As a kid, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday. Regardless of how difficult life was, I could count on Thanksgiving being an amazing day full of family, food and football.
My mom would cook all night. There would be turkey, ham, dressing, mac and cheese, collared greens and my favorite — sweet potato pie. Everything Thanksgiving was for me growing up, it was the complete opposite experience once I became incarcerated.
Every year presents its own intricate misery; however, the 15th year of my imprisonment became the first day of the rest of my life. It was the day I planned to take my life.
Total Loss of Privileges
I was housed at Calipatria State Prison, B-Yard, 5-Building, Cell 248 on the tier. Those housed between cells 242 through 250 were deemed “program failures” or CLC status, meaning a total loss of privileges. The administration confiscated all appliances; Yard was regulated to one hour a day, Monday through Friday; showers were allowed three times a week; no phone calls; and canteen was limited to $45 a month.
The worst part was the isolation, as the rest of the population were prohibited from interacting with us. CLC status is the equivalent of administrative segregation or ad seg, except everyone else has normal program, which serves as another cruel and unusual punishment.
We ate chow last, so we often got fed rations and the food was always cold. We got our laundry last, so the sheets were ripped, and sometimes we got no sheets at all. I was to spend six months on CLC status, but I was certain Thanksgiving would be my last day on Earth.
It started with a sleepless night, followed by a frustrating morning as I heard guys yelling out of their doors, “Happy Thanksgiving, Bro, what you cooking?” Another yelled, “Tower, can I get a visiting shower?” Both of those questions cut me severely as I wrestled with the fact that I would have neither one of those privileges. No food, not because I didn’t have money, but because I could only spend $45 and given that I was first draw, by the end of the month my food supply was desperately meager.
There were no visits for me, either. Not because of a lack of visitors, but rather because my visitation privileges were taken from me, due to urinary analysis that was positive for THC and alcohol. I had been sober for three years prior, but when I found out my mother was on life support from a stroke, I relapsed.
As I walked to breakfast, I overheard a couple of guys talking about cooking, and what everybody was going to put in. Finally one of them asked, “Say, Black, you want in?”
I was the only Black on the tier while everyone else was Mexican. Needless to say, because of my pride and mistrust, I declined their offer. I sat at the table looking at a meal consisting of eggs, beans, tortillas, oatmeal and milk. And then I looked around to see a dozen Mexicans, some with blatant enmity towards me due to my skin color and Level 4 prison culture.
There were also two corrections officers on the floor with pepper spray and batons and another in the tower hovering over us with an assault rifle in his hand, beneath a bold sign in red: “No Warning Shots.” The COs saw me alone surrounded by Mexicans and expected an attack. This was Calipatria, also fittingly coined “Killapatria” due to the high rates of murder there. Death was always present, and I was certain that my time had come.
Walking back to our cells, the sound of CBS NFL pregame show was coming from the dayroom television. Besides drugs, alcohol and visits, sports is another escape for the incarcerated population. As I rolled up my mattress in an attempt to make a jailhouse sofa and watch the game, one of the COs yelled out, “Tower, turn that shit off, program failures got nothing coming”
In an instant, Dan Marino, Bill Cowher, and Boomer Esiason had one thing in common with their colleague James Brown: they all turned Black as the TV was cut off. While guys yelled out the door and protested for the CO to turn the TV back on, I lay back on my bunk. Sleep always presents an appealing alternative when other distractions aren’t available to combat depression. Oh, how my heart yearned for eternal sleep, my soul longed for rest from the perpetual torment of this hell hole. While I dreamed of sleep, my nightmare reality kept me awake.
An Unexpected Visit
Every 10 minutes, the tower officer would announce people that got a visit. As I looked out the back window, I observed a multitude of families coming to visit their loved ones. From the elderly to newborns, all the joy written on their faces, displayed through smiles and laughter. It was a mental anguish as reality set in.
There would be no visits for me and the one person I want to see the most, my mother, I would likely never see again.
