Photo by Eddie Herena

The first year in prison was a learning process to understand what I needed to do to make it through such a long stretch of time. The jails in Georgia are different than those in the Washington Metropolitan area. Firstly, they are gang infested. All the gangs of this nation are in Georgian jails. I wasn’t a part of any of them, so I had to tread lightly to survive. I was always outnumbered. Being a Washington, D.C. native in Georgia had its pluses and minuses. I had no enemies, but I was always outnumbered, which meant that I  had no one to watch my back. So … I became a mute for the most part. 

I didn’t allow anyone to get close to me. I wasn’t a talker anyway. I had been sentenced to life in prison for murder with no expectation of parole or release for 14 to 30 years. I was devastated. 

My days and nights were full of what I felt to be the strongest grief and pain known to man. My thoughts were consumed by how I could fix my current situation. I wondered what my peers were thinking. I wondered how my family could help me expose the truth. I thought of why God would punish me in such a way. I thought of all the promises I had made to my loved one that would never be. I thought of all the bad things I ever did to those I love. I thought of all the times I argued with my love over trivial things. Most of all I thought of my intimate relationships. I wanted to understand why I failed so miserably at those intimate relationships. My very first real relationship dissolved because I failed to man up to my responsibilities. I knew that much. I wanted to talk to that woman badly, but I knew she would never talk to me. 

I prayed for her to write me a letter of support. But it never happened. I reflected about why she wouldn’t write me. The answer that appeared before me broke my heart even more. She thought I was a murderer. Then, I began to think everybody believed the official version of this story, which was that I had killed my fiancee intentionally after a domestic violence incident. 

That crushed my spirit. It made me take a deeper and more objective look at my situation, and that crushed me even more. I thought about how I would see my situation if I were somebody else, and I concluded that I would think I was a murderer as well.  

What happened to me is something that should only happen in movies, but this was my life. I hated myself for not talking to the detective and giving my statement, but in my dealings with the police, I had learned that the less said the better. Talking never works in favor of the arrested. The world is beginning to understand that now, thanks to witnesses with cell phones and video cameras, but I had neither at the time. It was just me and the Georgia police. Once I left the county jails and made my way to Jackson State Prison, I had to adjust to my new environment. I stayed at Jackson for eighteen months, and in those eighteen months, I quickly learned the way of the Georgia Department of Corrections (GADOC). 

One of the most important parts of daily prison life came on my second day: inspection. Inspection is when the administration walks through each dorm. We called it “them White folk “or “them folks.” An action-figure-built Black man named Mr. H served as the head warden and would walk through saying good morning to us. The inmates would answer, “Sir, good morning Sir! J building ready for inspection, Sir!” If we yelled that at the top of our lungs, he would turn around and leave. That’s what we wanted. For the most part, inspections were the only time inmates see wardens. Some wardens conducted the inspections themselves daily, but most wardens let other administration staff carry out inspections. I learned the power structure of prison. Head wardens were at the top of the prison. Most prisons had four deputy wardens underneath that person. 

The department warden of administration ran the day-to-day duties. The department warden of security is the head security officer, and he controls the officers’ day-to-day activities. The department warden of treatment and care is in charge of the medical needs of the prison as well as things like clothing, classes, counseling. Next, there are unit managers, who control the daily activities of the inmates’ living areas. Then the correctional officers, who carry out the administration’s operations. Counting is their main concern. Counting happens eight times a day, four census counts and four official counts. Census counts stay in the prison while official counts are called into headquarters in Atlanta.

“I had stayed up all night answering over one hundred questions, but my counselor tossed my hope away along with the paperwork he threw in the trash.”

Then you have the most important staff members of prison systems: counselors. These staff members are the least appreciated. There are two types of counselor positions inside the GADOC: mental health and general counselors. These counselors provide the only direct access to all things needed in prison. Most are undertrained, and all are underpaid. Add to that, the dearth of resources and zero communication with the upper ranks. Incompetence runs rampant within the GADOC. I have witnessed and heard so many horror stories. Men have been killed because of incompetent counseling practices. 

My first experiences with prison counseling practices stunk. The first counselor to interview me was a middle-aged White man. Let’s call him Tom. Tom had me fill out a questionnaire that I completed that night. I returned to his office the very next morning hopeful of some good news. I really don’t know what I wanted him to say but I wanted something to believe in. I handed the questionnaire to him and sat nervously watching him as he went over the multiple-page document. 

