Barely 18 and faced with a lengthy sentence, Joseph found true friends to help navigate a path through the urban gang culture of prison on a homestretch to freedom.
Editor’s note: The following is a guest post from Joseph L. a friend of These Stone Walls mentioned in a recent post, “From a Prison Library: The Stories that Set Us Free.”
It was 4:45 on the afternoon of December 12, 2006, when I first walked into the New Hampshire State Prison for Men. I had seen many movies that offered vivid and stereotypical glimpses of prison life. I had many conversations with “old timers” on how things would go once I was handed over to the state. In preparation for it, I read several stories of individuals who had been locked up.
Seven months after my 18 birthday, I was sentenced to prison to atone for my reckless actions as a teenager. Today at 30 years old, as I look around at the walls, bars, and hopeless faces, I think back on how I made it to the home stretch of this marathon sentence.
WAY DOWN WE GO
There was a light snowfall that floated and danced all around the transport vehicle as I left the sentencing courthouse and made my way to the prison. There were two small windows in the back of the transport van, and I remember trying to re-adjust myself in my seat so that I could take a last look at the city slowly pass by – the city that I had spent my whole life in.
I was still numb to the sentence that I had just received, and at that moment it still had not completely sunk in. As I looked out the window, I saw different buildings, streets, and parks that held nostalgic value to me. I watched them pass by and fade from view like a picture slowly dissolving.
I felt as though I would never see them again I took as many mental pictures as I could. As we headed out of the city, it was as though even the snow itself was trying to coat and bury this whole chapter of my life from my mind. By the time we made it to the interstate highway, the city of Manchester, New Hampshire was just a swirling, white blanket of void and I began to wonder if it ever even had existed.
WELCOME TO PRISON
When we reached the prison and pulled into the front gates, it was after 4:00 in the afternoon. As I stepped out of the van in shackles and cuffed in restraints, I remember looking up at the brick and steel building that loomed before me thinking that I was heading into a dungeon. I was lead into an intake area where the first thing that happened was I was ordered to strip off all my clothes in a room with five other men so they could confiscate my street clothing and perform a security search.
At age 18, I was NOT comfortable with getting naked in front of five complete strangers. But with no choice but to obey or suffer immediate and drastic consequences for disobedience, I slowly starting to undress. With each piece of clothing that I stripped off, it seemed as though a piece of my former self, my sense of humanity and self-pride, was also taken off and thrown into the pile of clothes outside of the holding cell.
I went through the whole intake process, which seemed to last forever. My picture was taken for my prison ID – and NO, I was definitely not smiling in my picture: I was finally led to the cell in which I would spend my first night in prison.
After several weeks in the receiving unit, I was given trash bags to pack my possessions in, and told to report to H-Building for new housing. I was going to live in “gladiator school!” The particular pod they were sending me to was for young men who had nothing better to do with their time than to be a menace. This is where I would spend the next 12 months, honing my survival skills, burying whatever softer side I may have had and learning to become a convict.
With no positive role models to emulate, I ended up walking down a path that so many young men end up traveling while growing up in prison. There is an interesting article from my friend, Gordon MacRae at These Stone Walls awhile back entitled, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.” The phenomenon described in this article does not seem to be only limited to animals. I highly suggest you read it if you haven’t already.
Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and there seemed to be no break in the cycle I had entered. Just when I started to believe that I was better off in prison, fate presented an opportunity that would save me from the inevitable end that I was headed towards.
In 2007, a program called “Fast Track” was started at the prison. Its purpose was to help young inmates complete their court and prison-ordered programs in a timely manner while also learning practical life skills. Fast Track was intended to be an environment where older, more mature prisoners would help steer troubled younger prisoners in a positive direction. They were to select 48 young men to take part in the program.
I didn’t fit the criteria to join the program. My prison sentence was longer than most, and the “fast track” that I had been on was not exactly in the direction they had in mind when they came up with this program. But somehow, some people that I did not know at the time spoke to those who were in charge and got me into the program and out of gladiator school.
Once the program was underway, we were all assigned “mentors” who would help us with homework, other assignments, and basically anything we needed in order to complete the program. One day, I was standing around my bunk, angry about something (who knows what) and an older white guy came up to me with a hot pot.
He asked if I needed any hot water for coffee. I told him I didn’t need hot water because I didn’t have any coffee… but thanks. He said “oh ok,” and left. A few minutes later, I returned to my room from doing something and there was a full bag of coffee sitting on my bunk.
I was too old to believe in the coffee fairy, so I grabbed the bag and made my way to the cell that I had seen the older white guy come in and out of and knocked on his door. I asked him if he had placed the coffee on my bunk and he said he did. I told him thanks but I wasn’t going to be able to buy anything from the canteen anytime soon so I couldn’t replace it, therefore I could not accept it. This man said, “No problem.” It was clear that he wasn’t expecting repayment.
After living where I had been for the last year and a half in the prison, I could not trust anyone or their intentions because it seemed as though everyone had ulterior motives. After a small argument back and forth over me accepting the coffee, I became convinced that he was literally just looking out for someone who didn’t have something that he could easily part with. He said, “My name is Gordon, but all my friends call me G.”
That small and what may seem to be a trivial gesture became the basis of a real friendship that I will never forget. Over the remaining months of Fast Track, I slowly started having conversations with G concerning various topics, and his advice and wisdom seemed to always pan out.
As a young, African American from the mean city streets, this guy seemed the least likely person I could relate to. But I started seeing positive results in my life and prison sentence for the first time. It was like a whole new world of options opened up before me!
G told me one time that there are two types of people in the world: people who can learn from just being told something and they follow instructions. Then there is the other type: the ones who learn by running head first into brick walls! Gordon said I must have been a ram in another life!
Apparently, I liked brick walls! But from now on, he said, when I started to stray from the right path, he would be the brick wall I ran into! I didn’t take it too seriously until I met the other half of the brick wall… Ponch! – Pornchai Moontri. Yup, no more brick walls for me!
It has been 11 years since that time, and I am finally getting ready to start working my way down through the prison system toward freedom. I have been able to work and hold a job here in the prison, go to college to major in Business Administration, and remain out of “the hole” (which is a big feat for me!) and it is all due to the time, patience, and sometimes tough love of two guardian angels.
I can honestly say that I never thought I would finish this prison sentence, let alone finish it with all the positive gains I was able to make. As the homestretch of this marathon sentence finally comes into view, I owe a huge debt of gratitude and appreciation to Ponch and G for being, there on the sidelines, constantly cheering me on, and never letting me give up on the race.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Our friend, Joseph, has also appeared in these posts on These Stone Walls:
- Disperse the Gloomy Clouds of Night (An Advent Post)
- E.T. and the Fermi Paraox: Are We Alone in the Cosmos?
- Unchained Melody: Tunes from an 8-Track in an iPod World