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A Thief and Murderer Afraid to Care, I Learned to Truly Understand What Life Is About

Just as lightning flashes and dances across the sky, so too, does this life I live. In a world away, a jungle so thick that everything touches you, a war not of my making, took my father and sister in a cloud of thundering smoke.

BOOM — POOF, gone forever. I was ducking and dodging bullets and bombs in a body not mine, my mother’s.

She cried to heaven above and unseen spirits all around: not for what death just took but for what was not taken. My mother gave birth to a baby before its time, knowing it would not survive.

True to her fears, I came roaring into this world to the drowning sound of silence. A stillborn baby, dead, cold and blue like the river that caressed me. My mother, seeing her plight, gave me up to this river. Took, not taken. As I was being carried away by its current.

My first act as a human being was theft. It was then I took life from Death. I opened my eyes to a billion falling tears of angels, demons and spirits alike, the pouring rain. My first breath, a sound of thunder, my mother swam after me. Took not taken.

Now safe in her arms, she whispered, “You are a constant pain and worry to me. I will call you Pheej,” a name meaning constantly in a language soon to be lost like its people.

Fated to be a thief in this life, so I chose to believe. Took not taken. Three years old, living in a camp of dirt, surrounded by barbed wires and machine gun towers. My home a house made of bamboo trees tied together. Near dying, from hunger and thirst, death came for what I stole.

“No,” I said. “This life I took cannot be taken.” Saved through a miracle and grace, away to America we went. At 7 years old, I grew bold from the loss of my innocence, torturous beatings. Took, not taken.

By 12 years old, I took a lot of pain, joined a criminal street gang. Tired of shame and in pain. Hunger for revenge, I grew cold. With no guidance nor values, not wanting to understand, I became a wicked being.

Sixteen years old, in and out of juvenile hall and the Youth Authority (youth prison), I embraced my destiny and pain. I gave life to a criminal street gang, and the streets is where I found myself drowning again, this time in a pool of my own blood. Five bullets to my body, death, my old friend, came calling again. Deja vu, it said. My vision static like an old TV, out of picture and focus, then silence. I awoke to the sounds of machines beeping, to the face of a crying angel, my mother.

Took, not taken. I’ve done things I’m too shamed to mention. A thief I truly was, not even my family was safe from me. How right she was, though I never listened. Those friends she warned me about led me straight to prison. By 17, I took two lives. Now, I was walking with a limp from the shackles and chains made of iron. “Guilty of murders,” said the jury. “Life in prison!” cried the judge.

Took not taken. To hell here I come, your newborn son. Twenty-three years later, still nothing’s changed for the better, only worse. Thirty-nine years old, a flash of blood pouring out from six holes in my chest, my body torn to shreds. Drowning yet again in a pool of my own blood. Finally, death and I are together at last, I said.

Took, not taken. Darkness, then light. A new voice echoed inside my mind. Rise, my son, and open your newborn eyes. I did. Once afraid to care, live and love. Thought it was cool being a thug. How foolish I was to ever believe my fate a THIEF! My destiny PAIN!

Truly I must have been insane. How could this be, I exclaimed! Suddenly, so simple, the answer came to me. After destroying and ruining countless lives, I have come to truly realize and understand. This life is a gift given to me, not theft.

Took, not taken. Now with meanings and purpose, a new flame ignited deep within me. Burning every ounce of my soul with a thirst and desire to raise people higher than even they can see or believe possible to achieve.

We all possess a beautiful mind, a heart filled with courage, a soul strengthened by compassion. Greatness awaits us all, accept it. Don’t follow your anger. Don’t give in to hate. Take your gift of life with the knowledge learned and build a life for the family that awaits your arrival.

The third time is a charm, so they say. I am here alive today to tell you it’s never too late. Took, not taken.

Pheng Ly was sentenced as an adult to 50 years to life at age 17 for two counts of gang-related first degree murder. Now 40, he is incarcerated at the Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

The Beat Within: This Is a Poem About What Causes Poems Like This to Be Written

Before I begin this poem ...
I'd like to ask you to join me in a moment of silence …
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
On September 11th 2001 ...

I'd also like to ask you to offer up a moment of silence …

For all those who’ve been harassed, imprisoned, disappeared, tortured, raped or killed in retaliation for those strikes ... for the victims in Afghanistan, Iraq, in the U.S. and throughout the world ...

And if I could add just one more thing ...

A day of silence.

For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who died at the hands of U.S.-backed Israeli forces over decades of occupation.

Six months of silence ...

For the million and a half Iraqi people … mostly children ... who died of malnourishment or starvation as a result of a twelve-year U.S. embargo against that country … before the war ever began … and now … the drums of war beat again ...

Before I begin this poem ...

Nine months of silence
For the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer
Of concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors
Well they went on as if they were alive ...

One year of silence …

For the millions dead in Vietnam ... a people ... not a war ... for those who know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel — their relatives’ bones buried in it — their babies born of it ...

Two months of silence ...

For the decade of dead in Colombia ... whose names … like the corpses they once represented … have piled up and slipped off our tongues ...

