Thursday, October 23, 2014

Memoir to Madness – Part Three

By Christian Weaver

To read Part Two, click here

Dear Justin:

Good Lord, I'm depressed, you haven't written for three months and I'm sick with despair. Melancholic black bile...

"A depression so thick you forget your own name  
A depression that longs for the grave."

I prefer the kind of grief that is caused by real events, that has an origin and end. For surely knowing why would bring relief of some sort -- and perhaps a way out: "If I eliminate the cause then the effect is sure to follow." But the misery that descends like an evil black cloud... what on earth can one do? You don't know where it came from, or how long it will stay, or where it will go, or when it will return. It's as bad as having something (a knowable cause) that can't be removed. That's when twilight falls fastest, when the cloud is so opaque that you can't catch a glimpse, no matter how faint, of the sunlight beyond. Do you know what the "The Bell Jar" refers to? Sylvia Plath was in a medical lab (or somewhere like that; it was when she in college) when she saw a glass jar that was flared at bottom -- like a bell. Inside, pickled in some solution, was a tiny curled fetus like an oversized shrimp. She imagined it was living and how hopeless and silent, how utterly mute, it would feel. Even though it could look outward like an ordinary person; it could look out at others and they could look back at it... nonetheless, it was trapped by invisible walls. She described how that feeling -- similar, I imagine, to how an epileptic feels before a seizure comes on -- descends from the sky like a massive bell jar. Is that how you feel right before you try suicide?

You know what's funny about suicide? That I've always lacked balls, the testicular fortitude, to try it. The closest I've come was binging out on hard drugs - pseudo-suicides, flirtations. Like once in New Orleans when I shot a bunch of smack (five or six twenties in one night) and awoke the next evening nearly drowning in sweat. The whole mattress was soaked. But I wouldn't have done a gram or taken two hundred Tylenols. I didn't want to live but I was too afraid to die, a sort of limbo for cowards. I was like the dead sailors in "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" when they were revived, in ghoulish fashion, by the spirit Death-in-Life: they were moving but will-less, being prompted from without. They were puppet-zombie hybrids.

I recall the exact moment when I should have committed suicide. Guns n' Roses was on the radio and I‘d been drinking malt liquor, getting drunker by the hour (This was at Athena's several months before the murder. I was in you guy's bedroom). I had loaded my pistol and was tracing it gently, almost unconsciously, on my neck and my cheek. "This isn't suicide," I laughed. "This is pushing a button. Any jerk can do this!" I imagined how it'd be if certain methods were impossible -- that is, you couldn‘t just blow out your brains or swallow poison or something. Let‘s say you were limited to a fork, a small rope (perhaps three feet or so), and a small, blunt object like rock or an iron. The point was to make suicide as awkward and slow, and of course as excruciating, as humanly possible. Can you imagine that shit? Try to picture a guy stabbing himself for one or two hours: "Ouch! Okay okay... ah! That hurts... ouch! Ah!" [psyches himself up and really digs the fork in] "Ahl Ahhh! AHHHHHHHHHHI1" Suicide rates would go down, I am sure.

I put the barrel in my mouth and sort of licked the steel hole, like I was kissing a woman. I put some pressure on the trigger and closed my eyes with a groan. I felt the moment rush past. I heard some poetry from Eliot: "I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker... the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker... and in short I was afraid."

Suddenly I had a creepy, transmigration of souls-type feeling -- disembodied, like I was made of false time. Borrowed time. I'd rebelled against my fate and over-lived my own life. I was a fraud, an imposter, and also something of a ghoul. And then the counter-thought emerged that someone else had to die, that someone's blood must be shed to atone for my sins and enable my life ~- my reckless, foolish, and utterly wasted life -- to continue. This was the delusion (I call it "the sacrificial lamb" delusion) that led directly to the murder. Anyhow... I took the gun from my mouth and laid it down in defeat; I gazed at it wistfully. Little Cassie strolled in and read the scene in a glance. She casually lit a smoke and trained her eyes on the gun. She sort of pouted and frowned (like a teenager will do) and scooped it up in a flash. I think she took it from the room or stashed it somewhere in the closet. She didn‘t hide it or anything, but she moved it far enough to where the moment was ruined.

Suicide and murder are two sides of one coin. He who commits one is most capable of the other. If you're ready to take a life then it makes little difference, in an objective sense, whose it is that is taken. You are both equally human, equally living, and equally departed when the threshold is crossed and you perceive nothing special in the sacred God-dust. You're the murderer of God!

