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I first realized that I was the enemy of society when I was a homeless child sleeping on the roofs of steaming laundromats and eating food thrown in business dumpsters. This was before grocery stores installed trash compactors we couldn’t access.

I was homeless by choice. I’d been offered the hospitality of 30 to 40 foster homes, all of which I impolitely declined, running loose until the courts gave up and emancipated me at age 16.

It’s possible that one of those foster homes I escaped would’ve provided me with security, nurturing and possibly even love, but I refused to gamble. I despised authority and saw it as a disease that transmuted ordinary people into monsters. Four decades later, rotting in a prison for a crime I didn’t commit, my opinion about authority hasn’t improved much.

Before I reached 14, I had been assaulted three times by police officers: once so severely it took more than a week in the hospital to recover. They hurt me not because of criminal acts, but ostensibly because I lacked respect. 

Yet the truth is, my irreverence didn’t provoke them nearly as much as my differences. I belonged to a different tribe; I was powerless, divergent, unable to retaliate. The establishment has always victimized people without status or property; they were the proverbial “us,” and I was “them.”

As individual people, those cops may have had empathy or perhaps children my age, but as a group they suppressed the slightest compassion and dehumanized outsiders. 

When I grew up, I almost joined their number. Not as a cop, but I enlisted in the military and surrendered to their indoctrination. They tried to instill the capability to murder innocents by convincing me that they and their children were my enemies; less than human because they weren’t Americans. Much to my shame, I believed that for a while. 

We invaded Iraq to protect democracy, to bomb their establishment into submission. The rich and the privileged always initiate wars, but it’s the underprivileged youth that fight and die in them. It’s the poor and their children who pay the direct price in these wars.

I never was good at following rules, and it wasn’t long before my military career ended. Once again, I was relegated to one of “them,” a disenfranchised human with no money or status who lacked the hive worker skills necessary to acquire any.

I was a drifter, drove a clunker and had long hair. Like diverse strangers everywhere, I became a target for the police. In a southern town where difference was the ultimate sin, I was jailed.

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno once said, “Justice is available only to those who can afford lawyers.” How right she was. I would’ve fared so much better if I had been wealthy and guilty rather than poor and innocent. Or I could have at least saved my life if I had capitulated to the politically ambitious prosecutor and accepted his five-year easy conviction plea deal. Instead, I demanded a trial by my peers, and they sentenced me to die in a penitentiary.

If I thought poverty and diversity made me less than human, I soon discovered that there’s absolutely nothing lower than a prisoner. Even lab monkeys have more enforceable rights to humane treatment than prisoners. 

Just a few months before the police murdered George Floyd and set off international protests, prison guards went into the cage above mine and beat an old man named Frank Digges to death. There were, of course, no protests, and I’m betting you’ve never heard of him, even though news of his murder was published in The Houston Chronicle.

Why haven’t you heard of Frank Digges and other prisoners tortured and murdered? Because you don’t care, and the media knows it. Because we’re the ultimate “them,” the marginalized people that you as a society don’t acknowledge as human beings.

Given human nature, it seems impossible that concepts like social justice or criminal justice will ever truly exist. Our tribal instinct is so strong that even small children will attack a child who’s different. 

History is full of powerful groups committing atrocities against weaker groups. One could argue that is all history is. Family, race, religion, nationality — we all belong to a tribe and we’re all guilty of injustice. The greatest tragedy is how easily we rationalize our evil.

I will likely die in a cage for the crime of being “them,” but I still think social empathy and justice are possible. It won’t be accomplished by appealing to groups, because groups naturally set themselves above and apart from outsiders. 

But as individuals, I think we’re all capable of walking in other people’s shoes, and it’s often someone’s story that inspires it. Stories allow us to see strangers as humans. So I write, not just to have my story heard, but the stories and voices of thousands or prisoners, many of whom are functionally illiterate and have no voice of their own. 

As the Quaker peace activist Gene Hoffman once said, “An enemy is a person whose story we have not heard.” 

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.

John Adams is a writer incarcerated in Texas.