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Thursday, November 7, 2019

Twenty and Zero

By S.M. Steele

Most people enter prison and they hear one universal piece of advice: "Do the time, Don't let the time do you." This could mean a lot of things to different people, but in prison this means to never let your circumstance break you down. Now, circumstances in prison are diverse. They range from peer pressures to mental health issues. In addition, people in prison are expected to make it through every challenge they face. Regardless of how much they go through, they're expected to never quit, never give up. Quitting in prison isn't just something you do because you don't want to play a basketball game anymore. Quitting in prison means committing suicide, submitting to psychotropic or recreational drugs, or abandoning your desire for freedom. So to survive in prison you must coach yourself through each day, feed your mind with positive information, and find ways to take care of your physical health.

Coaching yourself through each day in prison is a must. Don't do your time moping around with your head down and talking negative every time you speak. Nor should you hang around people who drag down. Instead, you have to coach your own life. You may see yourself losing time, money, family, and friends over the years and your future may seem like you'll leave prison poor or you may think you'll never leave prison at all, but you have to keep your head in the game. You have to tell yourself that you "got this" and that you "refuse to lose". Even when it gets rough and someone delivers you bad news, you have to suck it up and focus on the next play. If situations are too hard to handle, call a time out and regroup yourself, but never quit. You have to get back on the field and play to win. Now, at times you may ask yourself, well, what am I striving for? Or, why should I care? But you have to see the answer in your circumstances. The mission of your entire fight right now is to obtain your freedom. So, yes, you dropped a few passes in the past, and, yes, you should of held on to that ball on that last play, but as long as you are still breathing your time hasn't ran out. Now its time to take hold of your next move and refuse to make a mistake. Refuse to live a life thinking about the last play. Now its time to earn your keep so you can prove your worth. You have to show the world that you deserve a second chance. That's why no coach chooses to play with a bad play book.

Your play book must be designed to have a chance to win, so you have to feed your mind with positive information. They may tell you that your imprisonment is all about rehabilitation. They may tell you that good behavior could possibly get you out of prison early. They may even tell you that doing the crime means doing the time. No one knows you like you know yourself. If you want a better life, you have to rehabilitate yourself. You have to feed your mind with information that teaches you how to out-maneveur traps. People will take shots at you and try to keep you in a negative situation, but don't fall for it. Educate yourself and bring about the change that you want to be. The system was built off of crime. Never imagine that they want crime to go away. They need it to keep the system going because it pays their bills. It gives them Christmas and medical benefits. When you start to do better, they lose jobs. Doing the right thing will cause unemployment for thousands of state workers. Think about this. However, don't let that be the reason why you give up. If you want to be free, teach yourself how to be great. Defeat the system by doing right and your chains and shackles will fall away. Build your playbook up with positive information and starve the beast, so he never lives again. The belly of the beast survives off of crime.  

Once you sharpen your mind and stop the beast from winning, the only thing to do next is to take care of your physical body. Your body is what protects your mind and carries your minds orders into action. When we are in prison, they force you to sit in cells and rot as life passes you by. But they give you a few hours of recreation to strengthen yourself. Never lose sight of this. Make sure your body stays healthy. Watch what you place inside your body and on your body because this will determine your health. To have good health is to make sure not just your mind stays safe, but that your body stays safe as well. You will be able to defend yourself and keep your body alive as often as you can if you strengthen it. Once you stop keeping your body healthy your mind will follow and vice versa, so its important that you take care of these areas. Do pushups, pull ups, squats, and dips. Make sure you jog regularly and keep your heart healthy. Watch your diet. Prison food was prepared for animal consumption. Be careful of eating too much or eating foods without nutrition. Turn your body into a temple and treat it like the most holiest religious artifact you'he ever had. In the end, the one who plays the game the hardest wins, but if not, you can always be satisfied with giving it your best shot.

Your best shot is the chance you have left, so while you are incarcerated don't let circumstances defeat you. 2019 is my twentieth year in prison and as to date I continue to coach myself through each day, feed my mind with positive information, and take care of my physical body. Remind yourself how strong you are daily and never let someone else still your joy. To this day, I am happy and I forgive myself for all my past failings. Stress is only a visitor and soon will be a distant stranger, but it will never be a permanent resident. I love myself and I remind myself to knock out each year that I face with my mind and body in-tact. Therefore, my goal is to retire undefeated, even if they never let me go. That's why I say that I am Twenty and zero.


Sean Steele 392298
Trumbull Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 901
Leavittsburg, OH 44430
My name is Sean Steele. I am an aspiring writer. I am 35 years old. I have been in prison since I was 16. Since my incarceration, I've worked on myself intensely, and now I desire to do nothing but speak truth to power and place positive energy back into the universe. In addition to snail mail I can send and receive emails via www.jpay.com.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

An Infinite Love

Fiction by Michael "Yasir" Belt

The sun began to set on the mid-summer’s day. Gates and shutters of Main Street’s day traders began to close while the bustle of its nightlife arose. A cool breeze greeted the couple as they dallied across the cobble-stoned street. Neither was in much of a rush for this beautiful day to end. Both had been caught in the other’s web, though one had been constantly mesmerized more than the other. 

“I’m trying to figure out why I’ve been the one doing all of the heart spilling,” Amanda prodded, wishing he’d open up more. For at least the third time today her date didn’t seem to be there. His body had been taking the unconscious steps forward but his mind seemed to be traveling much further than the here and now. 

“Hey… Cosmo!” she called him back to attention.

“Who?” Aries snapped back into the present. 

“I said – “

“Why are you doing all the heart spilling? I know, I heard you,“ he sighed gently. “I’ve heard everything you’ve said today.“

“Oh really,” she muttered in disbelief. 

He let her sulk for a moment, though not too long. All day he had been in and out, absent from reality with no recollection of where he’d gone. He’d had nothing on his mind. Strangely it had been the times he wanted to talk, to tell her more about himself that he would disappear into the empty void of his thoughts. He’d try to recall how life had been before this pivotal day with her but he’d always draw a blank. Things he knew hadn’t been well for him, yet all he seemed to know was this joyous moment in time. This miraculous feeling of… her. 

“Your dad’s a retired chef, which makes me think you’ll simply grin and bear my attempt at food once I cook for you.” He told her with surety. “You don’t have a brother, but you wished you had an older one when you were growing up. Mitchell, I think you called your imaginary one. Your little sister is your world. Your mother was your best friend. She had snuck you in to that bakery we passed back on 4th Street for your 16th birthday. Your dad had grounded you a week before for coming in the house an hour late for curfew, reeking of cigarettes, pitifully masked by your best friend’s CVS brand au de toilette. The perfume had smelled like actual toilet water.”

“The eternity your dad had sentenced you to was far from over but you were your mom’s baby girl. Plus she knew that there wouldn’t be many more b-day’s she’d be sharing with you. And that was the hardest year of your life. Your mom passed away, your first love crushed your heart and your longest, oldest, best, friend got hit by a car and had to be euthanized”. Aries shook his head, a showing of grief stretched across his brow. “Poor little poodle. And you. All of that before you turned 17. But in my opinion, it was good for you. Going through it all made you stronger. And I think you turned out just fine.”

Amanda peered at him almost dumbfounded. “Did I tell you all of that… today?”

“Sure you did,” he answered assuredly. “I told you I heard everything you said. “ Though in a fragmented piece of the back of his mind, he didn’t remember her talking all that much. 

Oddly, Aries felt as if he’d known her forever. Much longer than this day; their first date. It was like his heart had been hers for so long and he was somehow just relinquishing its rights. How though…?

“Something else you’ve been telling me,” he went on, “though not verbally, is how, I’ll say, self-conscious you are about that pretty scar on your face. You keep it covered with your hair, and no matter how many times I try to walk on your right side – the street side – as a gentleman is supposed to, you always find a way to scoot me back over to the left. And I’ll let this be the last time. I don’t know if it’s a nervous thing or… or what… but...”

