During a conversation with a friend, a guy approached us and unapologetically interrupted by asking, “You remember the question you asked me last night?” Under normal circumstances his question would appear harmless. But not when it’s directed, with a chunk of hostility, toward you. And not having the slightest idea of what he’s talking about, while standing in a crowded dorm in a maximum-security prison in a state with one of the highest death rates in the country, where sexual propositions and assaults aren’t uncommon and stabbings are far too frequent.
So, with caution, I told him No, that I didn’t remember. He seemed even more upset as he took a step closer and repeated the question, with a tone implicitly accusing me of being a liar. But before things got out of hand, my friend intervened by asking him what was the question. And the guy said, “What had I done today that would help me get out of prison?” My friend couldn’t help but smile, because he realized that the guy wasn’t tripping, because I’ve asked my friend similar questions. The guy went on to explain how the question had kept him awake all night, causing him to eventually accept the fact that he’d stopped fighting for his freedom, that he’d given up, and that the frustration from this realization had nearly broken him down.
What most of society fails to understand about incarcerated individuals is that we are in a constant battle, to not just survive and maintain our sanity, but to also refrain from becoming institutionalized. Prisons are fortified communities with their own rules, that are crammed with poverty-stricken, mentally ill, angry hooligans that the world has condemned, ignored and denied over and over. Every brick laid and steel bar welded are designed to convince us that hope is futile; that the color of our skin, the environments we sprouted from and our faulty deeds have destined us to be enslaved in some form or fashion. It’s a place where human beings are often treated like animals. Beaten into submission and expected to yowl when thrown scraps and whine and whimper when mace is sprayed or a baton raised. And as the months become years and years become decades, bitterness, self-pity, anger and fear consume many of us, draining our will and weakening our fortitude. Unaware of an acceptance we’ve eased into complacency, slogging through prison life as if it’s the only life we will ever know.
But there is something about human nature. That perseverance and resilience within us can never completely blink out until our last breath, that gives us the strength to redirect our downward spiral and begin the process of change. A change that’s awakened through pain, when the pain of staying the same has become far greater than the pain of change.
Eventually, I recalled the encounter. And I hadn’t actually directed the question to this guy, but to the person he was with. While getting water from a cooler I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation as they sat at a nearby table. They were looking through family photos. One man was showing the other a picture of his granddaughter as he expressed how badly he wanted to get out and help raise her. I happened to know him, so I walked over, looked at the photo and told him how beautiful his granddaughter is. Then I asked the question. It was clear he was dumbfounded, unable to come up with an immediate answer. I then said, “What about yesterday or the day before that?” A moment of silence passed, and I knew I’d made my point. I walked away, not knowing my question would spark a flame in his associate.
I’ve been fighting to keep a flame ablaze within me for over 36 years. And there have been times when it nearly flickered out. Without a future, without a horizon of promise, my life would appear to have no meaning. So, I must continuously fight back through education and creative expression, and through being a positive example and a motivating force in other peoples’ lives – with the goal of one day getting out – to maintain my sanity and humanity or the world would never know how bright my light shines.