At one time, I was corresponding with a convict in a prison. He seemed to be sorry for whatever put him there and really wanted to change his life around. We were both concerned about children and the state of the world. So many children, from little ones to young adults, are suffering in the worst ways. Many come from broken homes, feel unloved and unwanted, are desperate for love and a sense of belonging, and many will do anything to fill that need. Some will join gangs to feel accepted, some will commit crimes, many drop out of school, some run away, and some will commit acts of violence where lives are taken.
I asked this gentleman if he would be interested in writing a letter to our children, which he happily did. I never had the opportunity to share it, so I would like to do so now. I hope this letter will help those of any age who are thinking about making a wrong choice in life and that they will know that all choices have a consequence. And if you know a child who is hurting, who is one of the desperate ones, maybe you can become a mentor, show him/her that you care, and help him/her to live a good and positive life. Sometimes all it takes is for one person to make a difference in their lives. In the meantime, here is the prisoner’s letter:
"As I write this, I am sitting inside a fence at a large prison facility. I am not going to try to lecture you or tell you how you should live your life. That decision is yours and yours alone. Have you ever heard the saying, “I’ve been there and done that?” Well, I have been there and done that, and that is why I am writing this. Hopefully, what I say will mean something because I am speaking from experience.
One of the most important tools you are going to need to face the world is a good education. I dropped out of school in the eighth grade, and even though I later got my GED and some college credits, I still regret not completing high school. Though you may think your teachers, parents, and others who try to help you may not care about you…they do. The advice they try to give you is based on both their experiences and the fact that they do care about what happens to you. The first piece of advice I want to give you is to get an education.
I was like a lot of you when I was growing up. I thought I was the coolest and toughest thing on two feet. I also thought I knew it all and nobody could tell me anything. Looking back over the years, I now realize that I was a total jerk, a loser, and I really didn’t know anything. I also wish I would have listened to the many people who tried to help me along the way.
The old story about being from a broken home, or growing up in a bad environment, is the reason for me messing up, and it is a bunch of crap. My parents divorced when I was twelve years old and I grew up in the projects in Pennsylvania. We had very little to eat most of the time, and besides rummaging through trash cans for clothes that others discarded, I also resorted to stealing in order to have the things I thought I needed to be cool. That isn’t why I ended up where I am today, though, or why I have spent so much of my life in prison. I am here because, I, and I alone, made the wrong choices in life. Nobody held a gun to my head and made me do anything. That is the second piece of advice I want to give you. Always be willing to take responsibility for your own actions.
I thought it was cool to get drunk all the time, get high on drugs, raise hell, and have a good time with the ladies. Sure it was fun. Or so I thought at the time. For everything we do in this life, there is a price, and I am paying that price now. There is nothing more precious than your freedom. The freedom to go where you want, when you want, and to do what you want. My every movement is controlled in this place. I am told when I can eat, when I can take a shower, what time to go to bed and get up, and when to go to work. In the thirteen years since I have been locked up, I have only seen my family three times. I have a son who was born shortly after I got locked up that I have only seen eight or nine times. He is presently in foster care and I don’t even know where he is. I cannot send him letters, a birthday card, Christmas card, or anything. Although I love him very much, he probably feels I do not.
As far as prison itself…. The best words I could probably come up with is that it sucks. It is true that many of us have our own television, radio, and so forth, but none of the “goodies” we have can make up for what we don’t have, and what we have to endure in here. No matter how tough you think you are there is always someone trying to prove he is tougher. Every day you live on the edge. You have to worry about defending what you have because there is always someone wanting to take it from you. You have people in here who will kill you just for looking at them the wrong way. If you are black, you have the pressures of being forced into a gang, and even the gang members are not safe. If you are white, you are constantly on your guard against the other gangs because most of the gang members see you as just another white dude who is part of the system they feel put them here. And there are other gangs of various races. Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of good white, black, and other races in here, but they are in the minority.
You can never let your feelings or emotions show because at the first sign of weakness, the so-called tough guys will be on you like white on rice. I am fifty-five years old and I am very capable of taking care of myself, but there is not a moment that I let my guard down. You have to watch everybody, even your so-called friends, because even they will take advantage of you if you let them.
Do you think I am still cool and tough? Only within my own mind because the reality is, the really cool people are those on the outside of this place. The cool ones are those who can work where they want, enjoy their time off with their families and friends, go to sleep at night possibly holding their partner, instead of a pillow for comfort. The cool ones are like you, the people who have a choice of what they want to do with their life, and not have someone else tell them what they are going to do.
I regret my past life with every ounce of my being, but I cannot change any of it. If I could, I would do it in a heartbeat. I have twelve months left until I get out of here, and I am counting the days until I can again be like you…free and able to enjoy life on the outside.
Whether anything I said in this letter matters to you or not is up to you. If you do not care about your life, and you do not want to listen to the people who care about you and are trying to help you, that’s fine. They have a bed waiting right here for you. The one thing you never have to worry about is the system running out of beds. They might even let me out early so that they can give my bed to someone who doesn’t give a heck about their life. I hope that someone isn’t you.
People can bend over backwards to teach you, but only you can learn."
Published in the Putnam County Visions magazine December 2014 issue.