"Suicide and homicide are two forms of murder, as vapor and ice are two forms of water."

And again: "Suicide is simply a murder turned inward, an imploding star."

I'm not one of those jerks who think that killers can be forgiven but that suicides go to hell because they don't, being dead, have the chance to repent. That's doctrinally sound but it is terribly unjust and in grotesquely bad taste (and I would sooner serve Satan than a God with bad taste). You take some idiot like me who throws away his whole life. Out of envy and malice he decides to take REVENGE -- not on himself, the real culprit, but on those who are happy, on life itself! How rotten is that? But take a man in equal crises who decides to commit suicide: at least he still has the decency, the honor, to take himself from the equation before he ruins someone else. Compared to the former he is actually heroic. But by some methodological, cause and effect bullshit, some glitch, he‘s condemned to spend eternity in the flames of Gahanna. What blasphemy!

You know, I just recalled how much you loathe those kinds of people (suicides-go-to-hellers and other ultra-myopic types). I just leafed through your papers and unearthed a few snippets that you probably forget writing. It's in your lucid, sarcastic, and super aggressive style:

"He was jingoism incarnate, a middle-aged war vet with a jarhead hair cut and a ribbon. -- yellow, of course -- tied to his antennae.

Suck me dry, patriot -- I'll wrap that ribbon around your neck until your gawkers bug out like a pair of crystal balls. 
Turn the fuck around and don't look me in the eye, BITCH.
I'd like to shoot him into space without a spacesuit, I laughed. 

That was all it took and BAM -- I was on him like a wolf. I grabbed him by the collar and latched onto his nose like a vampire, chewing furiously through skin and gristle. Then, with a rabid jerk, I ripped it clean off and spit it back in his face. The staff rushed in to stop me but it was already over: he was bellowing in agony, rolling on the floor, spraying blood and snot everywhere..." 

You've always hated things that were inherently unjust. "Freakin' bullies," you would seethe. "People bullies. Idea bullies." Injustice and oppression made you instantly go Hyde. When we were homeschooled and taking classes (by video, if you recall) there was this teacher who used science to legitimize -- or attempt to legitimize -- a real hell. He said something to the effect that the hottest flames were pitch black. The hottest flames produced in a laboratory became black. He reconciled this nugget with how the Bible describes hell: "darkness," "outer darkness," "gnashing of teeth," etc. "How else can darkness and fire coexist in one place?" he asked.

You scoffed so intensely that some spittle flew out. "They can't!" you roared, pounding on the desk. "That's why it's utter BULLSHIT." Then you described, in gratuitously graphic detail, how you'd enlighten the teacher: you‘d hold his hand on a stove or touch his finger to a flame or even push a heated needle very slowly through his pupil. "Or maybe I‘d set him on fire," you mused. "And while he shrieked and contorted I would follow him around with a microphone or something -- like a pesky reporter.  'Pastor Shetler,' I would ask. 'Do you consider this experience to be painful or pleasant?' [more shrieking and screaming] 'Ooookay... I'll accept that as a yes. Would you consider it to be torture?' [something like a roar] 'Yes, yes, I see. Hmm-mm. Would you consider this experience to have innate redemptive value or is it simply an inflated form of cruelty and torture?' [more bellowing and roaring] It‘s sadistic, you say? Well that's logical, of course - it should go without saying - but it seems to contradict what you were teaching your students. Could you explain this dichotomy?' Then I break out a hose and extinguish the bastard. He's like a Thanksgiving turkey if the turkey were in charge and it had left the oven on for maybe... two or three days. I crouch and hold the microphone very close to his face. The stench is unbearable. 'You've only been on fire for [I glance at my watch] barely over a minute and yet feelings on this matter have undergone a reversal. Now extrapolate this experience into the infinite future... second after second, week after week, century after century. Would your torturer more closely favor God... or Satan.'

Your persona was always either timid and shy or contemptuous and taunting. It was mostly the former but it could instantly swing, like a mad pendulum, to the latter. I used to think it was random until I noticed your trigger: any bullying or oppression of the weak by the strong. Here's an excerpt from a narrative (another abandoned project) I attempted about our lives:

"Justin turned inward and never tried to fit in. He became very quiet and brooding. He befriended the bullied and would taunt, viciously and personally, their oppressor. He‘d say, ‘How can you make fun of him? You're fat, you have a hook nose, and you're really, really dumb.' Christian recalls incidents where he heard a commotion, turned around, and caught Justin in the act of pounding someone with his fists. Justin perceived (as he does to this day) only two kinds of people: the courteous and kind and the nasty and mean-spirited. There was no in-between."

