By Ricky Ortega
I took my last breath of freedom on January 10, 1981, at the age of 19. When the cell door shut behind me, it was like the sound of thunder just before a storm; the echo of which I can still hear today. But the silence that followed was even louder. I felt for the first time that I had met my Maker and He was not pleased. At that moment, I fell to my knees and wept bitterly for the young boy who made this fatal choice. I can remember looking in the mirror and staring into the eyes of the lost soul now buried alive in this coffin of guilt.
As we travel through life, we’re encouraged to stop and smell the roses along the way. It’s a time to reflect on the hidden details that we tend to overlook, like the fragrance of a beautiful red rose. Those serving life without parole, however, live in a world of iron rose petals, leaving the people we’ve hurt to live in a world where roses no longer exist. This series of articles will take a closer look inside that world, where condemned prisoners are breaking their silence and talking about what their rehabilitation means to them, while living in a world without roses.
Jamel Walker, serving life without parole for 36 years, recounts his journey of healing: “my rehabilitation means freedom. To quote from Margaret Atwoods’s dystopian novel, the Handmaid’s Tale: ‘The freedom I speak of is freedom to and freedom from.’ My rehabilitation has allowed me the freedom to be the person I was meant to be, rather than the person my crime has defined me as. My rehabilitation has allowed me to have freedom from the pain of the childhood traumas I’ve brought into adulthood. In other words, it allowed me to heal and to assist in the healing of others. For these gifts, I am eternally grateful.”
Henry Sianez received a life without parole sentence in 1979. “Rehabilitation was not in my vocabulary,” stated Sianez. According to Sianez, “Survival was a priority back then. But unbeknownst to me, rehabilitation sought me out in 1980 when I met my wife, Barbara. For the first time, I had someone in my life who made me want to take a look at myself and see the hateful person I had become. Her charitable spirit helped me grow as a person, and I came to understand rehabilitation as I know it today. For me, it’s been a slow process of change, but a very fulfilling one. Rehabilitation is a growing entity within me that gets better every day.”
Those serving life without parole understand that the loss of life can never be repaid in full. That it is for a higher court to decide, God’s court. But the concept of rehabilitation serves a greater purpose now by helping to reduce the cycle of crime and violence in our society, ultimately creating less victims.
Instead of darkening the doorstep of the future, you will often find those serving life without parole the first ones in line to earn a higher education, to learn a new trade or to gain insight through the pages of self-awareness. Like fallen leaves, plucked before their time, they find themselves descending downward onto a bed they’ve made of broken dreams, where they wait for this chance to be heard. They bring with them decades of positive programming and a wealth of hard-hitting life experiences that can help reach the youth offenders of tomorrow, before they offend. If we can’t envision the benefits of rehabilitation and the contribution those serving life without parole are making, it seems like we would be living in such a desolate world; yes, a world without roses.