The Beauty Behind Prison Walls

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Humans of New York is a blog that features people of New York and around New York. It began as a simple project but has grown to have over 8 million followers on social media. Maybe because people like to hear stories about real people. Real people have good stories.

In February Humans of New York featured several prison inmates and their stories. In these blog posts they have found to be true what I have found to be true in my life. Prison inmates are human. These are humans whom God created and who still have value. They are separated from society because they made decisions which harmed society when they had the freedom to make their own choices. Now their freedom in making choices is greatly limited. My two sons are these stories. Prisons are full of these stories. Full of men and women who have stories and want to tell those stories. Who want to be acknowledged as humans, not as their 7-digit prison ID. Men and women who still have value. Still have identity. Still are children of God.

I don’t know what your presupposition or your experience is with prison ministry. Those two words contain a lot of connotations that do not equal with this truth. There are humans behind prison bars. People with stories. People who want to be acknowledged as people.

Read their stories. See their faces. Pray for them. Remember them.

“I’m sixty-two now. I have three more years. I sold heroin. A lot of it. I had forty people working for me. If you were to ask me thirty-four years ago what it was going to be like in prison, I couldn’t have imagined. It’s been the same thing every day. Everyone I care about is gone. My mother passed. My father passed. My brother and sister. If I look backwards, I’ll lose my mind. I just try to keep busy and take it one day at a time. I’ve done every self-help program in the system. I’m the lead facilitator for the Men of Influence program. We teach behavioral skills, financial management, and entrepreneurship. In the five years that I’ve been in charge, we’ve graduated 250 people, and only one has come back to prison. I tell them: ‘Don’t let me be your future.’ And if I could say one thing to everyone who reads this interview. I want to apologize for the harm that I caused. If I could go back in time and correct it, I would. But that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past 34 years. I grew up in the Baltimore projects. Everyone that I knew had nothing. I was trying to improve my life with the information that I had at the time. I grabbed the wrong rope. I’m sorry if I caused generations behind me to go astray. It wasn’t my intention to bring pain to the community. And I really think that when I’m released, I can be an asset to society.”

And this story…

“I’ve organized a lot of programs in prison. One of the classes I started is called Creative Parenting. It’s the most popular class here. The waiting list is really long. I don’t have any kids myself, but I noticed that most guys are really soft for their kids. So that gave me an idea. Mainly we just make stuff and send it to the kids. We’ll do coloring projects where the father will color half the picture, and the kid will color the second half. We write bedtime stories. Most of the guys write about sports, but we make sure that every story has a moral. Sometimes we’ll take funny photos and send them to the kids. One guy’s daughter was really into My Little Pony. He was a tough guy. He was in a gang and everything, but he put his hair into pigtails and pretended to be a horse. We did another class where we made cards for kids with cancer. I had my family set it up with a hospital. We made about 200 cards. They didn’t want us to write ‘I hope you feel better,’ because that reminds the kids of what they’re going through. So we tried to keep it focused on Christmas. There were 150 guys in my unit, and 60 signed up for that program. A lot of the guys had to wait outside because the room was too small.”

And this story…

“I was a good student. I did football, karate, basketball, all sorts of activities. I never skipped school. I first sold drugs when I was twelve or thirteen. It wasn’t a full time thing. Just whenever I needed money. My mom was raising four of us in a one-bedroom apartment, so we didn’t have money for clothes. I just needed enough to keep people from focusing on me. Just enough to keep moving. But as I got older, it cost more and more to stay up. Girls came into the picture. I wanted to impress them. I started dealing more and more, and all the other activities faded out of my life. I tried to study nursing after high school. I paid my tuition with drug money. But I lost focus after two years and fell back on drug dealing. I thought I could be double-minded. But it’s not possible. You can’t do good and bad at the same time. The bad always wins. There’s no such thing as Robin Hood. Nobody wants to hear that you’re dealing drugs to feed your family. Prosecutor doesn’t want to hear that. Society doesn’t want to hear that. The system doesn’t want to hear that. There’s a verse in the Book of Ezekiel, I forget which one, but it talks about this. It says something like: ‘If you do all good, and one bad, the good will not be mentioned.’”

And this story…

“I’ve got a daughter out there. I’ve been gone for 23 years now. It’s really hurt her. My sister told me that after graduation, when everyone else was taking photos with their family, my daughter just broke down and cried. When she visits, she tells me that she feels too guilty to start a family because I won’t be there to see it. But she’s been very successful despite me. She’s a stylist. She’s doing so well. I can’t do much in here to support her, but I try my best. I’ve ordered all the fashion magazines: Vogue, Marie Claire, Elle, Bazaar. She’s too busy to read them all, so I look through them and try to find something that might help her. I set aside anything that she might be able to use for an Instagram post. She posts pictures of me on there, but only on ‘Throwback Thursday.’ She’s not ashamed of me, but she just doesn’t want anyone to see this khaki uniform. She hates it.”

And this story…

“I tried to make some money the honest way as a kid. I tried shoveling snow. I tried a newspaper route. I stuck with it for awhile, but one day I was collecting money on my route and these older kids robbed me. There were three of them. They were 16 or 17. I fought hard. I told them: ‘I worked hard for this money.’ But they held me down and took it anyway. It was $27. And that made me feel so powerless. And I remembered that I knew someone with a knife. And I thought: ‘I’m going to steal that knife and deal with this firmly.’ I found those boys at an arcade. Nobody got killed. But I hurt them. I wouldn’t say that I felt proud after stabbing them, but I felt like they got what they deserved. I felt vindicated. Even today, I have trouble sympathizing with them. It’s funny how that works. When someone wrongs us, we want the maximum amount of punishment. But when we do wrong, we want the maximum amount of understanding and forgiveness.”

There are many more to read.

In the meantime—let the pain be. It’s likely making you even more beautiful.

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