“There’s really no need for you to fill out these forms,” he said. “All this information will change before you come up for parole. People will die, move and get lost in the wind.” 

I had stayed up all night answering over one hundred questions, but my counselor tossed my hope away along with the paperwork he threw in the trash. 

Then I went to my mental health counselors office, where I met Mrs. C, who became the first person to give me hope. I had been ready to give in, but divine energy intervened. 

Mrs. C was beautiful in so many ways. She made me feel human, and she gave the impression she cared. That day, I sat in her cramped office mesmerized. When she spoke she sounded inviting. I told her my entire life story. She gave me the comfort that I had been searching for since that horrible June day. I needed validation from someone who knew nothing about me. I needed someone to say that I was not a murderer. I was a young man who made a huge mistake, a young man who was responsible for the death of another person because of carelessness, not maliciousness. She felt my pain. 

From that point until my last day at Jackson State Prison, she provided security and hope. I needed that. I also had another counselor Mrs. N who was friends with Mrs. C. Both helped me with my beginning stage of recovery and rehabilitation. I was blessed to have two of the best counselors in the GADOC. 

My time at Jackson gave me the basic tools needed to survive. I learned the prison system well. It didn’t take long before I made alliances while building my new life in prison. I did everything available at Jackson to occupy my mind. I took classes taught by Mrs. C, which helped me recover from my horrible trauma. I kept the dorm clean, and I lived for daily inspections. 

As I walked the laundry to the right place, I spent most of my time thinking about my fiance. I thought of each and every disagreement that we ever had. Every disrespectful moment in our two-year relationship ran through my mind. I beat myself up for what I had done — unresponsive, immature, irresponsible love. She lost her life for absolutely no reason. 

Unlike many living with my truth. I don’t have any reason to justify her death. Many of the men I have met have reasons why they took life from a fellow human being. Having some reason helps with the internal acceptance of having taken away a life. It eases the conscience and makes it less defeating. I don’t have that. Not having any reason why she is not physically a part of our lives makes it very hard to accept. 

I searched for any reason for her loss. I cursed the makers of Glock handguns. I cursed the guys who tried to rob us for making me believe that I had to have a gun. I cursed the guys who told the agents from the Bureau of Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that I was a gun trafficker. I cursed everything I could associate with why this happened. It was very hard to accept the loss of my future wife because of my mistake. Very very hard. I found myself always keeping busy to keep my mind away from these thoughts. 

I found hope at the prison law library. I went there every chance I had to find a way to gain my freedom. I felt I deserved freedom. I wasn’t looking for a loophole. I wanted fair justice. I wanted to have my peers hear my story and then judge me. The state’s story doesn’t match mine. I was the only eye witness. Hours were spent in search of my freedom, but I did not find it. 

Being in prison for the death of a loved one is the worst punishment available to anyone. Everything becomes about that moment from that fatal day on. Many of the men I have met, who fit this criteria, are men lost in prison life. Some choose drugs to cloud the mind. Drugs act like pain medicine. Some kind of pain medication is necessary in the world I now live in. In the beginning, I relied on psychiatric medication, but my sister intervened, and I had to stop. 

Then I dove into the shallow waters of prison life. I got into a lifestyle from my previous life: hustling. I became a cigarette-runner and seller. 

I also went to church, looking for anything to keep my mind off of my torturous thoughts. Every second of the day was consumed by things I thought would ease my pain. 

I know what the essence of life is now.  I truly understand the significance of people and relationships sometimes to a fault. People sometimes take advantage of my non-confrontational ways. I always try to find a way to justify the unjustifiable. I blame myself for any negative situations. I’m always thinking of how I could have been more open-minded and respectful to others. 

My tragic truth has made it possible to have relationships again. I understand the power of spoken words. The words I spoke to my love haunt me. I can never redo those times of venomous word exchanges. So I pay close attention to the words I utter. I have become a man that despises confrontation. I have discovered that I enjoy peace and harmony. I have become a man unwilling to disrupt peace and harmony for anyone, especially for myself. This way of life has a spiritual upside, a surge of spirituality so strong that it overwhelms me sometimes. 

I pray that my mother and sister can find this peace too. The energy I have makes me sought out by other men. It also puts me in conflict with prison staff. I have become the voice of objective reasoning in an environment where objective reasoning does not exist.

 
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.

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Richard

Richard is a writer incarcerated in Georgia. He has chosen to not disclose his last name for fear of reprisal.