Personal essay: An inmate's journey to a second chance


Deer Ridge Correctional Institution inmate

Editor's note: KH has been mentored by Rev. Nancy Slabaugh Hart of Madras UMC. Read more about their work together on the Conference website. His initials are being used because of confidentiality concerns.

I grew up in a typical middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans. The houses were nicely kept up; the parents had good careers; and the children could ride their bikes in the neighborhood and feel safe. One block away, were the projects: large apartment buildings of Section 8 housing, where there was poverty; drugs; bars and violence. There was only one corner store, and it was shared between the neighborhoods. Kids from both neighborhoods hung out and influenced each other. Cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents connected over the two very different lifestyles. We lived right next door to my grandparents, and the rest of the family lived nearby. Everyone gathered for Sunday dinner at my grandmother, Lucy Lee’s, house.

Mom was more like a sister than a parent. We were buddies. By the time I was ten, I was living with my Grandma and my Auntie. Grandma raised twelve kids—9 boys and 3 girls. 

My grandmother worried that the grandkids would get in trouble. She made the decision to move us out into a safer neighborhood east of town. But this turned out to just remove us from the extended family, and we were less safe than we had been before. By this time, seeing my cousins have clothes, cars and girls due to their involvement in selling drugs was already making a big impression on me. As it turned out, most of my family joined the business. My grandfather had a good job on the docks, but he began to get involved in the life, and introduced my dad and uncles and cousins into the life. My Grandfather was a big man in the business.

One day a gang of Cubans came to the door, only grandmother and the kids were there. They were looking to hurt grandfather through hurting the family. My grandmother was a well-respected woman. She told them to leave them alone. So, they left.

My grandmother loved my grandfather, and she wanted to keep the family together and safe. She thought moving away from the center of the drug culture would keep us safe. But we just brought it with us.

When we all got to a certain age, my grandfather told us we had to make our own money if we wanted things. He treated the boys like adults, allowing us liquor, playing dice with us, and letting us be part of the Good Life. My cousin taught me how to sell drugs; how to show no weakness. If you let people “play” you, then you would get yourself killed. We sold to our teachers so they would pass us on. When we played sports, or did other activities at school, no one came to the games. People could get killed.

Everybody was in the gang. People tried to keep their families safe by moving out to gated communities. We didn’t make friends outside of our circle. We didn’t think we needed anyone else, and we didn’t like change. Family was everything—even if the life wasn’t safe. People we loved died from drugs and violence. Cousins went to prison. Breaking out of the life was scary. At least we all knew the rules; we knew what to expect. No one wanted to change. Change could kill you. 

When I was 17, my grandfather told me I would not live to be 21. Now he is dead. And I am still here. I had a younger brother left at home. I didn’t want him to do it. I made sure they had what they needed. They were okay. I saw what it did to the family, and I didn’t want the younger kids to go that way.

There were a lot of deaths: Grandfather, Father, Sister, Daughter, Mother. I went to a very dark place of not caring; self-medicating. I wanted to make other people feel the pain I felt.

I have spent most of my adult life either in the life, or in prison. I reached a turning point when my mother died. I was in prison, working on my GED. The teachers here were different. They really cared about the students. When they looked at us, they saw us as people, not what we had done. I began to think I could make a difference when I got out. Maybe I could help kids to not make the same mistakes I made.

I want to tell kids that what looks glamorous, isn’t really glamorous. You don’t see the hardship that comes out of it. You get caught up with friends, money, fame, girls. You feel like you’ve got it. I think I can help, because kids need to hear people who have been through it, to see that it can be different.  So many kids getting depressed, doing suicide because they don’t see the way out. I want to say: “You are not alone. It is okay to change.”

I plan on working to be a drug and alcohol counselor. And I want to help at-risk kids.

The only time Grandmother said she loved me was when I was in prison. But now, she says she is proud of me.