I Found Purpose in Prison, and Not Just to Build Paper Trail for the Parole Board

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TAG: Isolated thinking man face looking up. Low-key, black and white portrait. Hope concept.

Stefano Buttafoco/Shutterstock

I murdered him. I stabbed him 51 times in his sleep, and now his name likely evokes in people close to him funny, warm and wonderful memories of a man they still love. And then it evokes pain because they remember, they realize suddenly after a happy thought and a smile that he was brutally taken from them for no real reason.

Their guts wrench hard. They are saddened. They are angered. They remember that they are lonely and hurting without the treasured piece of their lives that I so callously took from them — their son, their brother, their friend, Carlos. “It wasn’t his time!” they yell furiously all at God and at me and at nobody … But only nobody hears them.

Obviously, I cannot return that precious heart-piece to them. I cannot bring Carlos back — no matter that I wish more desperately every day that I could. In fact, there is nothing I can ever do to make up for this horrible wrong I committed, I know, or for all the harm I’ve caused. Not with my own blood. Not with a lifetime in prison. For there is no justice for murder. So there is definitely no way for me to justify my actions. Though I have spent many years behind these walls trying do that exactly.

No one believed my excuses but me

Maybe I spoke out of shame or self-pity when I argued to be right for taking a man’s life. Maybe I craved acceptance and I thought I’d find it in lying. Or, maybe my guilt and my own hurt overwhelmed me, and I didn’t know how to face it. Maybe it was all of that and more.

Why ever I blamed Carlos, my mother and my upbringing, circumstances, life for treating me unfairly; why ever I sought sympathy for the “cruelty” of being sent to prison with a life sentence at just 17 years old, I know today that only I was ever convinced.

Nobody else bought into my bullshhh, yet I denied and did not speak my truth until I finally made the surprisingly difficult decision to go home. “Surprisingly difficult” I say, because while I hated prison, I had also grown accustomed to this cold place in the first five or six years I’d spent. I was comfortable even. Plus, getting out would mean challenging the beliefs and ideals that had been mine for a lifetime, and that I believed were crucial to my survival.

It would mean such a change in my life that it could alienate me from the same men whose acceptance and validation I struggled for and often depended on. Such a change, too, such a journey into the unknown, that I had no idea who I’d become.

Scariest of all that trying to go home meant, I knew it would be a tremendous struggle, a long, long time of very hard work and there would be no guarantee of success. Hell, the chances of ever seeing the other side of the wall again were small enough that I’d first have to accept that I might not. Or, more honestly, that I probably would not.

Scared of everything, including the work

I was still a baby, just 22 or 23 years old, when I committed to the hope of one more chance at freedom, faint and distant though it was at that time. My initial parole consideration hearing, where a small panel of representatives of the Board of Prison Hearings would interview me at length about my life and what I’ve learned before determining whether I was suitable for parole, was still 10 years in the future. My soul was in such tatters (I’d already put myself through so much hell) that I really wasn’t sure I was strong or smart or brave enough, or even that I was human enough anymore, to see myself through this journey before me.

I was scared. I felt like a small child alone in a dark room, made unfamiliar and terrifying by the overwhelming blackness. A child suddenly paralyzed with fear, too afraid to reach into the dark for fear of what he might, or might not, find, too afraid to cry out for fear of who might or might not answer. But freedom was like a pinprick of light to me in that dark room, far away and without promise, but offered my only sense of direction. So I followed it.

The next 10 years eventually became less a struggle to earn my way through the gate, and so much more a spiritual journey of realization and self-discovery. I immersed myself in various self-help groups. My participation therein was half-hearted at best for a while, simply a means to build a paper trail of positive programming for the Board of Prison Hearings (THE BOARD) to follow and admire.

I broke through

At one AA meeting, though, something special happened. I broke my protocol of silently sitting in and, almost without realizing how deep I was in, I shared a piece of my story so deeply personal that I’d never admitted it but to one other person in my life. My vision blurred. My heart raced. My body tensed with sweat, and I grew gradually more dizzy as I opened up this first public time about being sexually abused by my dad’s then stepson when I was 5. To tell that story I battled through a certain fear of judgment and ridicule, and a strong sense of shame I’d owned as long as I could remember.

And it lingered beyond my confession. Only when a man from that meeting caught up to me afterward did I find my strength again. He thanked me for opening up the way I did, then went on to unburden himself of his own similar shameful secret. And I learned in that moment, shared between two hardened convicts who finally recognized their pain, that a much greater tragedy than to die in prison would be to live in prison and never do anything with my time. I discovered a responsibility to heal from my emotional wounds, and then to help others heal from theirs. I found purpose. And throughout the next decade and three different prisons (each a lower security level, starting at a 4-maximum security down to a 2) I explored that purpose with a fervent passion.

Waiting for parole board

I earned my GED. I started toward an associate’s degree. I discovered my talents as a carpenter. I excelled in my self-help studies, and soon I facilitated several self-help programs, including one I created, a support and educational group for juveniles tried as adults, and so forced to grow up in prison.

