This time last year I was a prisoner at California’s San Quentin prison. Two months earlier, I had managed to convince parole officials I was worthy of parole, so I was cautiously hopeful that I would be celebrating my last Thanksgiving dinner inside prison after being away from my family and friends for 28 years. I didn’t want to get too excited because I had seen the governor reversing parole board decisions many times, usually the day before the individuals were scheduled to be released.
Dinner that day was served at lunchtime and consisted of fake turkey ham, gravy-covered mashed potatoes and half-dry stuffing. The saving grace for the meal was a slice of cheesecake. I ate my last prison Thanksgiving dinner at a table alone because my usual dining partners lived on different tiers. I remember worrying that this might not be the last canned processed turkey dinner for me, but I was grateful knowing that I would at least have friends to dine with. The thought of dining with family still felt like a great dream.
I was locked down the rest of the day, so I watched the NFL doubleheader. I recall being disappointed that I could not get time on the telephone that day. When there are 850 prisoners in the building and only a dozen phones, there is just not enough time in the day for everybody to call home.
I was released last January, and today, I am finally home. COVID-19 continues to ravage the world, and the county public health department just issued a limited stay-at-home order, but none of that bothers me because I have so much to be thankful for.
I am so grateful to be able to help my mom. During my last year of imprisonment, my mom suffered a debilitating stroke. I recall the sickening feeling, laying on my prison bunk feeling useless. I felt like I failed her. Nowadays, my first task is to head to my mom’s home, so that I can cook her breakfast. I take inventory of what she needs, I wash dishes, clean the stove and sweep the dining room and kitchen. I feel honored to be able to help my mom.
During my imprisonment, I sometimes dreamed of the simple things in life: driving my old Harley down the road and seeing the rocks and potholes in the road as I passed by. I dreamt of heading into my garage and seeing obliterated engines on the workbench. I dreamt of my old job. I realized how happy I had been just driving my bike, repairing a well-used engine, or going to work. I am grateful my family kept my old Harley-Davidson Shovelhead intact while I was away.
I am thrilled to once again be able to revive the old motorcycle and hunt for needed parts. I am so thankful to once again ride down the road with my old friend.
I am also very grateful that I am alive and in very good health. During my imprisonment many friends and relatives died or have suffered from poor health. Some people say that prison preserves the imprisoned, but I have also seen many fellow prisoners die. To stay healthy, I have learned to live without tobacco, alcohol and other intoxicants. A person lives only once.
I am grateful that I now own a computer from which I can send and receive emails. When I was a prisoner, I was limited to one collect phone call per day, but my cellphone plan gives me unlimited minutes and texting. I am thankful for this miracle of instant communication to just about any place in the world.
I am also glad to no longer wear prisoner issued clothing. How embarrassing it was for me to wear pull-over chambray shirts that reminded me of a lady’s blouse. No longer do I have to wear prison issued pants stenciled with CDCR PRISONER. Before my imprisonment I never wore white tennis shoes. They always seemed to me like a part of a nurse’s uniform, but white was the only color allowed in prison. I now wear black boots, pants with zippers and shirts with buttons. They are simple differences, but they deeply affect a person’s mental well-being. It makes me feel human again versus being just another stupid prisoner.
I have a new lady in my life. She has been the most understanding, kind and generous lady I have ever met. I enjoy her great sense of humor, she laughs at all my jokes whether they are funny or not. I do not know if I deserve her, but I have decided to accept her and be grateful that I have been so blessed to have her in my life.
On Thanksgiving day, I’m looking forward to being in the same room with my three brothers, three sisters, mom and dad to share my Thanksgiving dinner with them for the first time in over 28 years. I’m looking especially forward to a real home-baked and well-basted turkey.
Words such as thanks and grateful seem a bit inadequate for the feelings I have for this year’s Thanksgiving celebration. Lucky me.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.