"Family business." That's usually how family refers to their incarcerated family member. They no longer lie about the fact of incarceration from "outsiders" like before, telling them that he is in the army or away at school, but it is on a need to know basis. Like Bill Clinton said in reference to gays in the military, "Don't ask, don't tell."
I'm not inferring that my family referred to me this way, but I am sure that the concept isn't foreign to them. And I don't blame them; there isn't too much to be proud about when it comes to prison. For me, the prisoner, I don't have any of the tangible accomplishments of others around my age: no money, car, house, college degree, not even a job.
My self-esteem is always walking on egg shells because of the constant defamation of manhood by rogue correction officers and the prison ambiance: cells, searches, food rations, time-limited phone calls and visits--the prison ambiance. On more than one occasion I've repeated to myself and written in my journal, "Marlon, you're better than this," or "Marlon, you're not what they say you are." I guess it was my personal therapy.
As a prisoner in the New York State Department of Correctional Services my new name became Department Identification Number (DIN) 02A3172. The '02' represents the year that I was transferred from the city jail (Rikers Island) to state prison. The 'A' represents the reception facility that I was sent to from Rikers Island (Downstate). The '3172' is the sequence in which I was processed in that year. I was inmate 3,172 at Downstate Correctional Facility in 2002.
This "new name" is meant to force the individual to shed any negativity associated with his name prior to his incarceration and afford him a new beginning. In theory, this is a good idea; however, it also robs the person of the uniqueness associated with his name. This leave the person a choice, ignore the new beginning and remain the same or start a new set of footprints.
I chose the latter, but I cheated. I made that decision for a new beginning just days after my arrest in 1999; I didn't see the need in waiting, or worse, procrastinating. My prison experience was to become my sabbatical.
Throughout my prison sabbatical, I was proud to have built up a reputation as someone who helped others. Whether it was teaching the Bible with an interested person, helping someone to learn how to read, giving sound advice, or simply being a listening ear, I was always ready to be of help, willingly.
I emphasize willingly because anytime I helped someone I viewed it as being my duty-- my duty as a servant of Jehovah and my duty as a human being. Not once did I ask, or even expect recompense, except that the person I helped got what they came to me for.
So deciding to accept Nadia's community service project was a no-brainer; of course I would accept. It did take a little time, however, for me to calm down because I was so excited that you would've thought I had received my release papers in the mail. Anxiety had me feeling dizzy and tons of questions were running laps around my brain.
What was I going to say (uh...write)?
How long should the letter be?
Words of wisdom? Who was I to be giving words of wisdom?
What do I need to say to affect and infect them the most?
As these questions and many others jockeyed in my head for answers, I was above all else humbled and amazed. Amazed that someone: (1) thought enough about me to speak to their class about me in a way that wasn't solely negative; and (2), would reach 100 miles upstate, behind prison walls and stereotypes to seek out a guy to mentor a group of pubescent students. I wasn't Tookie, "Hurricane" Carter, Malcolm X, or Mumia Abu Jamal. What was so significant about me? I was only 25-years old, why would they listen to me? Why me?
After three days of contemplation, I pulled out my dinosaur-age Smith Corona Wordsmith typewriter from under my cot and keyed:
To the Young Scholars,
Before I introduce myself, I want you all to appreciate how much of a caring teacher you all have in Ms. Lopez, you all lucked out this year. What she is doing by reaching out to me goes far and beyond her paycheck. She is one of those teachers that you all will remember years from now, believe me!
As you already know, my name is Marlon Peterson. I am 25-years old, born and bred in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and am a proud descendant of Trinidadian heritage. Y'all know where Trinidad is, right?
As the youngest of three children, I grew up with the need to always fit in with others. I was the valedictorian of my elementary school in the sixth grade. I also wrote for the "Fort Greene News" at the age of 11 in a program sponsored by Spike Lee and Nike. As a matter of fact, I had just finished the seventh grade when I wrote for that newspaper. I also wrote for my junior high school newspaper. At fifteen, I was granted an internship at the NYC Opera while also taking journalism classes at my high school, Martin Luther King Jr., HS.
I barely graduated from high school, then went on to NYC Technical College right there on Jay St., and dropped only one year later. After that, I went to Apex Technical School at the age of 19 where I eventually made the news again, twelve days before my twentieth birthday. In October of 1999 I made international news in connection with an attempted robbery and double murder in Manhattan. Six years later, you hear from me from behind bars. How did this happen?
As I sat on that filthy floor in central booking smelling mixtures of human waste and vomit, I tearfully asked myself that same question, "How did this happen?" I never saw it coming--or did I? In the weeks thereafter my father almost died, my mother and sister were walking zombies, my brother was delirious, and my 11-year old nephew was without his best friend/uncle/big brother.
How did this happen? How did a nerdy little kid dressing up in suits and ties, knocking on doors preaching "Watchtower and Awake!" end up in the very place that I and everyone thought would be the last place that I would end up?
You know, I have a cousin that was Crip and a friend that was Blood. When I was home I would try to do what I could to steer them in the right direction and discourage their reckless lifestyles; they never served more than a couple months in jail. While not wishing they would ever be caught in my situation, I couldn't help to wonder how it is that I'm mentoring these young brothers to stay away from the nonsense in the 'hood and here I am sharing a shower with other dudes in a prison bathroom.
Initially, I was able to find an answer to that question, at least partially. The first part of the answer can be summed up in two quotes:
1) Do not be misled, bad associations spoil useful habits. -1 Corinthians 15:33 NWT
2) He that is walking with wise persons will become wise, but he that is having dealings with stupid persons will fare badly. -Proverbs 13:20 NWT
The second part of the answer took me a couple of years to realize. In one sentence--in life you do not get to choose your consequences, only your actions. Interestingly, there are still times that I have to re-convince myself of these answers because prison life requires that I constantly reiterate things like this to myself because insanity is always one step away. And insanity is slick because it creeps up on you. You are usually to far gone before you realize it.
With that, I leave you a poem. It is untitled, but maybe you all can give it a title for me. Until next time..
Love & guidance,
PS- I am waiting to hear from you all so don't take too long. I'll tell you all a little more about myself, my experiences, and my observations in future letters. Make sure you ask a lot of questions too. Being able to communicate with you all is a blessing to me and the other brothers in here that I talk to you about. You contribute to our sanity.
Do you really want to know why
the caged bird sings?
To maintain its sanity, that's why.
It sings to let out what it wants to hide.
The caged bird sings because of the pain it is
The bird is in dire pain, that's why.
Inhumanity, injustice, suffering.
That's why the caged bird sings.
Do you really want to know why the caged
That's right I said animal.
Repeatedly told that it is an animal.
Repeatedly treated like an animal.
Repeatedly looked upon like an animal.
Prejudged as an animal.
Spoken to like an animal, fed like an animal,
made to live like an animal.
That gentle, exquisite, beautiful bird sings to
release that frustration.
It sings in defiance with the words:
No matter what you think of me,
no matter how you treat me,
no matter how or what you feed me,
no matter what you do it me;
I may be a caged bird,
but I will always be a beautiful, exquisite bird.