Before I begin this poem ...

Seven days of silence ... for El Salvador
A day of silence … for Nicaragua
Five days of silence … for the Guatemalans
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years …

1,955 miles of silence …
For every desperate body that burns in the desert sun
Drowned in swollen rivers at the pearly gates to the empire’s underbelly
A gaping wound sutured shut by razor and corrugated steel ...

Twenty-five years of silence …
For the millions of Africans who found their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could poke into the sky
For those who were strung and swung from the height of sycamore trees
In the South
The North
The East
The West
There will no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains ...

100 years of silence …
For the hundreds of millions of indigenous people from this half of right now
Whose land and lives were stolen
In postcard-perfect plots like
Pine Ridge
Wounded Knee
Sand Creek
Fallen Timbers
Or the Trail of Tears
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry
On the refrigerator of our consciousness ...

From the somewhere within the pillars of power …
You open your mouth to invoke a moment of silence …
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut

A moment of silence …
And the poets are laid to rest
The drums disintegrated to dust ...

Before I begin this poem.

You want a moment of silence …
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
While the rest of us hope to hell that it won't be
Not like it always has been
Because you see
This isn't a 9/11 poem
This is a 9/10 poem!
A 9/9 poem!
A 9/8 poem!
A 9/7 poem!
This is a 1619 poem!
A 1492 poem!
This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written
But if it is a 9/11 poem
It's a September 11, 1973 poem for the people of Chile
It's a September 12, 1977 poem for the Steven Biko of South Africa
It's a September 13, 1971 poem for the brothers at Attica prison in New York
It's a September 14, 1992 poem for the people of Somalia
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground
Amidst the ashes of amnesia
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history uprooted from its textbooks
The 100 stories that CNN, ABC, The New York Times and Newsweek ignored
This is a poem to interrupt their programs
This is not a peace poem
Not some poem of forgiveness
This is a justice poem
A poem for never forgetting
This is a poem to remind us
That all that glitters
Might just be
Broken glass
And still you want a moment of silence for the dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empties;
The unmarked graves
Lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children.

Before I begin this poem …

We could be silent forever ...
Or just long enough to hunger for the dust to bury us
And would you still ask us for more of our silence ...

Well if you want a moment of silence ...
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines
The televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights
Delete the emails and instant messages
Derail the trains and ground the planes

If you want a moment of silence …
Put a brick through the window of Taco Bell
And pay the workers for wages lost …

Tear down the Liquor stores
The Townhouses
The Penthouses
The Jail houses
And the White Houses

If you want a moment of silence ...
Then take it now!
Before this poem begins
Here’s your silence
Take it!
Take it all!
But don't cut in line
Let your silence begin
At the beginning of crime …

Jesse Jackson, 52, is currently in the San Francisco County Jail for a probation violation. He has spent the better part of the last 35 years in and out of the criminal justice system.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at inocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

Confessions of an Invisible Father

Dear Son,

Today is Father’s Day — but to be honest I don’t feel as if this day really applies to me — I mean how could it, when I’ve never been much of a father to you — I was loyal to all the wrong things and chose the streets over my family — and as a result of my choices I spent most of your life in prison.

I feel as if I robbed you of so many things and forced you to grow up without a father — and believe me, I know exactly how that feels because my father did the same thing to me — and I really believe that I spent so much time hating him and blaming him for all the things that have gone wrong in my life that I became the person I hated the most — and I did to you what was done to me — and now here you are in prison for many of the same things that I went to prison for.

I’ll never forget the day I got the letter telling me you were now in prison with me — that broke my heart in a million pieces — for I never thought for one second that my son could possibly end up as my cellie one day. I was so mad — but what’s crazy is that I was mad at everyone but me! I blamed everyone else — even writing your mom a letter accusing her of not being a good mother — taking no responsibility of my own — I even convinced myself that it couldn’t be my fault because I wasn’t there! And if I was there I never would have let this happen — and what’s even crazier is that it never entered my mind for one second that maybe my not being there was partially to blame for your being in prison — that had I chose my family over the streets and been a father to you maybe you would have made better choices and not followed in my footsteps.

And now you have a son — and if we don’t break this cycle then your son may follow in your footsteps. We have to stop this — you still have a chance to be a father to your son — please don’t be me — don’t do to your son what I did to you! Be the father I never was — the kind of father you always wanted me to be — be the father your son desperately needs and deserves to have! Don’t make him have to grow up wondering where his father is at — and why he’s never there for him — and if you do hate me then please don’t be like me — be better than me!

And although I can’t change the mistakes of my past I can change the direction of my life — it’s not too late — it’s never too late — and I am determined to do just that! To be the man — a father and grandfather I’ve always wanted to be — to be a positive influence on my family — and I’m not going to let anything get in the way of that! I refuse to be remembered by my mistakes — or allow my mistakes to define me!

Yes — those things are what I’ve done — but they are not who I am. I get to decide that — I get to decide who I am and who I’m going to be! And I choose to be someone I can be proud of — and my family can be proud of. So I choose to live instead of just existing — sobriety over drugs — freedom over jail and my family over the streets.

