When I was a small child my mom was my hero. I can remember the feeling of love as she would spin fantastic stories to my brother and me about the great feats and accomplishments of our distant relatives. As she would tell us these stories the passion in her eyes left no room for doubt. She would become animated. The characters in her stories would play out right in front of our dirt-stained faces. Whatever story she was telling was as real as the hunger pains that washed over our malnourished bodies.
My mom was one amazingly strong and proud woman. Of course, as an adult, I realize that my long-lost-second-cousin-once-removed really wasn’t a famous bear fighter in the cold Russian tundra. Or that our family really isn’t related to the English crown. However, as a small child, I would fist fight, bite, or yell at anyone who dared to tell me she was lying.
In retrospect things are usually much clearer. As an adult I’m able to put our situation into proper context. If I were to see the three of us walking down some dusty Bakersfield street from an adult’s vantage, what I would see is an extremely different picture: I’d be able to see my dear mom for what she really was. A child. A sad, lost teenager with two children in tow. I would see a small teenage girl in dirty, patched fixed jeans. Ones that were products of her tortured little fingers, which washed and repaired the rags we called clothes at night after tucking my brother and me away on some random floor she’d found for us to call home for the night.
I can now easily see what my mom was doing for Dan – my brother – and me with her stories. Mom was creating new realities for us. She used these stories to protect us. She was hiding us inside these dreamscapes. Shielding us from our actuality; from the fact that we were without. Without a home. Without a car. Without a next meal. We were destitute.
When I was a small boy my mom was my hero. As I sit here writing this I realize that she remains my hero.
My biological father was not around most of my life. He was lost to drug addiction and the monster called the California Department of Corrections. Until a few years ago I would have been telling you here how much I hated the guy. I would go over all the ways he was this really bad person. I would be retelling all the nasty stories that were forced on me as a child. As I write this it makes me mad. How and why adults think shit like that is okay is beyond me. Telling babies that their dad is awful (regardless of whether it’s true or not) is wrong. I was brainwashed into believing the man who helped bring me into the world was the worst kind of human. The man whose name I carry as my own was the worst person ever to be born. Well, that’s what people would have had me believe. However, I’m not going to be doing any of that. I’m going to keep it real. What I know about Geoff – my biological dad – is that he had his own issues that kept him removed from my life. He has a story that I hope to one day know in full. There are a few things I can say about Geoff, though. I know he grew up in the ‘hood. He came from a background of hating cops, drug use and extreme poverty. He took a long time to get out of the trap most of us poor people fall into: drugs and prison. He’s out now! And I’m proud of him for that. Sadly, he is an old man now, slowly dying from too many years of I.V. drug use and smoking.
Fast forward some to when Mom met a really great man named Larry. From what I was told, Mom, Dan and I were walking on the side of Highway 99 in Vancouver, Washington. How the hell we made it there is still slightly confusing. I’m pretty sure some boyfriend of Mom’s dumped us there. As the story goes, Larry was driving up the highway when he saw a cute chick with a couple of rug rats struggling to carry the bags we’d just picked up from the food bank, so he pulled over and picked us up. For better or worse they remained together until Larry – who I called my dad – died an awful death while under hospice care at the house I grew up in.
Between this first encounter and his death there were many crazy adventures. If I even wrote half of them you would dismiss me as a liar – like so many have dismissed my mom when she would tell her stories. The man I called my dad suffered from schizophrenia. If you don’t know about that mental health issue let’s just accept that shit was wild. Dad… Well, Dad was genuinely crazy at times. There are parts that I can laugh about now but that’s only because I am still alive!
Dad and Mom had two children. The oldest of the two is my beautiful sister, Donna. The youngest is my other beautiful sister, Tracy. I love them both deeply. However, for Dan and me growing up with them was not so good. Before the girls were born life was wild because of Dad’s mental health issues, but he treated Dan and me as well as he could. The addition of Dad’s (biological) kids made life harder for us boys. Dad began treating us bad and at times things could get violent and dangerous. Dan and I found safety in one another, and in the streets.