“Go ahead,” Amanda chuckled lightly to hide her apprehension. “Don’t be shy now. You’ve already read me like you’ve personally written the book of my life – and been right so far – so, feel free to enlighten me some more.”

“Well…” Aries took a moment to think; totally missing her facetious sarcasm. He didn’t want to be insensitive. Delving into a person’s flaws and insecurities was like crossing a tiger shark filled moat with no bridge. No way you come out in one piece, if you come out at all. Though, somehow, he saw the softness behind the fire of her waiting eyes as an open invitation to dive in.  “First of all the overbite – even with those little teeth – all of it is adorable. But you hide it with… I’m not sure if you don’t like the shape of your lips,” Aries tried to verbalize his thoughts. And just as he knew she would, Amanda tucked her thin top lip into her mouth and bit down on it. “Most people bite on their bottom lip, and mostly the corners. You though, the way your top lip naturally curls upward and leaves that small gap…” 

His mind wandered into the dim, moon-lit bedroom. She was asleep next to him in their bed, his favorite V-neck t-shirt clung to her night sweat-glistened body. The V hadn’t been so deep to begin with but with its secondhand use as her sleepwear, it pleasantly began to expose the tender upper side and cleavage of her breast. Yet that was not what Aries was most attentive to.  It was the tiny drool spot on her pillow. How her mouth hung a bit more open, her top lip a little higher than ever would’ve allowed it to rise. So cute he thought. 

Her hair was positioned over her face, hiding her scar as if it knew its place even in her slumber. He moved it to the side and lightly traced the scar down her face before taking Amanda’s awe-inspiring presence into his mind’s view. At that very moment he couldn’t imagine ever being more in love with anyone as he was with her right then and there. 

“Where did you go?” Amanda queried with wonder blazing through her eyes. 

“What do you mean?” he said snapping back into the now.

“I mean you’re here one second – listening, walking, and talking – and then it all stops.” Amanda gestured with her hands and eyes for him to look around at how they had come to a standstill. “Where do you go up there?”

“I was trying to get my words right,” he fibbed. “I don’t want to offend you.”    

“Well… you don’t have to be too gentle, you know?” Amanda taunted alluringly. 

“Hmph,” Aries snickered. “You bite down on your top lip, in the middle of it, which is kind of weird. 

Especially when you let it go and it curls back up and there’s that little opening between your lips.” Aries smirked coyly having to look away in search of the heart to complete his thought in words. He inhaled deeply, turned back to Amanda, looked her directly in her comforting eyes and exhaled. “In the most respectful way,” he smiled, “you have a very pretty mouth.” 

There was a pseudo-glare of astonishment on her face yet she couldn’t hide her flush cheeked smile. 

“Is that all?” Amanda toyed. 

Aries considered the question, briefly. There were a number of things he could’ve mentioned. The soft allure of her blue-green eyes was one. Her dirty blond hair, how it began to curl just below her earlobes and twisted itself down onto her shoulders was another. Her year-round sun kissed skin that looked softer than water, or the hips which refused to quit even under the flow of her sundress. All of it and more was well worth a mention. Though, he had a better idea. 

The gesture Aries made of removing the hair covering the left side of Amanda’s face and tucking it behind her ear was gentle and deliberate. “I like this too,” he whispered, delicately tracing over the jagged shaped smooth scar with his thumb. His other four fingers dragged lingeringly down her cheek until his hand dropped from her chin. Her skin was indeed as soft as he’d imagined. 

Amanda had looked to his hand as he’d placed it upon her and followed his fingers as they teased her face. Her head had turned, gaze seeking to fall anywhere but upon him when the searing trails he traced ceased and her burning sensation began elsewhere.

Amanda’s hand was in his and Aries was guiding her along before she remembered to breathe again. Whether it was him or her who had tightened their grip, neither would argue nor care. Both, for their own reasons, felt at home with this small showing of affection. It was Aries though, who pulled Amanda closer as the two traipsed entangled down Main Street, a smile that had once been forlorn now gleaming radiantly with hope. 

“I’ve done it ever since I was a kid,” the sudden memory poured out. “Went elsewhere, in my head. Things were let’s say, not that easy growing up. Imagining better days or making up my own stories made it all a little more bearable in the moment at least. I guess I never really grew out of the habit. 

He thought to tell her the rest. How he would be knocked back into the real world – profusely – by the exact piece of reality he’d been trying so hard to escape. He tried to tell her what his life had been before her. The words formed on the back of his tongue, heavily weighed down by the acrid taste of copper. And just as quickly as the memory had formed, it shot from the back of his mind, his thoughts no longer able to capture anything but the present. 

“So, what you’re saying is,” Amanda said, “the time you’ve been spending with me has been horrible?”

“No!” Aries quickly asserted. The image of her slumbering peacefully between his sheets blew fleetingly through his mind once more. “That was something else,” he smirked mischievously.

“Like?” she pried, not missing a beat. 

Aries sighed, peering directly into Amanda’s eyes as his thumb slowly caressed the back of her hand. The smallest wink of his eye and she was sure of it. 

“Oh,” she whimpered, and cleared her throat. “Really?”

Her word – really – dripped with more carnal intrigue than a trilogy of BDSM novels. Aries heard it, the true line of questioning. 

What were we doing? Was it wet enough for you? I made you choke me; didn’t I? How many times did I scream your name? Any butt stuff? Did you change Amanda to God when you were finishing? Oh God, Oh God, Oh God! Amanda groaned mockingly. 

All with one word: “Really.”

And, like the man he’s always been, Aries chose what he considered to be his best asset. To him, allowing a person in, letting them get close enough to glimpse even the minutest thought was to betray his own sensibility, setting himself up for failure. Which is why he’d become a master at the art of deflection before he’d stopped peeing the bed.

“You’ve told me everything today except how you got that beauty mark on your face,” he said. “Care to enlighten me?”

There was a shift in Amanda’s demeanor. She fixed her hair back over her scar and turned her head in a fatuitous attempt to hide it once again. 

“You mean the huge lightning bolt that takes up half my face?” she said.

Aries raised her hand above her head and spun her around in a circle. Once. Twice. Thrice before she giggled. Around and around she went, hair tossing, sundress floating ever so slightly, spinning to the brink of dizziness. 

He’d had them on their way, walking again, before her world ceased its wobble. Past the infused scent of freshly brewed Peruvian coffee and hookah smoke spilling out from The Poetry Cafe’s open door.  Past the days finite ringing bell on the locking door of Mom & Pop’s Milkshakes & Malts. 

Over the leveled sidewalk, Aries tripping over a phantom crack in the concrete, steadying himself by wrapping his arms around Amanda’s back, his hand resting on her hip.

She giggled sheepishly, placing her hand over his hand. “Clumsy now, are we?”

Aries shrugged, an impish smirk curling the corners of his lips. He didn’t remove his hand, even after she dropped hers. This time as they walked, he was on her scar side. How he’d managed to get over there Amanda never quite figured out. Somewhere in the midst of a spin maybe, though she hadn’t even noticed until she caught him staring directly at it.

“You’re right,” Aries said. “It’s not as big as you make it out to be but, it does look like a lightning bolt. And that’s what makes it even cooler. It makes you look like a superhero. Superheroes are sexy.”

“Well it makes me feel more like a super villain than anything,” she confessed. “When people look at me, the first thing they see is the scar. Then they just stare at it. It makes me uncomfortable when people stare at me, so I hide it.”

“Well… super villains tend to be more attractive than superheroes,” he said. “I mean, who wouldn’t stare at Cat Woman?”

“I’m sorry, who?” Amanda jested with a straight face. 

“Wow,” he said stopping in his tracks. He dropped his hand from her hip, grabbing hold of her hand and squeezing. “This isn’t going to work out. We can’t possibly be compatible if you don’t even know who Cat Woman is. Sorry, but that’s where I draw the line.”

“Hmph,” Amanda scoffed. “You’re right.”