And now you must make some real choices about your life for yourself and for your son because he needs you for everything — your presence will be the most important thing in his life — he never has to know what it feels like to grow up without a father — he never has to feel as if he’s not wanted or loved! Your choices now will determine what kind of life he has — and if you choose the streets over him the way I did to you — he may end up feeling about you the way you feel about me! And the cycle will continue.

This shhh has to stop! If not, we will have four generations of incarceration — think about how crazy that sounds! But it doesn’t have to be that way — we can still change the directions of our lives, so that your son will have a positive path to follow. Imagine how wonderful that will feel to know that we changed our lives to give your son a chance at a real life! That’s real fatherhood — and it’s never too late to be a father.

I love you, and although I was never there for you — you have always been with me!

Love, Your Father,

Jesse J, San Francisco County Jail

Jesse Jackson, 51, is currently in the San Francisco County Jail for a probation violation. He has spent the better part of the last 35 years in and out of the criminal justice system.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

I Love the Hood But I Want to Change

When you look me in my eyes, you see the pain. Nobody understands what I’ve been through. They want to send me away from my family. Look at me, trying to survive and keep my head up.

People say they’re by your side, but they’re never around when you need them the most. I try, I try, and I try, but it seems that I can’t stay out of these Oakland streets. Money, drugs and violence is calling my name. What am I supposed to do?

I know these dangerous sidewalks I walk will only put me 6 feet under, and I still walk. I finally realized I love the streets, and it’s crazy that I feel the love that is not there. These streets don’t love me. They don’t love anybody and never will change.

Change, I hear these voices in my head telling me to change my life.

But how do I when my mama doesn’t have any job and every time she feels she’s not doing her job she turns to the bottle to make herself feel better? My little brother is only 10, breaking into houses because he needs some shoes, stealing cars because the streets taught him that. My grandma is struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table, so it all falls back on me, this 17-year-old boy fighting a case in juvenile hall.

Selling drugs, trying to pimp a female or hit a lick, all the hustles a young brother does to get rich. But you can’t blame us, look where we are. Stuck at the back of the slums where it’s rough. We have no other solution. It’s either sell drugs or prostitution. Basically, eat or be eaten. Survival.

It’s rough out there. I got demons in my soul and angels by my heart. What am I going to do? Does He hear me when I pray? Does He hear me when I ask for forgiveness? Does He hear me when I ask for my mama to get clean?

Nobody understands this beautiful thing called “struggle,” which defines my life and is why I love my life so much. If it wasn’t for the struggle, I don’t know where I would be. I know God is by my side. I know He is.

This is a cold game we’re playing, and it’s only a matter of time before reality hits us in the face.

Where will I be in 10 years? Will I still be here in 10 years?

I’m still remaining humble from the rumors, pain, and this life I’m living.

The streets chose me. I didn’t choose the streets. I love this lifestyle and whatever comes with it. Please don’t judge me because I love this way of living. Is it my fault I’m so committed? It’s crazy how I’m really with this mobbin’ shhh. I could have gone to school, played sports and gotten a scholarship. But it is what it is.

I’ve lost so many people to these streets, and I’m still in them. Smh, why don’t I just give this street life up? I know why. The streets are all I know. All I ever wanted was to make my mama proud, but I failed too many times. I want to give up so bad, but God keeps telling me not to.

I smell the snakes and see the rats. All these unloyal brothers and females in these streets. They love you when you’re doing good, but throw salt on your name like a bag of fries when they hear something bad or when you’re really stressing. Who can I trust?

My daddy dogged my mama, so why shouldn’t I dog these fakeass females? But I can’t. I’ve got two little sisters and might have a daughter one day. I have plenty of aunts, grandmas and girl cousins, and I want a guy to treat them with the most respect.

I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m becoming a better person. I’m kind of still stuck in my old ways, but it takes time. These 10 months have been the longest 10 months of my life, but I’m grateful I’m safe in jail and not dead on the shady Oakland streets.

I just want the best for myself and family, but somebody has got to change. I feel if I change, everybody else will. I love the hood. I bleed the hood. From the roaches, spray-painted walls, bad kids, crackheads, corner stores, drug dealers, gangs and last but not least: the struggle. I don’t plan on leaving my city until it changes.

While I’m stuck in the hall, I’ve been thinking about change. We all should change. I want to change because I’ve been in the streets since I was 9. I never really had a real life as a kid. I want something different for myself because these streets don’t give a “ef” about me.

The wait is almost over. I will come home.

Damariae is 17 and facing up to nine years in adult jail, but is still fighting to remain in the juvenile courts. He is now in Alameda County Juvenile Hall.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

Change Yourself and Change the World

All of us during our lives as children, adolescents and eventually adults need some encouragement. As the individuals we are, we tend to learn differently, have different perspectives and take risks on different levels. For those like myself, words of encouragement were really needed in my life to fulfill my true potential in the activities that I engaged in.

Always being in juvenile hall and camps as a kid I did receive a lot of encouragement to break out of my shell and try to think differently. It took a long time for me to grow, but I hope for you it comes quick.

