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Like assorted candies of varying colors and flavors, every week I could count on a different color adorning the perfectly pedicured feet of my then father’s girlfriend as she asked me to rub them with the scented lotion that sent my Oedipus complex into overdrive and my olfactory glands ablaze. One week they would be red, then another week they would be pink, then a pretty orange the next. 1984 was the year Marvin Gaye died, Eddie Murphy and Rick James made a song and “Soul Train” was the number one show watched in my household. At 8 years old, my life was complete.

The 1980s also marked the era of Ronald Reagan, the discontent for government programs that benefited minorities, the time of drug flow, drug abuse, gang violence and broken homes. Much like the COVID-19 pandemic, the 1980s brought death directly to the doorsteps of Black Americans.

While White children my age were growing up in the suburbs, learning how to become policy makers, lawyers and doctors, I was learning how to survive the third-world environment of urban living — the poverty, violence, death and brutality of all kinds, either from foreign occupiers (police) or domestic terrorists (rival gang members). In this environment, criminality was normalized.

My father died when I was 12 years old from complications with his kidneys while housed in the Los Angeles County Jail for traffic violations. In Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, my father was a survivalist in the underground economy. By any means necessary, he made a way for us to live the best existence possible. At his death, my life took a turn too destructive to write about. As my world became overshadowed with the darkness of the underworld that is the ghetto, with all of its nightmares and ugliness, that scent that once sent my olfactory glands ablaze started to fade, and my childhood was replaced with a prison call, prison riots and gang violence.

Flashforward to 2013. Tattoos, scars and bullet wounds marred the Brown bodies of the men who stood in the workout area of Kern Valley State Prison B Facility — including my own — while they prepared for their daily exercise. As the day went on, another group of Brown-bodied prisoners unexpectedly came running across the prison yard with homemade weapons, setting off a prison riot that would last an entire 30 minutes.

As I lay on the ground, bloodied from an attack, the thought of innocent foot rubs and the scent of lotion was lost into the abyss of darkness that had become my life.

Later, I was placed in hand restraints and taken to the institution’s medical facility to have my wounds attended to, when suddenly the scent of my innocence filled my nose with a gentleness that delighted my spirit and stroked my soul.

A nurse with long, jet-black hair and a thick Latin accent attended to my wounds with care. I closed my eyes and was taken back to a time when life was just foot rubs and “Soul Train.”

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.

Jovan McClenton is a writer who has been incarcerated since 1994 when he was 17 years old. He is incarcerated in California, where he is active in self-help programs and is currently working towards his associate degree in sociology.