James talks about his coffee “Wild Mountain Blueberry.” He chuckles, “got to see what this Blueberry Coffee is like.” James is enjoying life, it seems to me, in all its small and large ways. He says “I am grateful,” more than a few times. James seems at peace, how he speaks about living a meaningful life now, having come through many years in prison.
The evenness in his voice relaxes the listener. Prior to James becoming Projects Coordinator at the shelter, I’d hear James using this same voice in Independence dorm where he was the Facilitator. It’s a coach’s voice, saying “Here’s what to expect; here’s steps you can take.” On his office door is a “Road to Success” illustration. It shows a squiggly line all over the page before reaching its goal. Not the upper trajectory of success that few of us have. He adds, “Now what are we going to do, going forward?”
James gets down to business:
I’m not quick to talk about my past. I understand my story involves difficult aspects that can become distractions for people. You see, I committed a very serious crime and someone lost their life. I was gone for 30 years.
“Gone,” I repeat.
Yes, the word is very appropriate.
Gone is gone.
You are just out of this world as most people know and in a different world. When I went away, I didn’t know how long I was going to be gone because I was serving a life sentence. My original sentence was a death sentence. These are not things you volunteer to tell people!
What was it like?
In prison, I’m viewed as “other” by the larger society. The sense of otherness is constantly reinforced throughout the prison system. You come in, you are less than. You’re a number. You’re just one of those people who have excluded themselves from civil society because of your criminal nature. I went into the system with a college background, but in prison the assumption is you didn’t even finish high school, so I find myself in a system not set up to receive me for who I am and the onus is upon me to be functional in spite of it.
That’s the othering of the prison system on the one hand. On the other hand, there’s the ugliness on the human level. The worst thing about the environment is the noise. Noise, as in physical noise, and just ugly conversations. Imagine people confined in that world for years and years.
I can’t imagine.
It’s no wonder so many people are undone and ultimately destroyed by it. We sentence people to prison, but do we want people to just rot? Decay and devolve into an inhuman, uncivilized drone? Then, reentering society, you run up against the otherness on the outside – it’s a wonder anyone survives.
James reflects, this is what LMM’s Community Reentry brought to light – when people first started talking about reentry at the federal level. They alerted society to what happens when people come back into the larger community. IF it’s about public safety, IF it’s about quality of life and turning people around, this is a concern. I’ve been fortunate. I’m blessed and I know it. I came out of prison, and I was one inch away from being homeless.
Early in my stay in prison my brother came to see me with his girlfriend. She was an artist and did my portrait in the visiting room. When she finished, she showed me the drawing. The thing that jumped off the page was the way she had done my eyes, right? They were very dark. I asked her why she did my eyes like that. She said, “That’s what I saw.”
I left the visiting room, went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I saw it. Mind you, this was within a couple of years of going in. I was like, “Wow, it’s happening already.” I had resolved not to be like the older guys who had done a lot of time- they all had those dark eyes, they just seemed to be so hard. I made a conscious decision I wasn’t going to let that happen, but it did.
When you got out, what helped you most? What hindered you most?
I was denied countless jobs that supposedly invite people to apply from the criminal justice system. The interview process went well but then I wouldn’t get the call back. This can really break a person down.
A standout moment for me is when I responded to an ad for a pizza delivery driver. I’d finished college in prison, right? And as a college graduate, I’m hoping for this pizza delivery job, right? The lady in the store said, “Okay, I’m going to hire you. But I’m sending you to our office in Middleburg Heights to complete some stuff.” So, I drove down I71 to Middleburg Heights corporate office. The lady asked me for my ID. She walked around the corner and 60 seconds later she walked back around the corner and handed me my ID.
James is laughing now. She told me “I can’t use you.” That was the culmination of a lot of denial, right? A lot of denials by the system that continued to “other” me and my own denial. I remember driving back up I71. I was livid. By nature, I’m an optimist, but this was like a capstone for me. Up to that point, I’d been reaching out for any and everything. After that I told myself, ‘I will never do this again, putting myself in a position to drive 20 minutes down the road as a college graduate to be denied a pizza delivery job.’
After this incident, I see the reality that this reentry thing is a whole lot more complicated than I thought. I really had to get creative about this. I almost didn’t make it.
What helped you most?
