Oregon Literary Fellowships are intended to help Oregon writers initiate, develop, or complete literary projects. Fellowships are also awarded to support Oregon’s independent publishers, small presses, and literary magazines. Sterling Cunio won for the nonfiction category! CLICK HERE TO READ THE ANNOUNCEMENT
After the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles were unconstitutional, the Court ordered states to review the cases of prisoners given that sentence. We hear about one prisoner in that situation, Jennifer Pruit, and the connection she made with the judge that sentenced her. Listen to the radio clip (6:35):
Interesting story on OPB's "Think Out Loud" yesterday about a guy who set a good example for many while he was in.
My childhood was great. I was raised by my biological grandma in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas, in a loving home free of abuse, neglect, alcohol, drugs and any type of criminality.
I went to church regularly, did good in school, sports and the scouts. I threw papers for the Dallas Morning News to save money for video games. I rode bikes, mowed yards and had childhood long friends.
In retrospect, my childhood seemed like the textbook version of middle class suburban “Leave It to Beaver” type experience. Except, I was a mixed race Beaver without a father...a mulatto bastard.
Grandma, a superwoman I was raised to call “Momma,” was an actively involved parental figure who raised me with affection, guidance, discipline, and diligent effort to instill principles of honesty, responsibility, confidence, manners, kindness, individuality and a strong work ethic.
Childhood truly was happy for me, indeed, I was blessed.
Adolescence, however, was hell.
My twelve years with an angel came to an end three months after my twelfth birthday, when Momma died.
Damn. Talk about life shattering.
After Momma’s death I stayed with the family of my coach and best friend, who were more like family to me growing up than all the rest of my distant relatives that were scattered from the hills of Arkansas to the cities of the Pacific Northwest.
I spent the first couple of days lying on the bed crying and praying to God not to send Momma to hell. She smoked cigarettes and I vividly remembered some Sunday school teacher saying smoking was a sin.
Although I spent the first few days crying, I would then spend the next decade choking back tears, in an effort to be a man.
On burial day I sat observing my grandpa, coach, and uncles as they sat stoically without tears while holding weeping women clutched by crying nieces.
Growing up in Texas, wrestling and playing football, there was an overt effort to “toughen up” and “man up” when shit got hard because “cry babies and wimps sit on the bench.” Literally gasping for air as I choked back weeping disrupted breathing, I held myself together.
Afterwards, walking away from the lowered coffin, I listened to my uncle tell my coach how proud he was about how well I was dealing with it like a “little man” while noting that I didn’t even cry.
That comment, at that time, was so impactful that I began to develop an ability to suppress and stifle emotion that day.
After a couple of weeks with my surrogate family, I was sent to Arkansas to live with my grandpa.
Entering a new world and a new life.
Grandpa was a hard-working man...one of those southern country men that knew how to do everything from fly crop dusting planes to building homes. A business owner whose construction projects took him all around the southern states for weeks at a time.
Born to sharecroppers, grandpa had overcome his fair share of hardships to achieve a respectful level of success. His belief in hard work was evident in his laboring from dawn to dusk.
After dusk came a big country dinner and a bottle of whiskey.
In addition to hard work, grandpa also believed in “obedient dogs, women and children,” and it seemed that physical beatings of drunk women by drunk men was the culturally accepted norm for conflict resolution in the hills.
Until this day I vividly remember the stinging sounds of hands smacking flesh, as I lay with my head buried in a pillow choking back tears because little men didn’t cry – even if Momma’s dead and step grandma is being beat.
About a month or so after arriving in Arkansas I started school. It was the epitome of culture shock.
I am not one who can say that I grew up LOVING school. I did good in class, had fun with school activities and sports. Yet, if I could have had my way, I would of been perfectly happy playing video games, sports and riding bikes.
However, I did not DREAD school...until I became the freckle-faced, rusty-colored afro-wearing city kid going to a real life hillbilly school.
I must have been the only ethnic looking kid in the whole school, because if there was anything other than white hillbilly Pumpkin Patch Kids there, I never saw them.
Another ethnic looking kid wasn’t seen in class, on the bus, in the cafeteria and certainly not during the bully “city nigger” times.
It was a short period of time before I began having emotional outburst in class and school yard scuffles. It did not take long to figure out that an effective way to deal with bullies was to punch them in the nose, football tackle them and rub their faces in the dirt with a headlock.
Punch, tackle, headlock.
All my life I have been a good learner, even of bad habits. Even though it didn’t take me long to figure out a way to deal with bullies, I could not figure out why I would be licked by the principle for fighting them.
“Licks” where how many spankings a kid got with a wooden paddle.
The principle and teachers would frequently remind me that I would not be allowed to “run wild” like I may have done in the city. I never ran wild.