Knowing that many of you in detention centers may possibly hear or read these words gives me the feeling of talking to myself when I was a kid. Many thoughts enter my mind: What would I tell myself? What have I learned since? What has impacted me? Was it worth it?

Regardless what your ethnicity is, I was you in juvenile hall, I was you in camp, I was you possibly going to the California Youth Authority, and I was you charged as an adult.

Now here I am in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile, 16 years and still on a level four [prison] yard with more to go, but I’ve turned my negative into a positive and if you allow me a few moments of your time [I’ll] share a very serendipitous moment of my life.

Growing up I was always reserved and was never the attention seeker or class clown, but like all of us I did crave attention and acceptance. Unfortunately because of this I missed out on a lot of activities, fun and possible friendships I could have made. Eventually the activities that my friends and I engaged in helped me break out of my shell because of their encouragement to go for what I wanted. Their reasoning was that since in my mind I already felt that the answer would be no or that I would fail, then how much more could it hurt if I actually tried and got a no or failed? But what if I did not fail or get a no?

Applying this approach to my studies, situations or attempts of success only helped me gain self-esteem and confidence, especially when I received a yes or I achieved my task. Never sell yourself short. I never did again.

Many would think that being 17 years old and given a sentence of 69 years to life for attempted murder that I would hate life, be angry, depressed and completely heartless. Well, in the beginning, I was all of those things. I was never getting out; unless I made it go, I was going to die in prison. My mother would pass away while I was in here, maybe my sisters as well.

Until I began my journey of discovering myself, of growing up and coping with my situation. I did this by playing sports, exercising and reading books. I found ways to get out of here and find interests in something.

While I was doing this, my family was out in the community working, going to school, living their lives and my three sisters were getting older; so was my mother. Couple more years pass by and letters aren’t really coming in anymore, I’m getting fed up with being in prison and my sisters are in junior high messing up. Here is when my journey really came into bloom.

Unfortunately, I robbed myself of being a big brother to my sisters, I robbed myself of being there to support them and I deprived them of a positive role model. I was fortunate enough to be eligible to enroll in college courses offered at New Folsom Prison. That is level four 180 design [the highest security level in California], so just being offered something to do was a blessing. There was so much going on at that time, it was hard to focus on anything, let alone something positive.

When I started my first college course, counseling, I liked it. It was nothing like junior high or high school, I really cared about what I felt, what the information meant to me and that my opinion not only mattered, but was essential.

Around this time, my sisters began to do bad in school: Their grades were not so good, not doing homework, don’t want to go, stressed; you know, all the growing pains we all have. New friends, new school, new adventure and an entire new outlook of life. I was a teen before the whole world changes when we discover relationships, parties, drugs, alcohol and everything else that comes with.

When I would speak with my mother I would share all that I had learned and how so much that she taught me was now completely realized. I would constantly share my discoveries with my sisters, life lessons only now seen. I began to really feel bad for all the pain I had caused my mother after finally seeing the bigger picture of life. Just like when I realized there is more to life than school; well, there is more to life than gang banging, drugs, money and girls.

I would have great conversations with my mother and other adults about current events, life and the impact of crime against myself and my family, and the victims. I became another adult nagging at my sisters, writing them every time I had an “aha” moment that I attached to a life experience. I did the best I could through communication and example and it paid off.

Many of my friends were proud of me for taking initiative to better myself. My girl was proud, my cousins, ex-girlfriends and friends. My words and thoughts expressed not only were accepted completely by my sisters, but were put in use. My sisters picked up their grades, they love school and are interested in college; some of my childhood friends went back to school to earn their GEDs, and some went on to learn new skills for a better job. One friend of mine became a teacher!

The sole motivation was “Now if he is in prison and doing this, then I should too.” Many people saw me in a different light. I saw myself differently. Many came to me for help on how to start their own higher education journey. This accomplishment of earning my AA degree changed my life and those around me.

As I speak to you, I am speaking to my 13-, 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-old self. I was you. I was immature, the hood was my world, my friends were my world. I grew up in Sylmar Juvenile Hall, Central Juvenile Hall, camps McNair, Gonzalez, Munz and Mendenhall in Los Angeles County.

Sadly, I would only last 30 days out before I went back in. I missed out on life, experiences and most importantly my family.

No matter how young or old you are, you can always find and learn new life lessons. Let my mistakes be yours, learn from my mistakes and improve your life. Start with one small goal, like I will read a book and do a book report on it, I will learn algebra and do my best at it or I will do 50 push-ups straight.

Then go to your next goal. Never be afraid to fail, because if you do fail it’s still a win. It’s still a win because you have learned something about yourself so the next time around, you got some experience.

You never know whom you will inspire, whose lives you can enrich by one action. Imagine accomplishing a goal for yourself and in turn you caused five others to accomplish something they never would have done. Be positive, change yourself, change the world.

Michael Arreygue is serving a sentence of 69 years to life in Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, California, for attempted murder.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

For Father’s Day From the Inside: Dear Dad …

Throughout the last year I’ve been back and forth between being free and being locked up. I know you weren’t there when I was a child, but you made an effort to be there in my later years.