My first exposure to juvenile is something to write about. It was Christmas ’91 or ’92 (the year really isn’t important). Dan had done something to work our mom into a fit. He got his ass beat pretty bad for whatever it was (more than likely something small). By this time in our lives Dad was no longer physical with us. I think having two babies of his own helped shape his actions when it came to that stuff. To be clear, that did not mean our mom didn’t beat us, though. For some reason she picked up where Dad had left off. I could pose all sorts of possibilities as to why but who really cares. It sucked regardless of why. With her it was worse at times because, as we got bigger, she started using shit to beat us with. But I’m getting off point… Dan got his ass beat pretty bad. So, we decided that our best course of action would be to escape into the freezing winter night while the rest of the family slept quietly in that one room shack we called home.
Without disturbing anyone, we silently crept out the front door carrying all the belongings we could into the ice-covered night streets. Dan and I had planned this final get away; this escape from our endless worry about the next mindless punishment or mental health breakdown. The burning sensation in my lungs from that night’s cold air is seared into my memory as if it were last night.
The feeling was one of the most powerful my young body had ever felt. I was free! No more bullshit. No more fear. From now on it would just be my brother and me. The world was at our finger tips. Sadly, this feeling of reaching out to this brave new world disappeared quickly. The reality of our decision set in fast. We knew we had to find some place to hide from the cruelty of our new-found freedom.
Dan and I eventually ended up taking refuge in an unlocked truck we’d found. As our small, cold bodies unthawed we were able to move our limbs some. I’m not sure which one of us started digging around the cab of the truck first, as both of us were looking for spare change or any other jewels we might find. What I am sure of is that it was me who found that shiny keyring with a single key attached. Just like I can recall the feeling of my lungs burning, I can also recall the excitement I felt when I realized that this key meant warmth. It meant I would not have to feel like a traitor anymore for my secret desire for the warmth of our shack where the rest of our family were sleeping.
We stole the truck! The roads were thickly covered with ice and the truck was a stick shift. Of course, as two kids who had never driven before this night, we were quickly spotted by police. A pursuit happened and, as quickly as we were spotted, it ended with a damaged fence and a wrecked truck. Our great escape didn’t last long. Our adventure into this brave, new, ice-covered world was over.
We were escorted to juvenile hall where I was stripped of my clothes by some sicko who stared entirely too long at my nude body. I was given a set of orange boxers, pants and top. Once I was fully dressed I was directed to the first place I had ever slept alone. The bunk was soooo much more comfortable than the hard spot on the front room floor where I slept two nights before. And I was warm! Under TWO blankets, and I even had sheets! Wow!! What a trip. To that point in my life I had only seen sheets being used to cover the windows in our house. That night I slept like a baby. I felt safe. I was warm. I had clean clothes, and the topper: my very own bed. Talk about wonderful.
It probably isn’t hard to ascertain from this initial exposure to juvenile hall that I would see those same orange boxers and that nice, comfortable bed many, many times in my short, damaged youth.
Once in a while, instead of letting me go “home”, the State would place me in some random foster home. Oh my God! These were much worse than having my ass kicked at home. At least at home the person beating me up loved me in a strange sort of way. In most of these foster homes I would be beaten up by the older kids or worse, by some hillbilly foster parent who’d drank too much. I should say that it was not always like this. I didn’t always get my ass kicked. Sometimes I would be starved or verbally abused. You get the idea, right? These places were fucked! And as a kid I’d think: “better beat at home.” At least there I’d find comfort in a sibling or, if I was lucky, my mom.
I ran away from every single foster home, without question. I could not stay at these places. Whether it was at night while everyone was sleeping or while in town with the “family,” I was running as fast as I could to rid myself of these people. What’s crazy to me is all the freaking journeys I went on trying to get home. I have stories Mark Twain would be proud to spin into a book. Some of the things I got myself into while making my way home are worthy of their own story.
