A preface from Anna Cox
Along with thirty years of offering psychotherapy in the ‘free world,’ I also volunteered in the prison system providing therapy for more than twenty years with people who are incarcerated in a Maximum Security Unit and on Death Row. I have shared often that one of the most frequent thing people say to me in prison has been, “No one ever talked to me about how I felt.”
So many people who struggled with identity and inner-awareness never learned to share what they were thinking and feeling. Most people just did not have those conversations in their family or with their caregivers.
Many families in Arkansas and around the country are focused on critical survival issues. These are not stable homes of people leading contemplative sharing and self-aware lives. Their focus is not on rearing children, no matter how much those parents love their children.
Parents fear poverty and horrific everyday trauma, and don’t have time for conversations with their children about emotions. Many families are fractured and often fathers are in prison or engaged in criminal activity. Neighborhoods are filled with roaming kids following big brothers or cousins around. Children do not learn how to relate and connect with others on a deeper level. They learn to react to crisis and the desperate attempt to fulfill needs that arises in each moment.
Not everyone in our prisons comes from that background, but many do.
There are glimmers of hope and sanity. Some mothers take their kids to church on Sunday or work two or three jobs to put food on the table. But kids are falling through the cracks at school and church, and gang prevention programs cannot catch kids fast enough to give them all that children need to thrive.
Men in our meditation/therapy group and in individual counseling say that there was so much killing in their neighborhoods that they did not really know that it was wrong to kill others. In fact, they received very little to understand that relationships should not involve violence or that property that belongs to others should not be taken for oneself.
I’m not sharing this as criticism for these parents, because I believe that our society has contributed greatly to this tragic setup. Our social programs do not offer any real options for these children; in fact, many services traumatize children further. We have to know what has happened in our brothers and sisters lives in these impoverished and resource-depleted neighborhoods, so that we can bring hope and new options to their residents. We must let go of blame of someone’s inability to rise above such obstacles because the obstacles are so great and society is so stingy in offering a ladder out of this distress. Most of us could not make it. I know that I could not.
The miracle is that some do. And despite the horror of our prisons, prison can be a beneficial pathway to growth and healing for some people because they have never had another option.
Here is the very compelling story of Early, who shared his writings with Compassion Works for All to help us all appreciate a very typical life in poverty. Early’s mother gave him and his next younger brother to Social Services when he was 5 and his brother was 2. Early shares how he constantly carried the pain of losing his parents, compounded by trauma in foster home after foster home, abuse in the boys training school and finally prison. I wish I could say that Early’s story was unique, but it is all too typical of many people in prison. There are children who are bright and full of promise, and they could live good lives if we could give them the healing that was denied them throughout their childhood.
Please read about Early and know that there is something you can do to help.
My Life History by Early Muhammad
Throughout my entire life, I’ve been yearning to have that which I now know will never be – the knowledge and natural love of my real mother and father. My father, I’ve never known. My mother, I’ve very limited knowledge of in those very early years of life. The only semblance of family has been with my younger brother, whom I love.
My earliest memory is one of an unfortunate circumstance; removal from my mother and the only “home” I’ve ever known, and placement into foster care. I was only five or six years old when my brother and I were placed into a fatherless home with three natural children. Their mother, whose name I do not remember, would soon find reasons to abuse us both mentally and physically.
It began with the bed wetting. My brother and I and the woman’s only son, who was eight, all slept together in his bed. We soon discovered he was a bed wetter, but the blame was placed on us. When we tried to explain that neither of us were at fault, the woman would call us liars, made fun of us in front of her children, and made us hand wash the sheets. Afterwards, she put us in a small dark closet for hours at a time. We were even fed in the closet.
One night the woman roused my brother and me out of bed and accused us of breaking one of her kitchen chairs. Again, we were called liars when we told her we had nothing to do with it. She accused us of every bad thing that happened in that house, never once considering that her own children were at fault. Instead of helping us, she made a difficult situation worse, created a power struggle between us children, and repeatedly made statements to the effect that she only kept us because of the check. But most painful to me was her statement about our mother. She told us that our mother had abandoned us and didn’t want us back.