Here's another excerpt from the very same narrative. We were fourteen or so.

"Christian walked in on the following conversation; it was Justin on the phone: "Hello? Is this James? [pause] It's Elvis, that's who. I know it's been awhile and as your kind of half-retarded I'm gonna make it real simple. My name is Justin Weaver and we attended school together in the sixth grade. [pause] Crab Orchard, you minion. How many other schools you-- oh you remember? [glances at Christian, beaming] Hey, he remembers! [ignores him again] You used to victimize the children who weren‘t as ignorant, inbred, and utterly common as you are. You even taunted me a bit [licks his lips and his eyes become wild, psychotic] How would you like it if I scooped out your eyeballs with a paring knife and snipped off your nose with a pair of sharp scissors. Would you like that, ole buddy? Would you like it if I chopped off your fingers n' toes and reattached your toes to your hands and your fingers to your feet? How 'bout it, ole pal. What if --'"

“Poor James hung up and then his mother called back; she requested our parents and when that didn't work she said she'd already called the cops. Justin calmly explained that her son was a monster and that he needed this treatment. 'Preventative terror,' he smiled. ‘By terrorizing him now I'm preventing him from terrorizing other people in the future. You'll thank me later, I swear.’"

"Justin, unlike a sociopath, was not randomly cruel. He had surgical precision. He didn't torture small animals or start fires and all that. He reserved his worst behavior for the people whom he believed were psychological sadists, the 'real psychopaths.' Those who bullied others -- particularly the timid, shy, peculiar, or homely -- were the lowest of the low. He saw himself as their punisher because 'bullying, though legal, is among the worst crimes. It creates the worst consequences... sometimes many years later.' He perceived them as criminals, on one hand (for instigating schools shooting and other violence) and demons, on the other (for tormenting the defenseless an mangling their psyches)."

Well I guess I'll end this letter and start scribbling another. I shall leave you with a maxim:

Lost -- I mailed myself a letter and it never returned.

Write me back before you die.


To be continued....

Christian Weaver 271262
BCCX 14-11B
1045 Horsehead Road
Pikerville, TN 37367

To read Christian's poetry, click here

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Miseducation of The Incarcerated Citizens

By LSD Gonzalez

There is no point in romanticizing the issue of the miseducation of incarcerated citizens. Going hack to the beginnings early days of the United States, it was illegal to educate incarcerated citizens because prison bureaucrats and officials correctly recognized that incarcerated citizens with education would be even more discontented with their current conditions, therefore more dangerous and more rebellious. If we take an in-depth and honest look at the correctional educational system before us, we cannot accept the current standards and benchmarks that were set in motion by the power elites.

The 2.3 million incarcerated citizens in the United States have become one of the defining qualities of our country. Never before in the history of civilization has a country locked away so many of its own citizens. Have we as a society become so violent, so counterproductive, so incorrigible, that we have to lock away so many of our citizens under the guise of "Public Safety?"

The cost to incarcerate so many men and women is astronomical! The average annual cost per citizen is $35,000. However, that number jumps to at staggering $60,000 once the person turns 55 years old. Medical expenses increase the annual cost. Moreover, if the incarcerated citizen is a parent, the cost and consequence go far beyond the criminal justice system. For instance, the children of incarcerated citizens may have to be raised by other family members, or are sent to a state’s foster care system. Children of incarcerated citizens are seven times more likely to become incarcerated themselves, which perpetuates an intergenerational incarceration cycle. Warehousing and punishing citizens who are illiterate or functionally illiterate, then releasing them back into society without any education, trades or skills, is a recipe for failure.

Furthermore, the violence that exists in our penal systems poses a much greater threat to public safety than any foreign terrorist group, in that these violent offenders go back into society and wreck havoc on the public.

If society is serious about improving the quality of its citizens' lives, it should no longer ignore the treatment of its incarcerated citizens. In addition, if society intends to reduce crime and recidivism, it must provide a pathway that will enable people to get out of poverty by giving incarcerated citizens meaningful job skills and decent wages. In doing so the elite would not need to put those who they consider “unproductive” in prison. Those who were once considered unproductive citizens would become assets to society.

The best way to improve citizens' chances of getting out of poverty and becoming productive citizens is to empower them with the best education possible, job skills, at least minimum wages, not increasing his or her monthly child support immediately upon release, and providing a grace period to may fines and fees.

