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“Who am I?” is an age-old question that nags at me with every day that passes. It’s a question that almost everyone on this planet has asked themselves at one time or another, yet the answer seems to be one of the hardest to come up with.

What makes me, me? What makes me unique and different from others?

This place I live in almost makes it impossible for me to answer this question. Every face has the same look of defeat, loneliness and lack of direction wrapped in the same blue prison garb that never changes — in figurative and literal terms, being that “CDCR Prisoner” is emblazoned on your uniform. It makes it difficult to answer the question: Who am I?

I was born in Gardena, California, on Oct. 10, 1986. I had both parents in my life until I didn’t. My father had a criminal record and was incarcerated a few times before he caught a prison term for a burglary.

The absence of a male figure in my life was the root of most of my hurt and angst growing up. I knew I was different from some of the other kids because I had no dad at home. I was embarrassed, upset and even felt a sense of shame. For a five- or six-year-old, these are unhealthy emotions to feel.

In many situations, these feelings made me avoid other kids and isolate myself. On occasion, I would go visit my dad with my mother. I still remember how excited I would get and the happiness it would give me when he was released on parole.

He lived close to me, picking me up frequently. Those were some of the greatest times I can remember. We would go to Dodger games and car shows.

Then the system took him again. California is a prison state. With 35 adult prisons, I would consider California’s main industries to be agriculture and prison, especially with the enactment of the Three Strikes Law in the 1990s. This forced my dad to relocate to Oregon after he was discharged from parole.

Even though I would visit him often, this caused friction and unease in my life as a young child. Before this period, I would have told you I wanted to be an astronaut, fireman or police officer when I grew up.

For children that share this same life experience, these options start to seem far from realistic. They feel unattainable in the face of the reality faced by most minorities in the “hood.”

For us, this is the first form of being placed behind barricades and taken away from society. It makes it almost impossible to answer the question, “Who am I?” It’s easier for us to become what they say we are. What could be said for a child with no direction or guidance at home? Or worse, a child with no guidance from society? So I ask myself, who am I?

My dad moved back to Los Angeles when I was 13. By this time I was getting in trouble at school. I think this was because I had no outlet to deal with the pent-up frustrations of my past.

In a way I felt wronged by society and thought no matter what I did in school and out, my life was hopeless. At that time, mental health was a taboo topic, so we had no way of dealing with issues. This makes a toxic atmosphere even more toxic because you have children with trauma with no way of dealing with it that are forced to push these emotions deep down inside themselves. Negative thoughts and feelings fester and grow like cancer. The only possible result is a feeling of despair. Society reinforces our thoughts of hopelessness.

To show any type of emotion in any way shows others you’re weak. So you push down those emotions like you have your entire life. You become what they say you are: an animal. If they were able to see inside you, you would prove them wrong. It couldn’t be further from the truth.

I kept spiraling into criminal behavior. I joined a gang and hurt innocent people that didn’t deserve it. I started going to prison and the first question I was asked was, “Who do you run with?” They wanted to know my affiliation — another way for this institution to put you in a category and segregate you from society.

It’s more confirmation you are who they say you are, who they have been saying you are your whole life: hopeless.

This allows the institution to cause friction between groups and races so we, as convicted felons, forget we are more alike than different — Brown, Black and poverty-stricken Whites. Minorities. We forget that we are stronger together. That is the intent of the institution.

So, who am I? A gang member? A criminal? A good-for-nothing deadbeat? No! None of these. It took me a lot of growing up to do but I will no longer allow this prison culture and these “authority figures” to place me in a box.

No longer will I be defined by my past actions. That’s not what makes me, me. I made myself a victim for so long by listening and believing what they thought I was.

You can be whatever you decide to be. I know this for a fact.

Who am I?

I’m a college student with a double major in business and sociology on track to get my associate’s degree. I’m a caring member of my family. I’m an empathetic friend. I’m a future productive member of society. I’m a mental health advocate. I’m a concerned mentor and positive model to my little brother and hopefully others when I get out. I am a strong supporter of justice reform.

I am a believer that change can happen. I am optimistic. I am what I choose to be.

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.

David J. Fitzgerald

David J. Fitzgerald is a writer from Los Angeles who is currently working on his associate degrees in business and sociology from Bakersfield Community College. He has been in and out of prisons for most of his adult life and believes that justice reform is a priority. He resides at Kern Valley State Prison in California serving a sentence for robbery