You proved to me that you’re a good man and changed, now it’s my turn to prove to you that I’m not another juvenile statistic and I can change.

I regret a lot of things in my past, I’ve made a lot of mistakes that affected other people not just myself, and I wish every day that to take them back.

I was so caught up in the hustle life that I’d do anything to come up on money and the drugs, they owned me. I thought that this was the life to live and if you weren’t in the game then you were a nobody. Little did I know I was just running from the truth about myself.

Being here locked up in these cells sounds bad but it might just be the best place for me. It’s giving me time to think about what I want in life and time to get closer to myself.

I’ve got 10 plus years to spend in these cells for a crime that ruined my life but I’ve learned to not regret these things. There are things I can’t change, things that I should move on from.

It’s only up from here Pops. The hustle game never leaves you but I’m hustling for a better life this time.

‘Till I hear from you again, love you.

—Mason, Portland, Oregon


You’ve taught me so much, like where I’m from, how to steal, how to hit a blunt and even roll a joint, all at a very young age. Don’t get me wrong though, you’ve taught me some good things too, as in how to fight, do a push-up the right way and walk like a man with my head up, shoulders back and chest out.

I remember when I was staying with you and I had school. I was going to go, but you would always tell me, “Why you gonna go to school? Chill, have a beer with me.”

Yeah, that sounds cool, but that also shows that you don’t care about my life. Why? Why would you never care about what I would do? I can smoke with you, drink with you, chill with females with you, yeah, that’s tight, but I would rather have a father that shows me the ropes the right way.

You’ve always told me, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” I go by that every day. I care for you and love you, so care for me and love me back. Be a man of your word for once.

—Andrew, Santa Clara, California


Thank you for always being there for me through everything. Whether it was only smashing pumpkins or if it was stealing your car at night. Thank you for having the patience with me and never giving up.

Thank you for always coming to pick me up when I was in trouble. Whether it was yours or Mom’s week, three in the morning or far away. Thank you for staying quiet in the car ride home.

Thank you for always giving me talks and motivating me to get my life together. Thank you for coming to all my court dates and never letting me go to a group home.

Thank you for always giving me a warm house to come home to.

—Alexis, Santa Clara


You are worthless! I don’t like you for nothing. Didn’t even take care of me, left my mother and brothers by ourselves with no support and remorse. You’re a piece of shhh. I’m doing better than you ever will. So screw you and don’t even say that you know me.

Now I got my stepdad, actually he’s my real dad ’cause he looks out for me no matter what my situation, as well as my mother.

—Ricardo, Santa Cruz


You always had my back since I was back in the womb. Daddy was a deadbeat, so it always was me and you. I'm forever grateful that you didn't abort me because a woman raising a man is the hardest things to do.

You know you’re my favorite lady. I know I'm your favorite dude. Your love never changes, even though we got different views. I want you to quit drugs. You want to me to quit cutting school. None of us got what we want. So guess we both lose.

I didn't get much for my Christmases as a lil child, but you still went out of your way to find a way to make me smile. Wish I could feel your warm embrace. Lord knows it's been a while. Your son hard-headed. Momma, it took a min but I get it now.

All the sweet stuff and street stuff that you taught me. A gentleman and a gangsta, how could you ever fault me? Hope you don't fault me. I hope you don't fault yourself. Love is a cold dealer. We played the hand we dealt.

I thank you for never giving up, never giving me away. I thank you ’cause the lesson you taught me made me who I am today. You tell me to go down on my knees, so I pray. I love you is what I truly want to say.

Lee Butta, San Francisco County Jail, San Bruno, California

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

Peep Game, Me, Before It’s Too Late

Young Self,

It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since I was your age. I just turned 25 a couple weeks ago and a lot has happened in life between 15 and now.

As you used to say, “peep game.” I’m about to lace you up on the life that you’re living.

At 15 I know that it seems like you’ve got nothing to live for and so much to die for. From trying to come up as a little homie to living lavish with those Ecstasy pills you’re running through like candy. Everything is about the moment and anything else is irrelevant. I know you don’t think like that, but I can say that that’s the way you’re living.

Young Sharky, the life you’re living and the way you’re going about it is going to change drastically in the years to come. Right now I know you still feel the pain of losing your best friend and seeing Enrique die, but I promise you that you will come to terms with it in time. It’s not going to be easy by any means but the drugs and the violence are only sidestepping the problem. Still I know that to you it’s all that matters.

You want revenge against the guy that killed your cousin and you’re mad at God for taking Danyelle. I’m telling you now you will never settle the scores for those deaths. In the process of your pain you will only harm innocent people that had no hand in either of your losses.

It’s hard to understand right now but I promise you I know what I’m saying — from personal experience. Have you noticed that every single day you take handfuls of Ecstasy, drink liquor by the handle and smoke weed by the ounce, yet still every night you lay down to sleep wondering why the pain returns?

You spend stupid amounts of money on stupid stuff, yet with each transaction you're wishing one of two things; that your cousin, Enrique, was enjoying it with you or that your best friend, Danyelle, was picking outfits out for you.