America's bridge for the twenty-first century is no longer education. Incarceration is now at the top of the list. The prison industrial complex is already generating forty billion dollars annually. Therefore, rehabilitation, whatever that means, is out of the question because our keepers no longer believe incarcerated citizens have redeeming qualities. Our prisons are filled beyond capacity, and the statistical outlook is dismal.

The United States currently locks up more people per capita than any other nation on this earth. For every African American or Hispanic with a Bachelor Degree, there are thirty behind bars. There are more young African American and Hispanic males in prison today than in college.

In my opinion, the prison educational system is abysmal at best. This statement is not intended to be deterministic, but rather to draw attention to the need to offer incarcerated citizens who are eager to learn an opportunity to educate themselves in prisons throughout the United States.

My focus is on one maximum-security prison in particular, in the North East-Mid Atlantic region, and it is the sixth largest State Correctional Institution in the United States, SCI-Graterford, built in 1929. This prison is a good model because it prides itself on having one of the longest operating college programs in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It has been educating men for many decades.

There are different levels of education available in Graterford: G.E.D and vocational training/apprenticeship programs, and a limited post-secondary education program. The vast majority of incarcerated citizens enrolled in the G.E.D. programs. Only a few incarcerated citizens are fortunate enough to have access to post-secondary education.

A good well-founded school is the best place to learn. For some, prisons are the best prospect for them to get an education! For example, I entered the Department of Correction twenty-nine years ago with an IQ of 56. I had no reading or writing skills. Today, I'm a graduate of Villanova University with a minor in marketing and history, I’m also an accomplished author with six publish novels. Thus, it is fair to say that I'm a product of the prison educational system. I have learned that it doesn't matter where one gets an education. What really matters is that one gets as good of an education as possible.

Despite the resistance of some in society and within the Department of Correction toward incarcerated citizens receiving education, my eagerness to learn is paying off.

Prison education is equally limited by its policy and suffers from various environmental problems. For instance, the primary purpose of prisons is security. Thus, education falls to the rear. Students experience frequent class interruption due to drills, scheduling mishaps, lock downs, and rude correctional guards with the seemingly sole purpose of agitating and discouraging students. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people who come down to some perfectly contented class within the institution and sow the seeds of discontent among the students.

Prison policy can also arbitrarily remove any incarcerated citizen or an entire group of students from their educational program on whims with a stroke of the pen. For example, incarcerated citizens serving life sentences in Pennsylvania were removed from all G.E.D classes after a policy decision was made. Lifers and long-term sentenced incarcerated citizens are subject to a quota system in the vocational programs, which limits their numbers, enrollments, and participation. Policy is powerful in prison and it is hard to counter.

Educational programs in prison also suffer from budget issues. Prison budgets are going up but prison educational budget are being cut,. Moreover, the educational budget does not increase at the same rates as the number of incarceration citizens does. Thus, when cuts must he made, prison educational budget gets the brunt of the cuts. Why are prison officials turning a blind eye when it comes to educating the incarcerated citizens when studies after studies have proven when incarcerated citizens are allowed to educate themselves they go back into their community with a new found desire to transforms their community?

A recent budget cut battle in Pennsylvania resulted in dramatic cuts in vocational training, E.S.L. English as Second Language classes, and subsidized community college classes, as a result, we now have n large number of incarcerated citizens who can not enroll in educational programs. Hispanics who do not speak the English language are cut off completely from participating in any school programs. Those incarcerated citizens who need to improve their reading and writing skills are unable to qualify for the pre-G.E.D. and are cut off from enrolling in school due to the lack of teachers, ninety percent of the incarcerated citizens who are being cut off from acquiring education will return back into society one day, and this is the reason why society should care.

Dr. Monique Redeaux, a middle school teacher in the west side of Chicago wrote that 

"Emancipation may have ended slavery but it did not end its legacy of exclusion and exploitation. This legacy of a different and inferior "other" was evidenced by the segregation laws of the Jim Crow era, which kept the races separate. The remnants of these laws can be seen in culture-of-poverty models created during that same period and which maintain their vitality today." 

Dr. Redeaux's words could not have been more clear. They clearly describe the current educational system within the penal system in America. 

Denying the incarcerated citizens a proper education is deeply rooted in the same Jim Crow laws, which have been used to discriminate against minorities for centuries. It is also a tangible form of control. Yet, the public reaction has been minimal in that incarcerated citizens across America are completely ostracized from society.