In my leading role, I learned more and more about myself, especially about my past and the consequences of my actions. My eyes opened wide to the ignorance, the denial, the painful insecurities, the disregard, the hurt, shame and fear, and the loneliness I felt and ignored, and that warped my views of myself and the rest of the world. I recognized that in my own hurt, I had in turn hurt so many others.

It broke my heart in the most tragic yet meaningful way. In realizing what I’d done, and that it was nobody’s fault but my own, I was destroyed, often cast into hysterical fits of shameful tears. But I also realized that I never wanted to hurt another soul. I vowed that I would not, that instead, I would commit to always striving to bring healing into the world, in prison, in freedom, no matter.

This journey wasn’t without any bumps in the road, though as the date of my parole consideration hearing with THE BOARD approached, I did feel confident. I felt ready to show them the hard work I’d put in, the genuine changes I’d made in my life and to prove my thorough understanding of what went wrong in my life and how I corrected my flawed beliefs and ways of thinking. Certain new laws in favor of paroling juveniles sentenced to adult life terms supported me. I believed wholeheartedly that I was going to call my mom after the hearing and tell her that 16 years was enough, that she didn’t have to wait anymore, that THE BOARD decided I could come home to her.

I’d done everything

Instead, the phone call after my hearing went differently. I had to explain to my mom with a lump of sadness and disappointment in my throat, as well as to many others who believed as we did that I’d be found suitable for parole, that actually I was denied for three more years. It was crushing to hear, but infinitely more devastating to have to break my news to people who loved me enough that after 15 years in prison, they still had my back; they never gave up on me.

I wanted bad to make them proud, not sad. Yet, there we were, sobbing over the phone together, for ourselves and each other, speechless except for the mutual heartache expressed in our sobs. We shared in shock, too, when I explained the commissioners’ reasons for denial; namely that I was involved four years ago in a fight. No matter that I was deemed by prison staff not to be the aggressor but the victim, and so found not guilty of a rules violation.

For a few days after the hearing, frustration plagued me. I remembered again and again the commissioner saying to me that I’d done everything, that they can’t ask for anything more from me, just more distance from the write-up (that I was found not guilty of!), and it bothered me … But only until I was jolted back to reality at a self-help meeting. One of the men there started talking about me. He thanked me for “showing up  so soon after getting such bad news.” Then he turned to the group while gesturing toward me with a sweep of his hand, and he half-confessed, half-announced that it should be “all of our goal to find enough inner peace and such a dedication to service that we can continue to be positive examples, even when we’re hurting.” Another man then asked me how I did it, and just like that I remembered something.

“My purpose,” I said, for myself as much as for the circle of men sitting with me, “was never in going home.” Then I explained that I hurt a lot of people very deeply on my way here, many of them irreparably; that I’m in prison because I deserve to be here, and it’s not my decision when I’ve paid enough of a price that I get to leave. It’s only for me to decide what I do with my time, and right now I choose not to wallow in self-pity, but to understand that I am lucky to be where I am — wherever I am — because there’s another man who will never go home and it’s my fault, because I killed him. I owe him and his family a lot more than some years away.

At the very least, I owe them my purpose, which I found in helping to heal the same pain in others that I once felt, that caused the still worse pain I left my victims to deal with forever. I choose today to be grateful for my journey, even these difficult parts, because I get to come away from them, smarter and stronger, when actually I deserve to go to hell.

For a moment, the group fell silent, mostly in contemplation. “Look,” I interrupted. “I’m shamed, embarrassed, saddened by so much of what I’ve done. But if I give into that, or into feeling sorry for myself … Well, hurt people hurt people, I’ve learned, and I just can’t do that anymore. Yes, I’m disappointed at being denied. But I can come right back to this group because I finally love myself enough to love the people around me. And I love the people around me right now enough that my disappointment quickly gives way to gratitude. I’m needed here, and I need something from some here, too. I don’t know what it is, but you have it for me. That makes me feel good. I’ll move on to the next chapter of my life when I have everything I need to be successful.”

At that, a man new to our group set to quickly scanning everyone’s faces in a seemingly desperate search for something. He adjusted, then readjusted, in his seat, visibly uncomfortable. I smiled at noticing this, all too familiar by now with such telling body language. Something struck a chord in him. He had found something he needed. “What a crazy blessing to be denied,” I thought. And we continued.

Michael Cabral is serving a sentence of 15 to life in Avenal State Prison in Avenal, Calif. He will be reviewed again for parole within the next year and a half.

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 dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

2 thoughts on “I Found Purpose in Prison, and Not Just to Build Paper Trail for the Parole Board

  1. Amazing story. Powerful self-reflection. Outstanding writing!
    Thank you for sharing Mr. Cabral!

  2. This is the kind of remarkable growth and powerful example that is all too common inside of the prisons. This young man can and will be a huge help to our society. He’s served his time. This is what rehabilitation and redemption look like.