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A street in Harlem, New York
Photo by Андрей Бобровский (CC BY 3.0)

I grew up in the Harlem and Washington Heights neighborhoods in New York City. During the end of the 20th century I started getting arrested. I was a clueless, impressionable, lower-class Black youth. I was ignorant of the structural impediments of race and class and my own complicity in the destiny awaiting me. 

Now, with most of my life behind me, I lament the past while living clear-eyed in the moment and hopeful about tomorrow.

But this isn’t how I saw myself back then. None of us now locked in cages did. We were too cool, too fly, too insouciantly naive. My “hood” is where the narrative of my life, and the narratives of countless other Black and Brown men, took shape and found its trajectory.

Mike, in the cell next to me, is also from my neighborhood. He is a couple years older than me. Both of us are in our 60s. We are both from “Uptown.” We are contemporaries — both of us have spent most of our lives incarcerated.

My neighbor often walks me down memory lane. We know the same people; we went to the same public schools; and we can identify landmarks only a denizen from Uptown would know. We emerged from the same communal ethos, the same narrative.

My neighbor has a romanticized view of life Uptown. My own view is jaundiced and sullied by my collection of failures. 

Two men in prison, talking smack and reminiscing through the bars are not inclined to speak truth to failure. 

Guys from Harlem had the reputation of being the moneymakers. We were renowned for big coke and dope deals and turned our nickel-and-dime transactions into kilogram moves straight out of “Scarface” — as if that fantasy is a thing to be proud of. 

Drug deals and hustlers who were infamous in the street and in the news were our heroes. Harlem moneymakers became the empty trope upon which we derived our worldview, and it is there we found the genesis of our ethics and the myths of our existence. All of it was a false narrative.

As one of us shares a recollection, talking about “the good ol’ days,” the other interjects, “Hey yo, so-and-so is dead, he/she got shot by …” 

There are a lot of dead young people in our reminiscences. After hearing the news of a childhood friend’s passing, we respond with, “Oh word?” 

It is a response encapsulating our muted surprise, sadness and recognition of our own fragile mortality. And worse still, toward some deaths, there is the apathy that has scabbed over our souls. The countless deaths of friends and foes are so numerous that they fail to elicit the appropriate emotional responses. We are numb. 

Perhaps late at night, in silent solitude, we will reflect on life and death, success and failure — the narrative as it unfolds. 

In response to one of these death notices, my neighbor once answered, “Well, I’m still here.” 

My annoyed rejoinder: “We’re fuckin’ zombies; we’re the walking dead.” 

Prison and death were the parts none of us bargained for when we adopted the narrative.

Freedom often feels like a surreal dream. To do time is to not have lived life in the conventional sense. That is the case especially for those of us who began this journey as teenagers.

Prison is the one place where one can tell tall tales and create legends. I am not impressed by those who actually lived a ghetto-fabulous existence. I am embarrassed by what I now understand to be my mindless pursuit of material trinkets. Most of us here were motivated by material deprivation, gain or both. Why else do we show each other photos of stolen moments with pretty girls in clubs, poppin’ bottles or posing in expensive cars with dubious ownership, like a proof of a former glory?

Prison has its own set of peculiar and onerous rules, laws, customs and culture. It is a kiln in which most of us get cooked, baked and hardened into something our mothers never intended or imagined. Here, 21-year-olds sentenced to 50 years to life become zombies, devouring each other.

Mike will soon be released — again — after decades of incarceration. My neighbor’s euphoric recollections of the past are something I have sought to dispel. As our conversations meander Uptown, I have pushed back against memories — both his and mine — that don’t include the potent pain of the past. Remembering and growing from the pain is the only way to be clear-eyed. 

I believe most guys want to do the right thing when they get out. But if you have never had a job and have not wrested from this place the education, skills and resolve to change your narrative, the future portends equal parts hope, fear and surrender to what you know is coming. Misery is often a familiar and welcoming place.

Growing up in here means there are milestones that have not occurred and maturity not achieved. Prison creates dependent men.

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.