To the few concerned citizens who are sympathetic, those of us who are being brutalized by racist prison policies across the landscape of the penal system, we appreciate your effort, time, and dedication. Nevertheless, it is your duty to question the Department of Correction Educational polices. It is your tax dollars, and there should he some accountability because there is a direct social, economic, political, cultural, and community interest link between prison and the communities from, which the majority incarcerated citizens come from.

The fundamental assumption, which guide and govern failing penal institutions and on which social, criminal justice theories, analyses, decisions and policies are based, are no longer valid. Demographics of both inner cities and prison populations have changed dramatically over the last 15-25 years, while the assumptions of the Department of Correction have remained sacrosanct. Prison educational budget cuts are inevitable. What is inexcusable, however, is the failure to engage in a sincere open-hearted mission to educate incarcerated citizens. Not doing so not only demonizes incarcerated citizens, but it fails to indict a penal system responsible for disenfranchising the citizens it is warehousing

The negative attitude the Department of Correction's teachers develop toward incarcerated citizen is a reality in many correctional institutions across America. A contributing factor of the miseducation of the incarcerated male citizens is the quality of teachers the Department of Correction hire. Most of the teachers in corrections lack leadership and innovation, and Department of Correction does not hold them accountable. Department of Corrections teachers are not trained to tap into the potential of incarcerated citizens.

It is no secret that the Department of Correction's educational system is structured to benefit somebody’s interest, but whose? We all hope society benefits from attempts to educate incarcerated citizens in that the aim of rehabilitative education is to reduce crime and recidivism. But the numbers do not bear this out. The life outcomes of those incarcerated citizens with G.E.D.’s do not differ much from those without one. Things are tough for incarcerated citizens, and for G.E.D. holders with criminal convictions. So there it little hope for society's benefit. However, studies show that incarcerated citizens who get a two to four years college degree while incarcerated are 65% more likely to succeed when released.

The Department of Correction and its employees are the ones who benefit from the current system. They get paid well, have job security, and aren't expected to in much work. All they have to do is show up; the prison educational system requires very little from its educators. There is no attempt to guarantee excellence.

The Ideal Prison Educational System

In an ideal world, prisons would actually educate their citizens. How could this be accomplished?

1. All incarcerated citizens should be screened for skills and abilities. Vocational counselor should make a personalized educational plea for every incarcerated citizen. The incarcerated citizen should have highly qualified, professional teachers, and instructors. The educator’s salary should be linked with the incarcerated citizen’s academic performance.

2. All resources should be used to educate the incarcerated citizen. Every incarcerated citizen should be given a tutor. Tutors would be those lifers who have been through the college progress. This will offer the elite group of incarcerated citizens the opportunity to use their college degrees. The tutors can be paid at rates higher than the normal prison scale to show how serious and respected their services are. Those incarcerated citizens who have already completed the G.E.D. program should automatically have access to post-secondary educational programs.

African Americans, Hispanics and whites that have completed their college education can provide an encouraging free environment. Education will also be provided to those in restricted housing units and on Death Row in a way that takes security into account.

3. Life-term incarcerated citizens who volunteer their services and time to educate new arrivals should be considered for commutation after a number of years. Pennsylvania is one of the only few states where life means life. It’s also one of the only few states where the lifers population controls the flow of prison activities in most of the institutions across the state.

The younger generation of incarcerated citizens always seeks constructive advise from the lifers. So why not use the lifers to mentor the younger incarcerated citizens? It's a known fact that incarcerated citizens who earn college-universities degree while incarcerated don’t re-offend.

This ideal model would mean a prison system that prepares incarcerated citizens to grapple with the challenges they will face in society upon release. It offers incarcerated citizens a chance against the social forces that undermine their humanity.

Towards a New System

How does an incarcerated citizen in prison confront the cultural mindsets, the layers of misinformation, propagated by the prison staff?

All incarcerated citizens are products of the stigmatization that comes with being incarcerated and/or enrolled in the penal educational system.

Most incarcerated men and women come from a distinctive cultural where they must maintain respect with their peers. It is hard for many to admit that he or she can't read or write. Others may feel they will be stigmatized. I clearly understand this because once upon a time I was considered a functioning illiterate. However, as grown adults, we must be able to navigate through this maze we call prison, and understand that just because we are incarcerated it doesn't mean we lose out human qualities. We should not let our minds get closed to new ideas. Nor should our quest for a better education be discouraged. We should never fortify our identity, or allow ourselves to become dehumanized, demoralized, desensitized, nor accept the stigma.

