One of my cousins told me he could not wait to come to prison. That statement caught me off-guard, and I asked him what he meant.
He told me his friends told him that only real men go to prison and survive, and one was not considered a man if he did not go to prison. I was shocked.
I have six immediate uncles, my mother’s brothers. Four of them I heard about only from stories because they were always in prison. I met my Uncle Rodney only once, and he told me that prison was not a good place to be. A few months later, he attempted a robbery and found himself back in prison. He died right here in San Quentin.
My uncles Larry and Michael are uncles I only met a few times, and they told me about how bad prison was, and how they did not want to see me go there. So how did prison get glamorized?
There are certain books and shows, styled “urban,” that make it seem like crime and prison are rites of passage, and that only “the real” go to prison, only to get out and make it big. While it is a world of hope that success can spring from being in prison, one does not have to go to prison to be successful. Does that make sense?
One can be successful without having to hit rock bottom. It is very easy to go to prison but very difficult to come out.
I have been incarcerated nearly 10 years, and I had the idea that my manhood would be tested thoroughly. The other side of that glamorous prison life is the idea that inmates are killing and raping each other. I have seen a bit of both, but it is not a frequent thing.
I was 27 when I fell this time, and I never believed that prison was the place to be. Ever. Do not misunderstand me: Without this time, I would have been killed in the street, either by a past or present victim, or by the police. That does not mean that I could not have changed my life without going to prison. I did not have to get locked up to learn to love myself, and neither does anyone else.
One of the biggest struggles in prison is dealing with modern-day slavery. We work for pennies on the dollar, most of us doing work some people believe is beneath them. Guards talk down to us, some of them anyway, and they seem to forget that one bad choice can land them behind these walls.
Some people point to Tupac for glamorizing the “thug life,” but songs where he rapped about killing or crime, at the end of the song he was either in jail or dead. Prison sucks. It is not at all like the movies or music. Imagine watching your children grow up through pictures instead of being there with them, or your siblings growing up without you.
I’ll say this: Coming to prison saved my life, though only because I was too stubborn to listen to my parents, my family, my friends or my own instincts. I can admit that freely, and I can admit that I had to come to prison to free myself from the chains of mental slavery and to see the face of oppression and racism in a clear and present sense.
I do not recommend tearing yourself away from your loved ones in order to get your life together. As long as one has family and friends, one can succeed. Communicate. Listen. Learn.
Mesro Coles El, 37, is serving a sentence of 35 years to life under the three strikes law in San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, for residential burglary.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at email@example.com.