Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Coloring Contest

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

By Samuel Hawkins

I can't believe that I am writing this. It is shameful to me, that where I live, what was once called prison is having a “coloring contest.” An inmate just came by my cell with a piece of paper that had a pumpkin on it and “fall” written on it. It reminded me of what the teachers at school in the first or second grade gave us, and then hung up on the walls around the classroom.

This is what the administration has found to occupy our time. I have never seen anything like this. Mind you I am 42 years old, and have been in prison since I was 19. So it is safe to say that I have seen almost everything, the good and the bad in prison.

I have played Bingo, football, spades tournaments, chess, basketball, and weightlifting competitions. I have seen concerts on the yard, and family barbeques in the visiting area. I have had trailer visits, and been in cancer walks to raise money for cancer research. I have been in fights, assaulted others and been assaulted by them, been in riots, and witnessed death. What most people who have never been to prison can simply not grasp I have seen, from violence to sex. I have felt the cold air of being left naked in a cell for seven days with no clothing or other form of covering. I’ve felt the burn of pepper spray used to gain control of inmates who were fighting. I have seen good guys go bad and start snitching. And bad guys who thought they were good. Rapists and snitches that thought they could still be part of the click.

But I promise you this... This is the first time I have ever seen a coloring contest. This is disgusting and despicable to me, that the administration would feel that they could demean me or placate me with a children’s coloring book page, photo copied and handed out.  I reject this paper. 

Who do they think I am? This is more difficult to reconcile than anything I have experienced to date. A coloring contest, for convicts... Excuse me, inmates, no, offenders. That is what they call us now. Offenders. Imagine that. Offenders. It was a term once reserved for "Sex Offenders." But at some point in time it became a title, shortened, for all offenders. How this fits all prisoners, I am not sure. If I steal a car, I am a car thief. When arrested I am charged with auto theft. When I am convicted, I am a convicted felon. So when I come to prison, what makes me an offender? Now if I commit a sexual assault, I am a rapist, or child molester. When I am arrested I am charged with a sex offense, either rape or child molestation. I go to trial, am found guilty and while I am convicted, I am convicted of a sex offense and this makes me a sex offender. So it is natural that I would be referred to as a sex offender.

Now I may appear to have travelled far away from the theme of this short story, the great coloring book caper. But let me connect the dots. Sex Offenders are often viewed as having a sickness. Therefore they are patients who need therapy. I have also heard of similar situations occurring in mental health facilities, or with geriatrics in retirement homes. This is referred to as therapeutic living.  But where is the therapy for adults serving ten-…twenty-…fifty-year sentences, and life without the possibility for parole. 

And then you give me a coloring book page to fill in. 

Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, all I have is a three-inch pencil or pen to color this in. Is this what they expect it will take to take my mind away from the many grievances and issues that I have against the facility? The food cooked yesterday, reheated and served today, the zucchini that they have served for sixty-three consecutive days. The cold “boats” provided to us with our dinner meal each night that are meant for breakfast. They contain a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bran bar, a muffin, and a powdered milk pack with a cold cereal. They don't serve real milk at this facility. 

The coloring contest is meant to placate me, to cloud my vision of the bugs in the showers, and the three week period since the last time I changed my sheets, because last week a guard was assaulted in another unit, and this week they ran out of clean sheets. There are more issues but they apparently are deemed insignificant and hidden behind this sheet of paper with a pumpkin on it. 

Prison. To think they let me out early, I should be celebrating. But they only moved me to a worse place. I never would have thought there could be a place worse than prison. But what I am experiencing now is. It is a mental challenge today. The threats of yesterday still remain, though they are remote. What I am fearful of now is a goon squad with coloring books in hand telling me to cuff up or else.

Samuel Hawkins 706212
Washington State Penitentiary
1313 N. 13th Avenue
Walla Walla, WA 99362

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Fatherless Child: “Dear Dad….”

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

By Michael "Yasir" Belt
“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it.  This is a kind of death.”  - Anaïs Nin
How  many can understand, first hand, what it´s like to truly suffer growing up without a father?  What once could only be conceptualized by an esoteric guild, this intrinsic suffering has become common knowledge.  Regrettably, I am a pundit of this humor.

I always wonder if I look like him or if I really grew up to be just like him – like my mother always said I would.  I think my mother felt like, at that time, a woman scorned because every time I heard her make such statements, well, I guess that just meant she loved me; right?

I wonder, did he ever love me?  I wonder if he ever actually cared about me and wanted to be in my life?  Maybe he wasn´t afforded the opportunity.  All right, feel free to have a hearty guffaw on that last one, but it does happen in inauspicious circumstances.  Just not this time, in this unpropitious life of mine.

