prison

My Dark Secret

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“Could you bring me some information on what type of degree a cook can earn to further himself in his career.

J. Smith

Hey may I wish you the very best in life, keep going, don’t let nothing get you down if it does don’t let it keep you down very long, keep faith in the lord Jesus + keep growing stronger in God’s holy word”

Before I applied to medical school I was involved in a program called Prisoner Education Program (PEP), I wrote a little about the program before in previous entries [Why I Chose to Go to Prison and All the Things I Learned in Prison]. In this program I received a folded up letter from an inmate that I still keep with me till this day. The main goal of this program was to help reduce recidivism by teaching these people life and job skills, academic counseling and tutoring. In the letter above, this person wanted to know how to become a chef. I joined this group for personal reasons, you see I grew up with only one of my brothers, and well we saw a lot and went through a lot of things together; much of it I’m not really prepared to share yet, but it’s things I stop to deal with everyday and I’m sure it’s the same for him. But, we grew up around crime and violence and death. Indeed, our drill was growing up wasn’t for fires or California earthquakes, instead it was a ‘drop to the ground’ when you hear pops because it meant a local drive by shooting. My brother and I have different fathers and we had a father figure who was likely a gang member at the time, I’m presumptive because I was too young to understand what a gang was and what it meant, who was shot to death in the same drive by drill we had come to know so often. I dreamt of the glint of his blood where the bullets had penetrated for many years, I still think about it now though I don’t remember his name any longer; recently, I learned in class that this was a form of post traumatic stress.

My mother hoped to move us away from this ‘fate’, we packed things up, and with a huge helping hand of welfare and government programs we moved to a new city, one where kids killed people in video games but not in real life. I was young, it was an effective strategy. But, for my brother I wonder if he’d seen too much by that time, because he couldn’t detangle himself from the life we once knew yet didn’t talk about with our new friends. His first brush with the law was when he was under 18, then it was just a vicious cycle after that coupled with my personal illness growing up devouring my mother’s attention of course. I’ve often wondered if things would be different, for him and I, first if we grew up in different neighborhood and if he didn’t have to compete with me for love. So, as a premed I did something odd who was soon going to apply to medical, I decided to spend much of my time in prison and get to know the population and maybe how to save and understand my brother who I’ve always looked up to and who had always protected me, read to me, taught me math and how to read, and disciplined me if I didn’t keep up with my studies.

As my brother fell into more troubles with he law and eventually kicked out of the house, I was fooled into thinking my virtues had kept me safe and out of trouble. That is until I had my first and hopefully last brush with the law taught me how little how the world can be. Despite missing many days in high school due to illness, I did pretty well in high school and got into a university; but when I graduated high school, I attended a community college because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life yet, my step father who was an engineer at the time encouraged me to go this direction to find myself without breaking the bank with tuition. I was sort of disappointed by the transition, but never the less I kept my grades up and started taking some introductory engineering, math and some drafting courses. I met this girl one day, who was also from my school and we went on a date that week and I drove. During the date, being naive I didn’t bring enough petty cash with me, so I stopped at a local bank in an affluent neighborhood to get money out of my bank. While walking through the parking lot I was stopped by a police car, I was told to stop and put my hands on the hood of their car. A man and a woman team then got out of the car, questioned me several times with the same question. I’d seen enough crime movies to know cops do that to see if your story will stay consistent. I told them the same basic things: I go to X school, I’m interested in engineering, where I lived and I’m on date. Things seemed pretty jovial at first, I hadn’t done anything so I had no reason to fear. Then they handcuffed me and put me in the back of their car, this was about the time people were driving by and staring at me surely wondering what a menace to society I was.

In the back of the police car, on the cold and hard plastic seats, hands crimped by the handcuffs I then asked calmly

“So, why exactly am I here and what do you think I did?” 

The police officer responded, there was a bank robbery in X city (a local city I’d never been to by the way) and you fit the description of a

“Black male, with blue jeans and a white shirt”. 

I’d always had a defiant, if not flippant response towards things, so I laughed and asked

“Isn’t that like every black guy in the city?” 

They both chuckled, and we hung out in the car for an hour or so, my date in my car not being able to see this whole ordeal the entire time. Eventually, they did receive more details and I was realized, but not before another cop driving by yelled something like “Go get some chicken BOY!” — I was returned to my car, un-cuffed and as you imagined my date was pretty much over as was my self esteem.

After that, I never told my parents or my brother, I didn’t even tell my friends really as the whole ordeal was just too embarrassing for me. My grades dropped, I fell into depression and I soon wondered why had I been trying so hard in the first place, as an honor roll high school student, if this was going to be the result in the end? I just about dropped out of college and started working, and became rather reclusive. I soon understood how it felt to be on the other side of the law, and how degrading and violating it felt. I suppose this brings the story back full circle, with how I ended up in prisons voluntarily. No, I don’t think everyone in prison is innocent (though some probably surely are). But, what I do understand now is that I don’t understand society all that much and that’s why I choose to volunteer in a prison and try to help the convicted change their lives.