Once a good student, excited by learning, I had come to dread school and began to distrust teachers. Experiencing insensitivity and observed hypocrisy (paddled for hitting) began to erode my respect for authority.
After a few months in that school it was decided that I would be sent to live with my uncle in Portland, Oregon. I am not sure of the thought process behind this decision because my grandpa died after I came to prison and before I could have life reflecting conversations with him. However, I do not believe grandpa was aware of my uncle’s life style.
Initially I was excited to live with my uncle. I had always associated him with “cool”.
As a child, when he would come to visit in Texas, he would take me dirt bike riding, water skiing, fishing, let me drive his hot rod and give me a few swigs of his beer every now and then to “put hair on the chest.” He was exciting, big, tough and cool with a hairy chest.
In an impoverished neighborhood of Portland, my uncle’s house was filled with alcohol and drug use. There was no stability, structure, parental involvement, or educational values (6th grade was my last grade completed). My uncle’s house, no matter where we moved, functioned as both a “party house” and a hub of criminal activity.
Shortly after my arrival I was introduced to petty theft and recreational marijuana use. After participating in minor thefts with my uncle and his friends, they would smoke joints with me while treating me as “one of the guys.”
Acceptance as “one of the guys” was the ultimate reinforcement of the aforementioned behavior, for, it had been close to a year since losing Momma and I had experienced tremendous distress, constant moving, untreated grief and loneliness to such a degree that any sense of belonging became incredibly alluring.
Thus, I eagerly engaged in any activity to be one of the “guys”.
Most influential in the genesis of the criminality I would develop was the exposure to a criminal habitus. A habitus consisting of a value system that rejected conventional norms, detested authority, defined masculinity by toughness, a reckless willingness to engage in risky acts and sexual exploits of women. A habitus similar in the ethos of those who live outside the laws of society in a culture of street crime, characterized by hyper-machismo and obsessive materialism.
There were many nights at my uncle’s when I would be awakened from my bed on the couch during the wilder parties and instructed to “go somewhere.”
At first I would just sit outside on the steps or lay down in the truck. In Texas, I was so used to being home before dark that it didn’t occur to me, at first, to wander around the streets at night. Within a few weeks, though, I started venturing outside the yard, then off the block and then around the town.
Sadly enough, it did not take long to discover other kids out in the middle of the night. Kids that was mostly older and involved in juvenile delinquency. Too young to attend nightlife events, our activities were delinquent.
In the streets I started acting in anti-social ways reflective of the criminal habitus I was adapting. I began spray painting graffiti, vandalizing, stealing and other forms of petty mischief with the intention of demonstrating that I was “DOWN” (committed to group ethos).
That willingness to demonstrate how “down” I could be, would develop into a deadly dysfunction.
When in the streets, at first, I was resistant to be delinquent due to being conflicted between upbringing and group inclusion.
Ultimately, group inclusion was more compelling and, therefore, rocks hurled through windows for “something to do” because we were all “down” began to make perfect sense somehow.
In hindsight I am deeply saddened by how easy it was to find other kids roaming the streets all night.
My uncle and I moved what seemed to be every few months...Portland to Seattle, back to Portland and then to Salem and back to Seattle, then Salem again with a few other stops along the way. No matter where I went there were kids in the streets – hungry, bored, neglected and stealing.
Shortly after my 14th birthday I began having police contact and going to juvenile detention. Then I was made a ward of the state and placed in the foster care system.
At that point in my life I believed that foster care could have had a positive impact on redirecting my life (and halting the downward spiral), had I been placed in a single kid home or even a group home where I wasn’t the youngest.
Honestly, I was excited to be in a stable home environment with structure. In the streets, I didn’t like sleeping in the truck, on park benches or in recycled newspaper bins while sharing 99 cent hamburgers.
In foster care I had my own bed (first since leaving Arkansas) and there was food in the refrigerator. Yes, indeed, I was easily excited.
As would be true in all my foster care “group home” placements there would be a minimum of three other at-risk youths with little involvement between the adults and kids beyond the enforcement of various rules.
In hindsight it seems being labeled “troubled youth” effected the expectation of those in charge of the group homes as they invested very little effort in nurturing aspirations.
While in the group home we went to an “alternative school” for a couple of hours in a building behind the juvenile detention center, where our daily attendance was graded as “compliant” or “noncompliant”. It was where we met girls willing to exchange sex for attention.
In both the group home and alternative school I felt it necessary to show how “down” I was to the other kids so that I could be part of the “in groups”.
Being down usually meant rebelling and running away with others who had “connections” (places to stay and places to sell stolen car radios or shoplifted items).