There are so many wonders concerning him though.  What ifs. Hows. Oh, so many whys.  We could conjugate them all into one huge mass and call it the eighth wonder of the world. Connoisseurs of wonder would come from afar, oogling and giving all sorts of connotations, yet no true answers would ever come.  No one would ever knowledgably speak on any of its parts.  No one ever could.  Except for one:  Him, my father.  So, these equations shall never be solved.

I never knew him.  I never really knew anything about him.  From what little my mother ever told me, I gathered that he was a no-good bad ass, maybe a Casanova type.  And, again with the wonders, am I really my father´s child; as was impressed upon me?  Are his characteristics embedded within my DNA. making me what I am, or more accurately, making me who I once was?

His side of my family is also mostly a mystery to me.  Our relationship is best described as estranged.  In earlier times, age seven being the earliest, I can remember, I used to spend the night or the weekend over at my father´s mother´s home.  My grandmother was a kind, loving and fully capable woman.  She had the air of a contrite mother who wanted to right the wrongs of her son.  I´d like to think her eye ailment gave her more insight than she would ever have had, were she not blind.  There were times though -- moments, late at night, that no sight could see nor should have to.

One night, when I was barely nine years old, I called my mother in tears, begging her to come get me.  She angrily consented and pushed my one year old baby brother in his stroller the dark miles to retrieve me.  And I heard her displeasure as I ran by her side, churning my little legs and trying to keep up during the long journey home.

If only she had known what atrocities I had been facing at the hands of my uncle.  Where was my father when I needed his protection from his brother?

That was the last contact I had with my father´s family until I was about 17.  Once I was old enough to protect myself, I reached out and found my grandmother once again. I visited her a few times.  My uncle still lived with her, attending college somewhere in the city.  He acted as if nothing had ever happened, and I didn´t bring it up. I was too young and hot-headed to go to jail for life.

There was one time when I got to meet my sister, who was ten at the time.  We sat around grandmother´s house that day waiting for our father to arrive.  My grandmother had planned to make a day of it.  We were all going to go out, eat, shop a little, and play the family game.  He never showed though and that was the first and last time I ever saw my little sister – as we sat around the dining room table and settled for eating cold pizza for dinner.  Shortly after that was the last time I´d ever see my grandmother again.  No, it´s not anything as tragically sad as her dying.  I just couldn´t do it; I couldn´t take it anymore.  Even years later, when my wife found her for me and begged me to contact her, I just couldn´t do it.

On one occasion I did get to meet my father; when I was maybe 5 – 7 years old.  He picked me up from his mother´s house.  We rode the # 34 trolley towards downtown.  I remember being shy and bashful, turning my attention out towards the passing scenery instead of meeting his smiling gaze.  He had been excited to make my acquaintance and took me to see his apartment.  I can recall riding up on a freight elevator; one of the ones that open from top to bottom instead of side to side.  The only thing I can recall aside from the way he opened the strange doors, is stepping off of the elevator and directly into the studio apartment and how pleased he was to show me, his son, where he resided.  And now I realize why I´ve always been fascinated by the layout of studio apartments.

The subconscious is astounding. I can no longer tell whether I am holding onto my sole memory of seeing my father, or a vivid dream. John F. Kihlstrom said: “Memory isn´t like reading a book; it´s more like writing a book from fragmentary notes.”

Even with the absence of my father, I managed to receive “fatherly discipline”. Though it was more like a “beat the little kid because I can” type of discipline than anything.  My mother used to date these rude dudes who didn´t find beating a woman and her child to be crude.  She never really said anything to them, though.  She was probably afraid that they´d do her worse than how they were doing me.  So instead, at times, she would just sit there with her head down, oblivious to my screams and pleadings.

One time one of my mother´s boyfriends, whose name I´ve scraped from my memory, beat both mother and me at the same time.  We were lying on his bed, side by side, both of us thrashing, curling and covering, trying to escape his menacingly blows.  After it was all over, I remember my mother and me sitting up side by side, licking our wounds. She turned to me, tears streaming down from her beautiful brown eyes.  “This is your fault!” she yelled at me, as if we were siblings and she blamed me for our plight.  Or she might have been sitting six feet away from me, holding herself as she said it.  “Every journey into the past is complicated by delusions, false memories, false occurrences of real events,” (Adrian Wrench).  One thing for sure though, the two of us certainly got our asses whopped.

