At age 19, I entered New Folsom Prison. I didn’t know what to expect, but I did know one thing: I was afraid and could barely hide my fear. The racial and regional politics; the hateful and degrading treatment from the guards; the constant lockdowns, and the endless violence took a great toll on my psyche.
Having gone from doing whatever I wanted (with all of the opportunities afforded by being free) to having my every decision (when to wake up, eat, sleep, come, leave, sit, stand, dress, undress) controlled by others, devastated me.
Before coming to prison, I used to think I was tough. However, prison quickly taught me how tough I wasn’t! Because I’ve always been more comfortable living as an individual than as part of a crowd, I was often forced to defend myself against gang members who didn’t like the fact that I wouldn’t associate with them.
Before coming to prison, I’d decided that the gang life wasn’t for me and that I wouldn’t spend my time incarcerated as a prison gang member. Thus, I was forced to become tougher in order to maintain my individuality in the face of constant attempts to recruit me into an even more criminal lifestyle than the one that landed me in prison.
I have learned a great deal from my prison experience. Early on, I made a decision to educate myself by reading relevant books which made me more conscious of the world around me. By seeking the knowledge that I’d consistently rejected before, I was able to grow intellectually, something which gave me a better understanding of my past and a foundation from which to build a better life.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I didn’t fit into the prison environment. The treacherous culture of the inmates and air of superiority among the guards made day-to-day interaction with others very difficult. Thus, I isolated myself as a coping mechanism. In other words, I became a “loner.” Since I felt that I didn’t have much in common with the people around me, I spent most of my time reading or writing, activities which kept me away from the drama that surrounded me.
However, while my self-isolation and preoccupation with books kept me (for the most part) out of trouble, my maturity level hadn’t really changed much. My method of staying out of trouble was more a way of avoiding danger than any sort of genuine display of a change in my ways of thinking. As a result, I still harbored the same resentments and hostility towards authority; had the same drug and alcohol addiction; and the same criminal ways of thinking that led me to prison. The only real difference between me and the people I isolated myself from, was that I didn’t revel in acts of violence.
It took me almost ten years to fully realize that if I was really going to change, I had to evaluate and challenge the mentality that allowed me to justify committing so many crimes.
It took me almost ten years to fully realize that if I was really going to change, I had to evaluate and challenge the mentality that allowed me to justify committing so many crimes. But despite a growing awareness of my problems, I still held onto the drugs and alcohol as well as to my old resentments toward authority. But through constant self-reflection, attending self-help groups, and seeking positive role models was I able to break free from my various addictions. I no longer value or rely upon criminal thinking, deception, or drugs and alcohol to cope with life. Nor do I feel the need to resist authority in order to feel powerful or validated. I am confident that by living an upright life (whether in prison or on the outside), I will have more peace, greater joy, prosperity, and personal fulfillment--those elements that my criminal lifestyle was unable to provide.
If I could go back and change the behavior that led me to prison, I would do so in a heartbeat. For kids who are struggling with the same issues that I struggled with growing up (the anger and self-esteem issues from not having a father and the need to be accepted by my peers), I would urge them to remember what really matters in life.
For kids who are fortunate enough to have family members who love them, they should know that the homeboys, the drug money, and the fast life will come and go. And when they go, they undoubtedly will leave behind negative consequences. The gang and criminal lifestyle may seem fun and even glamorous right now, but nothing good ever comes of it.
For those who think that their criminal lifestyle won’t land them in prison, I can only say that I was the kid who thought that I would never go to prison—that I would never be shot, that no one close to me would ever die. I was wrong about all of those things.
I cannot truthfully say that I didn’t have opportunities growing up. Many people tried to help me turn away from the lifestyle I was living. Unfortunately, I refused to listen or to accept their help. And I suffered greatly for my stubbornness.
Although I take full responsibility for my actions, I believe that many juvenile offenders would be better served by being offered alternatives to prison-time for their crimes. Providing youth offenders with an opportunity to be held accountable for their crimes in a meaningful way would go a long way toward preventing juveniles from re-offending. I definitely could have benefitted from a consequence other than prison time for my crimes.
But, as it turns out, prison has been the ultimate deterrent for me. My intense dislike for the prison environment has forced me to delve deeply into my self to gain a better understanding of who I am, of my motives, and of the potential consequences of my actions. My determination to stay out of prison and to keep others from coming to prison is a direct result of my experience in prison.
When I first came to prison, I felt hopeless. Though I didn’t have a life sentence, a 34-year sentence at 19 years of age seemed no different from having life. I can honestly say that I’ve struggled through those years of hopelessness and can now see light at the end of the tunnel. And though I am still far from perfect, I take solace in the fact that I now have a sense of purpose and direction that motivates me to do better, think differently, and encourage others to do the same.
Anthony Andrew Ferguson