She stepped away from him slowly. She had to lightly pry her hand from his grasp as their arms stretched to their limit.

“There’s no way this could work. You’re absolutely a D.C. Comic’s boy, while I’m the ultimate Marvel Universe fan girl who identifies with the Frost Queen, the vivacious Ms. Emma Frost. And that’s why this is where I leave you.”

It took him a second to follow, for she had left him in a state of gape-mouthed amazement. Amanda hadn’t struck him at all as the proud geek she’d just affirmed herself to be.  Never had he been one to discriminate, Batman or Captain America, D.C. or Marvel, black or white, slim waisted or luscious curves. It was all the same to him. But this woman…

Aries had always had his own personal definition of beauty; a more holistic view than one of vanity. This woman though… this woman went beyond what could be written on the figurative pages of the Collegiate Dictionary of Aries. 

Amanda was something else. Not the picture accompanying the word but the word itself. And every definition to follow.  She was intrigue in its most unadulterated form. And she was getting away. 

“Hey!” Aries hollered after her.

It began as a light jog, quickly turning into a full flat out perspiration willing sprint just to catch up with her. “How’d she get so far away so fast?” he wondered as he closed the distance between them. 

“You know,” Aries huffed, “Emma Frost may be the epitome of…”

“Hot?”

“Well…” He took her arm, intertwining it with his. “I wasn’t going to depict her with such a misogynistic term but, since you said it… I’ll just say beautiful.”

“So she’s…”

“All that I’m thinking.”

If his intonation hadn’t given it away, the rogue smirk and leer of his eyes made the full confession. Aries was no longer speaking about a fictitious comic book character. It was about her. The flesh and blood to the bone, his Frost Queen.

Their night began its descent in an apparent blink of an eye. Aries took in the sights as he walked Amanda down the street and to her door. The neighborhood wasn’t necessarily poverty stricken but it was far from swanky. The houses were well-lit, modestly kept stucco, side by sides with a small alleyway    separating every two. His guess was that the alleys led to backyards but there was no way for him to tell. The bright, mostly LED porch lights seemed to reach every bit of the front of the house, stretching to cover almost the entire sidewalk, but purposely failed to light a single inch of the side of a single home. 

Most of the houses had front yards. There were a few with shrubs. He’d counted two flower beds and a desert thirsty rose bush so far. A few houses had slabs of concrete where the front yards would’ve been. Amanda slowed as they approached one of those slabbed dwellings. It was the only one on the entire block that didn’t have a porch light. 

She led Aries up the stairs, stopping on the porch and turning towards him. They stood face to face now, with him standing on a step below her. 

“You know, I never did tell you how I ended up with such a heroic scar,” Amanda said, seeming a lot more comfortable with him now than she had earlier.

“Yeah, I noticed. I saw how you avoided the question earlier so I didn’t think it would’ve been considerate of me to pry.”

Her lips curled into a smile. She was so caught up in him. The rebirth of chivalry, that damn jawline. He made her feel so at ease, Amanda almost didn’t want to try and hide what she saw as her defects. Almost… all the way up until she realized that her top lip was higher than it should’ve been and she bit down onto it.

Aries’ warming smile – all teeth – was almost as captivating as his words. 

“Such-a-pretty-mouth,” he droned.

The dimly lit porch hid the fuchsia tone on her newly flushed skin. A white hot flash spread throughout her being, down from the roots of her hair, up from the bottom of her toes. Its fury gained a fiery momentum as it roared towards her center. 

Air became scarce, making it hard to breathe as their gazes fixed upon one another. Amanda parted her lips once more, this time gasping, gulping at the thick humidity surrounding them. And it was there, those sultry blue green eyes luring him in, that Aries could no longer help himself. 

Why do I think I love her so much? His brain attempted to fathom.

The agony of thought returned, tearing away at the back of Aries skull. The bitter taste of lead permeated through the roots of his teeth. His jaw ached as he closed his eyes in a desperate, futile attempt of escape. Though there would be no alternative to this reality! The bearing of so much utter anguish anchored him, wholly, right where he stood. The feeling, in all and every single way, was the most unbearable thing he’d ever thought to have experienced. And that made the sensation of its relief all the more surreal. 

Their lips softly came together, fumbling at first as if two nervous teenagers in the dark. Yet, it was within the beat of his heart that it became an unconsciously familiar tango. 

He pulled her in close, enveloping her within his arms. She fit as if she belonged there. Though, to Amanda, it felt more as if she were floating. Closer… closer to the night’s sun until the tender meeting of their tongues caused the flames within her to flash over. Her shudder vibrated through his mouth. Amanda’s feet found the ground as their embrace lightened. Aries loosened his grip, their mouth’s sensual two-step slowing to the smallest peck. If his life had ended at that very moment, fret would be the least of his worries. 

Aries took a step down, allowing the moon’s light to catch Amanda’s glowing face. He admired the slowly receding flush of her skin, content with the idea she’d seen the same stars circling around her head as he’d seen circling his. 

“I’d wanted to do that all night,” he breathed, with the little breath she’d left him with. 

Amanda tilted her pretty head to the right, exposing her avant-garde level of comfort with a devil –may-care grin upon her lips. 

“Anything else you’ve wanted to do?” she invited with clear intentions.

“Hah,” Aries chuckled. He stepped down again, looked her over hungrily, from head to toe before stepping down once more. “Thank you for tonight,” he said sincerely. “I had a good time and… I really needed it, so… thank you.”

Amanda made a small showing of fiddling with her keys before countering. 

“I think I’m supposed to be thanking you for being the gentleman you’ve been all day.” She held the keys at her side, the rhythm of her tapping them against her hip drew his eyes to them. And, just in case he didn’t get the message, “The night doesn’t have to end so soon, does it?”

His subconscious churned through his gut with the might of a passing kidney stone. The certainty of the night being over was too strong for his wanton desires. Even as this image flashed through his mind; Amanda’s bare body, erect, cherried nipples, and the sultry melody of her impassioned moans complimenting the rhythmic claps of her buttocks clashing against a pelvis. Even – especially – with this thought, he knew tonight must come to an end. 

“Come now, “Aries said, “what kind of gentleman would I be then? You have a good night though, and thank you again.”

Thirteen seconds and five stairs descended, anxiety became the blaring throb tearing away at the upper edge of his spine. The feeling of walking away from the best thing in his life choked him. But, just as quickly as it began, her voice removed all angst. 

“Wait!” Amanda sang after him.

Aries turned in time to see her coming, yet did nothing to thwart her attack. She threw her arms around his neck, pulled herself up and ravaged his lips. His heart leapt into his throat. It climbed its way onto his tongue, calmly sauntering into Amanda’s mouth. He used his tongue as his personal sliding board, finding its way into her chest and merging with her chunk of beating ice. 

Home.

He was ready. Ready for her. Ready to live. For love. He was ready to run straight back up those stairs, through her front door and to her bedroom. Ready. Zealously willing. Yet, somehow unable.  
There was something pulling him away even before she let go. The strange feeling of knowing. An innate level of understanding that was one thousand and thirteen times heavier than the weight she’d removed from around his neck. 

Amanda had stepped back a full six feet, gawking at his eerie stillness before Aries realized they’d stopped kissing. He wanted to ask her so badly… “Why?” He wanted to scream. To cry out loud enough for her to hear him if she were on the other side – the underside – of the world. 

“Why???”

The fire stirred from where his heart once sat. It brewed through his chest, filling his lungs to a furious capacity. He opened his mouth as the flames spiraled up his throat. 

“Ugh-Ugh-Ugh!” Aries coughed.

“You okay?” Amanda questioned, not at all referring to the physical. 

“Ugh… yeah… uhm… I think… I’m alright. I, uhm…”

“Disappeared again. Mid-kiss, I noticed it when your lips went cold. Like, dead cold.”

Aries tried to shake his head clear.

“I’m sorry. I was… I thought that… I remembered,” he stammered. 