Many of our nations great leaders have been confined in prisons and still made meaningful contributions to our communities and society. Men like Dr. Martin Luther Kings Jr., who wrote remarkable work from the Birmingham County Jail and Malcolm X’s educational transformation in prison, were astounding. There should never be any negotiation about your freedom or education. It should be the desire of every incarcerated citizen across the landscape of America’s penal system to educate him or herself while incarcerated. Every incarcerated citizen, regardless of their race, age, or creed, can learn from each other.

There is no illusion that obtaining an education while incarcerated will be easy. Opposition will come from all angles. Prison guards who feel you should not be educated will go out their way to prevent you from reaching your goals, and other incarcerated citizens will too. The Department of Correction is designed to make you feel less than human. As Carter C. Woodson wrote in 1933, 

"The sane educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile depressed and crushed at the same time the spark or genius of the Negro by making them feel that their race dose not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other people."

In Woodson's view, "real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better." 

As an incarcerated citizen with a quest for education we must keep in mind that the majority of the prison guards who society hires to watch over us so-called hardened criminals only need a G.E.D. to be hired by the Department of Correction. It doesn't take a social scientist to strip another man or woman nude, or to turn a key. For many guards working within the Department of Correction is their only means of livelihood.

There comes a time when we, the incarcerated citizens must get tired of watching prison guards support their families off our backbone, while our families travel miles to visit us in prison, and spend their money on over-priced vending machines in prison visiting rooms.

When will we the incarcerated citizens realized that when a state chooses to invest in prisons instead of education, the avenues for our children are clear? 

There comes a time when we, the incarcerated citizens, must realize that education must be a lifelong process. We must find critical and creative ways to obtain a proper education while incarcerated.

Eminent scholar on prison issues and author of The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander suggests "The young men who go to prison rather than college face a lifetime of closed doors, discrimination, and ostracism. Their plight is not what we hear about on the evening news, however, sadly, like the racial caste system that preceded it, the system of mass incarceration now seems normal and natural to most, a regrettable necessity." I agree with Dr. Alexander because what we do today will alter the course of history tomorrow. We must educate ourselves into freedom to reclaim our identity add not let prison define who we are. We must resist any form of denial to our education. We must view education as a common heritage from which no incarcerated citizen is excluded.

Educating the incarcerated citizens is a matter of public safety, because education is the best weapon to combat crime, and a quality education will deter our youth from a lifetime behind bars. Therefore, if we are to guarantee a quality education to all incarcerated citizens we need to begin viewing education as a form of liberation. We need to stop placing our freedom, justice, and equality at the mercy of others. It is my belief that the potential for greatness exists in every correctional facility across the landscape of America and only awaits discovery and development. As incarcerated citizens we must raise our voices in a way that cannot be ignored.  We must stop seeing ourselves as being written off as prisoners, and begin to make demands. I repeat, prisons don't define who we are.

Luis S. Gonzales #AS-0834
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

LSD (Luis Suave) Gonzales is a Juvenile Lifer, incarcerated for over 28 years. He is a contributing artist and writer to Minutes Before Six, a graduate of Villanova University, an author of six critically acclaimed novels, the founder of the Education Over Incarceration (E.O.I.) Scholarship, a member of the United Community Action Network (U-CAN) and president of the Latin American Cultural Exchange Organization (L.A.C.E.O.) He is an artist and poet.

Click here to listen to an interview with Suave by Maria Hinojosa on NPR Radio.

Click here to view novels available on Amazon by LSD Gonzales

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Black Sheep

By Miguel Angel Paredes

To read Miguel's previous entry, click here

This is a subject I have been postponing for a long time.  Many times I have been motivated and encouraged to write something to help our youth, using my experiences I have lived in this world, to try and help our youth not to end up in the situation I find myself in or even getting lost to the ever-growing world of gangs and crime.  I did have much to say, as having analyzed my whole life through my own eyes as a youth and into manhood, I can see and pin-point all the things I, from my end, could see could have been done different.  Yet, as I began to start writing more in depth, formulating something as a guide to parents for troubled youth, I was unable to move forward as I had not been able to live the role of a parent that much, and my own son was in dire need of the very guidance I was willing to give to others, yet was unable to provide for my own son, I wanted to believe that by reaching other youths as I would my own son, my own son would run into someone who could give him that love and guidance.  Yet in the back of my mind existed a plain truth: that if I could not apply it with my own son and see it work, the evidence was plain that it was useless, and it would be in vain - something that seemed good, sounded good and maybe received a lot of applause, and yet I would know it was no more than a hollowed-out appearance, so I had to leave it alone, regardless of how sincere and willing I was to try to help parents with their kids whom did not respond to the ways most people do to discipline and guidance from adult figures/parents in their lives.

