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New York City's Times Square 1977
Photo credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor

I am in my ninth year of a 16-to-life sentence for attempted robbery. I am a repeat felony offender, a recidivist, incorrigible — or so I’m told. I could go on listing all of the adjectives used to describe people like me. I am all of those things and none of those things. First and foremost, I am a person, possessing all the qualities of a good man.

Now, two months shy of my 60th birthday, I am given to vivid introspective sojourns. I lament much, but my lamentations enable epiphanies and provide the wisdom that moves me forward. 

It took me almost a half century to make peace with the person in the mirror. I’ve waged an internal battle with many losses and a few wins, all of it through a process of a solitary self discovery. I was like the Great Oz, who turned out to be just an ordinary person, pulling the levers of a giant avatar I thought the world wanted to see. I was slow to realize that it would have been so much easier to be myself.

The dangers lurking in 1970s Harlem

The canvas of my life began with new brushes and bright colors. The painter was my mother, who loved, nurtured and protected her firstborn child. 

As I aged, I took those brushes and became the artist and inventor of myself. Fascinated by artifacts of the world, I pursued with mercurial abandon those things that stimulated my sense of wonder. Infrequent public school field trips to New York City museums introduced me to a world more beautiful, entertaining and beguiling than that of my own neighborhood. Later I took the train and explored the city between 110th Street and Greenwich Village: more museums; Central Park and its zoo; Lincoln Center; and — my favorite place — Times Square. 

However, for a Black child in 1970s New York, certain dangers lurked beneath the surface of all that excited and enticed. It was not long before I discovered a tawdry underbelly. I slid inside peep shows and watched sex workers soliciting johns on 8th Avenue, just north of Times Square. I fed my insatiable curiosity with both the culturally diverse and the profane.

Back in Harlem, my first girlfriend’s mother and father both died of drug-related causes by the time she and I were adolescents. They lived in the building next to mine in extreme poverty. The drama in their home was always a depraved kind of entertainment. 

As recipients of welfare, they supplemented their income with any illicit opportunity that presented itself. My girlfriend’s brother, who was two years older than me, was a hardened criminal at just 16. As an adolescent who wanted to fit in, I looked up to him. He was partial to stealing Cadillac Eldorados, and I felt privileged to ride shotgun in those luxury cars, even if we were sometimes chased by the police.

I was also an unwitting accomplice to his crimes: The first time he let me drive one of those cars was when, unbeknownst to me, I was a getaway driver to a store robbery. I didn’t find out about it until I was the object of his drunken ridicule a week later. I was 13.

Those joy rides were seeds planted in the garden of perdition. After a while the canvas of my youth, which began with so much promise, devolved into chiaroscuro sketches of a life in repose.

Worsening odds for the next generation

Prison afforded me a chance for serious self-reflection, but only if I was willing to look. Prison will give you the opportunity to go to school and learn a trade. They even have college programs. But prisons provide little guidance about reconciling one’s humanity with the often unfair and hard expectations of living in one’s own skin, especially if your skin is dark.

As an older incarcerated person, I listen to brash young men embellish the tales leading to their incarceration. Most of them speak graphically, yet ignorantly, of their “school-to-prison pipeline” experience. 

They describe a path from juvenile justice facilities, group homes and foster care — with some homelessness sprinkled in for good measure — and finally to incarceration. They speak in the voice of their own inflated, Oz-like avatar, which will eventually become a self-mocking lament as they too gain self-awareness.

I see and hear facsimiles of my former selves in their narratives. I see the poor neighborhoods where I played as a child, all the good and bad attendant on that milieu. This generation of incarcerated men face greater odds as they carry the baggage of gang culture and its violence. 

Gang life requires one to subscribe to a toxic masculinity, subsuming the authentic self underneath a kind of self-destructive tribalism, rarely providing the opportunity for healthy self-actualization that is necessary to thrive. It is a masculinity completely compatible with prison.

When prison education programs fall short

Typically, prison education programs are focused on getting one to pass the GED. They are not necessarily concerned with teaching the men here to think for themselves. 

Many vocational opportunities have lost their instructors — especially during the pandemic — with no replacement in sight. Still, I have seen possibilities in teachers, counselors and therapists. I have met many of them who come to this place and bring their best selves even when no one demands it. 

A large population of individuals inside are diagnosed with mental illness, but many of us suffer undiagnosed mental illness in addition to the trauma and PTSD consequential to incarceration and our past experiences. 

We all know that “hurt people hurt people,” but there aren’t enough resources to adequately attend to the sick and suffering in a way that addresses individual needs.

Those charged with our care and rehabilitation must see this too, but they do nothing to address the culture, environment and behaviors of both the incarcerated people and the staff who perpetuate toxic cycles. 

Prison is a hidden world where the public has no clue how their tax dollars are being spent or what the criminal justice system is really like. There exists an “us and them” kind of détente between the officers and the incarcerated that resets to a state of neutrality at lock-in each night. 

No one knows how tomorrow will play out. 

There are often skirmishes — sometimes deadly — despite the boundaries outlined in the rule book and the culture. The incarcerated people invariably lose in these encounters, and the perspectives of both sides calcify along lines of race, politics and our respective daily praxis. 

I don’t know if anything can be done to address the hostilities that are always bubbling just beneath the surface of the feigned civilities between the keepers and the kept.

Prisons can offer hope

The complex nature of race, class, mental health, my environment and poor decisions urges me to explain why I live in a cage. I was an addict, a junkie, a crack head ⸺ there go those adjectives again, the ones used to describe people like me. I am all of those things and none of those things. The best version of myself conveys these thoughts; I believe most people are inherently good.

Given everything taking place on the other side of the wall: COVID-19, climate change, the blue and red divide and beyond, I practice a hopeful pragmatism. I practice being my best self in the worst of situations and pay it forward in any way I can. 

Prison should be an open canvas, filled with the promise of hope, change and possibility.

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.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.