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Yellow police tape with police car and lights in the background.
Photo by carlballou on iStock

The new year had just begun. I kept telling myself that this was going to be my year: 2023 was going to be the year my liberation from the tyranny of the New York criminal justice system would come closer. But then I looked through the bars in front of my cell onto a brightly lit prison yard, and I pondered how my past brought me to this point.

There were so many factors that I could point out that contributed to my incarceration. The abuse and trauma I suffered as a child, and the anger and rage, were among the greatest factors. But there was one person that stood out the most: my childhood friend George.

It was November 1995. The weather was warmer than usual, and the residents of the housing projects appeared to be enjoying the break from the cold Pennsylvania fall. However, my friend George and I were not outside enjoying the weather.

It was George’s birthday. We had been caught smoking cigarettes by his mother earlier that day, so we were grounded. I was 14 years old at the time, and George had just turned 15. I had no idea that would be the last time I would ever see George again.

Crime was common in Cumberland Gardens, the housing project where we lived. Drug dealers were on every corner and everywhere between. We would witness the everyday fistfights and stabbings and, if we stuck around, we’d get to see someone get shot. This kind of life was normal to George and me. We wanted to be like the robbers, gang members and drug dealers that lurked in our corner of Allentown. We wanted the nice cars, big jewelry and the women that came with that lifestyle.

We chipped in to buy a gun. Buying a gun was just as easy as buying potato chips from the bodega, except for the price. 

George and I, along with a couple of other kids from the neighborhood, planned to rob a bodega on George’s birthday.

But the plan had been thwarted by us being confined to our rooms by our mothers — or so I thought. George had snuck out of his room and met with the other kids to carry out our plan. They were really going to rob the bodega at gunpoint. There was just one missing factor: me. I was too afraid to sneak out. The brutality of my mother’s discipline would have made anyone think twice.

A few hours went by. The sun had set, but it was relatively early in the evening. I looked out my window and saw the police talking with George’s mother outside of her building. She was frantically crying, sobbing and screaming. Right then and there, I knew that something went wrong and George had been caught. 

I thought the police came to tell her that George had been arrested and was on his way to the detention center. Maybe it was worse. Maybe George had shot someone during the robbery. A few moments later, I saw George’s mother leave with the police. Something felt awfully wrong.

Shortly after, my mother entered my room. Her eyes were red and full of tears. She grabbed me and hugged me tightly.

“Hijo, George is dead. George está muerto,” she said, sobbing.

“Mama, what do you mean he’s dead? Que pasó? What happened?”

“Hijo, George snuck out of his room and went to rob the bodega with your friends. When he was running out, el hombre from the bodega started shooting, and he hit George in the back of the head. Ay! Santo dios mío.”

She hugged me again. Her tears soaked the side of my face and neck. I was still confused.

“That could have been you, hijo,” she said. “You could have died!”

I went numb. I didn’t know how to feel at that moment. My friend was dead. I didn’t shed a tear, and whatever sorrow I felt quickly turned into anger, which set me on a destructive path that led me to the same violence that took away my friend.

I’m no longer 14 on a fall night in Pennsylvania. Tonight, I’m back in my cell, looking onto a brightly lit prison yard. It’s been 28 years since the last time I saw George. And while his death feels so distant, my memory of him remains fresh. 

I think of my youngest son at home, who is now the same age as George when he was killed, and I can’t imagine the feeling of losing him to violence. As a father, I want nothing but the best for my child. I want him to learn from my shortcomings and make a positive difference in this crazy world we live in.

There are questions that I continue to ask myself: Did our neighborhood influence the way we viewed life? Did we become desensitized by the violence we witnessed? Would our lives have turned out any different if we had chosen better role models?

The answers to these questions escape me somehow. But there is one thing that I do know: I let violence take control of me. I left another mother with the sorrow and pain that I saw George’s mother endure. 

I saw her pain up close and personal when she came to visit me in prison. That visit lit the flame of transformation in my life. But that is a story for another time.

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.

Jose Rodriguez is a writer incarcerated in New York.