I am the youngest of 20 children - all from the same parents.  Seven, I never knew as they passed away before I was born.  All my brothers live a life that is very different to mine.  You can say I was the Black Sheep of the family.  My parents were very old fashioned, the kind that instruct you and discipline you to live a law-abiding decent life: You marry and stay married for the rest of your lives to that very same person.  I was raised with the same strict rules my brothers were raised with and punished for my wrong-doing and rebellion, yet I became everything they stood contrary to.   Now my life is very different, and now I even try to help my own brothers to love each other and grow closer to each other, to heal their own emotional wounds and try to be of support in what I am able to.  Many people have now witnessed what I have become by the grace of God, whom I drew near to in order to find the guidance I needed and have been blessed with all I now have in my life and what I have become.  Yet I still lacked the experience of being in the parents´/ guardians shoes.  While dwelling in the things I needed to be able to serve God´s calling, I found a requirement in the letter of 1 Timothy, which pretty much says I must be able to manage my own household before being able to manage God´s, stating that if I couldn´t manage my own household, how could I care for God´s church.  This opened the door to look at everyone, not only the persons I grew up with or myself, but to look everywhere, and find understanding.  I once met a young man whose father was a pastor.  Yet he was here on Death Row, and for that reason his congregation prevented him from pastoring.  I thought it was unfair as his son was not a young man, but a grown man, and therefore he couldn´t be held accountable for his actions or beliefs.  Every time I met people, I looked at how they were raised, and their background, and even with the people from the outside, I wanted to know more and more, especially those raised by fellow Christians.  Here on death row I came across more men whose parents were ministers, and some more pastors, and it puzzled me how one is able to move/touch and guide a whole congregation but their children, who became men ended up here.  So I saw it was far more common than I previously realized.  It saddened me to hear the harsh punishments they were given as discipline, some even having the scars to show.  I also heard from someone dear to me the way a relative was disciplined by his minister father.  Honestly, at first I was mad and disappointed with all that, especially since it did not bare the intended results, but rather separated and ripped the bond between father and son.  I sought more insight and was told it is sad, and at times it is said “Hijo de Pastor lo Peor/Son of Pastor is the Worst”.  It worried me that one day my son would fit that branding, and I was told a pastor has it very difficult as he has to answer to his congregation, and the children are more exposed.  I began to see the desperation that drove the corporal punishment or disciplinary methods, and even how we forget that who we serve is our Lord and are accountable to him in first place.  I don´t believe in forced discipline because regardless of the amount of force or discipline tried on me I still ended up here and didn´t too much care about its burdens or the damage they could inflict upon me.  I also know though, that if we allow a child to do as he pleases, and especially in this world now a days – with its many challenges and temptations, we allow them to walk to their very deaths: emotional or physical deaths.  

