As a teenager, I envisioned graduating from high school, pursuing a career as an automotive mechanic, and getting married. I would have at least two kids, raise them in a rural neighbourhood – I’d have a nice little house with a garage, and be the world’s greatest dad. I was going to be responsible, hard working, kind, and honorable – like my grandfather. As you may already know, even the best of plans… change.
I lived with my mom until I was eleven. That’s when she started dating a guy named Ron. I was used to being Mom’s center of attention and I didn’t like sharing it with anyone, especially Ron. To make things worse, Mom and Ron were serious about each other. Before that, my dad was the only man who had stayed the night. I was having none of it. I mean, who did this guy think he was? So, I did what any respectable preteen would do. I started acting out, but instead of getting rid of Ron I ended up moving to the country with my dad.
Dad introduced me to new freedoms and responsibilities. I could do pretty much anything I wanted, but I had to be responsible about it. For example, I could ride his three-wheeler all over the ten-acre property, but I had to do it without breaking my neck or wrecking his bike. He didn’t care what music I listened to, what television programs I watched, or how late I stayed up on a school night. He even acted like he didn’t care if I smoked cigarettes (mostly because he didn’t want me to hide), but once I started smoking openly he scheduled a doctor’s appointment during which the doctor X-rayed and listened to my lungs. The doctor told me that my lungs were more delicate than normal, that I was prone to breathing-related health problems, and that under no circumstances should I smoke. Obviously, Dad had talked to the doctor before the appointment. The Old Man tried, but I smoked.
Once, during the seventh grade, I was escorted by the principal from my fifth period class to his office. Some kid had told on me for smoking a cigarette at lunchtime. I was as cool as the winter breeze…on the outside. Inside, it was DEF-CON 5 – full panic. I had a pot-pipe (which I had gotten from my dad’s friend Mitch) in my pocket along with a cigarette, a lighter, and an empty baggy that still had weed residue in it. Sure enough, the principal reached in my coat pocket and found it. He told me to “start talking.” I blurted out something about finding the pipe and empty baggy behind the local mini-mart, but he told me to try again, and if I didn’t tell the truth this time he was going to call the cops. I concocted a story about following some teenagers down to the river to smoke and found the stuff under a rock they were using as a hidey-hole. I offered to show him, and assured him that I knew right where it was. (It was my spot.) He didn’t want to see the spot – he knew some high schoolers smoked down by the river. He asked whether I would prefer him to call my dad or the cops. I replied, “The cops.” He called my dad.
The loud rev of a car engine and violent slam of a car door announced Dad’s arrival. Less than a minute later he was standing in the doorway to the principal’s office with an angry look on his face. A look I had only seen a couple times before. For a moment, he just stared at me. The principal invited him to come in and take a seat, then proceeded to explain the situation. Dad started pounding on the arm of the chair and casting grave looks at me. He was putting on a pretty good show. I began to wonder if he was really mad. Before the impromptu meeting was over the principal was encouraging him not to be too hard on me. I was suspended from school for two weeks. Dad continued his angry charade as we left the school with another slam of the car door and rev of the engine. He added a chirp of the back tires as we roared away. A few blocks from the school, the Old Man handed me a joint. I didn’t know it then but it was my last one for a couple weeks.
I spent my vacation (or, rather, suspension) in the city with Mom. It was one of the precious few times I spent with her during my teenage years. You know the old saying, “you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone”? Well, it’s true. Hanging out with Mom again stimulated feelings I hadn’t felt for a while. My emotions then were fickle. Growing up in a ‘broken’ home, I felt like having a good time with one parent was betraying the other. I definitely needed that visit with Mom. The funny thing is, until she reads this and learns otherwise, she still believes I was suspended those two weeks for smoking cigarettes.
As one year turned into the next, Dad gave me more and more leash. I was allowed to have friends – male and female – spend the night. Of course, I had to pretend he didn’t know we were drinking and smoking weed. One time, while one of my buddies and I were hanging out in my room wishing we had some pot to smoke, Dad came in. He saw my pot-pipe on the nightstand and in that moment I knew I had been too relaxed. He picked it up and blew his stack. He ranted and raved, and carried on for a minute or two before throwing it down on my bed, saying he “better not ever catch either one of us smoking that shit!” I swear my buddy was so scared he thought about jumping out of the bedroom window. But after he left the room, I noticed a large piece of green bud bulging from my pipe. Dad could’ve won an academy award. For a moment there he even had me fooled.