I began to find a sense of excitement and belonging among older peers that were more mature in criminality and fascinated with the glamorized criminal lifestyles of the street cultures identified as “thugg,” “the game” and “gangsterism”.
A cycle of behavioral pattern was established – run away, steal cars, party, sex – get caught, sit in juvenile for a couple of days. Another group home with new kids proving how “down” we all were. Back to compliant attendance in the building behind the kids’ jail where girls swapped sex for compliments.
Usually within weeks of placement in another group home, some event, usually the enforcement of responsible rules, would result in the decision to run away and repeat the cycle anew.
Run, steal, drive, party, sex, arrest.
There were times when the idea to run away was introduced by me, while at other times it would be introduced by another.
Regardless of who introduced the idea it would always become a group decision in which dissent invited ridicule and exclusion. To be cool you had to be “down,” so we always ran away with others.
Indeed, at no point in my adolescence did I ever commit any form of delinquency or crime as an individual. It was always with at least one older teen or adult.
As a result of the run-steal-drive-party-sex-arrest cycle, I was sent to MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility.
MacLaren was a reformatory school for boys. Ostensibly structured as a program for reforming youth, it actually functioned as a gladiatorial/prison preparatory school with an atmosphere of juvenile criminality.
A junior prison.
MacLaren is very different today due to remarkable changes, however, during the 1990’s (when I went), going to MacLaren meant being placed in a large group of teenage boys with various dysfunctionality, fragmented thinking skills and trauma histories.
We were all excessively irrational in our focus on reputation and social standing among peer groups.
The more “down” one was, the higher up he climbed in social standing, as boldness increased popularity.
Behaving in ways reinforcing criminality (emulating criminal archetypes) assured acceptance among the “in group” while receiving only minor intervention (punishment) from adult supervisors. Punishment was never really an effective long term intervention as we simply learnt how to avoid being caught.
Avoiding being caught was enough to be considered compliant and earn release in 60-90 days. Because of county bed limits, a minor record and compliant status, I was released.
While at MacLaren I was exposed to a greater crime culture, associated with more criminally advanced youth and learned how to “play the game”.
While there I wasn’t involved in any therapies or services intended to enhance life skills, influence productive decision making or addressing mental/emotional health.
It was as if I had been released from summer camp for aspiring thugs where I had become more sophisticated in my criminality, maladaptive in meeting needs and more enamored with gangsterism while expanding my network of delinquent peers associated with the culture of street crime.
Alas, I was no more mature, reformed, nor healed than before I went in. Indeed, I was more dysfunctional.
Within weeks of release I began to repeat the cycle: run, steal, drive, party, sex, arrest.
Back to prison prep (MacLaren) for a brief term before released to another group home. By then I was 16 and placed in a group home with 4-6 other teens on parole from MacLaren.
I enrolled in another alternative school to receive a G.E.D. and despite high test scores, it was never suggested that I pursue a high school diploma (they probably knew I wouldn’t have done it anyway).
In group homes there is “group think” and I quickly discovered the same habitus and peer dynamics that was present in both the streets and the reformatory school. I eagerly joined the group as nearly every boy would sneak out at night and go “kicking it”.
“Kicking it” was our social activities that usually involved any type of alcohol, weed smoking, stealing cars and hanging out in homes lacking parental restrictions.
Functioning with the same decision making skills (or lack thereof) that led me to juvenile, I quickly wanted to cement my social status amongst the group.
I wanted to fit in.
Our motivating values were the same and we shared the immature belief that cars, clothes, shoes, partying and being tough defined who we were.
It was at that group home that I began to associate with peers that carried guns and committed robberies to get money or anything else they wanted.
I found it exciting and it gave me a sense of self-worth, for I felt that I was finally amongst the “HARDCORE,” as pistols were an integral part of the hardcore thug gangsta image I strove diligently to emulate.
In a matter of months my criminality escalated from petty theft and stealing cars to “packing heat”.
I believed that being “hardcore” meant being a tough guy...a man who didn’t “give a fuck.” I thought that “money, hos and cars” were success defining status symbols because they brought social standing, esteem and recognition.
Acceptance and popularity, for being “down” and “hardcore,” amongst older peers and promiscuous girls, provided a sense of belonging that I was desperate enough to kill for.
In December of 1993, I began carrying a pistol. The pistol was more than a weapon to me. It was a mechanical tool through which I felt empowered to validate my identity as “hardcore”.
It would only be a matter of weeks before the cycle (run-steal-drive-party-sex-arrest) would become deadly.
My roommate at the group home, Wilford, was a smart kid that I began to look up to immediately just as he looked up to me. We were both desperate followers with leadership qualities always trying to make good impressions in bad ways.