“What? Huh?” he said, still trying to shake the fuzz from his mind. 

“What did you remember?”

“I… I don’t know.”

It was now Amanda’s turn to shake her head. Aries couldn’t tell if it was out of confusion, pity, irritation, or pure disgust. Though, what he was certain of was that none of it should matter. No thought, feeling, nor action could possibly change a thing. 

Today had been perfect. The glitches had never happened. Aries had fallen in love. Amanda had made him love her. Today had been the day. 

“Breakfast in the morning?” Amanda suggested, skipping over the beat of the past few moments. “I make a mean blueberry pancake.”

He watched her toy with her keys yet again. The want gleamed from her eyes, thirst written upon her parted lips. Her lustful craving was unmistakable.  

An inkling to run tickled at his toes. To be or not to be bewitched was the question he posed to himself. To roll the dice… is to love. 

“Breakfast sounds nice,” Aries said. “Although pancakes aren’t the meal I had in mind.”

Her response to his acquiescence began with a smile that brought the sun out. The steps she took towards him were small, methodical and deliberate until her breast crushed against his midsection. She reached up, placing her left hand on the back of his head, pulling him towards her as she rose on the tips of her toes.  

The kiss, while brief, was soft and enticing. Amanda took Aries’ hand, turning with haste to lead the way into her sanctum. There came that force anew, tugging at his very existence. 

Trying to shake it away only made him dizzier. He staggered, stumbling forward, struggling to stay upright. The ground felt like it was up while the sky seemed down. His knees, down upon the ground. It was almost over. 

The grip on his hand tightened as Amanda pulled him along. The pain was unbearable, feeling as if he were being pulled in two different directions. His physical being was fleeing one way while every feeling, emotion, sentiment, and sensation were vaulting towards her. A tug of war taking place within his chest. The agony of being ripped apart had become intolerable. The tortuous realization as to what, more flesh, blood and a fractured mind could ever be subjected to. 

Ringing, tingling, searing, stabbing, dread, agony, sorrow, bitter, pungent misery and darkness. 

The remote glued to his hand felt like home as Aries surfed through the 162 cable channels. All those channels, at such a price, and still there was nothing on this late at night. He stopped on a miscellaneous channel, an infomercial soliciting samurai swords and kitchen knives played to his inattentive eyes. 

He was stuck wondering why his ass fit perfectly in the loveseat’s cushion. Memory foam, it had to be. Yet his recollection of forming the imprint couldn’t be found. The entire house had the vaguest sense of familiarity to it. He wanted to call it home. Though, if it were, where were the memories? Aries looked around in search of familiarity. His focus fell just outside the foyer door. A pair of muddy boots he could remember owning yet not wearing sat clumsily discarded.

“Hmm?” was the sole thought he could muster. 

His eyes fell back to the room in which he sat. A small porcelain clown figurine rested on the end table next to him. He could barely remember hating it. To its right sat a sliver plated picture frame with a black velvet lined backing. Inside the frame was a picture of him and a woman. Her hair was the color of overripe strawberries. Who is she? Aries tried to forget but, her blue-green eyes would not allow it. 

Above the mantle, above the soccer and karate participation trophies, were where his sights next set. 

Upon the huge, poster sized portrait he was left to dwell. There she was again. The same woman, a different picture. This time her hair was dirty blonde, in curls. The sight of her smile burned his eyes, blurring his vision. He almost couldn’t make out the two children in the picture – one boy, one girl – who both resembled the man they stood in front of. Miniature facsimiles of Aries. 

He looked back upon the room, noticing for the first time the toys scattered about. A small Spiderman backpack lay off in the corner, right next to a small wooden table and chair set.  Crayons and construction paper lay haphazardly scattered atop. 

Panic set in. 

“Where are the kids?!” Aries screamed to the empty house. “Princess! Junior!” he yelled for them. 

But, when no one came, he made no attempt to rise and search. While his body contemplated raising itself, his conscious mind, knowing all too well the impetus, kept him put.  It directed his eyes back outside the foyer door. Back to the worn, clumsily discarded boots. Why are they muddy? His consciousness queried his recollection. 

Aries looked at his hands. His left was coated with a thick brown dust. Clumps of dirt, still moist, caked up under his fingernails. In his right hand, a still smoking .45 caliber handgun. The stench of freshly burned gunpowder invaded his nostrils. Its eye opening aroma became a breath of fog clearing air. Finally, he remembered. He remembered it all. 

Today had been his first date with the first woman he’d ever thought he could trust. The first person to whom he felt he could open his heart without the fear of judgement. Amanda had made him feel comfortable in his own skin; even after he’d bared his bones and divulged some of his darkest days. Anyone in their right – or even wrong – mind would’ve swiftly sped away from the warehouse full of mental and emotional baggage. But, at the end of the night, she still wanted to be his. 

Aries admired the framed picture on the end table once more. He noticed for the first time the suit and gown the couple had respectfully worn.  Our wedding day, he recalled, third best day of my life.

His wandering gaze turned upon the gun in which he held. The ol’ ball and chain had wanted to get a gun when a string of burglaries had struck the surrounding neighborhood. He of course, had been opposed. After all, there were kids in the house. But, as with everything, Amanda got her way. 

Aries had brought the gun home and hid it where he thought the kids would never find it. If only he’d been the man he wanted to be and stood his ground. 

The kids were twins. The thought of being in the delivery room for their birth and the memory of having his fingers crossed behind his back, praying they’d come out looking like him and no one else. Second best day of my life. 

He wiped the streak of tears from his face with the barrel of the gun. Remembering the good was in turn a reminder of the bad. Losing his children was the worst pain he’d ever experienced. If it were possible to die the most tormented horrific death and still live to die again everyday afterwards… this had been his life. 

Growing up had been shitty at best. Abuse, rejection, abandonment, substance abuse, mental crises – the list goes on. All of this within his household, all in his adolescent years, before the bullying and before being a hormonal teenager made everything exceedingly worse, which would seem impossible. 

He’d thought of taking his own life once, actually tried. He stole a handful of prescription pills from his mother, who had stolen them from someone else. Whether it was luck or not is debatable but he’d forgotten to lock the bathroom door behind him. His 8 year old little sister walked in on him with a mouthful of water and pills, right before he’s had the heart to swallow. 

“Whatcha’ doin?” her little voice chirped. 

One look into her bright eyes and he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t leave her. Not when he was the only good thing she had in her world.  Not when he was her only hope. Aries had spit the mixture of water and dissolving pills into the sink and had the clarity of mind to throw up any of what he might have accidentally swallowed. He hugged his sister as tightly as could be in the middle of that tiny bathroom that day. Now, he wished he had never let her go. She had unknowingly saved his life that day. Too bad he hadn’t stayed in that house long enough to save hers. 

The screech of metal scraping upon metal clawed at his eardrums as Aries pulled the slide of the gun back to check the chamber. The brass shell shone bright yet paled in comparison to the gleaming opportunity of the bullet itself. The good times were of yore. Everything he could’ve ever wanted – the wife, the kids, the house a home – was all behind him now. Everything that had begun with that first date was over. The best day of my life, he still thought of it as. 

The craving to return to that moment in time was overshadowed only by having lived it so many times. Was the joy of her, again and again worth the agony experienced by the realization he’d lost it all?

All that goes missing from his memory was why he had done it in the first place, and he would regret trying to recall the decision. Like the world’s tallest building imploding on top of him, the weight of recognition came crashing down. 

Aries’ wife’s naked body, those plump, oblong, cherried nipples he loved teasing her about. The salacious moans which had once been his favorite melody. The deafening smack of Amanda’s ass against another man’s pelvis. Over, over, over, over… smack, smack, smack… over, over, over, over… forever. 

Better days had to be ahead. They had to be. There was no other plausible explanation for the hope-fueled joker smile upon his lips. There had to be a way to return back to the good times. He had to be able to fix it all. He could make it so that none of this happened; so that he would never see this day. 