It is imperative that I interject an understanding on my mother.  None of this would be proper without the insertion of my “Dear Mama” moment.  Some may say I am askew for speaking of my mother in the manner above and below.  Though this is more reserved than what I have revealed to a few, in confidence.  Which is why, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

My mother is a good woman.  No, a great woman.  Loving, caring, considerate, nurturing.  Highly protective of her children.  My lady, i.e. royalty.  That´s who my mother is and I love her to death.  She still has her ways and can be cantankerous at times, but she is nothing like she used to be.  And, just as I spoke briefly on my inherited traits, my mother´s upbringing was the opposite of functional.  

I was born to Lady when she was only 15 or 16.  Being no more than a child herself, how could she have any idea how to raise one?  We grew up together.  The stove burned both of our hands at the same time.  She is not to blame for her actions as a youth or a forcefully matured adult.  Just like I shall not bear the blame of how I felt nor what I perceived in my young mind.  Life was hell growing up with a single, inexperienced child who had no help, no support nor any guidance as to how to raise a young boy.  In all of us, subconscious psychological intricacies drive us to places where, once there, we have no idea how we´ve arrived at the unsolicited destination.

I love my mother.  I always have.  I just didn’t feel that she loved me.  Time is the teacher of us all, though.

We now return to my antipathy towards my father.

“Dynasty album, track 16.  Man, I can´t take back that 16.  We never kicked it at all.  We never pitched or kicked at a ball.”  Beanie Segal.  You know Dad…Is it sad or are you?  The fact that I don´t know anything about you except for what Mother told me, that you weren´t shit and that I´d end up being just like you.  Well, congratulations, Pops.  Your grown boy looks to have fulfilled the prophecy.  Aren´t you proud of me?

Dear Dad, I had to learn how to fight in the streets. I spent a lot of lonely nights in the streets.  Spilled blood on the same curbs I had to bite.  Is it all because we failed to meet?

Yes Dear Dad, this is the part where I blame all of my woes on you.  Someone has to take the blame, so….you can do something for a change.  All of my mishaps, all of my troubles, questionable decisions and qualms, are because you weren´t there.  You didn´t teach me right from wrong, so you allowed me to sell my soul for a song.  Through all my abuse and emotional distress, where were you?  When Mother threw me out into the streets and the wolves devoured me, where were you?  When I wanted to die, when I tried to die, when I needed a shoulder on which to cry, you were never around.

I´ve considered whether you could have prevented any of the turmoil that was my life had you shown a remote sense of consideration.  Would your presence have changed my outlook on life, the outtakes of what stemmed from behind the scenes?  If you had claimed me as your son, would my mother have hated you so vehemently and in turn despised my existence for so long?  Question after questions, all for a foregone conclusion.  None of it even matters.  Because you don´t matter.  I am my mother´s child; and she did her best with me.

Dear Dad, Did you know I wanted you dead?  For a very long time, when I wasn´t strong enough to stand up to life´s evils on my own, when I didn´t seem to possess the graces of my mother, all I wanted was my father.  Then once I was older, once hatred had ossified into malice in my heart, I couldn´t wait to finally meet you.  I used to say that the day I meet you would be the day you´d die; and in no way would I have felt contrite had it happened.  But, it didn´t. And you´re still alive.  Maybe.  I don´t know.  And that´s sad. What´s even sadder is the fact that I´ve been coming in and out -- more in than out -- of prison for most of my life and I´ve been searching for my resemblance in the faces of the older prisoners. Like I said, they told me I´d be just like you.  What reason do I have not to believe it if I know nothing else?

Dear Dad, I never knew you.  So how can I miss what I’ve has never known?  Deep down I always wondered why I was so sad; why I was always so mad.  Now that I am finally cognizant of its cause, of your effect, I am glad.

Recently I was having a conversation with my ex-wife.  Oh how I wish I could blame the ex part on you.  Nevertheless, mid-conversation I reflexively pulled out my daddy issue, blaming you for something or other. I said I´d kill you, in a tone as casual as if I´d said the word “cheesecake.”  She said, “Yeah, you need to get over it.” And she was right.  I need to get over you.  Therefore, this is our swan song.

Until now, your non-presence has haunted me.  Your solely mental existence has been malicious to my psyche.  You are a long, bloated, drunken night filled with fondue and White Russians and I just discovered I´m lactose intolerant.

Morning has come and I am dismissing you.  Or at least the 20% of you that I ever had.  As Woody Allen said, “80% of life is about showing up.”

To be continued in Part 2:“A Fatherless Child: The Next Generation”

Michael Belt KU8088
SCI Houtzdale
P.O. Box 1000
Houtzdale, PA 16698

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Rain is Free Only in Falling

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

My Life
By Eddie D. Howard Jr.