Ten years from now you’ll be trying to stop the drugs but won’t be able to put together more than a couple months clean. And it’ll no longer be party drugs and alcohol in your system but a needle in your arm that you can’t remove.

If you don’t change now and seek help you're gonna be lost. Your mindset will still be that of a young street thug, only now you won’t be affiliated anymore because your so-called homeboys turned their back on you. Your capacity for learning is going to be wrecked by all the poison you put in your body, so I hope you’ve learned all that you want out of life.

I bet you would never guess this, but in a year and a half one of your closest homies is going to be someone you once deemed an enemy. And he’s a damn good dude, maybe better than you.

I’ve seen all these things because I lived your life from 15 to 25. The only thing is I didn’t learn any of this until just recently while I’m sitting in prison serving life without parole. So take this game I’m giving you and get help. Open your heart and mind to the fact that there is a better life out there but you must go and grab it. Nobody will hand it to you.

At times it’ll seem too hard and you’ll want to give up. Your mind will tell you that it’s all too hard and that the drugs are the solution. The street life and the struggle will make you want to turn to horrendous acts of violence. In the end you’ll only hurt yourself.

The most beautiful things in your life are only four and five years away. At 19 you’ll have a daughter and you’ll name her Danyelle after your friend you lost years ago. She’s so beautiful and perfect it’ll be a fitting tribute. At 20 you’ll have another daughter and name her Adrianna after yourself. I promise you she’ll be your mini me in every way, shape and form.

Change your life now and you’ll be able to give them the life they deserve. Keep at it with all your twisted ways and you’ll be writing them letters from a cell, with tears in your eyes. I know you think real men don’t cry; well, we’ll see about that when you're my age. Change or don’t. It’s up to you, young self.

—Twenty-five and looking back

Adrian Castillon is serving two life terms for his association in a 2013 double homicide when he was 21. He is in California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in Lancaster, California.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

The World Around Me In Color

I remember a day not long ago sitting in my California prison cell doing what I'd done so many countless other times through the electric fence and razor wire, staring out my window. My freedom, something I hadn't had in nearly 30 years, was left standing there in the forest just outside the prison's perimeter. I couldn't reach out to clutch it in my bare hands even if  my life depended on it — I am serving the rest of my life in this man-built hell.

They say it's a center for men and women to be rehabilitated. A place of correcting our wrongs with rights, before we leave behind a legacy that is just meaningless and forgotten. They say many of us get so lost that we fall into the cracks of this confinement, only to no longer find our way back out.

I'm one of the fortunate ones — I found my way back to the surface.

Five years ago, though I was no longer a prison gang member or an associate of anyone that was, I still could not recognize the reflection staring back at me every time I shaved or brushed my teeth in the mirror — it was "me that was actually broken into small fragments” rather than the damaged piece of reflective glass upon my wall.

I still held on to a lot of baggage that can come with stepping into such an environment as prison.

Many would agree, where I sit, that when you walk through these gates you are culturally segregated whether you like it or not. You are, from the start, forced to see the world around you in either black, white or brown, depending on the color of your own skin.

This is the ideology you undertake because it's how we are taught to "survive." The world, your world is no longer in color — your eyes see things and people through what becomes a restricted lens.

That is the part of walking away from a prison gang that took years longer to rid my mind and heart of — though I finally did.

Being ignorant, because that is what I say to anyone that fools themselves into believing they are better than anyone else based on appearance, is a depressingly scary concept. Think about it, would you love an animal such as a cat or a dog based on its fur color or size? As human beings, I would assume we [can] be much more compassionate toward one another than even animals are capable of — ash black, burnt sienna, pearl white; these are colors in Crayola boxes and nothing more.

Before Christmas I was moved to another prison after five years in a place where the majority of men could not let go of the ideology that the "line in the sand for segregation" should remain intact, contrary to the fact that we're no longer prison gang members. For once I was in a new prison where the majority was willing to see things in color — no longer in just black, white and brown.

It was the first night I'd went out for evening yard and the moon was so big that it appeared just a mile away. I sat on one of the cement tables beneath that amazing moon, and for the first time on any prison yard I'd ever been on I felt like I could actually close my eyes without fearing an attack from another prisoner based on my past gang and belief system or worse yet, the color of my skin under the light of the moon that night.

I leaned my head back, looked up one more time at the sky that rested atop my half-open eyes and just exhaled into the evening air. It actually felt as if the atmosphere was welcoming my release of sigh and finality, letting me know that it's OK to relax and take in some of the beauty the world still has to offer me despite my being in prison.

In that moment I could see particles of my previous life flying by me like dust having nowhere else to land. And the only fear my body would feel was losing this peaceful moment if I was to open my eyes. I could visualize them, my old beliefs and misconceptions about mankind, veering off the cliff into oblivion. Once and for all.

It has become very liberating to know that I'd reached a place in my life where letting go of the baggage that caused harm to others and myself had come long before I'd stopped to notice it.