Heavy, cold steel rested upon his tongue. His trembling teeth clanked against the barrel of the gun. It had been the best day and the worst. Everything and in between. He couldn’t bare its burden any longer, knowing what it had all come to. He had to forget. 

The final thought that entered Aries’ mind was the last words he’d spoken to Amanda. 

“Honey, I bought a new shovel today!” he hollered up from the bottom of the stairs. 

From the back of his head the memory took flight, exiting with the same velocity as the .45 caliber bullet. Every thought, memory, wish, want, regret, all painted the artificially stained wooden blinds behind him. So quickly had he made himself forget. So fast the sun had begun to set on the mid-summer’s day. Gates and iron shutters of Main Street’s day traders began to close, while the bustle of its nightlife arose from its slumber…


Smart Communications/PA DOC
Michael Belt KU8088

SCI Houtzdale
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733


Thursday, October 24, 2019

Sex Discrimination in a Women's Prison

By Lauren O'Dell

You might think a prison built specifically to house women would be the last place to find sex-based discrimination. Here in Virginia, sex discrimination in prison is disgustingly wide open and rampant. It's 2018, supposedly the Year of the Woman, yet many in the public don't realize how different women in prison are treated simply because of their sex. And truthfully, we are convicted criminals, so I somewhat understand why many wouldn't care about this level of sex discrimination. But consider that for any reason, someone in your family could find herself in an unforeseen situation and, Bam!, next thing you know she is incarcerated. Maybe it's a drunk driving accident that unfortunately killed someone, maybe a domestic abuse situation, maybe a mental health condition. My point is, shit happens in life and we are susceptible to it. And to be real, it is only when “shit happens” that we sit up and take notice of the previously unnoticeable.

So how did sex discrimination get to this point in Virginia's women’s prisons? Let me show you:

  1. The Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections is a man. A woman has never held this position.
  2. The Director is appointed by the Governor of Virginia, who is a man. A woman has never been Governor here.
  3. The Virginia General Assembly (our state's governing body), is predominately male (though our House of Delegates recently added 15 women in last November's election!!)
  4. The above mentioned men make the policies, rules, and regulations for Virginia's prisons.
  5. There are approximately 33,000 men housed in Virginia state prisons, compared to roughly 3,000 women. Majority rules.

Because a higher percentage of men commit crimes than do women, men are in the majority. Resources are allotted based on the needs of the majority. For example, the uniforms we are required to wear are denim pants and chambray shirts -- cut from a pattern designed for a man's measurements. There is no consideration for the obvious physical differences between men and women. The state's logic is, if a man can fit into it, a woman should be able to as well. This logic has resulted in women wearing pants that are too long and too baggy. 

We are allowed to order personal clothing from a sole source that provides our commissary. If we want t-shirts, sweats, shoes, or real jeans, we have this option. But Keefe, the vendor, like DOC, bases their sales on the needs of the majority. We have had to beg and plead to be able to buy women's jeans and shoes. If we want shower shoes (a must-have in prison) that come in women's sizes, they must be specially ordered. The men's shower shoes, which are sold on commissary, are $13. The special ordered women's shower shoes are $55. Yes, $55 for a pair of damn shower shoes to fit a woman. That's a $42 difference.

But it doesn't stop there. In my prison, there is not one treatment program designed specifically to address the needs of women. Virginia requires all treatment programs to be evidenced-based, which means there has to be proof that the program actually works. Our list of treatment programs is embarrassingly small: Thinking For a Change, Anger Management, and Matrix Substance Abuse (which just recently added a section for women's drug abuse issues, due to a woman being assigned to oversee the program; it had previously been assigned to a man). There are a few other programs, but you can only access those if you are within 12 months of release and, again, they have all been designed for men. I used to teach a recidivism prevention class to a specific group of women here. This particular program originated out of state and was designed to help men succeed upon release. I had to skip a major section of the book because it dealt with impotence upon release and fatherhood skills. Really?

FCCW holds 1,250 women, of which 85-90% have experienced some form of domestic violence or abuse. In this prison's 20 year history they have never offered a class or program to address this issue. As of February of 2018, we are still waiting for a domestic violence class to start, which was promised to us last year. This is the most common problem in my prison. For most of us, it is why we are incarcerated. This place doesn't even recognize breast cancer awareness month because men rarely get breast cancer.

Vocational classes are chosen to fit the future employment needs of those being released. And once again, the majority of prisoners being released are men. This prison offers Cosmetology, HVAC, Electrical, Optical, and Graphic Design. There has been a vacancy in the Business Software class for 18 months. These are good classes taught by extraordinary teachers. The hiccup here lies within the institutional policy. Women are allowed to take only one class per sentence. This is not a state-wide policy, but rather a local one, and therefore it doesn't apply to the men. Male prisoners can take as many vocational training classes as they like. This sends the message that men's employment and training needs are more important than women's. 

It's no secret that jails and prisons don't provide adequate medical care. My prison is no exception. Two years ago a class action lawsuit was settled on the grounds that DOC did not provide basic, constitutionally required medical care to the female offenders at FCCW. Things have improved somewhat but there is still a large gap between the treatment of men and that of women. Despite the lawsuit, women here:

  • Receive little prenatal care and don't receive extra meals during their pregnancy;
  • Have to beg and write complaints to receive a yearly checkup;
  • Do not have access to birth control upon release;
  • Are not given accurate test results (the indifference is shocking); and,
  • Are not treated for post-partum ailments including depression (a staggering number enter the system pregnant).

The solution to overcoming sex-based discrimination is simple: more women need to be in positions of power and authority; they need to have a voice at every table when it comes to the decision-making. 

Recently, FCCW underwent an administration change. We have a new warden – a man – who is progressive in his thinking and is taking bold steps to correct years of missteps here. He has also brought on new administrators, one in particular who refuses to be silenced. She is forthright, honest, and determined to change the culture. None of this will happen overnight, but at least we now have people in authority who see our challenges the way we do.

I will continue to advocate for change and make those in power aware of the differences between the treatment of men and women offenders. It feels like we have a little momentum at our backs now and that's a good thing.

Lauren O'Dell 1181196
Fluvanna Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974
My name is Lauren O’Dell and I have been incarcerated since 1994.  Throughout this time, I have consistently worked, taken classes, stayed connected with my family, and tried to be an active participant in bettering the community in which I live.  In 2013 I earned as Associate Degree in General Studies and am currently working on a B.A. Government and Sociology.  I’m an activist at heart.  Upon my release, I would like to work with refugees and immigrants new to the country.  In the mean time, I continue to support, and in my own small way, fight for all human rights.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

If on a Winter's Night a Kitten Part Two

By Steve Bartholomew

To read Part One, click here

A word about being a felon these three decades.  I lay no blame for the spirling of my life anywhere by with myself, nor do I indulge in pity.  But over the years I have, on occasion, wondered what life might have looked like if I had taken different forks in the road. What if I hadn’t stayed at a motel in Snohomish County.  Or if I’d gone with Paige to Eastern Washington. What if she'd gotten the kitten from someone other than her sketchy stripper friend. Or, not brought the kitten home at all. Several of my friends and associates from the scene back then went on to sell pot year after year, decade after decade without ever seeing the inside of a jail cell. Some of them bought homes and started business with their profits. One became a medical marijuana provider and now works for a commercial grower. Weed has been legal in this state for seven or eight years--from what I see on TV you can buy it in specialty shops, no different you would tobacco or jellybeans. 