The group home considered Wilford a bad influence and since he was 18 they kicked him out. When they kicked him out I ran away so that we could keep “kicking it”.
We were staying at a “party house” full of criminally active adults who we idolized and was always trying to impress with our outlandish lies about gun battles, mafia connections and sexual conquest.
During the early morning hours of January 15, 1994, in the middle of spinning a movie-inspired lie about a carjacking, we performed back in Chicago (where we had never been), one of the men in the house confronted our lying, challenged our bravery and exposed us as fakes.
All talk, no action.
Embarrassed, challenged and emboldened by weaponry we decided to do a carjacking. Although not overtly expressed, we were clearly attempting to prove how “down” we were. Attempting to “prove” ourselves.
In continuously attempting to develop an identity as “hardcore,” I created the very situations in which I felt it necessary to act in accordance with the image I portrayed.
A dangerous, self-fulfilling prophecy – to build a reputation as a criminal, you must commit a crime.
Carjacking was hardcore,
I was hardcore -
Driving stolen cares was exciting -
Increased popularity reinforced through risky acts embolden by
...I was down.
We left the house that night with no plan except getting a car at gunpoint and going to Texas. Within hours, two people were dead.
Kidnapped, robbed, shot.
Later that day I was arrested and thrown in juvenile detention center for a couple of days, then MacLaren for a few weeks, then county jail for months and then prison for life.
The crime specifics I will cover in specific details in a separate writing with the sole purpose of exploring event escalation, the thought process and emotional state.
After my arrest and throughout the court proceedings I would learn about the victims. A young couple engaged to be married named Ian Dahl and Bridget Camber. Both were from loving families and cherished by their friends and communities as very kind and special people.
Their murder had a devastating impact on numerous lives, yet, it took over a decade before I even began to sincerely comprehend the magnitude of the harms I inflicted.
Alas, at the time of the offense I did not value the sanctity of life, indeed, I cared more about what people thought about me than I did anything else, and my dysfunctional efforts to be “hardcore” destroyed lives.
Throughout court and sentencing my understanding of the full damage inflicted was fragmented and superficial at best. Because of immaturity (I played make believe in jails’ isolation cells) and unresolved trauma issues, the personal pain that I felt was my primary self-focused emotional experience. The response was to stifle everything and “man up”.
Compassion for the families of Ian and Bridget was beyond my capacity for many years. I did not begin to make connections to the emotional impacts my actions on others until I began to recognize my own dysfunction.
When I finally realized the pain I caused others it would prove to be my most difficult experience I’ve known, yet, it required personal healing and maturation to get to a point of empathy.
Maturation is a gradual process and mine was complicated by the many challenges that a 16-year old kid faces in an adult prison.
The first couple years seemed to just blur together – judges, courtrooms, tears, victims, depression and nightmares.
Cells, solitude, despair and unanswered prayers. Anger, prosecution, shameful news and front page – all blending like surrealist strains entwined into inseparable knots.
What I do remember clearly about arriving at prison was being utterly terrified, shackled and sentenced to life.
Shuffling through gates and down a long sidewalk between giant cellblocks warehousing souls I observed the chained prisoners around me.
Scraggly beards and goatees, busted teeth and stoic stares, needle tracks and battle scars visible on ink covered arms and “death to all” tattoos on more than one neck.
Above all else, at 150 pounds without a single whisker, I became keenly aware of the fact that I was skinny and small.
Strangely, in one of many ironic twists of correlating fates, my experience in the Arkansas school was more useful than I realized because had I not learned a way to deal with bullies – punch, tackle, headlock – I might have been fucked.
The first lesson a teenager learns in prison is that you have to be willing to defend yourself. 200 pound men hungry from thousands of pushups hit hard when they want your canteen sack.
Black eyes and busted lips along with jeans and t-shirts were the standard issue of “prison blues”.
Yet, come to find out, keeping your mouth shut and “knuckling up” (fighting back) was considered respectable. Hence, taking a few beatings and keeping my mouth shut resulted in being treated like one of the guys.
The fear of the much bigger hardened convicts would quickly turn into admiration and emulation of the ultra-macho role models that I believed to represent the epitome of masculinity.
The very issues that led me to prison were exacerbated upon arrival. In the joint (prison), behavioral problems were always responded to punitively with placement in disciplinary segregation, commonly known as “the hole”.
The hole is a miserable isolating torture of nearly complete depravation intended to punish into rule compliance. The hole is a cell inside a separate building with painted over windows, where one sits in complete lockdown 23 ½ hours a day.
More abuse and suicides occur in the hole than anywhere else throughout the prison.
