Photo by Delano Ramdas on Unsplash

by John Quiñones, Jr.

The only difference between a dream and a nightmare is fear. When my experience as a lifer in prison began, I was scared every waking moment. My life became a nightmare. The only escape came at night when my dreams would take me beyond the fence.

My Papa was a tough old goat of a man. He boxed in high school, joined the Marines, and rode bulls in between those two things. He used to get drunk and tell me, “You’re either going to be the first person in this family to graduate college, or you’re going to end up just like your dad.”

When I was two, my dad robbed a man while trying to acquire money to support his and my mother’s heroin habits. The man died and my father went to Huntsville Prison, one of the most notorious prisons in Texas. My mother was 15 when I was born, my father 17. From two to four my mom tried to take care of me, but between feeding her habit and feeding me, I learned early on to live with a hungry heart.

At four, my mother was arrested and I became the property of her parents, my Nana and my Papa. It did not take long to know why my mother left at 14. In Papa’s world, there were only two possibilities: success or failure. My worth became tied to these states. This is why I ran away for the first time in fifth grade when I got a B. There were only A’s and B’s. I knew I would be in a world of hurt when I presented that document to him.

Later that year my mother was raped and murdered. Rather than sadness, I was filled with hatred. Her death was the ultimate abandonment. I had spent years waiting for her to come and rescue me, take me away with her for us to be normal. Normal never came. I left home the next year at age 11 and took to the streets.

For three years, I lived along the American River in Sacramento. At 14, my dad was released from prison and I, a feral animal at best, moved back indoors in an effort to find some sense of normal. Instead, my father introduced me to methamphetamines and for the next few years, I lost my mind in a spoon and a syringe. It was from that time that I began and then repeated a cycle for the next decade: I get strung out, girl gets pregnant, I get clean and try to be normal. About two years in, the fact that I do not know how to be a father, husband, friend, or even a man becomes unbearable for her. She leaves with the kid; I get strung out.

That record kept skipping until the chaos and insanity inherent in meth ended in murder. My Papa had been right; I had become my father.

When I first came to prison, it was during the era when the term “lifer” was ironic because it was essentially a death sentence. I was alright with that modern form of justice because it fit well with the code I had lived by for years amongst drug dealers, thieves, and murderers.

My heart was still hungry. I began to feed it books, philosophies, religions, programs, and even got into college. For the last 10 years, I have been on a path, one my Papa never imagined. This year I will graduate college. It turns out I was like my father, but I have become who I truly am. A man. My worth is the net sum of my work. I choose to love, not fear. Next year, I go to the parole board for the first time, and perhaps, last time. I will be an asset to any community that I might live in.

If love is only possible in an absence of fear, I am fearless. When I am fearless, the nightmare ends. Life becomes a dream. I had to go through prison in order to become free.

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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