I have never been able to vote. I follow politics with the half-hearted interest you might muster while watching an Olympic event featuring a  sport you've never even tried, played by two teams from countries you can barely find on the map. Maybe disenfranchisement has jaded me politically, disillusioning me toward the prospect of any worthwhile election result. Sometimes I wonder whether I've even missed anything by never having voted. Mer or another, maybe I would have been one of those people who fill out a ballot, but votes Independant only because they dislike that candidate on lota less than the other two. From my outlander's perch I watch the free world devolve into ideological fits, hurling polarized vitriol that seems born of genuine hatred. I watch political discussions turn folks who are otherwise sensible into zealots, fever-eyed as they recite tribalist talking points, vocalizing their contempt for others who differ only in political opinions. I see folks who happen to have been born here suddenly vilify those who live here peaceably, but happen to have been born elsewhere. I see celebrities issue threats of violence against kids in Trump hats, doing so with impunity, the outrage I've come to expect from much of the public notably absent. Would I too be so ensconced in one echo chamber or another, had I a say in the process? 

My close friend told her husband, prior to the last election, "If you don't go out and vote, I don't want to hear you complain about the outcome afterwards." This is, I think, a common sentiment out there. How would the fact that my abstinence is involuntary make any difference? We don't talk politics much, my friend and I, but when we have in the past I've sensed in her a touch of annoyance because I sometimes fall short of liberal orthodoxy. She doesn't chide me for my shortcomings==after all, Al Gore was considered progressive when I came to prison. Besides, I have had to remind her, political affiliation is a voter's luxury. 


I've only ever been fired because of my criminal history. I've been unhired after many successful interviews upon disclosure of my past. Once, I had been working for several months as a mechanic at the dealership in Seattle when a former friend got caught in a stolen car. He told the police he'd bought it from me, at the lot. the Sheriff called my boss, asking him whether the car had in fact come from the dealership. Of course it hadn't. But then the Sheriff asked my boss whether he knew of my past. Of course he didn't. The following day I showed up early, as usual. He called me into the office. 

"Look man. I like your work, really I do. You kick ass around here. But I can't take the liability. You understand. Nothing personal, right?"


Since losing the emptied house so many years ago, I've never been able to have my name on a lease. Most apartment complexes and landlords, even the trailer parks you wouldn't want to live in, have a no-felon policy. 

____


Until crystal meth burst into my life I'd forgotten what it was to not feel shambly and false. For months my mind had dwelt on the void where Paige and my son had been, the way the tongue revisits a missing tooth knocked out in a fight the day before. Understand, methamphetamine is a counterfeit poultice, a tourniquet spell cast on the hemorrhaging heart. And how I longed to curtail my memory, the endless loop of relived dissolution I tormented myself with. I hated how much I still loved her, and that left me stricken. Nothing appealed more than to forget the world that had forgotten me. 

Dope is ballistic amnesia. Firing your awareness into the moment, it embeds you durably in the spangled minutiae of whatever context is at hand. There is neither then nor when. Nor is there what if, not if you don't want there to be. You can occupy yourself wholly with detailing your car or sorting a closet as easily as committing a burglary. And then, you look away for a second and dope rears up from the shadows, taking on behemoth dimensions and creating its own weather system. 

I’d convinced myself I had nothing left to lose, another lie that tells itself. Methamphetamine, above all its other qualities, neutralizes. Your thinking recedes into the impulses of your soluble parts. 

I secretly despised most of those who would have anything to do with me, and rigorously avoided everyone else. The first time I injected crystal meth, I realized that with a press of a plunger I could eradicate the outer world, a ramshackle solipsism. Craving the insulation dope offered, I began consuming more than I could afford without sacrificing what integrity I had left, routinely wagering my freedom in the process. But my addiction outpaced even my sense of isolation. And so began the storied tropes of dealing and stealing, the trail of ruin galore. 

____


That fateful morning at Andy's Motel was my first felony but, as these things often go, not my last. Not by a long shot. And over the years I lost custody of my compass, jettisoning circumspection and meaning for the carnival promise of the dope show. I detached myself from the monomyth learned at mother's knee, the celebrated arc of trappings and self-worth, because what's the point when precarity is the overarching theme and comeuppance the twist everyone saw coming. I slid away to the gravity pull of lower strata, my futuring lens myopic, focused on the pageantry of short game profit and solitaire drift. I felt locked out of one world, and locked into another. The stab of alienation was ownable because it served as an identifiable source of the loneliness I wore like a cloak of barbwire pulled in tight around me. As a rule, I sharply curbed my social investments, generalized mistrust the malignant gem now embedded in my chest. 


It happened out of nowhere, toward the end of a nondescript day not long after I'd gotten out of prison for the second time. She got on the bus and sat down next to me when there were several empty seats. The suddenness of her presence beside me was utterly three-dimensional, and would have been distracting had I anything else to pay attention to. I repositioned myself slightly to give her proper space. I couldn't blatently look her over without seeming creepy, so I feigned interest in cross-traffic happenings on her side. She was tennis chic, hair like dark liquor against her time-share tan. Her perfume was a stray lyric in the public transit drudge. In a word, unattainable. I wondered what she would think if she were to look at me, really look. Would she know I'd just started doing crystal again, as in, I'd banged a quarter gram in my connect's bathroom an hour ago after a year and a half of clean time in the joint. The bus inched forward in a long backup due to lane closure. 

"This is like one of those tedious slow motion scenes in a movie where nothing happens,"  she said while looking ahead, the casual tack of an accomplice. "I knew I should have driven." I was so startled that she'd broken the passengerly rule of separation that at first I was unconvinced she was even talking to me. 

I am incredibly charming and funny, except when talking to people.  I almost let the opening close, and then the speed kicked in. "Maybe we're just the slow motion extras, and the hero's ankle deep in action somewhere else." I held out my hand. "Astonishingly Ordinary Passenger #3. Nice to meet you." 

And there we were five minutes later, far-fetched and kind of weightless the way you can be with a stranger, our small talk entering a noticeable growth spurt. She was in town, she said, to finish her degree at UW. Charlotte, from Boston. I listened for an accent but instead detected a swerve of interest when she asked whether there was a decent Mexican place nearby. Next stop, I told her, and a couple of limed-and-salted hours later I headed home, her number in my pocket and her tastes on my lips. 

We talked on the phone and a couple days later Charlotte picked me up in her BMW for our first real date. I was feeling the allowable flush of speculation. a little dumbstruck at the windfall quality of the moment. We spent the afternoon strolling the shores of Lake Washington and then she suggested drinks at her place. As she drove us down a sidestreet several miles and tax brackets from the neighborhood, the topic of her schooling came up. She started summarizing the thesis she was finishing for her masters in criminal justice. On the coddling of American criminals and why vastly longer prison sentences and harsher conditions would save our streets. I paid whole-eared attention. 

She fleshed out her argument for me, outlining how the criminal is your basic societal virus, statistically predictable and soulless. Unchecked, she said, garden-variety deviance is sure to progress like any other malady: into murder, rape and other unspeakable acts. This much is written in genetic stone. Given that criminality is a maladaptive brainwave mutation, a perfect system ought to sift criminals from the gene pool permanently, for first offenses in most types of crimes. I quietly asked that she pull over. 

"You really believe this, what you're telling me? That there's no coming back, no way no how, from a mistake? Throw away the first key, this is what you're saying?"

"Mistakes, sure," she said, her plum-colored nails impatiently tapping the steering wheel at ten  and two. "But not... crimes. People who break the law harm everyone else. This isn't rocket science. Get rid of the bad actors, and the rest of us win. Besides, they've got it way too easy. Free cable. Pillows. Jesus. I have to pay for my cable."

"Well, I suppose I could sit here and agree with you," I said, and then took a deep breath to give myself three seconds to reconsider the words forming in my head. "But  then we'd both sound like idiots. Shit. I figure now's as good a time as any."

The thin annoyance tightening her eyes only made her prettier.  "Time for what?"

"I guess you'd call it swapping honesty," I said, and swallowed. The plunge of her neckline was lethal. "I happen to have eight felony convictions, Charlotte. I've been to the joint twice. And yeah, we do have pillows, but they're like a slice of cheese on a turd burger. My first bid was for a violent crime. Well, technically, anyway. Nobody actually got hurt, but the judge said it's the thought that counts."

She recoiled, blinking like a bird in sudden light. Her mouth formed a pale line and her breathing quickened and caught like little hiccups. 