When I wasn’t busy partying and doing teenage mischief, I was interested in cars. Oh, I was going to have a hot rod, and my dad was going to help. When I was thirteen, he bought a ’73 Plymouth Duster with the intention of building the car with me. He drove it around for a few months until the old, tired engine gave out. I put another old one in, changed the transmission and right rear axle. He wanted me to do most of the work so I would value the car – and not drive it like a teenager. In some alternate universe that tactic might have worked. I burned up the second motor before I turned fourteen. I didn’t worry too much about ruining engines or transmissions because I knew how to change them. As it turned out, all the work I did on that car was for the experience. Before I could get my driver’s license, we moved back into the city, and he sold my car.
Once we got settled into my brother’s old apartment, Dad got me enrolled in an “alternative” school. He even let me drive myself to school in his van – without a driver’s license. That didn’t last long. I wanted to work, make money, and party. School just got in the way. I started hustling a few weed deals here and there, but not enough to keep me smoking steadily. I ended up landing a job at gas station across the street from my mom’s place, which made staying with her and Ron the more convenient choice. Then Ron introduced me to his associate, Jim, a classic car enthusiast. Jim was really into old Ford Falcons, and I made a deal to work mornings for him in return for a rust-free, driveable 1964 Ford Falcon Ranchero at the end of the summer. In the meantime, he let me drive his nearly mint-condition ’63 Ford Falcon Ranchero as collateral, and to ensure I could make the commute. The ’64 was clean, had a straight body, and was going to be an awesome ride….
I started hanging around with people my grandmother would’ve called “bad apples”. I was easily influenced, and wanted to be perceived as cool by my friends. I began to steal from the gas station, which dominoed into other poor choices. It didn’t take long. Before I knew it I was fired. Then, I wrecked Jim’s ’63 Ranchero, and he pulled the plug on our deal.
I began renting a room from my big sister Heather, for fifty bucks a week. It was a great deal because I didn’t have to buy any food. Yeah, she regretted that. All the wrenching on cars came in pretty handy while I was unemployed since I used the garage and driveway to do brake-jobs, tune-ups, and various automotive repairs. I earned enough to buy a ’77 Dodge pickup truck from our neighbor. It didn’t run but before I bought it I was able to determine that the problems were relatively minor. I paid a hundred and fifty bucks for the rig and, after a couple trips to the wrecking yard, I had the parts necessary to get it running.
I found a job in Seattle working for a retired private investigator. He ran a handyman service and employed me as a general laborer. I learned a lot working for him, but my drinking, pot smoking, and all around free-spirited lifestyle led to more poor choices. I developed a bad attitude that caught up to me when my boss overheard me speaking disparagingly about him to a co-worker. He paid, and fired me as soon as we finished the job. I had more than three hundred bucks in my wallet, a pickup truck, and no responsibilities.
I stopped by my sister Hailey’s apartment and picked up her ex. I liked him because he exuded characteristics I thought were “cool”. He was older, adventurous, tough, and liked to drink, use drugs, and party. He liked me because I was young, easy to manipulate, and I had a truck. We spent my last paycheck while out camping and pursuing mischief. Then one day, while broke, hungry, and hung-over, he gave me an ultimatum. I chose compliance over courage and participated in a burglary I genuinely wanted no part of. I drove the getaway vehicle. I was convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and assault, and given an exceptional prison sentence of nearly thirty-six years.
One of my earliest prison experiences occurred while I was still wearing orange transport coveralls after my arrival at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. It was my first night-yard and I was on the phone with my mom telling her that I had made it to the Penitentiary. The guy on the phone next to me got “domed”. I didn’t actually see it, but I heard the thud. It was louder and more eerily hollow sounding than I could’ve imagined. He got hit one time with an object (probably a rock in a sock) that tore his scalp open. There were chunks of flesh, hair, and specks of blood on the wall between our phones. I froze; staring at the guy slumped on the ground, watching the blood on the wall begin to pool around his head. The phone he had been holding was still swinging side to side. The guy on the other side of me reached over in mid-conversation and turned my head away. Whoever he was, in that moment, he taught me a valuable prison survival lesson. His action broke me free of my panic-stricken state, compelling me to continue my conversation with Mom as if nothing happened. Yeah, I had a lot to learn. Survival was going to be a chore, but what alternative was there?
My third night in the cell-block I heard two of the men in the cage next to mine fighting. Then, muffled whimpers of “no, no, no, no,” and “please, please, please,” and “don’t,” and “stop”. I heard everything: the crying, the begging, and the bodies slapping. The rape only lasted a couple minutes, an awfully long time. I asked my cellmates, “Why don’t we do something? Why don’t we help that guy?” The eldest of my cellies at the time informed me that if that guy wanted a knife, he would get him one. He continued. “That guy chooses to climb back in the cage with that animal every day, and has been doing so for weeks.” He told me I could feel all the sorry for him that I wanted, but if that guy won’t fight for himself, none of the rest of us could fight for him. So my neighbor got the “business” every third or fourth night for the next few months, until one night a guard happened by amid muffled sobs and grunting.
