In December 1995, Donald Hutson and I committed two robberies in inner-city St. Louis. At 16 years old, I was charged with 17 counts and sentenced to 240 years in prison. The rest of my life.
Three years later, at Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri, I signed up for garden duty, just to get out of my cell. To my amazement, I found peace of mind and tranquility in the prison garden.
Being in prison can make a person feel dirty but every weed I pulled from the garden felt like pulling out an old part of my criminal self. Weeding became a form of therapy for me.
I looked at the dirt and wondered how something so beautiful could grow from it. Then I thought about my own life. My criminal street life was a life of doing dirt, a hard life, like a garden in a drought without watering or weeding. A garden can look ugly at this time. But when it rains and the weeds get picked, the garden turns into one of nature’s beauties. As I worked there in the prison garden, I wondered: How could I turn my dirt-filled life into something beautiful?
Right then and there I decided I would turn my troubled life around. Even if I was surrounded by hardened criminals, I would rehabilitate myself and make my life beautiful. In that prison garden, I made a vow to feed my mind with books and become a contributing member of society.
It is 19 years later and I am 38 years old. When I look at the garden, I remember my youthful vow. I am proud of my accomplishments since then. I have written 15 nonfiction books and eight books of poetry, become a paralegal, obtained a basic business studies certificate, and am currently enrolled in a university to get my Associate of Science degree.
Like a garden that dies in the winter and revives in the spring, I got a new life. Recently the United States Supreme Court ruled that juveniles who were under the age of 18 when they committed crimes cannot be sentenced to life in prison. They must get a new sentencing hearing. So now I have a chance for freedom, as well.
The prison garden really helped me along my difficult journey. It let me know that something beautiful can grow from dirt. Now I hope for the day when I get released, when I can grow my own garden at home and continue to heal myself in the process.
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.