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by Armando López

“You can find beauty all around you; you just have to look within.” These were the words one older prisoner expressed to me as I gazed upon my surroundings on my very first day out on a maximum-security prison yard back in 1996. There was no way of knowing then this unexpected comment from someone I did not know would change the course of my life. Inevitably, this led to a decades-long need to search for what I had felt cut off from, as well as the source of beauty and love from within.

I was a lost 21-year-old with the reality of two life sentences in front of me as I entered my new prison life. In addition to having to face a double-life sentence for aiding and abetting murder and attempted murder convictions, I was also facing different emotions that were running rampant through me as I attempted to make sense of them at that moment. Being a first-termer and this the only time arrested and convicted of a crime as an adult, I was struggling within to understand how my life took such a drastic turn from the person I was once. This was on my mind that first day out on a prison yard as I stood alone overlooking the surroundings of this new environment. I would never forget this chilly, gray November morning. The prison walls that kept us from the outside world were dripping wet from an earlier rainfall. Every prisoner was bundled up in an attempt to ward off the cold and going about his prison yard activities. It was then that this unknown prisoner made a comment as he observed on my face a contemplative look as I was overseeing the dreariness I saw and felt before me. I struggled with what I had just lost and what I was going to do now, with the prospect of the rest of my life behind the wall.

I remember never having felt as alone as I did on this day, which was devoid of all beauty and love. I could not fathom ever knowing any type of beauty from within these walls. Aside from the unimaginable loneliness I was dealing with, the possibility of finding anything of beauty seemed outside the realm of my comprehension. I realized that for the first time in my young life I was impossibly far from the comforting embrace and love of my family and thrust into this unknown environment that seemed to thrive on violence and dreadfulness. I felt completely alone, adrift on a tide that swept me along like so many others before me. I felt forever cut off within the concrete walls, which separated me from all that I loved and found beautiful once before time stood still.

I learned quickly that there was nothing positive provided to a lifer in maximum security that could help manage what I was dealing with. Rehabilitation? Rehabilitation was just a word CDCR added on, a falsehood to impress people, a word that said in letters only that they were rehabilitating people. Besides, what was going on within these walls was anything but rehabilitation. The absurdity of this still makes me sick as I write these words. Not being able to find anything meaningful to occupy my mind and time, I trudged along aimlessly within the tidal wave that is a maximum-security prison. With its many ebbs and flows, this way and that, dragging me ever deeper into the abyss of despair. Being disconnected and detached became magnified as I navigated these years alone with hardly anything for which to look forward. There was less meaning within this new life as a prisoner who had left unfulfilled dreams behind. In their stead, they were replaced with the nightmare that was the reality of my existence from then on.

In time, I could not remember when or how I began to let go of my dreams and became just another convict. It was then that on some level I began to internalize a belief that just maybe I was not worthy of the true beauty and love that makes us human. I allowed myself to be what was thought of me when I had entered prison. In time, I bought into my newly changed surroundings and found myself validated as a prison gang member and placed in solitary confinement. I deemed this was CDCR’s proclamation that I now was, and forevermore to be, part of the worst of the worst as the powers that be so proudly announce. Thus, I was now to exist within the dinge of these dungeons that the system reserves for those they deem as the dregs. What now was to become of the little I still held onto of my humanity as I was placed deeper within the system? Only time would reveal this to me.

In the depths of solitude and misery, I began to discover what I believed by then to have been lost forever. It started as though a great awareness and insight flared up within me when one late night around December of 2013, I was startled awake from the depths of my sleep. It was around one in the morning, and as I looked around me, there was no apparent reason why I was awake. I then happened to look outside through the narrow window in my cell, which stretched from the ceiling to the floor. I found myself gazing at the most amazing and awe-inspiring sight of my life. The night sky was filled with more stars than I had beheld since I had entered prison. What stood out the most were the stars forming the Little Dipper. I could not believe what I was seeing and I suddenly felt as though I was alive for the first time. It felt so powerfully beautiful and overwhelming gazing up at it for the very first time in close to two decades. The last time I had gazed at the Little Dipper I was with my little brother Jorge before my incarceration; he passed away in 2010. Suddenly, as I was struck by this remembrance, a meteor flashed brightly across the starry sky. The sudden brilliance of this stream of light was but the flash of a second, although within this flash my heart and soul filled with the once-cherished love and beauty I held for the cosmos. The emotions of all this welled up so strongly within me that in this moment of awareness all I had searched for had finally revealed itself to be within me, and my heart and soul flared open to its embrace.

In these depths of solitary confinement, I rediscovered the beauty and love from within that became a light all around me. It is not lost on me that throughout my imprisonment, as I struggle for my humanity, this happens at a time I felt the most despair. Having to deal with the reality of a life in prison was hard enough, and then it began to dawn on me that I was to face a lifetime in solitary confinement. My life seemed to have been crumbling down further than I ever imagined. What then could I have expected my life to become as I was being consumed by this ever-pressing embrace of confinement that daily tightened its grip a little more? Regardless of this new confinement, I had felt a more powerful force greater than this grip and it was this that helped pull me out of the abyss. Time and space became systematically intertwined, as I would gaze outside my window into the ever-changing seasons and years. I was being transformed as I reconnected to this part of the universe I was able to glimpse. It was as though I bathed in the splendor of the universe as I awoke to the marvels of amazing sunrises and my evenings spent gazing at the monthly cycles of the shining moon coming up over the mountain. In those years, I lived with the seasons as I traced the ever-changing cycles of nature, the animals, plants, and trees.

Life is full of small miracles; I truly believe this. Then, through a miracle legal settlement, those like me were released from solitary confinement. Now I find myself at the age of 43 as a college student. I love the beauty of the awareness an education is opening up to me. This journey is ever-evolving and changing me; reconnecting with me has been its own miracle. Likewise, who would have believed that in a maximum-security prison I would be a witness to my first ever concert of classical music? How that came to be was a miracle unto its own as the chaplain somehow pulled it off. Nevertheless, there I was in my seat in the prison’s gym enjoying the beauty that is classical music reverberate throughout my being, finding yet another layer of life’s miracles.

I could never have reconnected with my source of beauty and love if not for my younger self ever-struggling in keeping the flame alight. This journey is far from complete, although I have realigned to what I once felt I had lost. As this quote by St. Augustine says, “Since love grows within you, so beauty grows. For love is the beauty of the soul.”

This is how in the course of my search I found unexpected beauty within, and discovered I could love myself.

Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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