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My journey to Old Folsom State Prison, California, began in 1980.

I first touched down elsewhere, at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California, to do eight months for violating my probation while under a murder charge. Soledad was cool, by which I mean there was no serious drama at that point in time. Damn, time flies when you’re having fun. My eight months were quickly up and it was time to head south for the winter, to stand trial on murder charges.

In 1981, I was found guilty of murder in the first degree, which carries a 25-years-to-life sentence. I got 27 years because a gun was used. But you know what? I wasn’t even tripping on the book the judge threw and hit me upside the head with. Hell, I took a life which I regret doing, and now I had to pay my dues.

Old Folsom State Prison was the end of the line. As the prison bus made its way along the outer perimeter of the prison, all conversation inside came to a halt as many of us got our first glimpse at the medieval-looking buildings we were to be housed in. It was around 7 p.m. when we entered the dimly-lit building and were assigned a cell. As I stood waiting for my name and number to be called, I got a better look at my surroundings and I said to myself, “Damn, what the fuck have I gotten myself into this time?”

The first thing I saw when I looked to my left were two guards positioned 20 feet up on a catwalk with rifles in their hands and a sign posted right below them that read, “No Warning Shots.” To my right, there were 30 or so two-man cells on each tier. The building I was standing in had five tiers on the front and back side and therefore it could warehouse over 500 men.

My first day on the yard was a hell of an experience. This was nothing like what I saw in the movies. This world within a world was kinda spooky! As I proceeded to walk the yard, I ran into a few cats I knew from off the block, and after we embraced they began to lace me on what’s what and who was who, and also on things I shouldn’t do. First and foremost I was told to mind my own. If it didn’t concern my immediate circle or wasn’t racial in nature, I was to keep the line moving because you never know what the next man may have gotten himself into before he stopped off the bus. Next I was told to always be respectful toward the next man and demand yours in return. Those who cross the line, don’t hesitate to dig deep in their behind! And to always keep a close eye on them other cats who ain’t a Brotha, though they may smile in your face, don’t forget you dwell in a place filled with hate.

In 1982, it started crackin’ between the Blacks and the Mexicans. I don’t know what the war was all about or how it started, but both sides had suffered heavy casualties. Anyone who was in Folsom Prison in the early 1980s and says they weren’t a little fearful of their surroundings is a damn liar. Then, you could see the man standing right next to you get his brains blown out and know the same could happen to you on any given day. You could see someone get stabbed on the right side of their neck then see the tip of the knife protruding out the left side. Or you could have two convicts come at you with knives in their hands and hate in their eyes. That will induce a little fear in anybody. But a little fear can be a good thing, for it keeps you sharp and on your toes. Only when one is panic stricken with fear does fear become a bad thing.

Now it’s 2021 and I’m still trapped behind enemy lines. Day by day it’s gotten harder for me to cope, ain’t gonna lie, sometimes I use a little dope! This cat I knew from the streets hung himself today. Don’t know what the hell he was going through but it must have been serious to make him kill himself. Some other fool got a Dear John letter from his girl and jumped off the fifth tier and landed on his head. It’s a cold way to die.

But through it all I’ve remained standing tall, even though sometimes fighting these demons inside my head have me feeling like I’m about to blow a fuse. But with God’s help I’ve been able to maintain. Besides, I’ve been through too much and come too far to backslide now. I refuse to give those with the keys the pleasure of going home and telling their wife or husband that the system broke another Black man.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

A.L. Blake is a writer incarcerated in California.