Saturday, October 11, 2008

First Letter

* Note: The following is a two-chapter excerpt from Marlon's book entitled "Young Scholars: The Prison Letters". He would like to know if this is something the reader would be interested in reading its entirety. Please post your comments below. Thanks!

"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,
Marlon Peterson

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
constantly administered.
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
animal sings?
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.

The Second Letter & The Beginning

I penned that poem a year earlier when I was extremely frustrated with the 45-day cell restriction that I was serving. The disciplinary action limited me to one hour of recreation in a yard about the size of a baseball field with one pull-up and dip bar. I also lost one month of good time, all telephone and commissary privileges for 90 days, and I was restricted to one five minute shower every other day, not including weekends. And the officers working my cellblock were rarely eager to open my cell to allow me to get that one-hour of recreation and that bi-daily shower. My cell was on the top tier of a three tier cellblock, so walking all the way up there to open my cell was too arduous for them and I paid for their laziness by missing showers and recreation. Maybe they felt that I deserved the harsh treatment. After all, I had violated a serious rule, a rule so serious that it had not been written yet.

The violation--taking a picture wearing my father's jacket.

I was granted the privilege of participating in the Family Reunion Program, a.k.a., "trailer visit," with my parents. The FRP is a two-day/three night "vacation" in which family can spend that time with their incarcerated family member in a cabin-like setting right outside of the prison grounds, but still inside of the intimidating skyscraper-like cinder block prison walls.

During the trailer visit the inmate is allowed to take 10 Polaroid pictures with their family with a camera provided by the facility. The rules:
- Do not take nude pictures.
- Do not take pictures facing the prison wall.
- Do not allow family to take pictures wearing inmate issued clothing.

Apparently, they forgot to mention that we weren't allowed to take pcitures wearing our family's clothing, and I was the sacrificial lamb that would help with their forgetfulness. Adda boy!

Understandably, I was disgusted with the whole situation and that poem was a product of weeks of maltreatment by a clique of rogue officers at the Green Haven maximum-security prison.

I figured that the students would get a mentally tangible feel from the poem. How I felt about the gravity of my bad decisions of the past and how they affected me throughout my incarceration.

Boy, did it work!

About two weeks later, sitting on my cot in my cell and Lite sitting on the top bunk listening to his walkman, an officer dropped a 9x12 manila envelope on our cell window. Lite jumped down to collect the mail because he thought that the parcel was for him, and so did I. You see, I received mail once in a while; however, Lite got mail just about everyday.

Reading the envelope and with surprise on his face (probably because it wasn't for him), Lite said wryly, "Yo, Marl, this is for you."

After he handed it to me, I said, "Oh, yeah, I wonder who sent all of that?" The envelope had some weight to it and it was bulky.

The return address read N. Lopez, Susan S. McKinney JHS. Like a seven-year old at 12:01 a.m. Christmas morning I tore the envelope open slightly ripping the flap opening. There was a stack of loose-leaf in this Christmas present and the letter on top was from Nadia:

Dear Marlon,
I pray that when this letter reaches you are in good health and spirits. The letter [you sent] was a GREAT success (see attached). For wahtever reason God has chosen to be the season of prosperity on both our ends. Through you I have been able to find my purpose. I felt such a rush when I shared your letter and to see my students' reaction. This brings me to a fabulous idea! Creating an outreach program that allows you the platform to speak to the youth and provide them with the wisdom you have been given. I know I sometimes go hard, but look, I'm focused. I see this vision and the man above is making it all possible-- feel me. (Holla at me and let me know what you think).
Holla at your girl
Much love,

I remember reading a self-help book that gave recommendations as to how someone could fully experience eating. It explained that while eating you should keep your mind present and experience the sensation of eating food, and to not allow your mind to drift to other things; make sure that you are entirely focused on the experience of eating food. The author went on to add that you should try to enjoy all the sensations of chewing food in your mouth and swallowing, this way the food is absorbed into your body perfectly.

What followed Nadia's letter was individualized letters from my "Young Scholars." Over the next year and transfers from prison to prison, their words became that meal I focused on and I implore you to focus the same way. I want the words of the Young Scholars to assimilate into your heart perfectly and hopefully inspire you to pay more attention to the Young Scholar in your presence. because the reailty is that I am a caged person, a convict. yes, I am an example of the good tha tlies behind these walls. I am a firm believer that it still takes a village to raise a child irrespective of the location of those villagers; however, I am the anomaly.

So please pay more than the usual attention.

NOTE: To preserve the "feel" of the original letters that were handwritten, I decided not to edit many of the grammatical and spelling errors. Though not to the point of being incomprehensible, the unrehearsed language of each letter allowed me the privilege of getting to know the Young Scholars on a level in which they felt comfortable relating their thoughts. By no means is this exploitative, but content is the focus. The mere fact that they were motivated to write their thoughts was a cathartic and academic success, as one of their teachers would later inform me. The names of the Young Scholars have been altered so that their right to privacy could be respected.