What helped me most is my sense of who I am. There’s a saying “I’m better than the worst thing I’ve done.” My past doesn’t define me. Whatever I’ve done in my life, I don’t have to be imprisoned by that forever. There is a way forward. Mind you, this is embracing the notion of perfect justice, which we don’t have. From the very beginning of my contact with the system, I’ve been committed to the idea that nobody can make me feel worse than I already feel about my crime. The system tends to beat folks up with guilt. This is the unique understanding I bring to my work here at this shelter.
I’ve coached folks along the way on doing a personal inventory, identifying and embracing our responsibility, being clear on what IS our responsibility, because folks will throw everything at you and blame you for everything they can imagine. If you allow that to happen, you’ll be so buried up under guilt that you may never be able to crawl out, right?
One thing I’ve found throughout these stories was the presence of an accepting, kind person who helped. Anyone for you?
I’ve met a number of people along the way who received me on a human level in a way that made a difference. Those experiences confirmed my better instincts, hopes, aspirations, right? Mr. See was one of those people, Charles See at Community Reentry. From the moment we met, Mr. See has always embraced me. I “came back” in 2007 and met Mr. See that same year. As we got to know each other, he began to call on me for certain things, to lend a voice that might be helpful.
LMM/Community Reentry was on the list of resources that were supposedly in place for someone like me, and that was one of my first stops. Because my issues were so profound, I got a lot of lip service and resources were so limited, right? No fault of LMM’s or anyone else’s – just resources were so limited at that time.
Still, on a human level, Mr. See made it clear he saw me for the person I am, for the person I strive to be, right? He went to extra effort to communicate that to me in many ways over the years. He was one of those lights I encountered.
When I came back here I went to live with one of my brothers. My plan was to get back in school. I went to Cleveland State University, initially in the Information Systems program, masters level IT program. Mind you, while I was gone, PC’s hadn’t been invented and prisons wouldn’t allow us to get online. But I studied about computers from books in prison. I worked my tail off in the IT program at CSU but it wasn’t the best environment for someone like me, over my head. So, I left school to find a job.
Still positive…still believing…
That’s where the Pizza delivery episode entered my story. With no job, I began to volunteer more in a Re-entry program to help folks deal with some of this stuff. What else was there for me? I was pissed, but I never gave up hope. What choice do I have, right? Either I could be positive and try to roll forward, or I could say “to hell with it” and be the animal that you think I am. This is what happens by the way – I saw it in prison, I see it out here, I see it in the shelter. Folks who have been so beat down that they see no way out, so they just embrace it. I wasn’t going to do that.
So, I volunteered for a couple years, then I went back to get my Master in English at CSU. All the while, in my job search, I hit all of the programs. I’m touching all the bases, doing all the right things. Eventually, I got my first job in 2012 at 2100.
I immediately began to understand why I was led to the shelter; where I could be helpful, where I could work out some of my own demons associated with my own re-entry. I have this first-hand experience of incapacity– and I can transfer knowledge to all these people here at 2100 who need supportive services. I understood if folks don’t get some real help, they virtually have no chance.
One Loving Voice
Remember I said I’m not blaming anybody but as an objective fact, I outgrew my supports as a young teen. I had a non-existent relationship with my father, didn’t even phase me when he died. In a perfect world, I would have been embraced and wrapped and delivered in a pathway for success. Other people had been planning for their kids to go to college from the day they were born. Mama didn’t finish high school. Later in life, she completed her GED, then completed a course that enabled her to get promoted from Nurse’s Aide to Licensed Practical Nurse. Oh, she worked hard and did wonderful things, considering our circumstances.
My mama told me that when she was a girl her aspiration was to be a phone operator or an airline stewardess. Those are the things you remember because they say so much about her innocent world when she was a kid. (James tears up).
So, I was gone for 30 years and I could count on one hand the number of times she missed coming to see me. When she passed, it was like the “passing of love,” out of my life. I knew then I would never experience love like that again. That love was done. It’s a hell of a realization. But I am who I am because I am my mother’s son. She had a big heart, a compassionate woman, very strong.
Here at 2100, I made connections that became important to me and learned that some of the most helpful things we can do, all of us, is listening to folks. The other part is talking with them, giving them an opportunity to have a conversation about something that’s real in their life that they may not be able to have with anybody else.
It’s important for me to feel like I’m contributing for a better world. I feel like I stumbled into the right profession. I’m blessed. I’m grateful. In many ways, maybe I shouldn’t be walking the planet. I’ve survived 6 shots at one time that had 13 holes in my body at close range. I’m blessed, I’m grateful. I’m not motivated by income. I am motivated by a sense of humanity.