The fact that I had a thirty-five year prison sentence came in kind of handy sometimes too. A few of the guys felt sorry for me when they learned that I got three and a half decades for driving the getaway vehicle for a burglary gone bad. Others just didn’t bother with youngsters like me who had so much time. Of course, I faced queries from some pretty tough-looking hombres, but I had a few people looking out for me along the way. I ended up getting a job in the prison’s metal factory, and though there were a couple bumps in the road, I managed to stay out of trouble for about a year, until the race riot between the Mexicans and the Whites.
The riot was a culmination of several things. There were some unpaid drug debts, an unspoken power struggle involving the races and prison politics (something I had yet to understand), and a “respect” issue that had arisen between the White and Mexican leaders. It started out as a one-on-one fistfight between my cellmate, Blue, and one of the Mexican guys called Lefty. Unfortunately for my celly, Lefty was a boxer. He gave him a couple jabs that set up a straight left, and before it even really got started Blue folded up like a lawn chair on his way to the ground. Lefty dropped to his knee and punched him in the face three more times before somebody made it there. I tried, but got punched in the face so hard that it smashed my glasses and cut my nose and the flesh under my eye. I guess you could say I was busy. We were sorely outnumbered. At one point, I was completely surrounded and being punched until the Mexicans got tired of beating on me or one of the Whites had fought his way over to help me.
I read in the paper that twelve shots were fired, but that was news to me. I only heard the first two. I did hear one of the prison guards, who ran up in response to the fight, shout at the tower guard to “Shoot the motherfucker!” He was pointing towards someone near me. In retrospect, it was pretty scary, but at the time, I was more concerned with the immediate battle. No one had been shot that night, but later I learned that four of the Whites had been stabbed – only one seriously – but we had lost that battle decidedly. I wasn’t even old enough to have a beer legally, yet I was fighting for my life in the State Pen.
Not everyone is cut out for survival in prison. Everyone thinks they can – we all say we can, but will we? After serving more than two decades in here, I can recall a good number who haven’t so far. Some of them, like my first neighbor, sacrifice their dignity and self-respect by trading an orifice for security, groceries, drugs, or some combination thereof. Others -- the vast majority -- find themselves so invested in the daily hustle of prison life, trying to carve out a little purpose, that they fail to recognize that they need to work on themselves. A trend that will continue until the legislature institutes some form of incentive, like parole, that effectively motivates prisoners to pursue self-improvement. Until then, unmotivated prisoners will continue en masse to succumb to prison culture, glorifying past crimes or plotting future ones, and increasing recidivism rates.
Imagine being sent to a cage for ten, fifteen, twenty, or like me, thirty-five years. What would purpose mean? Most strive to find purpose here, but what we usually find isn’t very positive. You’ve got the wheelers and dealers, and the guys who perpetuate the market for whatever is being dealt. There are a growing number of prison gangs that bring various associated pleasantries like violence, drugs, extortion, manipulation, etc. Not to mention the stuff that everyone, including me, is afraid to mention (so I’ll just dip my metaphorical toe in the water). Over the past few years there have been several articles in The New York Times, exposing an array of corruptions in New York’s prisons, specifically among their guards. Could corruption among prison guards (not exactly the most sought after or highly esteemed profession) be exclusive to New York?
With the exception of learning some trade skills, most of my prison related “purpose” isn’t worth mentioning, at least until recently. Now I’m focused on my future – outside of prison. I am pursuing an AA degree through the University Beyond Bars. I am working in the prison’s Maintenance Department, sharpening skills I will use in the workforce upon release. Additionally, I have been serving as a mentor to some of the younger guys in here, encouraging them to focus on their futures as well. And in my “free” time I write. I write letters and essays, working to build my outside support team – the people who will help me integrate back into the community. A reintegration that is likely to happen sooner rather than later following the emergence of juvenile brain development science and its most recent influence on the Supreme Court and Legislature.
Purpose. How can such a simple concept be so complex? At fifteen years old, if you’d have asked me about my purpose, I would have answered with something like: graduating high school, falling in love, getting married, raising a family, and developing a career as an automotive mechanic. A quarter-century later, in response to the same inquiry, I would say: living with integrity (which I define as simply doing the right thing, in every situation, regardless of who or if anyone is watching), preparing for my release and successful reintegration (building marketable job skills and pursuing education), giving back to my community (helping younger people make wise decisions, and the public to improve our criminal justice system). My point is quite simple. Most of us think we understand “purpose”. But the truth is, every time we think we know exactly what to do, every time we think we genuinely begin to understand our “purpose,” there is a crossroads.
|Isaac Sweet 752399|
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777