I could've sat there that night with my eyes closed for a few more minutes confident that my moment of tranquility beneath the moon and stars would go undisturbed, but I knew that I would look really strange sitting there with my eyes closed at 7:30 p.m. when my company was expected to come out of his own building and join me.

His name is Hakim, my expected company, and I met him the week I'd arrived at this new prison. Like me, he too is an ex-gang member and serving life in prison. For whatever reason, our friendship from the start felt like it was and is part of a bigger picture than just ourselves — perhaps it's to say to the world around us that anyone can change?

Though his goofy personality makes me laugh like we're both in our 20s all over again, it's his kindness for other human beings that humbles me and gives me my own clarity in how we should treat others. I haven't told him just yet, but I feel fortunate to be considered his friend after having traveled different paths to get to where it is that we've made it.

"What up family" is what Hakim says to me every time we see each other on the yard and give each other one of those manly half-hugs that us men do to show our brotherly affection. It never fails, that goofy grin beams across his face like there is no worries in the world.

We're all human — and I'm grateful that I can look into my own reflection today while seeing a man, a human being I can be proud of again. Always treat everyone around you with love and compassion as I've learned to do. You'd be amazed at where your own path will lead you if you're willing to see the world as I do today, no longer in just black and white.

Keith Erickson, 46, is serving a sentence in Ironwood State Prison for shooting and killing his mother's abusive boyfriend. He was put into foster care at age 11 after being repeatedly victimized and physically abused by a drug-addicted/alcoholic stepfather who nearly killed him.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

 

Forgiveness Is for Me

When I was growing up I thought forgiveness was weakness. I believed you shouldn’t turn the other cheek or be meek towards those who wronged you because that’s weak. I believed you get even or you pay it forward toward someone else.

I tried to get even and stay one or two up to ease the pain and prevent myself from being hurt again. I built a wall of toughness, selfishness, anger and a hardened heart. Not forgiving, holding grudges and harboring resentment was how I chose to live. I was always taking, hurting and not giving.

There were times when I wanted forgiveness for my bad choices. Like when I cheated on my girlfriend, got caught stealing and committed murder at age 16. I wanted forgiveness, but I wasn’t willing to forgive. It was a lopsided, one-sided, double-standard, twisted belief. I wanted it for myself and not others.

Deep down inside I wanted relief, but my twisted belief only brought me a heavy burden, pain and grief.

As I got older, I experienced forgiveness in some situations with myself and others. I began to slowly pick and choose to forgive and not relive the pain of bad choices and being hurt by other people.

Then reality hit me. My mother became pregnant through rape and she exercised forgiveness to have me, love me and not give me away. My mother also forgave me for breaking her heart by committing murder at 16 and serving a life sentence.

I learned that I wanted forgiveness from my victims, the parole board, my mother and others, so I must learn to forgive. What I want out of life I have to be willing to give to life.

Today, when I choose to forgive others I choose to do it for myself. I’m tired of carrying around anger, resentment and grudges. It’s too heavy for me to carry. Too much stress. So I’m choosing to live by carrying less and to be blessed.

Forgiveness unhooks me from the past and sets me free to move forward. It’s like a boat lifting an anchor from the sea floor so it can explore more of the world. When I forgive, I am internally set free and can truly live.

Mathew Edward, 39, is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder and two attempted murders, committed when he was 16, in San Quentin State Prison. The parole board recently granted him parole; the governor decides when this year he will be released.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

Violent Beginnings: The Hot Dog Story

Every story whether it be fiction, nonfiction, dramatic, happy or sad, all have the same structure, they all have a beginning, a middle and an end.

The same goes for people's lives. The story you are about to read, I can assure you, is true, with real-life events that just happen to be some of my earliest memories.

As I got older they were discussed only once with my mother, and it was recommended that I leave it alone.

I was born on May 17, 1972, in south west Philadelphia, in a private hospital to Harry and Virginia D'Ascenzo, the last baby to be physically birthed there before it was razed to the ground.

My father was an already feared and respected local as well as international legend in the annals of organized crime. While it existed in strength, it was a veritable Who's Who of the East Coast Mob.

Chaos began when I was between 18 months and 2 years old. I am much less sure of my age than I am of the events, which remain etched in crystal in my mind to this day, over 40 years later ...

I remember waking up in my mother's arms with very many strange men who were all similarly dressed, moving all throughout house and my dad was not there. There was only my mom and her calming influence amidst something that I did not understand. That for me was for some reason, very scary ...

Over the next couple of years my father was there, just not in the home. My mother and I would take trips every weekend to go see him at "school" or "college." Of course, I'd figured out later where he really was during the years he was not there.

I met some very interesting people; my favorite being Charles Spicer, who was a lawyer, a published writer and poet and a bank robber, though not in that order. He had already been to school for 26 years, and over time to me became Uncle Chuck.

Something else that I became truly fond of, one could even say ravenous for, was Dairy Queen (DQ) hot dogs. There was a DQ on the way to "school" and over time the waitresses would all greet me by name and ask me if I was excited to be going to see my dad at "school" and smile and ruffle my hair or pinch my cheeks. ‘Cause, hey, I was kinda cute. And they would give me two hot dogs without the bun and some french fries. And there I would sit, blissfully turning two into four, sometimes six, to the wonder of everyone, except of course, my mom. And then off we would go to see my dad.