For nearly 10 years I was constantly in and out of the hole where I would typically do 1-2 year placements. During those times of complete isolation I found myself with plenty of time to think, reflect and take a closer evaluation of my life.
The more I began to think about my life the more my focus shifted towards thinking about who I was and less about what others thought about me.
A gradual and significant shift because as a teenager and into my early 20’s, whoever I tried to be was always defined by peer affiliation. In that shift, I began to mature in my ability to identify my individualism independent of peer group influence.
Even as an adolescent, dangerously desperate to belong and be somebody, I was aware that the outcomes of my behaviors were rarely intended and the emotional needs that I sought to fulfill were not met.
After years of solitude I was beginning to ask myself why “everything” in my life always went wrong.
Trapped in “the hole,” void of sunshine, human touch and hope, filled with rage and withering despair. Thoroughly disillusioned by the realization that those idolized as macho-giants were actually mere caricatures of masculinity. Feeling “cursed” by a fate in which everything went wrong...I sought to understand why?
During the early stages of internally exploring the dynamics of my thought process and the link between behaviors and results, an envelope arrived in the mail that proved a turning point in my life.
Inside the envelope was a letter from Ian’s nephew and a poem from his niece. The timing of their arrival could not have been better, and although both the letter and the poem were impactful, it was the letter that served as a profound catalyst. The letter said:
“Cunio, I am writing to you because I thought you should know what you’ve done to me and my family, but you’ve affected me and my little sister most. You took our uncle away from us. I am 12 and my sister is 11. I HATE you because of what you’ve done. Thanks to you guys I will only see my sister, my mom and dad, my grandparents, and other family members. I have an aunt, but you took my uncle from all of us. WHY WOULD YOU DO SUCH A THING? Do your parents look at you the same? Did he do anything wrong when he was walking her to the car? Why did you pick him? He is and always will be my uncle, but I’ll never be able to know him. I don’t and never will know him because you are a horrible person. I heard that he loved me, but I’ll never ever hear him tell me that. You probably think you’ve been in prison long enough, but I think your not even half way through, you took my uncle so I hope you never get out. I hope you know this letter is no where near telling you how I feel. Thanks to you I never will know what he’s like.”
After reading this letter I sat down to answer it – but, I couldn’t.
Page after page, I wrote out lengthy excuses and justifications while offering no real substance or accountability. Unable to respond with insight or any awareness I became deeply disturbed by my inability to answer, even to myself, the question of a 12 year old boy.
Every effort to answer “why would you do such a thing?” was a failure. Everything I wrote was fragmented minimizing and artificial. The inability to answer that question honestly gnawed at me incessantly.
I had not been honest with myself about why I did the things I did. I had denied, excused and lied to others about the murders so much that I had literally avoided any attempt to honestly understand, “why would I do such a thing”.
The letter forced me to engage in a level of self-analysis that required me to painfully confront the reality of my actions. Personal accountability took me years to both achieve and accept.
Although I began to develop a cognitive awareness of personal responsibility, it took much longer to make an emotionally empathetic connection to the harms I caused many.
The ability to connect empathically with others required an emotional health that I had to recover.
Beginning as a preteen and continuing into my mid-twenties, I had learnt to stifle emotions. Pain, sadness, sorrow, any emotion besides frustration and anger were perceived as a weakness, indeed, I associated being “too emotional” with femininity.
The stifling process of emotion was to suppress and detach, which ultimately resulted in desensitization and apathy.
Death, funerals, bullies, ridicule, confusion, juvenile, murder, jail, prison, strip searches – “spread’em and cough” – loneliness, hole time isolation, cold, hungry and hopeless, surrounded by risk and danger, skinny and small, in hostile environments deprived of kind touch...
Years and years without a hug...
The ability to stifle and suppress became a survival strategy that “hardened” me up for the rigors of continuous adversity.
Detachment and suppression were my primary coping mechanisms, yet, those mechanisms were damaging to such a degree that any emotional connection to the pain I had caused others would not become possible until my own emotional health had been restored.
That emotional restoration was nurtured through relationships with the love and support of the few people who never abandoned a belief in my humanity – an aunt, a best friend and a pastor.
Maturation and the initial stages of emotional recovery would lead me to a crushing realization, for, once I connected to the damage I inflicted on so many – the pain was so immense I wanted to die.
Oddly, that connection would be triggered by the story of a fictional character.
Years in solitude turned me into an avid reader of anything I would get my hands on, ranging from religious texts to air conditioner manuals.
While reading “Sophie’s Choice” by William Styron, I became deeply engrossed by the story and its multiple layers with complex characters.
Sophie and her children, a boy and girl named Jan and Eva, were sent to a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. Upon arrival, a Nazi officer forced Sophie to decide which child would live and which child would be murdered.