When I worked with the inmates, they had a hard time understanding why I’d come and if I could ever understand them with my fancy tie and dress clothes. I then told them my dark secret, and from there we had some collegiality. I recall one man who had been in prison for some time for an offense. We decided to do mock job interviews for them, as part of their life skills course. I still recall the man who weeped at the end, and shook my hand thanking me for giving him his first job interview after I gave him his feedback. Now, my brother is out of jail and he’s heard of the program I participated in, and we have a better understanding of each other and I of myself. Though, I’m not sure what ever happened to the man who wrote me the letter, as the next week that I came to the prison we weren’t allowed in because there was a stabbing that morning. I only hope that he doesn’t think that I abandoned him and although I subscribe to no religion, I do thank him for his best wishes towards me.

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All the Things I Learned in Prison

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It was a somber sky on that Friday morning, I was told I could wear anything professional, as long as it wasn’t navy blue. I knew I was going to be in jail that day, I couldn’t decide which tie to wear, whats in vogue when in jail? Which knot would give me the most visual “street-cred” behind double rowed electrified barred wired fences I wondered. I tied a full-windsor knot. I rechecked my pockets before leaving the house, I knew I was going through a series of metal detectors and security checks, and I didn’t really want to have an awkward intimate pat down. I grabbed my keys, attached to it a curvaceous quaint black whistle, like the ones we played with obnoxiously as kids. I received the whistle several weeks prior during the crash course on prison safety and ways to not get stabbed, hustled, or black mailed while associating with the inmates. I keenly read the contract, and we were requested to denote from a list which classes we could teach. Apparently, there wasn’t a big demand for bio/chem tutors, so I had no idea how to pigeon hole myself into a slot. I had told the warden and program coordinator that I wasn’t sure if I’d be helpful, but I was a tutor, they told me run 1.5 HR workshops about academic advising and college. Around this time we all received our whistles, a novel way to alert the guards about all that stabbing they had warned us about — we wont go into the ridiculousness of this whistle. But, I had been reminded the morning of when looking at this whistle that I’d best reciprocate respect for my new students by going with a half-windsor knot.

I arrived early, it was mandatory, if you didn’t make it in time for the security check the gates wouldn’t open again for you. If you had been checked in, and you had worn navy blue, in case of a “lock-down” you may be shot on sight for not lying down on command because you’re confused for an inmate. As you may of imagined, I went with the standard black and white slacks dress shirt to avoid being shot or arrested while in inside the big house. I had brought a stack of print outs about “college stuff” to distribute, the guards told us we couldn’t bring it in, as it may be contraband, so we tossed it in the trash before entering the double gates of no return. The prison grounds were actually quite beautiful, the main compound consists of a thick stucco walled Spanish style series of buildings. I was told by one of the guards on the golf cart ride up to one of the cell blocks that it used to be a famous hotel back in the Gone with the Wind Clark Gable days. It struggled with the economy many decades prior, and was acquired by the military during World War II. During World War II many bungalows were built to house troops, these quarters now house inmates. The main beautiful structure is left empty, inaccessible, and now relic of a more extravagant past.

It was rough start, but after a couple of months teaching classes with these individuals, I had developed some type of prisoner repoire. These men, regardless of their past transgressions weren’t too different from my students I tutored in college — save having made opposite decision to the occasional similar circumstance. I worked with all works of life, from reformed violent offenders, even with sexual offenders who were quarantined from the rest of the population. Working with the sex offenders was particular personal challenge, but I learned to dispense my charity equitably. I told them I would treat them fairly, so I driven  to pull that off. I always waited to have the philosophical debate regarding my own feelings about them personally until I was on my way home.

The next session I was transferred to a unit with more “serious” crimes, some from racial gangs not on friendly terms with my own in prison. In fact, there was a stabbing between gangs in another part of the jail while we were there. So, it’s only natural eventually I was asked me why was I there each week, taking this measured risk. Most others in the program was of the criminal justice cut, or some type of social work, they wondered why a premed was there. It was asked not in an accusatory or malicious manner, but rather because they felt it odd. I chuckled, and responded back “Why not?”. I could now think of a thousand cool replies, at the time that was the best I could do. Weeks turned into months, I had help lead discussions regarding job skills, college majors, how to get financial aid etc. One day we were discussing interview etiquette, only to find out likely 4/5 of the room had never had a job interview. So, we made up some workshops on the fly. We assigned them homework, write up a resume as we had taught them, and bring it with them the following week for their mock interviews. We dressed the part. The confident inmates cognizant of the rules of prison were suddenly bashful and giggling with excitement about their pending interview. I did my best to rehash common interview questions I’ve heard throughout the years, as a native Californian I tried to put some oomph into my portrayal — really getting to know them during their interview. After the event was over, a stout diminutive man came over to me, and with tearful eyes told me “That’s the first time I’ve ever had a job interview”. I think it’s at that moment where I finally got why the man before had asked me about why I had come — it was perhaps one of the first time they had someone have consistent faith in them.

I certainly learned a lot of things while doing my medical volunteering: having a catheter placed twice in the same week sucks (try to avoid having to re-admit someone), it’s difficult to watch people suffer (good motivation to help them), people lie (there’s drug abusers who frequent ERs), but you should have faith in people (see the last clause for the eternal battle). But, perhaps in prison I learned the most valuable lesson of all: people are people and deserved to be treated as such.

Don’t limit your experiences to just the hospital premed, you’re going to serve the world, so see the world.

Thanks for having me!