By James King
When I first arrived at California State Prison-Lanscaster, with a fresh thirty year to life sentence, the older guys on the yard gave me a piece of advice. Get into self-help groups, engage in positive programming, and make sure everything you do gets documented in your central file. That way, when you go to the parole board, they’ll have an accurate record of what you’ve done to get ready to return to the streets.
The board, I thought, That’s thirty years away. I’m not promised to see tomorrow. At the time I was thirty-four, a board date thirty years off felt like a lifetime away. Still, if the choices were hanging on the yard, soaking up all of the prison gossip, slights and potential conflicts; or sitting in self-help groups, and spending time with people who were doing positive things, the choice seemed obvious.
What started as simply a way to avoid the chaos on the yard became the foundation for every positive change that has happened in my life since. But it wasn’t merely the groups. The yard I was assigned to had a large amount of people who’d been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, called LWOPS by everyone in the criminal justice system. Though these men had no opportunity to go before a parole board – ever – they participated in every group, and facilitated many of the self-help programs.
Each of these men had been incarcerated for multiple decades by the time I arrived at Lancaster. Each of these men had long ago given up hope of ever going home. And each of these men were contributing to the lives of the people like myself in ways that were profound and life changing. One example, who actually didn’t participate in any groups at the time, was Anthony Webb. Brother Ant, as we called him, was a devout Christian who made it his business to seek out new people on the yard and make sure they were adjusting well. One time he explained his reasoning to me. “We catch guys, like you, who are new to the prison and just starting their sentences. As a Christian, I see it as a divine opportunity to make sure people take this moment in their lives, when self-refection is so common, and help them see new options.”
It was startling to hear his thinking on new arrivals. Ant very much knew two things: One, that coming to prison with a life sentence will cause you to think long and hard about your choices in life, and that during that self-reflective phase, people were more receptive to different ways of seeing the world. He considered it a blessing to be there, to affirm people who wanted to reject their prior belief systems, and accept new, compassionate, empathetic wats of looking at the world.
But Ant didn’t use groups to meet and relate to us. Instead, he would walk the track with someone, for hours, or play cards, or read the Bible with them, and always, always follow up with the,.
From men like Ant, George, and Brother Mo, and Dortell (who used to always encourage me to start writing) I learned that I didn’t have to conform to prison culture or any of my other old ways of viewing the world. I learned I could be myself, and that I would be accepted. I learned that there is dignity in humility, in sacrifice, and in admitting my mistakes. More than anything, I learned that I didn’t have to be defined by the choices I’d made before.
They weren’t preparing me for the board; they were preparing me for life. I will be forever indebted.
James King is a writer. Some of his influences are James Baldwin, Angela Davis, his hometown of Ferguson, Mo, and that all oppression must be eradicated. He writes to introduce marginalized perspectives, and he writes to feel whole. Read more about James.