‘There’s No One Left to Hurt But Me’

In an essay written for the San Francisco Beat Within prison-writing workshop, a California inmate looks back on the mistakes that landed him behind bars for most of his life, a process he says has taken him from “blame to shame.”

As I look back at all the things I’ve done to get me to this point, I must admit I’ve worked really hard to mess up my life. All the illegal things I did on the streets earned me a (lifetime) in prison.

And if that wasn’t enough, once in prison I continued down that same path. The things I did while in prison earned me a sentence in Pelican Bay’s infamous SHU program—“the Hole”—a prison within a prison. It’s a place designed for those deemed by the prison administration to be the worst of the worst.

Staring at the 5,286 holes that make up the front of my cold concrete (SHU) cell, I remember thinking, “Is this it?”

Is this where I’ve been working so hard to get to, in a cell by myself for 22 ½ hours a day, going to a yard the size of a walk-in closet with nothing in it: no handball, no basketball, no dip bars, no pull-up bars , not even a sink or toilet?

Nothing but concrete walls, a camera and me!

I had to be strip-searched, handcuffed, waist-chained, leg-shackled and escorted by two correctional officers with billy clubs in hand every time I left my cell…”Escort coming through!”…they would always yell, as if the sounds of my many chains couldn’t be heard echoing throughout the empty corridors with every step I took.

Having no direct sunlight or human contact whatsoever (means) complete isolation, humiliation and sensory deprivation.  It means having all my food and cosmetics taken out of their original containers and placed in paper bags and paper cups; having to drink my coffee and eat my food out of milk cartons because bowls and cups aren’t allowed; having absolutely no access to a telephone,  not even when there was a death in my family.

It means having to be told that the only way I would get out of the SHU was if I died, was paroled, or debriefed (to snitch).  It means I have to fight every single day just to keep my sanity!

To be honest, I find it impossible to even pretend anymore.  As I take a real hard look at my life and all the harm I’ve done to myself, I realize that I have absolutely nothing to show for my life. That hurts more than words can describe.  I don’t have anything, because I’ve never done what it takes to get something and keep it! I’ve lived the life of an irresponsible fool!

Even when people tried to tell me where my life was going to end up if I kept down the road I was going, I refused to listen, thinking I knew what I was doing. Now here I sit in a jail cell, wishing I had listened to somebody other than myself, because thanks to me my life has literally been one disaster after another. I’ve messed up my life on so many levels that I may never be able to fully recover!

Those self-inflicted wounds hurt like hell!

Being honest with myself has taken me from blame to shame. Now I find myself at that fork in the road everyone keeps talking about, where my life literally depends on my making the right choices. Because when I do get another chance, it will surely be my last. I’ve done 16 months in juvenile hall, three years in CYA (youth prison), three years in the county jail, and 23 years, 6 months and 18 days in prison. I now have five “strikes,” which means I’m faced with the possibility of a life sentence any time I come back to jail, no matter the charge.

Not only am I all out of chances, but I can’t even afford the luxury of a negative thought. I’m done subjecting myself to this.  When I walk out these jailhouse doors I will never be back!

I’ve done all the time I can do. I’ve given the game, the streets, the hood, the block and the homies all that I can give. The rest of my life goes to me and my family.

It really saddens me to say this, but not only have I been in jail most of my life but I’ve also been alone for most of my life as well. Sadly, I’m used to it. I wish that I wasn’t, but I am.

That definitely isn’t normal—nothing about being in these places is normal—and the longer you stay inside these places, the further away from normal you get.

This place eats away at you a few bites at a time till there’s nothing left but a shell of your former self, wasting away in some cell with nothing but a few war stories to tell.  I’m done lying and playing games with myself. I’m tired of saying, “It is what it is!” When the truth is–it is what it is because this is what I’ve made it! I created this mess!

My choices put me here. And in all honesty, after looking at my life for what it is and finally facing some ugly truths about myself and what I’ve done to my life , I can see why I am where I am. I’ve been my own worst enemy most of my life.  I’ve always found something or someone else to blame, when the truth is–I’m to blame.

I’ve had so many opportunities to have a wonderful life, but each time I was on the brink of success, I sabotaged myself again and again by making all the wrong choices. Choosing the wrong people, places and things is why I am where I am today—alone—in a jail cell.

I’ve hurt everyone in my life over and over again, till finally, there’s no one left to hurt but me!

Jesse Jackson is a participant in the Beat Within’s San Francisco County Jail writing workshops. Other prisoner essays are available here.  Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Life After Prison: The Invisible Barrier Can’t Be Wished Away

An inmate contemplating release comes to terms with the fact that the realities of life on the “outside” mean that for most returning prisoners, the American Dream has already been foreclosed.

In the prison where I am confined, there is a table in the dayroom at which the same four men spend the entire day playing Dungeons & Dragons. At their feet are stacks of costly books they occasionally refer to (presumably) on how to cast spells or make witches brew.

At another table sits a trio who spend the afternoon and evening drafting frivolous court pleadings and sharing legal strategies. Books on criminal procedure and copies of case law are close at hand—all to be misapplied and misinterpreted by the men.

There are innumerable variations on this theme throughout the dayroom in a penitentiary: from wanna-be entrepreneurs sharing copies of Fortune magazine, to fake pimps sharing stories about the imaginary ho’s on their “team.”

To the untrained eye these groups appear to be distinct. But there is actually a common theme.

Each endeavors to escape the reality of what the future will likely bring.

Try as they might to ignore the truth, the flyer from the Post-Prison Education Program that is readily available explains quite clearly how “[f]or many prisoners, returning to our communities means a lack of opportunity and a life of hopelessness and despair.”