During this time, as can only be expected, I became very attuned to the safety and peace that was Mother and home. This lasted for quite a few years. About until I was a little over 5 years old and that is because Uncle Chuck got dad home early on an appeal.

I remember being down the street from the house and someone told me my mom needed me home. Through the front door, into the kitchen where my mom was sitting, I looked at her and she said, "turn around," which of course I did. And I saw him standing in the corner smiling at me, oblivious. I had walked right past him.

Man, I ran and jumped into his arms and he picked me up and hugged me tight and once again my world was complete.

At this point my dad kept me with him pretty much all the time, and for me it was cool. For him it was back to business. I met the people that worked in a company that was named after me, Mark Construction Contracting and Demolition. I thought that was neat. Anyway, time passed, and it must have been a few months later ...

I remember sitting in the living room, sitting on the floor. My parents were on either side of me and they began to argue and it was very loud and it was the first one I'd ever experienced so I really didn't know what to make of it.

Anyway, the yelling continued for what seemed a very long time, with me sitting there on the living room floor tracking the progress like a tennis freak, out at Wimbledon, my little head swiveling back and forth with each verbal volley.

Now at some point, just as in tennis, a point was scored and the action came to stop. It was my mother who scored and the silence was deafening. And instead of pressing her advantage she spun off and silently retreated to the bathroom where she entered and pushed the door semishut behind her.

At this point something occurred that I, in some primitive part of my mind, understood yet was unable to fully process, like the deer that senses changes yet is frozen an instant before the instinct kicks in and sends you into action. You see, my father still hadn't moved and when I looked at him, he was staring at me with an intensity that was unsettling.

He then looked at the partially shut door where my mother had retreated, looked back at me and when he did there was something there that I didn’t know, that was not safe and scared me. He then proceeded to the bathroom, walked in and again pushed the door partially shut but not completely closed. I was waiting for the yelling to begin again or maybe talking, anything but the continued silence that was happening.

So I got up and walked over to the door and still nothing. I couldn't even hear breathing. It was like they disappeared. So I pushed the door open. At first I thought they were hugging, then I realized two things, one was that my mom was facing the wrong way, the second was that her feet were off the floor.

My father was 5 foot 10, around 218 pounds with a 19 ¾-inch neck. He was a onetime pro boxer and a judo instructor in the Marines where he fought in WWII and Korea. Not to mention just naturally being as hard as the frozen cobblestone streets of Philadelphia he grew up on where his name was synonymous with strength, respect and danger.

When the situation as I perceived it clicked into place, I somehow knew that I had to do something to change what was happening. Somehow I knew that my mother needed help. I ran and wrapped my arms around my father's waist as far as they would go. Anyway, I tried to move him and I might as well have been trying to shake an oak. I remember at this point my father looking down at me and turning my mother, still locked in his arms, slightly away from me and I remember feeling helpless for what was probably the first time in my life.

So there I was holding my father. He had no shirt on, dress pants that were tan, with black dress shoes and a black leather belt. To this day I can fall into memory and smell the leather. I remember the softness of his side against my cheek and that is when it hit me. So I opened my mouth as wide as I could, turned and bit for all I was worth.

That was the last thing I remember until I woke up on the floor, cradled in my mother's arms and she was rocking me and crying. There was quite a bit of blood everywhere. My mother thought I was dead because when I bit my dad his instinct was to strike, which was what he did, his elbow connecting squarely with my forehead.

My dad was not there for a couple of days, but he came home and life went on, like nothing ever happened.

It was maybe two weeks later that my mom and I went to DQ and I sat and waited for my dogs and mom set the tray down. I grabbed one and bit it and instantly gagged and spit the offending piece onto the tray, looking at the hot dog in my hand completely uncomprehending what it was that was happening.

My mom somehow knew what it was and said, "Give it to me, baby" and I did. And she began to peel it, removing the outer skin, then handed it back to me. I looked at it, bit it and was able to chew it and swallow it. From that moment on, for the next three, almost four years, my mother would patiently peel my hot dogs with care and love and a smile that I knew was just for me.

It wasn't until much later in life that I was able to process that incident and realize that when I bit that first hot dog, it was like biting my father again. But what really gets me is how my mother just knew, and she knew how to fix it.

To the day he died, my father walked around with what looked like a bullet wound in his side. He never again spoke of the incident. What he did do was begin to train me, physically as well as criminally. The way he saw it, I, as a child, was able to do what no soldier of country or street was able to do. I, as a child, stopped Harry D'Ascenzo in his tracks.

Now that my father is passed, and my mother, well it's been many years since we have spoken and truthfully, I really don't know if she is alive or not, but I have to say, this time she was wrong. It's not over, for I carry it with me still. I will not let it own me, but it continues to live within me. One demon among many.

Mark D’Ascenzo, 44, is in the San Francisco County Jail for burglary.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.