I am about to turn 39, and I just marked my 17th year of incarceration. Entering the system at only a month shy of my 22nd birthday, I had no idea what I was in for. There was no way that I could have been prepared for the horrors, anguish and traumas of institutional life. I was underweight, scrawny, emotionally sensitive and very, very naive. I still looked like a teenager! I was absolutely terrified about how I would survive — or if I would. My only “knowledge” of prison was from TV and movies. The odds certainly didn’t look so good for someone like me.

I was told, by mostly well-meaning people in the Eaton County Jail, that, as an ethnic minority, I needed to join a gang for protection. The fallacy and stereotype being that all Latino men in the prison system are, or end up, gang members. But I swore to myself that under no circumstances would I do such a thing. I had already made enough trouble for myself to last a lifetime. So, no matter how bad things got for me, I wouldn’t ever join a gang.

And bad they definitely got! Over the course of the years to come, I tried hard to learn as much as I could and to stay out of trouble. I tried to acclimate and blend in, without “going full convict” and continuing my antisocial behavior. I tried to remain “normal” and not allow my environment to harden me. I did not want to be cold and uncaring. 

This was easier in theory than in practice. It painted an even bigger target on my back. It made me a victim of a lot of cruelty. Sadly, I had to endure beatings, being robbed multiple times and even a few sexual assaults. Even worse, I felt that I deserved it, and that I had it coming, and therefore I accepted it. While the logic may have been distorted, those traumas were also the spark in gaining new perspectives on my own life and my past behavioral patterns. I was now able to empathize with victims of crime and trauma. I was able to empathize with the people I had personally harmed and affected. I could now fully appreciate how my impulsivity and selfishness have profoundly affected everyone I have encountered. My shame, regret and remorse became so overwhelming. I wondered if I even deserve to live.

I was very lucky to encounter and interact with not one or two, but three wonderful and sincere prison employees. This is a very rare occurrence. They gave me ideas, as well as tools to do work on myself. They helped me realize that I was redeemable and showed me how to start becoming the person I was always meant to be. Most importantly, they taught me about personal responsibility and accountability. For the rest of my life, I will owe a profound debt of gratitude to William Kaupp RN, Amy Klein MSW, and Librarian Regina Kemp, who were all at one time employed at the Kinross Correctional Facility, in the Upper Peninsula. I am not sure if they know how much their words and actions have influenced me, but I am so thankful for what they taught me, and for giving me hope. Their kind and supportive words still echo in my mind today, several years after I last saw them.

I truly and sincerely wish that I had the ability to dissolve the pain, anguish and stress that  I caused to so many people, both directly and indirectly. I would gladly stay in prison for the rest of my life, if it meant that I could literally stop their pain. But, that isn’t how our world works, and some things cannot be taken back. I am so ashamed of who I was 17 years ago. Though I know I can not go back and erase my terrible choices, I am trying to figure out how to forgive myself. I am still not always so sure that I deserve forgiveness, but I move forward.

Today, I have not been in any kind of trouble in quite some time. I have not had any misconduct in almost 12 years. I continue to learn and to be very conscious of my words and actions. I now know all too well how they can adversely affect others. I practice empathy until it hurts, and I continue. I have decided to devote a very large part of the rest of my life to doing things for others. I have immersed myself in as much volunteer/charity work as I can handle effectively. I know that it won’t erase or offset what was done yesterday, but I am thinking of tomorrow.

I learned how to crochet a few years ago, and I have been making hats and small blankets for a few different charity organizations. First, the Lion’s Club of Jackson, where the hats and blankets were distributed to children in need, and more recently for the Comfort Buddy Mission through Hannah House, where myself and others will be making and sending hats, scarves and blankets to various shelters and children’s charities. I am honored to be allowed to participate, and to be able to use my hands, my time and my heart to give a part of myself to so many people in the community who are struggling.

I am a father of two now-grown children. Unfortunately, I have no relationship at all with my son, and I only have very limited communication with my daughter. What is even more heartbreaking and difficult than being physically apart from them is my acceptance of the fact that my own actions and tragic choices are what took me away from them. I can only hope and pray that someday they’ll be open to receiving a sincere and heartfelt apology from me, and maybe, they’ll allow me into their lives.

Until then, I continue to live the best way possible, in these extremely restrictive and oppressive conditions. Some say “talk is cheap,” and I not only understand that, but I wholeheartedly agree. I will continue my work, to exist while not violating the personal rights of others, and hope very much that one day I can be a success story. Not just for myself, but also for anyone who has ever taken a chance on me, or ever WILL take a chance on me. Maybe I can inspire someone else to sort themselves out and strive to be a better human. To not only respect themselves, but to respect the rights of others, and above all else, to respect, revere and honor the sanctity, fragility and preciousness of human life itself.