"And maybe you're right," I continued, scrutinizing the exclamation point of bird shit at the top of the windshield. "Maybe there is something very wrong with my brain." I turned to face her. Maintaining eye contact, I slowly leaned over as if to kiss her. She drew back, her lower lip quivering. 

"I mean," I said, softly, "I came this close to going home with you."

I got out and deliberately locked the door before easing it shut. I spent much of the three hour walk home asking myself why the hell I couldn't  have held my tongue until afterward. 

____

Like the time-diluted light reaching us from distant constellations, my stories carry in their wavelengths particles of what was, farflung impulses that now seem alien even to me. Expect neither hero nor moral--mine aren't that species of story. The plotlines are contorted, each character a mongrel of flaws and disquieting motives. We're all repositories of sorts, some for empowering narratives of ordained purpose, others for truths that shy from telling. 

In prison the years blow by, untouched. I watch, or think I watch, timelines unfurl for those beyond, the ones with moving parts. From here histories appear episodic, punctuated. I am shown unconvincing pictures of sudden adults who still bear children's names. But now I'm nearing the journey's end, or beginning, depending on your perspective. Either way, I will be free in a couple years, and I could conceivably leave even sooner for transitional steps. My singular focus is on the future, now that I have one. But I still drag behind me this corpus of unwashed stories that is, I guess, what I'm made of. 

Had I not become a felon at 18, would I have gravitated to the underworld of methamphetamine? Would I have languished for a decade in the bowelworks of society before sedimenting here? Questions more valuable in their asking, to be sure, than pointlessly attempting to answer them. Causality can be tricky to map. 

My descent is the story of anyone, really. Anyone who loses their place in the universe and all hope of reclaiming it. In reality, most of our dreams are stillborn. Imagine the Iowa accountant who dreams of opening a New York dance studio. A notion his friends find too fantastical for him to consider  bringing it into existence. But in toying with the numbers and picturing the polished railings he finds a current of hope to carry him through another day, another week. Because he could become a dance studio owner. He could conceivably remake his circumstance, and in doing so reinvent an element of his identity. 

But the word ex-felon is itself a fiction. For all but the super rich there is no real world process for uncommitting a felony. I've been, basically, a number my entire adult life, my impression managed in large part by the State's scriveners. Faced with that immutable fact, how, I asked for so long, could I expect my future to turn out any different than my past? I suppose being labeled a felon is no worse, in terms of  discrimination, than what some folks endure by virtue of their skincolor. I'm not here to compare hardships. After all, one might say I brought this all on myself. But maybe I can understand better than most why a black kid, treated like a thug and told that's all he'll ever be, begins to act like one. I comprehend the power of labels. 


Much about the world is different than it was 17 years ago, when we parted ways. Social climate change is in full, albeit incremental, swing--a global, or at least national, one-degree warming toward felons. Reputable companies are becoming "felon friendly." One of my closest friends, who just released after doing 27 years for murder, is interviewing at Amazon this week—to work in the towers, not the warehouses. They reached out to him after his all-star completion of a one-year coding bootcamp Amazon's recruitment company started inside the Reformatory. Boeing also hires felons, as does Microsoft. 

Whatever Donald Trump's flaws may be, he has signed into law Second Chance legislation, which, although non-binding to individual states, has furthered the national conversation around sentence reform and the idea of redeemability. A bill which would bring back parole in Washington State is in the house right now. Seattle has enacted a "Ban the Box" law, prohibiting employers from asking applicants whether they've been convicted of a felony in the past 7 years. (Now they just google or e-verify you.) A gesture, sure, but one that has done some work in drawing attention to barriers to re-entry. 

The warden has intimated to me that upon release I should apply here, as the lead (staff) operator for the wastewater treatment plant at which I've been the lead (prisoner) operator for a year and a half. With the State license I already have, I'd make 60k a year to do the same job I get paid $51.25 a month for now. I guess even DOC has become felon friendly.


Where I am now--a minimum security work camp--prisoners mark time in months and days, rather than years. A shift in language reflecting the constricting sense of duration felt near a time horizon. An atmospheric sort of density you don't think about until you do, and then you can think of nothing else, like becoming aware of your ears at altitude. The world hum suffuses the mental space beneath my every running thought, imputing a dim sense of urgency to undertakings I one tinkered at patiently. My paintings have grown smaller, my writing projects abridged, less frequent. At this point I wouldn't buy green bananas. 

This Fourth of July I will quietly celebrate the fourteenth anniversary of my own independence from chemicals that is. I've been asked when, during that time, my outlook changed from pragmatic feutilism to that of amateur futurist. I could sooner pinpoint the moment at which one sand dune becomes another. Evolution is the accumulation of manifold changes, some smaller than others. In my inner milieu where not much remains unsorted, there no longer exists the need to shield myself from unsightly features of reality. I meet life head on now. Prison has taught me how to accept anything, even being exiled, in time to walk out into a world where people are waiting to welcome me. I have put what talents I have to use in desolution, steadily creating in a desert, and honing ways to define myself as something other than nothing, to shore up my personhood in defiance of labels. 

My storiable days are in antiseptic distance behind me, the angelus of impulse laid in response. After decades of whipsawing in the title role of chaos, I've come to exalt structure. Because to  realize an imagined future is to build a translatable reality fit to occupy. 


I rarely share my stories anymore, moreso to their ill fit than any particular feelings of shame. What it means to no longer identify with your own history. Stories are how we summarize ourselves, distilling complex motives and nuanced chains of causality into a crafted set of disembodied images. I carefully consider how, and to whom, I vignette myself. As a writer I believe any real life is reducible to words. As someone who's lived an outlier existence, I hedge sometimes at attempting to do so. 

Some prisoners get out and go to great lengths to obscure their past. They tell a different sort of story. To what end, I can't say. Everyone is everywhere at once now, hyperlinked and able to scroll on a whim through the cyber archives woven into the fabric of daily life. I have a couple years to decide whether, or how much I want to curate my online identity. Plenty of Charlottes still wander the world, but I've since learned to budget my disappointment by carefully managing my expectations.


Paige and I are friends now, closer than we have been in a lifetime. The jagged edges between us are timeworn. She has raised our son to become the sort of man who is wise enough to have learned from his father, if nothing else, what not to do. He and I have begun reconstructing our relationship, precious brickwork that figures prominently in my future, which has already begun. 


Part of my job here is to make daily rounds, driving a van from one end of this complex of five prisons to the other, winding between and around institutions, outside the perimeters. I am unsupervised eight hours a day, alone or with one or two other prisoners. Each morning I spend a quarter hour or so standing on the grass a hundred feet from a main city street, across from a busy Chevron gas station that sits next to an RV dealership. I could walk over to them, if I were still impulsive.  But instead I stand still and look at the blinding currents of bustle, and it is real and it is unreal, the tides of routine washing the horizon in heartbreaking beauty.  

I gaze out at the realm I am soon to reenter, studying the new ways people do the same old things. The world-beyond has begun to resonate with my daft sense of belonging, a concept as novel to me as the dumbstruck sense of wonder I have about what comes next. My friend is fond of telling me I have no idea what awaits me out there. And she's right. Imagination can churn out slide shows based on longing and obsolete derivatives of bygone epochs, breathless projections made without referent or practicality. So I plan carefully, but in pencil. I expect obstacles, but barriers don't always precipitate collisions. And sure, I will forever be trailed by long and grim-faced ghosts. But ghosts walk past forgotten unless you dignify them with fear or denial. 

Out there is a connected country, an America webbed in networks pulsing with desire and achievement, torrents of zeros and ones humanly non-binaried and synapsed in grand sweeps of color, the interplay of bright spires and dark rabbit holes waxing our instinct to qualify all this, our monument to what, the vanity of our species, silhouetted as we are against the dawning age of post-wonderment, and it is my country to rediscover too, my homeland of disruptive clarity, and I can hear it whispering of reconciliation in a tongue I'm beginning to understand. 

