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I long to be seen not for my bad choices, but for the new man I am today. The world I live in has never met this new me, and this makes me very sad because in a way I haven’t met the world.

I grew up with jaded eyes in a crime-filled household. Today I see with new eyes, and this is important because the lenses we use to look out at the world also affect how we look within and view ourselves. Years back I used to lie awake at night and ask the question: was I born into this world just to commit a crime and die in jail?

As a human who recognizes the miracle of life, I have to believe that my life is worth more than passing through this world like a ghost. I have to be worth more than my one shot at existence on this planet. Being defined by one crime that happened in seconds, I have to matter more than that.

Or perhaps that’s just my human ego telling my soul that. This is the dilemma of being sentenced to die in jail as a young person. My heart still beats. I have value! Don’t you see me, world? That is the question I ask myself in the dark with every breath.

How does one find inspiration in the face of death by incarceration? When faced with this reality we respond in many different ways, but a lot of it depends on the opportunities available to us. Coming to prison with a sentence of 174 years plus 6 lifes makes me feel as if I’m drowning. I feel as if my soul is dying and I don’t know how my body continues to breathe.

As with all drowning people, I reach for anything that floats to survive. And unfortunately the nearest things I could latch onto were not conducive for success.

Drugs, gangs and illegal activity are the easiest things to sign up for in prison, and for a kid who already had issues loving himself, it was a recipe for disaster. It can take years to muster up the courage to break ties with the gang. I feared for my safety and even the looks I’d receive once I had broken away.

Once I broke free of the gangs in the prison system, I went through a new process of self-discovery. Now, who will I become without the strict guidelines of the prison gangs? I was free to be a saint or a dirtbag. The choice was all mine.

I was one of those late bloomers to drop out of the gang, but I still broke the rules and got involved in the wrong things.

I realized that I was choosing immediate gratification over goals that would lead to success. In cognitive behavioral therapy, I learned that thoughts become feelings and feelings become actions. I had to change my distorted thinking habits and negative self talk.

For example, telling myself that things will always go wrong or be bad. I had to replace that method of thinking with positive self talk. And if I couldn’t achieve my goal, that meant I needed a new approach, or have a little faith, to not give up on myself and stay the course.

The Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) has been an integral part of my growth. Life coaches Jacob Brevard and David Garnica helped me to realize that if I wanted someone to fight for me, then I had to be someone worth fighting for. Life will always be full of hurdles and how you deal with them is everything. Who and what we turn to in times of strife is a real determining factor of who we are as men and women.

Hope is what drives me today, but getting here wasn’t easy. After all, how does one find hope when the court sentences you to die in jail? When you find yourself in a hopeless situation, hope must be redefined, and we have to rediscover our awe of life.

My hope today is anchored in appreciation for all the small beauties in life, like hearing my dad’s and mom’s voices or seeing the moon light up the night sky while walking the track. I have to ask myself what is my existence without freedom? Does it take freedom to validate my existence? Can one exist without the other?

I found hope unexpectedly and in an unconventional way. I found a sponsor through an online app. I started to receive positive feedback from all over the world which gave me credit for my positive attributes. This shattered the distorted view I had of myself and society. Most of my life I have been told by police and corrections officers and district attorneys that I was worthless. I thought society hated me, but now I realize society was and is a reflection of me. After getting so many positive vibes from all over the world, I fell back in love with humanity. It changed my life, and hope was born again within me.

Another driving force in my life is society’s evolving view and treatment of people like me. People are getting out of prison now. The men of ARC are hope in the flesh, and they walk among us as visual reminders of human potential and the possibility of redemption.

My name is Jessie Milo CDCR# P-404095, and yes, my sentence is 174 years plus 6 lifes. The person I am today can overcome that mountain, but only with the acceptance of courageous leaders in our society. If I can go from being alive to earning my freedom, then that is my American Dream.

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.

Jessie Milo is a writer, artist and poet incarcerated in California. He is a volunteer for and an advocate for mental health.