The story profoundly affected me and I wasn’t sure why I was so distraught when the story was fictional, yet, I felt deeply distressed thinking about the utterly evil act of forcing a mother to make such a choice.
Suddenly, I was hit hard with a total recognition that I, myself, was responsible for the grief of parents whose son or daughter had been murdered.
In an overwhelming instant, I felt a crushing pain and grief for the loss and suffering of all the victims.
Up until that point, all introspection, personal growth and internal work had been self-focused as I worked on my own issues, however, that all shifted in a moment.
An epic shift of paradigm occurred in which the focus shifted from all about me - what “I” did, how “I” felt, why “I” did it - to become completely and wholly about the people I harmed and what they must have felt.
I FELT it, as if I had been swallowed up by a tsunami of emotion in which I connected with empathy to the feelings of others in what seemed to be a hellish epiphany.
That empathic connection was a defining moment in my life – a monumental turning point; although at the time it felt disastrous and prompted a self-crisis greater than any previously known.
Although it may have seemed like it happened in an instant, it was truly a cumulative insight and growth triggered by a moment of complete clarity.
In hindsight I recognize that arriving at a point where I could make that emotional connection was due to tremendous progress in my own emotional recovery. The result of many factors, including, but not limited to, the internal work surrounding needs and behavioral outcomes; the cognitive awareness work prompted by Ian’s nephew’s letter, the vast amount of reading that continuously exposed me to new ideas and information that enabled me to construct new perspectives around identity.
A maturing in the ability to identify as individual independent of group think.
Situational stabilization, for, although prison is volatile and abnormal it was the first place I spent more than a year at since leaving Texas.
Whereas prison is volatile and risk filled ass a whole, a person eventually adapts to prison life and develops routines that provide a sense of normalcy to various degrees.
Ultimately the greatest factor that contributed to emotional recovery was the support and loving interactions of emotionally healthy people.
Empathic connections with others was truly tremendous progress in my development, however, it took me awhile to understand it as growth because it started as pain in recognizing how much harm I had caused.
It was an overwhelming hell that crushed my entirety with a sorrow beyond my ability to endure. Immense guilt and shame led to a self-loathing so intense that I literally began to hate myself for all the shit I did to others.
The guilt, the shame, pain, remorse and self-hate sent me spiraling into multiple years of depression so overwhelming it seemed beyond my ability to endure.
In one capacity or another I’ve endured hardship since age 12 so let there be no question about the strength of my endurance or my ability to withstand struggle, for, I possess great ability to endure the very adversities I see crumble many others.
I’ve endured difficulties from subtle tortures to overt abuse. Heart break, orphancy, homeless nights in the streets wishing for food, the suicides of friends and family multiple deaths of loved ones, the betrayal of trusted ones who were untrustworthy, nightmares of murder, haunting memories, continuous condemnation and public scorn, years in the hole deprived of sunshine, fresh air, touch, and adequate nutrition.
“Pig justice” with the stomp of state sponsored boots smashing down on the face by guards later allowed to resign to avoid being fired (-hence, it never happen officially, right?).
No hope for improvement or amends for past transgressions.
Riots, cold nights, pepper spray-tasting coughs and burning tears caused by the airborne mace regularly sprayed in the face of a mentally ill neighbor for not “acting right”.
Physical assaults, dirty water, labelled and designated as the worst; permanently outcasted from society with no chance for redemption.
Handcuffs, constant suspicion, and authoritive rule in which every intention is interrogated; concrete walls and iron bars the only sight seen for decades from the inside view of cages.
Loneliness squeezing heart – no cuddling, intimate companionship or love making.
Years void of hugs and frequent days without kind words.
Mistakes, shame, regret –
Forever deemed untrustworthy, unworthy and a threat –
Defined solely by the most tragic failure at humanity.
Withering potential and captive talent.
Genuine apologies unbelieved, absolutely sincerity declared a lie and complete authenticity always doubted.
Traumas endured in chaotic please lacking care, counsel or healing.
A scarcity of love and abundance of hostility.
Only a fool could question my ability to endure.
Through all adversity I maintained my spirit. My fire was never extinguished, not even when it existed as dimly lit coals buried in ashes.
Motha-fucka, the beast nor adversity has never broke me. I never lost my ability to desire nor did I lose my will to live –
Until I felt empathy.
Emotionally connecting to the sufferance of those I harmed brought such grief that the weeping burst forth with a thundering boom so loud, I think even Sophie heard it –
I laid down and began mourning.
The crying lasted for days at a time for more than a year.
I mourned for Ian and Bridget and the joy, opportunity and precious moments of life I took from them.
I mourned for their families who suffer the permanency of the loss and trauma inflicted – I mourned for deep pain they felt.
