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By Wesley Atkinson
For as long as I can remember, I have lived a double life. If I were to go missing, my mother might describe me to authorities as a good young man, smart and kind, loving. On the streets I have a very different reputation, one built of stories that might make you unsure whether to laugh, cry, or pray.
I became a criminal as a child. When I was nine years old my friend‘s dad bought brand new bikes for his son and me. "Nothing in life comes for free," he told us. If we wanted to keep them we‘d have to work them off. We both nodded solemnly that of course we would. He handed us each a backpack and told us exactly where to take them and when to be there. We rode to a corner a few neighborhoods away, the shadiest part of Santa Cruz, where my mom never would have let me be, for any reason. A man stood at the meeting spot, waiting for those backpacks.
This became routine, like a paper route--except I knew we weren't delivering newspapers. We sometimes watched my friend's dad package bricks of crank the size of my Social Studies textbook and stack them carefully in the backpacks. I knew better than to ask or say anything about it.
In our neighborhood, most of the grimiest street life unfolded in the alleys. I was definitely not allowed to play or even pass through the one behind our house. So of course that's where I wanted to go. I saw my first dead body in our alley, a few houses down from our own. I was ten. My friend and I stood there silently, staring down at the dead man half-hidden in the bushes. He was starting to smell. I remember being scared and excited at the same time, fascinated with the proof of how extreme a certain type of life can be. I never knew what happened to him, before or after that. It‘s not like there was some big investigation. People in that neighborhood didn‘t call the police.
Not long after, I watched my older cousin beat a man senseless then push his face through a car window. The man's face was gashed open, much of his blood spread about the scene. I was in awe of the violence and admired my cousin for being the one giving the beating, not taking it. I figured everyone had to be one or the other.
When I was eleven, my friend's father said, "You guys aren‘t really kids anymore." He put his hands on our shoulders, staring us in the eye, one then the other. "Today you become men."
He gave us each a revolver and a small bag of crank that we owed him for. "It‘s time to earn your own way."
My mornings were spent with my mom and sister, kid mornings full of cartoons and sugary cereal. Nothing to worry about, no responsibilities aside from chores. In the summertime I would go outside around noon to "play." Between my front porch and the hidey hole in the alley where I kept my gun I would transform, harden. Prepare to make my rounds.
I was to ride through the hood, scoping the allies and dopesale corners for cops. If I spotted a cop I was to ride to the nearest dealer's house and tell them where the cops were hiding. If I saw a new dealer trying to perpetrate, I was to draw my pistol, rob them and run them off. A wandering dealer was typically new to the game, so an 11 year-old kid pointing a shaky revolver at his face was usually enough to dissuade him from setting up shop on that particular corner. He would leave, maybe a little grateful that nothing but his pockets had been emptied. A few let their pride convince them to return. In those cases I was under strict orders to shoot, no questions asked.
I sold meth and heroin every day but did not know much about them, aside from their street value. I would take to school with me vacuum-packed bricks of heroin and meth, tucked safely in my backpack, and on the way home meet someone to drop it off. In the fifth grade someone reported me for selling drugs at school. The cops came into my classroom and arrested me. Took me to the principal‘s office and searched my locker, my backpack. They found nothing but some empty containers. I thought I had outsmarted the law, even though I was expelled from school. I would never return.
One night I got drunk at a friend‘s house. Wasted, really, because when you're 13 alcohol hits you like that. My friend‘s family had taken in a roommate, a 28 year-old man. He asked if I wanted to play his X-Box with him. "Sure," I said, and stumbled into his room. He asked me if I did uppers. I didn't know what he meant. He pulled out a glass pipe. "Hit this," he said.
I blew out an enormous lungful of smoke. In the space of a few ramped up heartbeats I was no longer drunk. I felt supercharged, full of energy. I had finally met methamphetamines in person.
The next day he asked me if I wanted to get high again. Of course I did. I expected him to pull out the glass pipe and load it, like he‘d done the night before. But he arranged a different set of items: a glass of water and a spoon. Two syringes. I watched him crush a piece of crank in the spoon, dissolving it into water, and draw it up into one of the syringes. I studied his movements, the gentle press of the needle tip against the cotton. The tiny slurping sound it made at the end, like when you push air between your teeth with your tongue. I was just curious enough, and careless enough, to be talked through my first hit. The effect was almost violent, like getting punched in the face with an alternate reality. Both my inner and outer lives would never be the same.
I began hanging out with a new crowd, the users. But they seemed to have no purpose aside from getting high. I still wanted to make money, I wanted to be somebody. I kept using, but returned to dealing.