Lately I have been given the opportunity to be a father figure to my son, more hands on, than the yearly or so visits we once had.  Since he was a child, I have explained to him the raw realities of the criminal life and all the reasons why not to do the bad things I once did, and many more reasons why he should do the good fruitful things that will bring him love and happiness for him and his loved ones.  I have apologized to him about not being there for him as he wished, as he yearns and for all the pain he feels for me.  Yet the bad reports seemed to come around more often than anything else.  I have tried for my family to be there for him.  They finally allowed him a place to stay and set rules he must go by, yet it wasn´t long before I got some more reports about him, and this time very serious ones, to a degree I totally feel strongly against.  I was very disappointed, anger, hurt, ashamed, and desperate.  I wanted him to answer for his actions, and it all made sense from what was said, and it hurt me that he was wasting his life and all the opportunities that only came by after much struggle.  I wanted to unleash myself in anger, a way that I have only twice gotten after him.  In these visits I have tried to tell him more things so he could use them in the future as I didn´t know if I would see him again.  When I visited with him some weeks ago I confronted him and felt I needed to open up all I felt and ripped my own heart so he could feel me.  He had told me he no longer felt emotions.  It scared me and worried me, as I remember when I felt that way.  I knew something HAD to be done.  But what?  My family members had their firm opinions and worries as well, and solutions that had obviously not been working on my son or myself, and I myself as a parent was falling into the line of thinking, yet I needed to be willing and honest.  What was left?  To rip my heart and reveal everything to him, even the things I had been trying to protect him from knowing.  In this visit my heart ripped and I said all I had to say.  My son answered and I investigated with my relatives on the spot, neither having time to realize why I was asking the questions.  All this time our eyes met and pierced into our very souls.  There was a moment where I could only see his eyes, eyebrows and around his eyes in detail.  All the people in the visitation room blurred out.  It was like looking into a mirror, seeing my own eyes.  The tears flowed, the pain showed, the love was felt, and it was as if we shed the same tears with the same eyes.  I connected so much deeper and felt my son in a very magical way.  I told him the hardest truths of his life, of my life and circumstances.  I felt his pain and he felt mine.  We have shed tears on previous occasions when he was smaller and he learned I was on death row, this time knowing an execution date hangs over me, knowing that I would do anything for his well-being, even risking my biggest legal opportunity.  He saw his hero broken by pain, whom he thought was an iron man, broken in sorrow, unable to keep an unbroken rhythm of speech, regardless of the many people around us.  This could be seen as something magical between father and son, to see another in this form of connection, but this is EMPATHY.  Without empathy we are not acting out of love, nor following love´s actions.  We follow everything else except love when there is no empathy.  This is what a computer or robot can never achieve – humanity´s biggest gift – “LOVE”.  Yet without empathy there is no possible way for love.  This visit in particular was full of it, and my son, for the first time in like six years, responded to me, “I love you”, when I told him I love him, as we were saying our good-byes for the time being, until the next visit.  My son left here able to know he is loved and that he does feel.  His heart was ripped open.  Now he can cleanse all the wounds that closed and petrified in so many years of no one tending to his emotional wounds, realizing he is not a robot, but a tender being who is hypersensitive and has emotional needs to grow a healthy life.  I learned that we make mistakes of judgment and are driven out of fear and desperation, more than love when we fail to connect with our loved one.  Once I analyzed the facts of the accusations I saw it was more evident that it was an attempt to put my son in danger, by people who did not even mention the required legal channels for such request of information or accusations. Once I heard my son´s words and they matched my own conclusions after analyzing the facts, I was very proud of how my son handled himself.  I say all of this so everyone will not be so quick to judge when the worry, fear and anger is bottled up without concerns for our loved one´s well-being.  Society will judge our loved ones when they make a mistake and they will house them in prisons or programs to punish their actions.  Some places are materially far better than the very housing my son or I have lived in, at previous times, and that many people are able to afford.  Yet it is not empathy that you find in these places.  So the key word here is EMPATHY.  Are we connecting with our children or our troubled youth? If not, the answer is not merely applying it on our loved one, but in us who are more experienced and are the paternal figure to find the reason of why we are not connecting.  Finding that answer will open the door to more than likely help and guide and heal our loved one.  This is why if I could not handle my own house, much less God´s church, because I would be unable to connect with my very blood who is flesh of my flesh, letting me know that if I am not able to do this, I would only be able to “PLEASE” a congregation, or people, and appear to be loving, but without loving, therefore falling out of the love I am called to live by, as the story goes of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go look for the lost one.  It would be a lot easier to remain in the safety and comfort of the 99 ones who remained in safety proximity and didn´t get out of sight, than to leave those and go look for the lost one.  God knowing where it is, or in what danger, or the very danger in trying to find and bring back to the fold and harmony with the rest. These lost sheep, these black sheep are our troubled youth and loved ones who do not respond to the methods the majority respond to.  It is our test of love if we go search and bring them to our loving fold, or we take a merchant´s stand in which one lost is a better option than risking leaving the 99 and losing them to a thief or what not, from the many fears that can overtake us.  If we manage to have empathy with the least of our brethren, much more with the ones that have more surplus than needs, we will sincerely be in tune with love.  Before anything we must look deep into ourselves and see if we feel and have that EMPATHY, and if we have put that love to practice, or are merely reacting out of fear, anger, concern and judgment.  It is said perfect love casts out fear.  These things we must inspect in ourselves before we inspect the next person, especially those dearer to us, and especially if we follow Christ´s path.  Otherwise our efforts will be in vain.  

This is a truth that is not only for Christians but that anyone willing to be sincere and open can see.  It is a very true revelation when it comes to loving and helping me to loving and helping our fellow beings and loved ones.

Thank you for your time in reading this.  Mikey, I love you a lot and thank you for helping me to grow in this aspect of being your father. Blessings to all.


Miguel Angel Paredes
October 3, 2014

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Miguel Angel Paredes 999400
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351