This is where it all began – my need to know why I was abandoned. What had we done? Why are we being punished? Why were we put somewhere by authorities where we were hated? I was angry because these things were being done to us and there were no answers. I had two things I had to do; protect my brother and find my mother, hoping she would answer these questions, but I did not know how or where to find her. After six months in this first foster home we were removed and taken to another. We went from bad to worse.
The second foster home was owned by an old woman living alone. One time there would last only three to four months, as I remember, but to us it was a never ending nightmare. We soon discovered that the woman was a drunkard, and an angry one at that.
The verbal abuse started immediately with accusations of “being bad” and lying at the previous home, which made it impossible for us to say anything without being accused of lying to her. But she also seemed to have some other anger inside of her that would surface when she drank. Then she would take it out on us, called us “devils” and treated us as if we were nothing. Soon the hitting would start and we were beaten without warning or cause. However, the hardest part for me was that we would go to bed hungry because the State check went for booze rather than food. As a result and need to keep my brother and myself fed, I began to steal.
Every time I had a chance, I would steal food from a grocery store so that we would not go to sleep hungry. I didn’t want to do it but I felt I had an obligation to my brother that was overwhelming. At times I stole food openly, hoping I would get caught so that we could leave this abusive home. At this point I no longer cared about the wrongness of stealing because I, and my brother, were more afraid of this woman than what could happen to us. Somehow, our prayers for relief were answered as we were removed from the nightmare and placed into a new home where we would come to revere our new foster parents as “mom” and “dad”.
My anxiety of moving to a third foster home was quickly quelled, as we were immediately welcomed with open arms, and treated as family. Mom, Eunice, and Dad, Zollie, and their daughter, Zell, lived in the country and had a small farm. We were given instructions to keep our room clean, help with the household chores, and to assist with the care and maintenance of the farm animals. We were treated no different than their own child, Zell, who was a little bit older than I. Mom said that she knew what we had been through, and vowed that she and dad would do their best to make their home as comfortable as they could. And it was true, as we never went to bed hungry, and there was genuine love in the air. Throughout this initial time, summer, we developed strong bonds with the family and soon called them “mom”, “dad”, and “sis”.
By summer’s end, our transition into this family was all but complete even though mom would let us know that if the state told her our real mother wanted us back, she would do all she could to help us along. It wasn’t that she was holding anything back, it was that she felt that eventually our best interest would be realized if and when our real mother could support us again. In a way, her words made me begin to wonder why my real mother had given us up, why we weren’t with her, and what I had to do to find out.
Soon after school started, I began to want to know more about our real mother and asked mom to help. She said she would, but when she called authorities, they refused to give her any information. This really bothered mom because she could tell I had a strong yearning to find out the truth. One evening I heard her and dad discussing the issue and their determination that something was amiss, and that the authorities themselves had no knowledge of where our real mother was located. Hearing that really pushed me over the top.
Not knowing what happened to my mother and being unable to find out, stayed on the forefront of my mind and started causing problems for me at school, such that I began to fight a lot and was expelled. This prompted mom to take me to a doctor who determined I needed medication to “calm down”, but I’m not sure it actually helped. Mom though would not give up on me and she spent many hours talking with me to find out what was in my head. I didn’t understand what she was trying to do back then as I do now, nor did this 10 year old understand why this made me more anxious and thus unable to control my actions. Moreover, I had no way of understanding how my anxiety affected my brother, but one day it all came pouring out.
On that day, my brother and I found ourselves at home alone and we got on the phone and started calling around. I believe our initial goal was to try to find our real mother, but somehow we ended up in contract with the hospital in Wynne, which was where we had lived. I’m certain now that our anger of not finding our real mother was the fuel for our misbehavior because we told the people at the hospital that there was a bomb in the building, and that they had better get everyone out before it blew up and killed everyone there.
I had made a mistake. A very serious one without understanding how serious. I know now that it was caused by my anger at the time of not knowing why we were separated from our real mother and that no one seemed to care. But I had made the phone call and now the police had called to inform mom and dad of what had happened. It was the only time I had ever seen her cry.
We all went to the police station in Wynne, where my brother and I made statements and then we were put in a cell. After a few days, we were taken to a room where mom, dad, the welfare people and a judge sat. The judge asked us about the phone call and I took all responsibility, however the judge said we were both at fault and told me that I would be sent to the Boys School in Pine Bluff for six months, and my brother for three.