I was at least five years younger than everyone else in my circle of "friends," so my job was to hold contraband. At 14 I was riding the city bus around Portland, Oregon, carrying a duffel bag full of crank, heroin and a sawed-off 12 gauge shotgun. That year I had my first brush with death. A man shot me in the chest while I was selling crack from the passenger seat. Luckily for me, he was only packing a .22 pistol. The bullet entered above my right nipple and bounced off a rib, lodging against my collarbone. At my girfriend's house I worked the bullet along beneath the skin until I could push it out the entrance hole. I took some selfies in the mirror while still bleeding out of my chest. That experience taught me to respect violence, always expect it and never be caught unarmed. As a result, I was caught armed. I became a felon at 14, a possession of firearm charge, the first of many felonies I would rack up before I turned 16: thefts, second degree burglaries, residential burglaries.
When I was 16, two friends and I decided to break into e liquor store. We stole 521 bottles of booze because 520 just didn't seem like enough. One of my friends severed an artery in his wrist on the plate-glass window we'd broken to gain entrance. The cops didn't need a bloodhound to follow the actual blood trail to the nearby apartment where we'd stashed enough booze to stock a cocktail bar. I looked out the window and saw them closing in, flashlights wagging up the sidewalk. I grabbed my backpack and ducked out the back. A few hours later I called the apartment to find out what had happened. My friend told me over the phone that the coast was clear. Somehow they'd missed the apartment, he said. Come on over. When I got there the police were inside patiently waiting for my friends to convince me to return.
I was sent to Maple Lane Juvenile Prison to serve an eighteen month sentence. Nothing I had ever endured, none of the chaos and turmoil of street life compared to what I faced in juvenile prison. Living conditions were sickening, and in retrospect, inhumane. I was locked down in a cell with no toilet or running water. Staff issued me a jug, the word "urinal" stamped on the lid. After weeks of use, urine would crystallize on the inside of the jug, accumulating to the point of clogging the opening. I had to bang it on the shower walls to empty it. The smell of urine permeated everything, the cell, common areas, the showers--no amount of cleaning could counter the ammonia reek. The guards would bait us, belittling and verbally abusing us until we were ready to snap, willing to fight a losing fight rather than endure another minute of it. Then they would lock us down for 72 hours, shut into a reeking cell with a piss jug.
Conflicts in juvenile prison were resolved with violence, no matter how slight. A year and a half of that was supposed to somehow reform me, cure me of my criminal ways. What it did was strengthen my resolve. I knew then that if I could survive prison intact, I was a man. By the time I turned 18 I had nearly a decade in the dope game, and had been involved in robberies, burglaries, violent assaults, stabbings, shootings, and prison. I will turn 26 in a few weeks, and I have been locked up for nearly every birthday since my sixteenth.
I've been beat down, tied up and thrown in the trunk of a car more than once.
I've been jumped and robbed many times--a few of those times I was beaten so badly I couldn't let my family see me for weeks.
I've been shot. Shot at. Attacked with a knife. One of my attackers I stabbed through the bottom of his jaw because I thought I was going to die. The tip of my knife protruded from his face above his lip, next to his nose.
My friend and I robbed a drug dealer once, and my friend didn‘t believe the man when he said he had no more dope. He cut the man‘s ear off.
Another friend of mine blew the side of his head off with a shotgun, a few feet from me.
I witnessed four people surround my homeboy in his car while one of them shot him in the head with a sawed off shotgun.
I was sitting beside a partner on his bed when a man shot him in the face, than rummaged through his pockets for his phone. He called my dead friend's sister to tell her that he was running the area again. When he hung up he asked me why I thought I should live.
I was walking with my girlfriend when a gunfight erupted in the neighborhood. A stray bullet struck her in the head. She died next to me.
In some ways my years spent in prison have been the easiest. After that first sentence, being locked up meant nothing. I can't call prison enjoyable, but I believe it‘s saved me more than once. Life inside has normalcy, structure. The streets are where the mayhem is. Being locked up so often, and for so much of my life made me lose hope for anything else. I never had thoughts of turning my life around, of doing good. It just didn't seem realistic.
In here I'm part of a community, going about my daily routine. Out there I'm nothing but a menace, so the judges and police say.
I've been sentenced by the same judge that sent my dad and three uncles to prison. My dad escaped from county jail, went on the run and robbed a bunch of banks before turning himself in. He was my role model, my inspirational male figure.
I‘ve deprived my mom of the son she once had, robbed my sisters of the brother they needed. I have a daughter who may never know me because of the lifestyle I‘ve chosen.