This is the reality that prisoners refuse to contemplate seriously: A life of hopelessness and despair.

Let us examine the prospects of a prototypical prisoner who is set to be freed. In fact, to better his odds of success, let us make him atypical, in that he has no cognitive impairments or avowed intent to engage in further criminal activity.

What he does share in common with similarly situated prisoners is a spotty work history; a lack of financial resources available upon release; few (if any) family or friends able (or willing) to help him, once freed; and no marketable skills that would enable him to make a decent living.

This is the boulder that he must somehow push aside in order not to be among the two out of three who return to the penitentiary. Moreover, he is wedged against a host of barriers that prevent felons from successfully reintegrating into society.

For instance, federal student aid is foreclosed to those who have committed drug offenses in certain circumstances.

There are restrictions on where ex-offenders can live—even if they have the means.

Most significantly, once freed, a former prisoner will be black-balled from countless employment opportunities due to the stigma of his criminal history.

Devah Pager paints the picture of what life on the outside will bring in Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration.

Formal exclusion from the economy occurs “through the web of federal and state laws that restrict ex-offenders from a range of labor market activities” and many restrictions have little “connection to apparent safety concerns,” according to Pager.

Even when ex-offenders are not barred by law from an occupation, her research shows how they are culled from the pool of applicants by criminal background checks and, as a consequence, are only “one-half to one-third as likely as equally qualified non-offenders to be considered by employers.”

None of this is surprising to those involved in reentry. Whether one endorses psychological, biological, or social theories to explain criminal behavior, it is abundantly clear that felony disenfranchisement makes it difficult for individuals to desist from engaging in criminality.

That is, unless one is willing to accept their dismal circumstances and go on with the business of maintaining their liberty.

Long ago, I came to terms with knowing that if ever I was set free, in all probability I would end up living on the margins of society.

That life on the outside would not be about thriving—it would be about surviving.

I refused to ignore researchers such as Pager who have proclaimed that the “combination of blackness and a criminal record creates barriers to employment that in many contexts appear virtually impossible to overcome.”

This is my reality.

Acceptance that one’s future is bleak—and that there is little that prisoners can do to change their destiny—can go a long way towards mitigating the risk of reoffending, I believe.

It inoculates against feelings of relative deprivation and you forgo chasing pipe dreams.

Often, I wonder why correctional systems do not offer cognitive-behavior-therapy programs aimed at getting prisoners to accept that the measure of success upon release will be if they can maintain their liberty while living in poverty.

Lest you think I’m being facetious, I am actually half-serious about this.

If designed properly, such a program could try to convince prisoners that social or economic inequities do not prevent them from enjoying life, even if most of it is spent scrambling to make ends meet.

Since no such program as yet exists, my suggestion to the hypothetical prisoner on the verge of being released is this: Embrace your status as a second-class citizen.

To the extent that the American Dream was ever availing, it has now been foreclosed—just accept it.

Fighting against this concept will simply cause cognitive dissonance and lead you back to drugs and other crookedness.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Hopefully he would share this advice with everyone that he sits with in the dayroom so that they too will get the message.

Then again, why trouble prisoners’ sense of wellbeing? Doing time is hard enough without having to confront the ugly truth about what the future holds when one is set free.

Better to leave them in the dayroom where they can continue pretending to be sorcerers, and entrepreneurs, and attorneys. Better to leave them to their fantasies.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He will be eligible to go before the parole board in 2017. He welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

‘The Little Boy Who Lost His Dream’

As a child he dreamed of becoming a fireman. At 45, he is dedicated to rescuing others from the fires that nearly consumed him.

ToyFireTruck frankieleon

Photo by frankieleon via Flickr


This essay was originally published by The Beat Within, a justice system writing workshop.

Back in the early 1970s, I watched my favorite TV show: “Emergency.” As a child I dreamed of becoming a fireman just like the firemen on “Emergency.”

Every time the bell would ring and the big, red shiny engine fifty-one would leave the station on a run, I would imitate it with my fire truck. Also, I pictured myself going to rescue a stranded person or putting out a fire.

As I grew older, the innocence I once had as a child was lost. That was when my neighborhood became heavily infested with drug dealers and violent gang members. Living in the neighborhood became an
everyday struggle just to survive.

The drug dealers began to fight one  another over who’s going to control the drugs. Then the rival gang
members started to do drive-by shootings and innocent people got shot or murdered.

Living in the inner city, I felt like I was in the middle of two nations who were at war with one another. Sadly, I watched the helicopters flying over the crime scene while the ambulances and the police arrived late as always.

Then I saw a mother who just lost a child to gang violence scream a scream that no other mother should have to scream. The gang violence and drug dealing got so bad that I would see dead bodies lying in the middle of the streets, in vacant apartments, and in the alleys, as well as seeing women being physically, sexually and emotionally abused by the one they love.

I started to wonder if I was really safe in my own  neighborhood--and do the police even care?

Dealing with the traumatic death of my grandpa in my own life, I felt like nobody gave a damn about me and what I was going through, so why should I care about them?

So I became numb, heartless, desensitized to violence; and I dehumanized other people, which made it easy for me to hurt them and not feel anything. I exchanged pain for pain.

Today, as a 45-year-old young man, I no longer believe and feel that way. Because I’m incarcerated for taking another human being’s life and being in restorative justice, I realize the pain, grief, and suffering that a mother, father, sister and brother go through after losing someone they love through violence.

Even though my grandpa is resting in peace I made a vow to my grandpa not to ever harm another human being again, and I mean it from the heart.

Despite my not being able to become a fireman, I’m still able to rescue others and put out fires. This time I do it by sharing my story of "The Little Boy Who Lost His Dream."

from http://thecrimereport.org