Everything feels near at hand, for the first time. To believe in the sacred promise of an authentic life is no small thing. Not everyone can stare unflinching at the freedom shimmering across the fiats and know it is no mirage. Today I am the shabbily  clad outsider on the grassy margins, a totem of localized yearning and grit, standing alone and largely unnoticed by the morning throng of commuters. Tomorrow I am one of you. And if I should become lonely in the painstaken notch I will have carved out of the swirling surface world, if I should succumb to an aching need for a furry little piece of nature to anchor me to a life under construction, well, this time I will most definitely get a puppy. 


Steve Bartholomew 978300
MCC/MSU
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Defy Ventures

By Angel Corella

Greetings!

My full name is Luis Angel Corella, but I go by “Angel.” I am a 35 year-old Mexican-American, born and raised in East Los Angeles, California. You might think that in a big city there would be opportunities on every corner. But I was raised by a single parent. My mother did the best she could, and I’m thankful for that, but there is only so much an ex-heroin addict can do. I was born into this world only to fail.  

Where I grew up, there were no peewee football teams or soccer moms. No famous people donating money or trying to fix our community. Growing up, we played tag with rocks and boulders. As we got older that quickly changed: bats, knives, and guns took over….

My role models consisted of ex-convicts, hard core gang bangers, and drug dealers. Nice clothes creased up with handkerchiefs hanging from their back pockets. No expensive suits or ties, but the same shiny Stacey Adams (shoes), and on special occasions nice fedoras. Those were the famous people I grew up wanting to be like. Like police officers, they watched our streets protecting us from enemies that may want to creep. Drinking liquor, smoking cigarettes-- I saw it on TV, so isn’t that normal? 

Between the ages of 11 and 13 years old it dawned on me: I’m the man of the house. My siblings looked up to me, they needed me! A kid myself, what was I to do? Naturally out of frustration, I cried! I was introduced to smoking weed and as they say, I was “high as the sky.”

I ended up in the system, Juvenile Hall. There I learned drugs could be sold and young kids like me could be in control. Labeled by the system as delinquents and hoodlums, we did our time. No one came to hug or nurture us. I still recall the District Attorney’s words, “menace, parasitical.” Not knowing what they meant, I looked them up. WOW! I was not a gang member, I was still a kid lost and in search of a way. A big cheeked boy, with puffy hair, who loved playing with his Hot Wheel Cars and thought everything on the TV show “X-Files” was real, and yet I was a parasite. What options did I have but the ones in front of my face that were pretty much handed to me on a platter?

In Junior High School I learned joints sold for $5.00. How was a destitute kid going to pass that up? Before I knew it powder milk and Kixx became real milk, frosted flakes with bananas, and even a pop tart every now and then. My poor mother didn’t notice, but my baby brother and sister did, their huge smiles shining when they saw they were having the same thing kids on TV were enjoying. I became a gang member in the eyes of the system because of the neighborhood my family could afford to live in.  I had no choice; I wanted to live in Beverly Hills like the kids on TV. I wanted to go to a school where teachers would educate me and not smell like beer and smoke. To live where my family could attend country clubs or maybe even a book club. Instead, my family went to the Los Angeles County Jail, Chino, Folsom, and San Quentin State Prison. Our clubs were parenting classes, Narcotics Anonymous, and Alcoholics Anonymous. The big city of angels where I’m from was not as heavenly as people think. Young Mexicans like me had no American dream to look forward to. 

I became a gang member; it was my choice to accept it. I gave it my all, thinking that life would turn out great. Influences, beliefs, and habits took over. I was determined to be the best at it and have it all. I did not see the negativity in that life, at the time I did not think that lifestyle was wrong and that I was hurting my family as well as my community. I made mistakes but by the time I realized it, I was 19 years old with a sixty-nine year to life sentence. I grew into a middle aged man with nothing, no education, an ill mother, and a brain that only recalled all the wrong choices in life that I’d made. I had nothing to lose, and everything to gain.  

In February 2017, my celly came back from the first DEFY Ventures event at Pelican Bay State Prison, and I’ll never forget his words: “I had a great time.” He told me all DEFY offered and did. He said to do the course and get accepted, we had to fill out some forms and write our story and explain why we should be selected. I didn’t want to. I was negative about it. My celly said, “You damn pessimist, just do it.” 

I did, and I’m thankful to my good friend Gil “the Kat” Garcia for his encouragement. I was accepted. DEFY Ventures has been the best experience of my life.  It’s like I joined a positive gang of ballers. I joined a family that loves me and accepts me for who I am and my past. 

Fresh out of the SHU (Security Housing Unit) from a month term, I was forced to bear hug dudes of different races/ethnicities. Nope, I thought to myself, about this crazy white girl “Cat.” Not me, she don’t know what I’ve been through or seen. Then she called me out on it. She said we all have our word to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. I’m a man of my word, and I’ve never ranked out so I couldn’t now. I did all my work, but, I must admit, the book DEFY provides us, The DJ, met the floor and wall more than once. I even bit it. Little did I know The DJ was feeding my brain and washing out the bad.  

DEFY has change my life in so many ways. I thought it was a business course but it was more. I learned how to let go of unnecessary relationships, and practice proper etiquette. I even learned that my mistakes in life could be forgotten and forgiven if I allowed it to happen. I let the process take its course, and I learned so much. 

I thought that my life had ended because I was sent to prison for life and that I would never experience anything good life had to offer. It’s a trip to say, but because of Defy Ventures and Catherine, I have accomplished what is, so far, my “brag shamelessly story.” I earned my Baylor University, Hankamer School of Business Certificate in career readiness, which came with a sweet graduation picture that made my family proud. They now believe in me. 

I formulated a business plan and pitched it to venture capital investors, for which I won a semi-finalist certificate in the First Pelican Bay State Prison “Rocket Pitch Competition,” and I was able to bust down and “work out” with my fellow EIT Monte Coss, CEO and Founder of Con Body. Not to mention Barbara, a Billionaire Investor, who also busted down with us and kicked our ass. I mean really, who can say they busted down in an active level 4 yard with a woman billionaire who has no reason to care for them? I can! Believe it, burpees, sweat and no knees on the floor. This woman did a prison work out with us. Thank you Barbara! I’m telling you, tough woman! My graduation, July 22, 2017, is a day I’ll never forget! Although I’ve never been released, I imagine that was the feeling. Gil and I walked up and jumped straight to it, washing up and showering. We were proud of this celebration! Might I add, Gil and I have been good friends for years, so we argue a lot. A lot. Not this day, though, no time for it. I picked up his slack, he picked up mine. No room for being late. 

When we were all introduced and got past the walk the line exercise, I was left without words. These investors opened up to us as we did to them and they saw us as humans, not prisoners! This has impacted my life. No one has ever donated money to educate me, to better my life till now. I wrote in my letter to be accepted that I would work hard and give it my all if DEFY accepted me because I had something to gain. I gave it my all and my resiliency paid off. DEFY, Catherine, and all the investors changed my life. I’m now a man focused on positivity. I have confidence now, so much that I have involved myself in too many positive programs to count. DEFY brought me closer to my fellow EIT’s, so much so that we all see each other as family. DEFY has accepted me into its academy and their hearts. I’m not religious but Catherine Hoke is a saint in our eyes. She has sparked hope in our hearts, and her love and support is a blessing in my life. I’m so thankful she has crossed the line. 

Thank you all DEFY staff for all you do for us, you sparked a fire in our dark cave, we all now can see the freedom we never had. 

WE ARE DEFYING THE ODDS!

Special thanks to:
OG Glen
Momma
Dave Crenshaw
Charles Hoke
Dana Hamman  Go Packers
Barbara
Mark & his wife
Monte Coss
Baylor University
And everyone that helped change our lives.

WE LOVE YOU ALL!

Luis Angel Corella T-82975
Pelican Bay State Prison
P.O. Box 7500
Crescent City, CA 95532