When I was 15 years old I committed a crime and was locked up for murder/robbery.  I´m 30 years old now, but over the years as I grow up in prison, I realized that maybe if I had somebody older in my life that grew up the way I did, been through all the things that I was going through, just reach out to me and let me know I wasn´t alone and that they understood me and where I was coming from, then maybe I wouldn´t be writing this essay right now or be incarcerated.  So, I became a part of this program that my facility offers to the youth and their parents which allows me to tell my story speak about my past and hopefully put the kids on the right track so they can be successful, positive-minded and do something extraordinary with their lives.  By me being the age that I was when I caught my case, I didn´t really live much of a life.  Never experienced much, but the way I feel when I know I've had a positive effect on someone´s life is like nothing else I´ve ever felt.  Hopefully reading this it will have a positive effect on you or make you want to give back in someway too.

My story is one that is all too familiar in different communities across America.  I was born in El Centro, California to really, really young parents who were just starting to figure out life for themelves. Being as young as they were when they had me, they never really had a chance to live their lives. My grandparents ended up raising me, because as you may know, taking care of a baby is expensive. So, my mother sent me to live to Indianapolis, Indiana with my grandparents.  I don´t remember much about my grandfather because he passed away when I was 3 years old, but I would alook at all his pictures growing up, wondering what it would be like to have a real male figure in my life.  My grandmother tried to raise me the best way she could, but I was a little bit too much for her to handle.  So, she would send me back to Oakland, California to live with my mother, but that really only made things worse, because whenever she would get tired of me getting in trouble down there, she would send me right back to Indianapolis; and it would go on like this for the next five years of my life until I got tired of going back and forth.  That´s when I just left home, and at the age of 15, I ran the streets, sold drugs, committed crimes, and was around people I should´ve never been around.  You see, in those gangs or organizations, they will get you to believe that they care about you or that they have genuine love for you, when that´s not really the case.  They really just want to use you until there is nothing left.  I found this out the hard way.  I threw away most of my life away because of it.  These are years that I can´t get back.  I´m 30 years old now and I´ve missed out on a lot of things; things that you probably do living your everyday life or just things that you see in the free world on a day-to-day basis.  I never graduated high school, I never learned how to drive, I never been in love, I don´t have any kids, I never even had my own place; and the list goes on and on.  Those are just some of the things I chose to give up to live the street life and be a gangster.  When you´re in the streets, either one of two things will happen to you: If you´re lucky, you´ll end up in prison like I did and get another chance at life, you know, a chance to make things right.  Or you´ll end up like most of my friends did in the cemetery, gone for no reason at all.  I think about all those dudes every day, wondering “what if?”  I don´t miss the life or the things we were doing because none of it was right, but I do miss them; and I´d give up everything to bring ya´ll back.  Much love to all ya´ll that lost your life in the struggle.  Every day that I wake up I´m going try to make a change and do the right thing for all of us. 

Speaking about my past to other people was never something that I sought out to do, because I had always felt like it wasn´t anybody´s business, but I have this one cousin of mine, who just like me would stay in trouble 24/7 and his mom, every chance she got, would bring him down to visit me or would put me on the phone with him when I called.  And, believe it or not, I got through to him; he got his life together.  I think the day he graduated high school was the happiest day of his mother´s life, and mine too.  After that, she came to see me and expressed how she felt that I should reach out to the young people any way that I could.  She felt like that if I told my story to troubled youth it might help them the same way that it helped her son.  I wasn´t really feeling the idea but I thought about it a lot; sometimes all day.  When the chance finally came, I took it and ran with it.  The very first time I got in front of all those kids, I was nervous.  Once I started talking to them though, and I saw how interested they were in hearing what I had to say, I became comfortable.  Ma 

There were three of us speaking in the program. The other two guys would scream and yell in the kids´ faces, trying to scare them. Now, sometimes this would work, because I would see some of the kids crying. But for the most part I would see them laughing at the two guys, as though they knew it was all a show.  Plus, some of these kids were the worst of the worst.  Me, on the other hand, I would just talk to them like they was one of my homies or friends, and they would listen.  Eventually, the staff that ran the program started having me do it by myself, because they felt that I was what the program was all about: “change.”!  And most of the guards there knew me from when I first came to the facility.  They recognized that I had came a long way and wasn´t anything like I used to be.  But really, I had no choice.  I had to grow up or else I probably would´ve lost my life in here a long time ago.