I mourned for their friends and the future memories lost.
I mourned for Momma, grandpa, step grandma and other dead family. I mourned for the kids in the street, for parents of children lost to violence or prison; I mourned for the children of neglectful parents.
I mourned for those I bullied, intimidated or verbally abused and all others I ever harmed.
Mourning turned to guilt and the entire acceptance of guilt resulted in the realization that for nearly a decade I had harmed anybody who crossed my path.
The guilt fueled a self-loathing in which depression overwhelmed me for 2 years, one of which I spent crying as if all the tears and emotion I had stifled for a decade, took over my every waking moment followed by anxiety that disrupted even sleep’s solace.
Trapped in supermax, the hole of holes, I literally laid weeping and speechless for weeks unnoticed.
Visits were allowed for one hour every other week and my aunt was the only one allowed to visit. She didn’t know me well enough to see my heart and soul were broke.
My best friend and spirits’ companion would of recognized but she wasn’t allowed to visit because she didn’t fit the policy description of family.
Invisible was my dying.
Constantly I ruminated the sufferance I caused others. Unable to make any amends or even say sorry, I just say imagining what they must of felt and went through.
Most of all Ian and Bridget and their families.
Hours upon hours I would be stricken with grief at imagining Bridget’s mother having to pack her room, at her dad arranging burial. The fear of Ian’s grandma who was now afraid to go out at night; Ian’s parents whenever they heard a favorite song of their son.
I was trapped in feeling the pain of others that I was responsible for.
The regret, remorse, guilt, sorrow and self-loathing became so intense that I decided to end my own life.
The paint was unbearable and there wasn’t a single speck of hope, nor self-value. I had come to hate myself and could not fathom any form of redemption or salvation.
I saw no purpose in my life and had failed at humanity and the burden just seemed too much.
My suicide letters were apologies and confessions as I thought making them my last living testimony would give credibility to my remorse, for, above all else I wanted people to know I was sorry.
Ultimately, one realization and a single abstract hope kept me from mailing the letters before overdose.
The realization that even my life was valuable and to take it would be to inflict more pain on the few people who cared for me. Suicide would have been yet another act of hurting people through taking a life – an act I will never repeat in any form.
Determined to never again transgress against the sanctity of life, eliminating the option of suicide left me facing an existential dilemma.
I could not live with who I was and what I had done, yet, I could not take my own life.
Nothing made sense to me.
Entangled in existential contemplations I began to realize that even after hitting bottom, I was never completely hopeless...
I just couldn’t recognize it.
The very idea of apologizing in a last testimony was a hope for even the slightest degree of redemption.
Abstract, inchoate and intuitively felt – I had hoped for some salvation in truth.
Til this day it’s impossible for me to clearly articulate exactly how I made the connections because the ideas, actions and feelings were just as conflicting as my mental, emotional and spiritual states.
Yet, nonetheless a single spark of hope existed –
Hope for redemption.
That single hope became my lifeline, as I focused in on the belief that somehow and in some way, I could redeem my character and humanity.
The realization that I could not live with who I was, yet, unwilling to end my life led to the inevitable conclusion –
I had to change who I was.
Although a seemingly obvious conclusion, actually doing it proved a mighty task. I knew that I would have to become a person that I was proud to be. I knew that I would have to become a man of respectable character and integrity. I would have to love myself and others, I knew I would have to make amends and help people for the rest of my life. I knew that I would spend the rest of my life promoting life.
I knew I had to change, transform and evolve; yet, the path wasn’t entirely clear nor free of hurdles and pitfalls.
Understanding the wisdom of a Hindu proverb I sought to “bloom where planted” and began searching internally for the specific changes I needed and desired to make.
I began praying, fasting, studying religion, meditating, vows of silence, journaling, poetry and nonstop application of self-actualizing techniques, skills and teachings.
I sought counseling from wise mentors, mental health professionals, counselors, chaplains, Imans, Buddhists, Natives and Rastafarians.
Voluntarily participated in intense behavior modification groups, anger management, grief therapy, trauma resolution, anxiety therapy, interpersonal communication and educational programs, pro-social activities, charities, empathy development courses, non-violent communication training, harm reduction workshops and many more classes, programs and therapies that further equipped me with the skills necessary to do the internal work of character development, reformation and transformation.
I devoted every waking moment to the work of self-improvement. I logged behaviors and thoughts, changed the content of my conversations and fully committed to becoming a person that I could be proud to be, a man – authentic in all word and deed.
Whereas there are many theories about the particular forces and numerous factors that influence cognitive shifts and personal transformations, I can say unequivocally that above all else – love and education were the most transformative forces in my experiences.
