US versus THEM

By Lawrence Pela (#AB5053 5-N-33)

I absolutely cherish the opportunity I have to present our stories from prison. Yeah, it's the truth filming with the same cameras CBS professionals use and to edit using the same software as music video producers whose work inspires me to shake my dreads - even without the music. But what I cherish most about this opportunity is the chance I get to prove I can be trusted. Because I violated my victims trust, robbing them of their feeling of safety and stealing their peace of mind, I don't take this undeserved opportunity lightly. Trusting me to work professionally with volunteers instead of believing I'm trying to manipulate for my own personal gain is not some trivial gesture for me to overlook. Attributing to the negative associations that accompany incarcerated men is a road I've already traveled. The expectation that I'll use our equipment for the right reasons is built on this same trust I refuse to squander. I still encounter the consequences of breaking my victims' and family's trust and I wish I would compound them; never in life! Regardless of what I do from prison, I'm unable to fully uproot the sliver of doubt I hear in my family's voices, caused by the derisive seed my actions planted. But that's the business about working with FIRSTWATCH, I'm allowed the opportunity to honor my victims by no longer violating the trust that I'm given. By honoring the most sacred thing I'm entrusted with, the belief that I will not present a fake, phony, fabricated story about who I am - about what we do.


I was arrested in 2007 thinking the only people incarcerated were predators or prey. I did 4,000 push-ups my first week to ensure I wouldn't be the latter. All I knew about men inside is what I saw on television, but now I was one of THEM. I also did 500 crunches daily, focused on surviving once transferred to a main floor. I was an anomaly, if you were to ask me, unlike the animals these cages were designed for. I did like the rest of US: worked a nine-to-five, paid taxes, voted. The distinction was clear; I cared if I lived or died, THEY didn't.

I finally did time with THEM on that main floor in the county jail. After 45 minutes, I saw how few THEY were; it was mostly just US. I did spreads: whipping hot cheetos, split pea soup, ramen noods, pork rinds, slim jims, and a host of other ingredients in a plastic bag for US to eat. A couple of days passed and THEY began fading quicker by the moment. WE did Monopoly tournaments, laughing, dancing, and quoting movies like the rest of US do. After a week inside, THEY didn't exist anymore. Yes, WE did make grave mistakes, watching each others' families age on the other side of the glass. I couldn't help but realize WE all had unaddressed problems. If you were to ask me, WE choose a variety of ways to deal with those issues. WE did a daily prayer meeting, asking God to forgive US for what WE had done.

Now I'm in prison 11 years later and I'm still doing push-ups (not nearly as many), but I'm working to provide solutions to some of the problems WE face on the inside. Our biggest problem is the US versus THEM attitude I had, authenticated by sensationalized depictions of incarcerated people. THe group of men I work with to rectify this problem is called FirstWatch. WE invigorate the idea that WE aren't possible without THEM and there's no difference between US. From our perspective, prison is not where THEY send THEM, this place wasn't designed specifically for US; instead, what you find behind these walls is that WE are here.

I'm trusted to be genuine and sincere, delivering our unadulterated truth. I once forfeited my right to be trusted, but now I hold dear any trust I have the opportunity to restore.

About First Watch

First Watch is a media project started at San Quentin State Prison. All content is shot, directed, edited, and scored by the journalists inside prison.

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