The Boys School was difficult, but I believe more so for my brother. Luckily, we were assigned to the same dormitory, but different jobs. My job was to work on fences, while my brother’s was to keep the dormitory clean. I hated the very fact that he was there because he had done nothing. It was my actions that had put us there. I had acted out of anger, not understanding that fact until much later in life. But, I was responsible and thus I felt I had a responsibility to keep my brother safe. When Willie’s time was almost up, however, one of the boys became jealous and started a fight with him.
Fights were simply not tolerated. When this happened, our dorm parents brought out the leather “hide”, which was the width of a barber’s strop, but then inches long. “Pop” Moore called everyone into the day room area where he had a single chair sitting in the middle and told Willie to come up and bend over it. My brother was crying and trying to tell Pop Moore that the other boy had jumped him, but Pop wouldn’t listen, so I spoke up. Pop Moore wouldn’t listen to me either, but eventually told me that if I wanted to, I could take my brother’s punishment in his stead. I told him I would, which undoubtedly surprised him because when I stepped up he called his wife in to ask me why. I told her that it was my fault for my brother being at the school and that he was innocent, having been jumped on by the other boy. When she left, Pop asked if I was sure I wanted to do this. Although I told him yes, I didn’t want the whipping because Pop was known to give the worse. I had witnessed him hitting so hard as to tear off a back pants pocket with a single strike of the hide.
But I had to take the whipping for my brother because it was my fault he was there. Moreover, I knew he would not be able to stand the strikes. The other boys watched with fear-filled eyes as I took those strikes, not shedding a tear. I knew none of them would have done the same for their brother. When Pop finished, he simply stared at me and shook his head because he had expected me to break down. But I was too angry about him not believing what my brother and I were telling him to give him the satisfaction. My brother would leave two weeks later, and in that short time our bond and love for one another became even stronger although it was different for him to understand the reason I did what I did. I think it also angered him, and it would be a part of our lives forever. A month or so after Willie left the Boys School, I too was allowed to come home.
I can’t say what the judge had expected for us to learn from the Boys School experience, but I came away with nothing. Although I was very happy to be back with Willie, mom, dad, and I still had one thing on my mind; finding our real mother. Looking back now, I’ve never understood why we were separated from her, why no one seemingly cared to explain it to me, and why we never received any counseling about the situation. I think that had someone intervened even as late as after Boys School, my life would have been significantly different. Instead, the state dropped us into the laps of foster parents, who were left to their own devices to care for us. We were at that very vulnerable time in our lives when we needed nurturing care, and while mom and dad Stegall tried, they weren’t prepared for us.
When I returned home, I had to restart school, but after two months I got into a fight in class and was expelled for the remaining school year. This had a devastating effect on my brother and me as we were removed from our home because the welfare people were certain mom had lost control of me. This was most hurtful to me because mom and dad were the only people in my mind who had treated us as human beings and with love. My pleas with welfare to leave us where we were fell on deaf ears. I was made out to be the bad guy, rightfully, but again my actions had also harmed my brother as welfare insisted we were not to be split up. So we both were to be removed from the Stegall home, the people who had opened their hearts and truly loved us. Our departure was very hard for everyone, and I told mom and dad Stegall that I would never forget them and vowed to myself that I would be back, though not knowing how.
We were taken to a new foster home owned by Mrs. Anderson, who was older than mom and had recently lost her husband. She also was taking care of another pair of brothers, Peter and Lonzo Humphrey, who were our age. Her home, I believed, was but twenty miles from the Stegall’s which would later prompt me to believe I could easily get back to mom and dad. Mrs. Anderson’s home was in Palestine and very small. Although she welcomed us into her home, all I could think of was how to get Willie and I back to where we just left. That first night, though, would give us a shock.
We had arrived on a Friday afternoon, and soon all of us boys were in the back yard playing and getting to know each other. Our new foster brothers had much to talk about, starting with the girls at the new school. Soon Mrs. Anderson called us in for supper, and that is when we discovered that the house did not have a bathroom, but an outhouse instead. The look on our faces must have been funny because she busted out laughing. Even to wash up we were told to draw water into a wash pan, which was odd to us at first. But the outhouse, I thought, was going to be difficult for Willie because he didn’t like going into darkness by himself, which he would have to do now. It was something we had to overcome. To Mrs. Anderson’s credit, though, we never went to bed hungry: something that I was always concerned about.