Had I not had the support of those few, mainly one, I may of completely detached from all intimacy and never recovered the emotional health necessary to grow.
The belief of others in my inherent value as a person sustained me through the darkest moments of doubting my own humanity.
Love and support is paramount.
Education expanded my competency and expanded my world view. With new information I began to have new ideas and became more critical in the examination of my belief systems from various perspectives.
Through consciously and mindfully examining my concepts, values and beliefs I began to realign myself with the positive and productive.
Change, self-development and transformation are tedious, deliberate and painstakingly gradual processes that began with accepting total responsibility for the person I was, am and aspire to be.
The process is never complete an after more than a decade entirely devoted to self-improvement I am still growing and still have A LOT more to learn about becoming a better person.
Along the way I’ve learnt valuable lessons in finding purpose, creating meaning, love, restoration and transformation.
I have learnt that it is possible to “bloom wherever one is planted.” I have learnt that a single person can affect the lives of many and thus, we should never underestimate our ability as an individual to have an astounding “effect” on lives.
Inspired to transform my “effects” from harming to helping, I found a purpose through which redemption and restoration became possible through service to humanity.
Transformation from harming to helping required transforming hurting to healing.
It meant transforming days of dreadful withering and purposelessness monotony into opportunities to contribute to the life of another in whatever capacity possible, even if it’s as simple as a kind word.
This concrete hell is built with cold iron to punitively hold troubled people captive –
An affectionless world where many go years without any touch besides the violent and kind words are as rare as rabbits resting in an eagle’s nest.
A sprinkle of compassion accompanied by a kind word can really brighten up a moment. Expression is mighty.
Transforming perceived reality meant an orientation shift from dying in prison to LIVING behind bars –
Understanding why the caged bird sings.
Transforming shame to acceptance, blame to responsibility, guilt to obligation, learned helplessness into self-actualization.
Transforming victim language to creator language; bitterness to warmth, codependency to interdependency, insecurities into strengths.
Apathy to empathy.
Blind following to active leading; despair to hope.
To create meaning and purpose through redemption and restoration, I had to transform a life sentence into “serving life”.
I have found meaning in life through an appreciation of life itself, and whereas I am fully aware that I can never repair or restore the lives lost, I work diligently and daily to help make a difference for others.
Although in limited capacity, I still have the ability to effect the lives of those with whom I interact. Therefore, I work within those spaces to restore harms, fully aware that I am forever obligated to humanity.
I SERVE LIFE.
Let me be clear about some things from the very beginning...I have the rare liberty to express myself freely without any fear of consequence, condemnation or ridicule.
I have spent my entire adult life trapped in a concrete tomb that most people call a cell. Every day and night is spent in the place that I am supposed to die as an old man for crimes committed as a kid.
The most disgraceful skeleton in my closet has been front page news, plastered across the Internet. World-wide shame with a few clicks and a Google search - my entire existence, within nanoseconds, is defined by my single worst failure at humanity.
All my material possessions fit in a space half the size of a bedroom closet and can be taken based upon a guards’ interpretation of my attitude and behavior. Hence, I attach little value to them so that I have nothing to lose materially.
My job is sweeping up goose shit for approximately one dollar a day. Needless to say, I worry little about damaging my career.
With the exception of a few who truly know me through personal interaction, I am perceived only as a dangerous criminal or murdering monster deserving of only the worst.
Reputation isn’t something I have to worry about protecting.
The bottom that others may fear hitting if their lives ever spun out of control, is the topsoil I’ve been buried underneath for two decades.
Trapped in a box and surrounded by more zombies than those on “The Walking Dead,” I still possess a tremendous liberty of immense value – authenticity.
My only freedom is expression and there is nothing I ever have to worry about saying that could impact me negatively. I am like the slave that has mastered my truth as liberty.
Thus, I share my truths born of tragedy and triumph, independent of any approval except self.
In these words I share pieces of my soul in hopes they may contribute something meaningful to the life of another, in any capacity.
The first and most important personal truth I wish to share is that: I AM SORRY.
My past is littered with harms inflicted on the lives of many that I victimized. I am responsible for causing numerous forms of sufferance from death to verbal abuse.
I have traumatized families. I have lied to people that trusted me and stole items that didn’t belong to me. I have assaulted people and taken advantage of people’s insecurities.
I have used fear to intimidate and control others. I have sold drugs to people sick with addiction. I have said intentionally painful words to hurt another. I have been insensitive to the vulnerabilities of others and failed to respond compassionately in their time of need.
There were times, especially in prison, when I did not help another solely to avoid putting myself at risk. I have stepped on bugs for simply running across the floor of a cell I detest.
For all of this, and so much more, I am sorry.