The worst place I ever found myself at is a boy’s home called KVH (or Kiwanis Vocational Home). I was such a management issue at school that the school board decided to banish me! They literally voted me off their island. After some sort of hearing it was decided that I would need to attend alternative schooling at some other campus. Well, about that... There was no such other campus. What Centralia School District (shame on them!) decided to do with me was hire a taxi to transport me over to K.V.H where I would be taught with the other inmates there. My life has not been the same since. #metoo
Not long after the events at K.V.H. my life took an even more dangerous turn. I was so mentally and emotionally ruined by the things I went through that I set out on a path of self-destruction. Drugs, sex, crime and more drugs were how I coped. But, of course, the only place that lifestyle ever leads to is prison. Here’s the kicker… My first trip to prison was before I was 18. In fact, at the time, my family thought that I had runaway. They thought the only reason I had not been home was due to me “running” the streets. They had no clue. When I called my mom for the first time from prison she went nuts! It’s funny too. She told me that “I was really going to have my ass beat for this one.” As if I had not already been given a real ass kicking before.
When I made it to receiving at Shelton [Washington Corrections Center] they placed me in the hole – aka isolation – due to my age (I was only 16). I guess they have rules for kids being there too. Go figure. Isolation is the worst. So calling my mom and not hearing what I needed, which was “baby, it’s going to be alright,” sucked. I was lonely, scared and looking to be reassured all would be well, but that never happened.
Now I’m lucky to have turned 17 relatively soon into this journey. Isolation is NO place for a fragile mind like the one I had. I guess 17 was old enough for me to be released into regular population (i.e. mainline). Finally out of the hole, I was able to experience prison for the first time in its full glory.
Gang violence, racial segregation, and true old school convicts. Oh yeah! Roll-your-own cigarettes. Wow, those blew my mind...
I was sentenced (above standard range) to 27 months for standing next to a childhood buddy when he assaulted someone. It was a time I will certainly never forget! In that short period of my life I was “put on to the game”. Drug dealing and prison politics consumed my every move. The prison I was at during this time was called “Gladiator School”, or Clallam Bay Corrections Center. The 90s were nuts in DOC; a truly wonderful place for an underdeveloped, undereducated and under-appreciated young boy like myself (where were our progressive politicians then?!).
I was released from prison on February 12, 1998. By January 28 2000 – my 19th birthday – I had committed two (non-violent) robberies and a first-degree burglary. I’d gone to trial and lost, and was sentenced to seven hundred and seventy-seven years in prison! Yep. That’s right.
I always thought that was an odd number to use... I mean, really, what the fuck? As if I would live past the first hundred years, right? So, just to be safe, let’s add six hundred and seventy-seven more. Personally, I think if they want to dish out prison terms like that, they should keep it real and use the number: 666! Clearly they have devil in them to do this shit, right? However, if you’re unfamiliar with Washington’s “three strike laws”, this is the outcome. Seven hundred and seventy-seven years for teenagers already lost in the system. (An interesting note: I was the youngest person in the nation to ever be sentenced to this.)
There I was, a teenager who would NEVER be getting out of prison. What a trip. I cannot express how heavy that was on my heart. Inside I knew just how much of a hurt little kid I was. None of this made sense, but so far that was just how life was for me.
Obviously, I did not know what to do. So, I went with the flow of things for a few months – all the time contemplating ending it all early. I thought: Fuck it! I surely don’t want to be here FOREVER.
I can pinpoint the moment when I decided not to kill myself. It was my first visit with my daughter, Sophie – who, by luck or chance, had an amazing mother who refused to let prison be the reason she didn’t know her dad.
Sadly, for Sophie and her mom, Denise, I made all the wrong choices. Once I came to terms with the fact that I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison, I decided the best way to do it was at the top of the food chain, not the bottom…
I spent the next eight years lost in prison gang life. Drugs. Money. Position. Power. You get the idea, right? I’m guessing that if you’re reading this you’ve at least seen National Geographic programs dealing with all of that. Well, imagine it, and then place me somewhere in the middle. I fit the stereotype: shaved head, gang tattoos, and a “fuck the world” attitude. In an odd, twisted fairytale sort of way, I was blessed – just like Cinderella with my foot fitting a glass boot. (In prison, “boot” is the slang for skinhead.)
My cousin, Leon Troy, was the “shot caller” for Washington’s most violent prison gang, and this gave me cause to be ‘the man’ in far more situations than I should have been. I was lost! But prison had fully consumed me and my world. I was no longer Leon Troy’s younger cousin, but now “Leon: the big homie with life!”
One day, while wasting away in segregation for a gang hit I was accused of, I received a letter telling me I had been remanded for sentencing. Not really knowing what this meant, I sent it over to my buddy who was in the next cell. He told me, and I broke down. I remember crying for hours.
