to conditions of parole and probation in Connecticut, as well as prison rules, there can be no further contact with that friend. I’ve spent the past 25 years in prison, and I’ve experienced a lot of those deaths.

Photograph of Carole Alden’s “Water Creature” is by James Collier. Design by Michael Johnson.

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