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This article was first published in the March 2020 issue of Beat Within , an organization that conducts workshops for incarcerated youth and publishes their stories. The article has been edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

When I came to prison in 1989, I was 21 years old. I’m 49 years old now. Never will I see a level 3, 2 or 1 due to my deceptive behavior. I hit Chino (California Institution for Men) in November 1989. I was at California Correctional Institution (CCI) in Tehachapi, and I did more than 14 years at Pelican Bay. I did one year at Kern Valley and I’ve been here at Centinela since 2015.

At Tehachapi, I got my GED in 1992. It felt good. I even got copies made and mailed it home. I was a student and my OGs (short for Old Gangster, a term of endearment) would give me books to read. But I had to give them a valid book report of what I read and learned. That’s how it was back in the day. 

Before coming to prison, I had never read any books. The only book I read on my own was “The Legend of Bruce Lee.” Once, in prison, one of my big homies gave me a book by Carter G. Woodson called “The Miseducation of the Negro.” Then another OG homie off the east side gave me a book by Assata Shakur called “Assata.” That book had a major impact on me, it opened my eyes and mind to the system of injustice and the struggles that I was feeling and that my people of color faced for years.

Next, I read a book called “Stolen Legacy,” then “The Destruction of Black Civilization” by Chancellor Williams. Before I realized it, I was seeking knowledge for myself and building my vocabulary. One homie told me to underline every new word I looked up in the dictionary and to study a few new words every day! I still do this years later.

So now I’m hungry for knowledge, demanding books like “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, “Before the Mayflower” by Lerone Bennett Jr. and “Malcolm X” by Alex Haley. 

I’m tripping off everything now, working out hard, lifting weights and studying daily. That’s how I groomed my mind and body, all gas, no tracks! I learned about my real history and the history of others, like the Aztecs and Aryan culture. I even read books by Hitler, the Prince, the Panthers and Nat Turner. The books I was reading, combined with my radical environment, created a moment. I was onto something positive and now learning the power of knowledge. 

In 1998, I was in the hole for conspiracy to assault staff, got a 28-month SHU (Security Housing Unit) sentence and was transferred from CCI to Pelican Bay. In the SHU, I completed a law course at Blackstone Career Institute. 

While in the SHU for another case in 2004, I started taking college classes. I was intimidated at first but studied long hours.

After taking the first test, I was all right. College courses opened my eyes to a whole new world. I was accomplishing something under adverse circumstances, doing something productive that built up my self-esteem.

I discovered that psychology was my favorite subject. I learned from psychology and sociology that getting angry and blowing up was a weakness. If you can’t control your temper and your actions, then anyone could get a reaction out of you at any time they choose and set you up. The calm, cool and humble person is the one who holds all the strength because he or she remains focused and calm under pressure and thinks things through instead of reacting off impulse. 

The power of knowledge built my confidence and understanding of the world around me and allowed me to be open to learning about various subjects, different cultures, third world countries, rich people, poor people, the banking system, the prison system and the prison industrial complex. I learned about TV and mass communications and how we all suffer from the conditioning of repeated negative news coverage, sexual images, etc. 

I’m an OG Crip who has no big homies to look up to. With my young homies, I lead by example and guide them in the right direction. Eighty-five percent of the work is mental. Fifteen percent is physical. Roam like the lion, but be sly like the fox, meaning be smart and don’t allow the prison system to take your life or youth.

I respect these older homies that got me to read books. It was a “each one, teach one” within the Crips! It was a code we used to like to go by. 

Sadly, those days are long gone, so I say this to you: The future is in question and, without a strong mind, how are you going to win?

The state prison system is full of ignorance with men who think and act like kids. Knowledge is power and learning something new is a pleasure. Trying to gang bang and acting out is played out.

The system doesn’t have a heart and doesn’t care how young you are. They will take your life and freedom from you before you even realize what happened. So be smart and by using all your knowledge, you can go a long way. 

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.

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William Jones

William Jones is a writer, literacy tutor and peer mentor incarcerated in California. He is the organizer of Initiate Justice; the chair of two groups, Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery; and serves as sergeant at arms for Lifers Group as well as Center for Council.