At court the judge gave me an approximate 20-year sentence, which left me very little time remaining. I will never be able to express how I felt; “overwhelmed” is probably the only way to describe it.
Following sentencing, my return to prison was a trip! I was fast-tracked to a prison camp (and that, in its own right, was a trip). In a matter of months, I had gone from doing a 24 month prison program in segregation to being transferred to a work camp. I was excited! The whole ‘camp life’ was nuts. There weren’t even fences holding me in! I spent about 20 months at one camp until my bullshit gang activity and non-stop rule violations led me to being shipped off to another more restrictive camp (which is where I met Tom, who became a mentor to me) and I finished the remaining 20 months or so.
And there I was, back on the streets of my city. The only difference was my age and a new social position within the neighborhood. Just like prison, this new-found freedom consumed me. At NO point before my release did I prepare for real life. Hell, I thought I was the man. And other people thought so too.
Spending the previous 15 years of my life behind bars doing drugs, getting tattoos – and everything in between – was not something I was able to get out of my system. Believe me, I tried to fight off the urges to get high and hang out with the homies. However, I did not have the resilience to resist the challenges life was putting in my way.
Maybe you’ve heard this before: history repeats itself.
I left prison the second time August 8, 2011. By August 12, 2012 I was back in jail facing my “third strike” again. After months of fighting, I finally caved to the State and pled guilty; accepting another 20 years behind bars.
But this is where my story gets really interesting. While I was in jail, I convinced Emily (the lady I had dated the entire time I was free) to marry me. I thought this would make life better. The three of us (yep, she too was pregnant. Just like Denise was when I went to prison the last time) would do this time together. As a team. As a family.
Another really huge decision of mine was to completely turn away from my past, or as some call it here “drop out” of the gang. This decision was helped by the fact that my cousin, the shot caller, was nearly killed by our own gang. Needless to say, deciding to leave those guys wasn’t too hard. I surely was not looking to be stabbed to death given something my cousin had done. I wanted to have a life. To be free. To love. To be loved.
Emily and our son don’t visit much. Of course this hurts but Emily has her own story, I guess. They are gone but my desire to overcome the issues in my life that have held me hostage for way too long is alive. My hunger for a real life is a non-stop motivating force that pushes me to challenge myself. I have been dead inside for too many years of my life. I refuse to accept this fate. I refuse to cower to my demons any longer. No longer will I allow the damaged boy to steer this ship. With my head held high I confront the facts as they are. I can either own them or they can own me. Reflecting on my past, I decided to be in control of my future.
Some really wonderful things have happened for me in the past six years. Tom – my mentor – has continuously held my feet to the fire, pushing me to challenge myself. To overcome. To achieve. With his help (and tons of hours in a psychologist’s chair) I’ve built something more valuable than all the gold in the world: a healthy self-image. An image I am proud to see while looking in the mirror. During this ongoing journey I have been acquiring as much education as the State will let me. I have multiple degrees in computer science, and a good handle on training service dogs. I have many Toastmaster accomplishments. Really the list of things could go on and on.
One of the most important things I have learned during this coming of age story is that I am so much more than my bad acts (as well as those done to me). I have also discovered that I’m an advocate for the disadvantaged. I use my voice wherever possible when other voices are being shutdown by the masses or lost amongst the noise. I deeply care about the next human.
There are so many things I can say about the man I am now but that’s not my style. I will leave this by saying, “I love life.” I wake each morning with hope in my heart and the desire to be the best me that I can be. Regardless of all the horrible things life has handed me, I always try not to forget the many, many good things that were and are there too.
When I was a small child my mom was my hero. Now that I am a man, she remains that power figure. Rest in peace, mom.
|Geoffrey Leon Carpenter 752058|
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
Hello World! Friends call me Leon but the government officials get my attention by using my government-approved name, Geoffrey Leon Carpenter. It is up to you which works best. I’m a 39 year-old male held captive in WADOC. My crime… well, those are many but the roots rise out of poverty, abuse and drug addiction. I’m happily committed to a special person, my future and my life. A hope of mine is that something of value can be gained from reading these words. These unadulterated truths seep from the darkest depths of my wounded soul.