I remember a day not long ago sitting in my California prison cell doing what I’d done so many countless other times through the electric fence and razor wire, staring out my window. My freedom, something I hadn’t had in nearly 30 years, was left standing there in the forest just outside the prison’s perimeter. I couldn’t reach out to clutch it in my bare hands even if my life depended on it — I am serving the rest of my life in this man-built hell.
They say it’s a center for men and women to be rehabilitated. A place of correcting our wrongs with rights, before we leave behind a legacy that is just meaningless and forgotten. They say many of us get so lost that we fall into the cracks of this confinement, only to no longer find our way back out.
I’m one of the fortunate ones — I found my way back to the surface.
Five years ago, though I was no longer a prison gang member or an associate of anyone that was, I still could not recognize the reflection staring back at me every time I shaved or brushed my teeth in the mirror — it was “me that was actually broken into small fragments” rather than the damaged piece of reflective glass upon my wall.
I still held on to a lot of baggage that can come with stepping into such an environment as prison.
Many would agree, where I sit, that when you walk through these gates you are culturally segregated whether you like it or not. You are, from the start, forced to see the world around you in either black, white or brown, depending on the color of your own skin.
This is the ideology you undertake because it’s how we are taught to “survive.” The world, your world is no longer in color — your eyes see things and people through what becomes a restricted lens.
That is the part of walking away from a prison gang that took years longer to rid my mind and heart of — though I finally did.
Being ignorant, because that is what I say to anyone that fools themselves into believing they are better than anyone else based on appearance, is a depressingly scary concept. Think about it, would you love an animal such as a cat or a dog based on its fur color or size? As human beings, I would assume we [can] be much more compassionate toward one another than even animals are capable of — ash black, burnt sienna, pearl white; these are colors in Crayola boxes and nothing more.
Before Christmas I was moved to another prison after five years in a place where the majority of men could not let go of the ideology that the “line in the sand for segregation” should remain intact, contrary to the fact that we’re no longer prison gang members. For once I was in a new prison where the majority was willing to see things in color — no longer in just black, white and brown.
It was the first night I’d went out for evening yard and the moon was so big that it appeared just a mile away. I sat on one of the cement tables beneath that amazing moon, and for the first time on any prison yard I’d ever been on I felt like I could actually close my eyes without fearing an attack from another prisoner based on my past gang and belief system or worse yet, the color of my skin under the light of the moon that night.
I leaned my head back, looked up one more time at the sky that rested atop my half-open eyes and just exhaled into the evening air. It actually felt as if the atmosphere was welcoming my release of sigh and finality, letting me know that it’s OK to relax and take in some of the beauty the world still has to offer me despite my being in prison.
In that moment I could see particles of my previous life flying by me like dust having nowhere else to land. And the only fear my body would feel was losing this peaceful moment if I was to open my eyes. I could visualize them, my old beliefs and misconceptions about mankind, veering off the cliff into oblivion. Once and for all.
It has become very liberating to know that I’d reached a place in my life where letting go of the baggage that caused harm to others and myself had come long before I’d stopped to notice it.
I could’ve sat there that night with my eyes closed for a few more minutes confident that my moment of tranquility beneath the moon and stars would go undisturbed, but I knew that I would look really strange sitting there with my eyes closed at 7:30 p.m. when my company was expected to come out of his own building and join me.
His name is Hakim, my expected company, and I met him the week I’d arrived at this new prison. Like me, he too is an ex-gang member and serving life in prison. For whatever reason, our friendship from the start felt like it was and is part of a bigger picture than just ourselves — perhaps it’s to say to the world around us that anyone can change?
Though his goofy personality makes me laugh like we’re both in our 20s all over again, it’s his kindness for other human beings that humbles me and gives me my own clarity in how we should treat others. I haven’t told him just yet, but I feel fortunate to be considered his friend after having traveled different paths to get to where it is that we’ve made it.
“What up family” is what Hakim says to me every time we see each other on the yard and give each other one of those manly half-hugs that us men do to show our brotherly affection. It never fails, that goofy grin beams across his face like there is no worries in the world.
We’re all human — and I’m grateful that I can look into my own reflection today while seeing a man, a human being I can be proud of again. Always treat everyone around you with love and compassion as I’ve learned to do. You’d be amazed at where your own path will lead you if you’re willing to see the world as I do today, no longer in just black and white.
Keith Erickson, 46, is serving a sentence in Ironwood State Prison for shooting and killing his mother’s abusive boyfriend. He was put into foster care at age 11 after being repeatedly victimized and physically abused by a drug-addicted/alcoholic stepfather who nearly killed him.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.