In those dark cells full of despair, there was utter silence. It was so quiet, you could feel the noise. The phones in the dayroom area, however, were stationed below me, so I not only saw people smiling, enjoying conversations with their family, I could also hear every word they said.
I would have loved to call my family, but I was reminded that the voice I really needed to hear, I would never hear again. My mother, re-affirming her love for me, was on life support. Her voice would be nothing more than a memory soon.
The remainder of that day was spent writing a goodbye letter to my mom to be read at her bedside. The only thing worse than losing my mother was being in prison and knowing I couldn’t be there for her.
As I began writing, the letter became a suicide note. There were several goodbyes and assurances that I would join her really soon. Finally it was chow time. While everybody got turkey, we got hot dogs because they ran out of food.
The other program failures complained, yet I sat despondent and silent, as I thought, “It’s not gonna get better, so it’s better to end it.” When I got back, my neighbor gave me two grilled burritos which I flushed down the toilet. It wasn’t my suspicion or ungratefulness, but rather my depression.
Strange enough, I hadn’t eaten all day, yet my stomach remained silent. As the night progressed, I decided the best way to end my life was to overdose. I had seen guys attempt suicide by hanging, cutting, jumping off the tier face first, even suicide by the gun man in the tower.
Some succeeded, some failed. If I’d been a failure in life, I was determined that wasn’t going to fail in ending my life, so overdosing seemed like my best bet. I’d never used heroin before, so I figured my veins wouldn’t prevail against three grams. I wrote a kite requesting that amount.
Before I could send my fishing line out the door, I had to wait for the CO to escort the pastor and his wife off the tier. As they walked through the tiers, they declared: “You might feel abandoned, but God will never leave you, nor forsake you.”
They went to every door and were rejected, not because of their message but rather the CO escorting them was unwanted company. Finally, they reached my door.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” they said.
“Happy to you?” I responded coldly.
“Jesus loves you, and we do, too,” the woman said cheerfully.
It was impossible to hide the humor I felt, as I burst into laughter. “I’m ready to die, and you gonna tell me some Jesus died for my sins BS? Good night,” I said, walking away from the door.
And then I heard the pastor speak. “My heart hurts for you son,” he said. “I can see you caged in and alone. But God is in that cell with you.”
The very second he said that, I felt a quiver run through me. Suddenly I was back at the door talking to an elderly white couple for almost an hour. Curiosity made me ask, “Why are you here and not with your family?”
“Christ said never forsake the prisoner,” the pastor responded. And then his wife chimed in, “It’s because we love you,” she said.
That puzzled me. “How can you love me if you don’t know me?” I asked.
“I don’t have to know you, I know God,” she said.
As they walked away, the warmth in my heart with them, I threw my line out the door. Suddenly I heard them coming back. Quietly, I pulled my line in. When they arrived at my door, the pastor said: “Brother Brandon, we forgot to pray for you.”
I didn’t hear or understand a word he said while praying, but I felt every utterance from his mouth. In the midst of this prayer, I felt something else. Tears. Tears streamed down my face. It wasn’t my first time crying, but this was different, I felt a burden being lifted off my soul.
“Spend some time with God, he hears you, Brandon,” the pastor said after he finished praying. When they left, I cried even more. I couldn’t say anything except “I’m sorry, Momma.” I repeated those three words over and over again.
Every time it sounded different. The words were muffled by the pain in my heart. Somehow I mustered up enough strength to say something else: “Please God, don’t take my Momma. Take me.”
Although I lost words, I found more tears from 34 years of demons in my past. The abuse, trauma and pain all rushed me at once. I thought about all the wrong I did and it made me cry even more.
I was able to shout three words. “I’m sorry, God!” I yelled. The tears subsided, followed by peace within my inward parts. I found myself in a trance, an out of body experience.
No longer was I in prison, I was in the presence of God and I haven’t been cast away yet. That’s why Thanksgiving 2015 will forever be the first day of the rest of my life. That was the day I became born again.
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.