I Will

I Will
Photo by Tyler Rutherford / Unsplash

Iron doors clang open, and the steaming stench of hell blows back your hair, stings your nostrils, and loosens your bowels, but you have to move forward.

Shuffling along, single file order, while screaming human heads and flailing arms reach from iron cages stacked one, two, three, four, five stories tall on either side of the never-ending narrow hall, but you keep moving forward.

Howling, wailing, roaring men promise–rape, enslavement–they'll eat you alive and enjoy every minute, but you keep... moving... forward.

Where does your story begin?

I grew up in the shadows of the largest walled prison in the world.

Jackson State Penitentiary

'A city within a city,' Jackson was 5,742 angry, dangerous men housed in tiny cages and encircled by a massive 3-story concrete wall with 12 armed watchtowers spread across farmland enough to feed those hungry, dangerous men.

I don't know how or why a nine-year-old boy would've been aware of that fact.

But I was.

And it fascinated me.

inside the main yard of Jackson State Prison by Taro Yamasaki
via the great Taro Yamasaki: Inside Jackson Prison

I was a good kid from a good family.

Dirty-blonde hair, brown eyes, white privileged, two parents, banker dad, stay-at-home mom, good grades, never got in trouble, the whole 9.

And I didn't hang with a bad crowd.

No one in my friend group was ever in detention, suspended from school, or picked up by the police.

And certainly, none of us were ever arrested.

We probably should've been. Many times over. But we were good kids. Really.

Still...I wondered about the dark side.

Wondered about life inside the Jackson State Penitentiary, in particular.

Just the name said it all, Jackson.

Everyone knew what the name stood for: the biggest, toughest, hardest, most dangerous place in the world.

And I wondered...

Was I tough enough? Could I do it? Could I survive Jackson if I had to?

How strange is that?

I never told anyone, of course. And it wasn't as though I had a plan, some grand scheme to become a hardened criminal when I grew up, to live a dangerous life, to become a convict.

Truth be told, I was a coward.

Still am.

A pitiful coward through and through.

A certified, yella-bellied, lily-livered coward, afraid of tough things and tough people and certainly not tough enough to make it in prison–least of all Jackson.

And that fascinated me even more.

"There must be something that happens," I thought.

"Some inner switch gets triggered in dangerous situations, and you become...Remarkable.

"Brave, bold, and fearless, no one dares cross you; if they do, they pay.

There was the United States Army, of course. Or the Marines. A boy could prove himself serving his country.

But that was crazy, too hard; I'd never make it through Bootcamp. And besides, my uncle was a Marine, and he died in Vietnam, and none of that made very much sense.

Prison though. Prison made sense. That was the ultimate test.

But what did I know? I was 9.

The cowardly complaint kid turned trouble-free teen and then moved straight to adulting.

No run-ins with the law. None.

Not so much as a speeding ticket.

19 and married, father at 23. Full-time family, full-time job, and still, no criminal record or plans to explore that weird fascination.

My fascination with the dark side of society was just that, a boyhood fascination.

Cops and robbers, movies, TV shows, A Bronx Tale, Goodfellas, The Sopranos.

I loved the gangster swagger, the boldness of breaking the rules, and taking whatever you want with confident impunity...

But I wasn't like that.

I wasn't violent, street-smart, or strong.

I wasn't tough or bold.

I had no swagger.

I lived in fear of the law, not rebelling against it.

I did it. What have I done?

Bunk, toilet, sink, and the angry screams that never stop.

Maximum security. Locked down 23 hours a day.


2-Block, Tier-5, cell-55.

At the age of 48, with no criminal history, I'm now one of the 5,742, and I'm surprised, terrified, and can't believe this is happening.

Look, I broke the law—a lot. No question.

I'd just never been caught.

Stealing from my mom's purse as a kid, underage drinking, shoplifting, cheating on my timecard, drinking and driving, marijuana, speed, mescaline, cocaine, more drunk driving, cheating on my taxes, working 'under the table' while collecting unemployment, cheating on my wife, and stealing a lot of money from good people who didn't deserve to be treated that way.

I was not a good person, but I never expected prison.

Did I 'will' prison into my existence?

I brush it out of my mind as soon as it springs up...

But it strikes me sitting alone in that prison cell... a convicted felon, my wife humiliated, emotionally crushed, and financially ruined, my children confused and embarrassed around their friends and family, unable to accept what I've done...

It strikes me that my boyhood fascination led me here.

I've been taking tiny steps toward this my entire life, but why?

What's wrong with me?

I'm either a criminally-minded sociopath who does what he wants and takes what he wants, lives above the law and his means, and lies and cheats and steals to get ahead no matter who he hurts...