The feeling that I get when I know I put one of these kids on the right track to be successful and change their life for the good is amazing.  Most of these kids that get brought to me are being raised by their grandparents, in foster homes, or by a single mother.  Their dads were never there from the beginning, either dead or in prison.  Most of them just want a male role model in their life; somebody that they can look up to or share personal stuff with that maybe they wouldn´t share with anybody else.

I have a few success stories and a few kids I still stay in contact with to this day. These kids are so young when they come in front of me, and they still have a chance. My main goal is to get them to stay in school and do something I never did: graduate high school.  Once they´ve done that, I kind of feel like my job is done, because I know after that point in their life, if they stayed focus enough to do that, then they´ll be o.k.  I tell all of them that the change starts with them, and before anybody else can trust or believe in them, they have do it themselves.  But as much as I wish that I could teach every kid and change every life I come in contact with, it doesn´t work that way.  And to be honest with you, I´ve probably lost more kids than I´ve helped.  I won´t go into detail about it because I don't like to think or talk about it.  It crushes my heart, but this is real life and I knew about this side of the situation before I started doing it.  Plus, I can´t save everybody, that´s impossible, but I´m grateful for the ones I help.

I really never asked for none of this.  And I kind of feel like I was born into it.  I´ll never force myself on anybody, but if a person wants to talk, I´ll listen, and if my sharing my story about my past or the mistakes that I´ve made in my life will help, then so be it.  A lot of things in life we take for granted and freedom is everything, but you´ll never fully understand that until you´ve lost it.  I made a change because I know once I get released from prison I can´t go back to the same life I was living. And as far as me reaching out to the youth I do this because nobody did it for me.  I feel like I owe society and this is my way of paying it forward.  If you can help somebody, then that´s just what you do, especially if you can.  Because stuff like that always has a way of coming back full circle.  The best gifts in life aren´t handed to people, but are shown to people.  So they can work hard and want it for themselves.

Eddie D. Howard Jr. 129850
Pendleton Correctional Facility 24-4A HCH
4490 West Reformatory Road
Pendleton, IN 46046

“Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Reflections on Time 
by Tom Odle

When you read or hear about an individual having served over 20 years in prison, what is the first thing you have go through your head? “Whew, that is a long time...” or “I don't see how you could have done it... “or how about the old “I couldn't have done what you have done as far as time in prison...” These are the majority of the thoughts friends have shared with me through the years, when they find out that I am currently doing my 33rd year in prison.

What is it that you imagine when you think about having to do this amount of time? Do you think about isolation? Loneliness? Reflections on a past life? Maybe you think it’s fun and games? Is the punishment deserved? Is it the way humanity was designed to deal with those who break the rules of society and consider them unredeemable while locking them away for the remainder of their life or executing them for the greater good of society?

I recently read the book 1984 and found certain similarities in the storyline and a lengthy stay in prison, which could easily be shown to those who don't get it. Before you come to prison you have a way about you that is unique. Your thoughts are different and private until a moment comes and you act on them whether by will, impulse or by just sheer loss of control. Then comes prison, where you are broken down.  Mentally and physically, you are broken down to a point where you are ready to accept and live everything that society says you should be.

This is true with those who have done years in prison, not just a couple, but decades because there is more to the story that you don't realize.  They don't tell you about the isolation, the few steps you take to pace your cell for hours while reflecting on your life, playing back memories that are good or imagining bad ones replaced with different decisions to make good ones. The longer you watch the movie, the more you realize how you've hurt those who cared about you along the way. Personally, while pacing the cell,  I've lived my whole life over at least a dozen times, realizing my mistakes, changing them, being honest about what went wrong wrong, all the while facing loneliness, feeling caged and feeling hopeless about any future.

You learn and realize about loss while living caged and despondent. You want change because you can't stand who you were and the things you've done. You plan steps to be the better person going forward, but because of an incident on impulse, or loss of control, or sheer will, you pay for the whole of your life. I do not say these things to diminish the severity of a criminal act. I say these things to impress upon you that, given the opportunity, people can realize their actions and freely atone for their mistakes. My real question is why does it take us so long to come to that realization? It took me nearly 20 years to come to that conclusion for myself, before I realized my wrongs, the ripple effect it caused, and not to take things for granted.

This all came about when I turned 50 in December.  I've been in prison for 32 years, since I was 18 years old. What purpose does this serve now? Why do you think the recidivism rate for those who have done 20 plus years is less than one percent? Because we are changed, appreciative, educated, unlike our youthful selves who feeling immortal, knowing everything and being impulsive.  We grow into something better, someone with something to offer the world.  And now I wait for the chance to show this to the world.

Tom Odle N66185
Dixon Correctional Center
2600 N. Brinton Avenue
Dixon, IL 61021