All I can do now is reflect on my life, the pattern of decisions that led me here. It's not like I can present some valid reason for choosing such a destructive path. If I say I'm a product of my environment, then I'm not really owning it.
I have nothing to show for my life thus far aside from nightmares and scars. The inner ones hurt the most. I have anxiety bordering on paranoia that I will run into someone from my past, someone who has a bullet waiting for me over one of the many mistakes I made as a kid on drugs, impressionable and influenced by older people. For many years I was told that "doing the right thing” meant doing some very bad things. Some of those actions were under duress, fear of being beaten. Some I did on my own because it fit in with everything else I'd known and done.
As I near the end of this four-year sentence, I am becoming aware for the first time of how profoundly prison has affected me, how far behind I am in life, in free world terms. I have become comfortable in prison because in here I could relax—each day I wake up knowing no one will shoot me, and they probably won‘t stab me. But I have mistaken prison for a healthy environment only because all I can compare it to is the worst sort of life out there. The scars of prison are more subtle than the ones I carry from the free world. My social skills are limited to dealing with prisoners and criminals. I've never had a legitimate job, and the idea of one is terrifying. All I know about is prison. My only conversation topics are prison, and outlaw tales. I've seen prison break men much stronger than me. The fact that I fit in so well here makes me feel I‘m made for this, that I have no chance at success. I‘m filled with self-doubt.
I‘m afraid to open up to free people. When they begin to understand how wild my childhood was, they get a little scared and pull away. They judge me by my past and usually refuse to get to know who I am now.
I‘m not proud of the fact that everything I wrote here is true. How can such a past make me who I am but not define me? Sometimes I fear never meeting someone who can look beyond my past to who I truly am now. I dream of having a family, of living right and working for a living. Of not having to worry about being robbed, or fear someone's vengeance. But I'm so afraid of failing that I don't know where to begin. I've disappointed my family countless times. My mom has lost so much sleep wondering if I were alive or not. I've caused her a lifetime of pain. If only I could make her proud. For so long I've wished I knew how.
Despite the corrupting nature of the prison environment, I have met here the only positive and productive friends I've ever had. The walls close me in, try to convince me I need bars and chain link to survive. But a few of the people I've come to know in here have helped me to expand my mind, to see the free world and myself in a new light.
Several months ago I landed a job in mechanical maintenance, one of the best jobs in the prison. The only job where a guy can learn anything that matters. A small crew with low turnover, it's s difficult job to land. One of my friends is a skilled welder, and took me under his wing after helping to get me hired. I picked it up quickly. I began to see this as an option, a way to make a real living one day.
Then the guards discovered several gallons of homemade wine in my cell. I went to the hole for a few days and lost my job, the clearance even to step foot in that part of the prison. I am so used to disappointment, and disappointing others, that I accepted this turn of events as the usual result of my actions. I gave up.
But my friend, the one who'd gotten me the job, did not. He spoke to our boss, an ex c/o who some describe as having the soul of a prison guard, explaining my background and what this job meant to me, to my future. He was always a decent boss, but rigid about the rules. Not exactly a sympathetic guy.
First my boss spoke to the administration on my behalf-- the captain, the custody unit supervisor and program manager. They all said that no way would they reward bad behavior with a second chance. Think of the precedent, they said. I was astonished that he‘d gone to bat for me. No one ever has before. He'd given it a sincere effort, but been up against some heavyweights. I chalked it up.
But my boss did not. He wrote the warden on my behalf, the first time he‘d done so in the 14 years he‘s worked here. When he didn't get a timely response, he went to the warden's office and pleaded my case in person. The warden sided with him, against administration.
I'm back to going to work every day in maintenance, under the conditions that I regularly attend A/A and N/A and keep my nose clean.
I asked my boss why he would stick his neck out for me. He said he‘s never seen someone walk into a shop for the first time and within weeks be able to weld competently. He said I have a natural ability for this kind of work. And that I could get a real job on the streets with the skills I have right now. I told him his reputation as a hard ass is in question.
I‘ve taken to heart the fact that someone like him could see value in me. For the first time, I have positive expectations to live up to.
I'm the youngest on my crew by 14 years. In talking with these men I've learned not only snippets of life skills, but that my past doesn't have to define me. Some of them have pasts, too. But they‘re more than what their central file says.
When I get out this October I‘ll have the potential to be an asset to a real company. That surprises me almost as much as the fact that I know it to be true. I've come a long way from where and who I was. I hope I have enough momentum to complete the journey to becoming the father, brother and son my family deserves.
|Wesley Atkinson 361772|
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777