Mrs. Anderson took us to church that first weekend and regularly thereafter. We were enrolled in the town school and found it to be very small. Our teachers, and everyone else, seemed to be nice people. The small town setting was a joy to us as we often stood in the front yard and were fascinated with the number of cars traveling down the road. Even so, I couldn’t stop thinking about getting back to mom and dad Stegall, because I knew they truly loved Willie and me and it was my fault for our relocation.
Mrs. Anderson, though, truly tried to make foster care easy on us. She soon learned we enjoyed fishing, and would take us on weekends. When school was out for summer, we all had to find work in the town to earn enough money for the following school year. Then one day something very crazy happened. Mrs. Anderson attacked me with a claw hammer.
It wasn’t as if I had said or done something to warrant the attack. Instead, Mrs. Anderson just came at me in the house with a claw hammer in hand. Before I could get out, she had hit my left hand, then chased me into the yard acting crazy. The other boys and I were dumbfounded and when we asked her what I had done, she could not answer. It was a day or two later that we found out.
One of our chores was to clean the house, and a day or so after the attack we were tasked to do so while Mrs. Anderson went to town. That is when we found two bottles of whiskey, one half empty, in her room. We were convinced that this was the cause of that crazy day. About a week later, Willie and I decided we had to run away and go back to mom and dad Stegall. That weekend we left in the middle of the night, and by some miracle we managed to find our way back to the Stegall’s home.
Mom, dad, and their daughter welcomed us in, fed us breakfast, and asked us why we had run away. We explained how difficult it was for us, but mom told us that they had to call the police to take us back or they could get into trouble. I convinced her to wait, let us get some sleep first, and later that day the police arrived to take us. Again it was a tearful departure, and while it seemed we would not see them again, I knew I would run away again and come back.
At the police station we were met with the same welfare lady who had taken us to Palestine the first time. As she drove us back, I told her why we ran off, about how we didn’t like it there, about the claw hammer attack, and about Mrs. Anderson’s drinking. All the lady told Mrs. Anderson, when we arrived, was where we had gone to; at least that is what we overheard.
The truth of the matter came out roughly three months into my school year when I was expelled from classes for three days. Our relationship with Mrs. Anderson had soured and my anger about being in a foster home boiled out. I lashed out at my teacher and was sent home. That is when I found out that Mrs. Anderson knew I had told the welfare lady all that she had done. Mrs. Anderson then told me she didn’t care what I told welfare, our desire to go back to mom and dad’s home was out of the question; we were stuck in her home until welfare moved us. My reaction was predictable and again would boil out in school.
I was absolutely miserable with my environment, hating everything about the tiny house we lived in, the lack of caring from Mrs. Anderson, and mostly the void in my heart from not knowing why we weren’t with our natural mother. I was consumed with the anger this created and two weeks later I was expelled again, this time for the entire school year, for pulling a knife during a fight in the classroom. Now struck at Mrs. Anderson’s home all day, I knew what I had to do – run away again, this time alone.
I let my brother and the other boys know I was planning to leave. Willie wanted to come with me, but I wouldn’t agree. He was doing well in school and seemingly didn’t hold the same hatred I did for our state of affairs. I knew that if he left with me it would be harmful to him and I would be the blame for it. So, I had to do the hardest thing in my life to protect him – leave him behind. It would be some time before Willie finally accepted my adamant demand that he stay with Mrs. Anderson. Even though things were getting worse for all of us boys in the home and one of the other brothers wanted to leave with me. I had to do it alone. Shortly thereafter, I was at home alone and took off, back to mom and dad’s home.
Needless to say that when I arrived, mom and dad were very concerned. I told them all that had happened to me, and how life at Mrs. Anderson’s had gone from bad to worse. I told them, too, that Willie was doing good in school, but I couldn’t stand the lack of caring and treatment as a human being that only they had given me. I told them that they were the only ones who cared about us and not about the money the state paid them. I know they were heartbroken because their hands were tied and I knew that the police would soon come looking for me there. I begged them to let me stay with them during the days and at night I would stay away, which I did just up the road.
The police did come, several times, looking for me, and mom told them I had been there but had left. The cat and mouse chase would go on for two months. The whole time mom and dad would tell police they didn’t know where I was even though I would visit their home frequently during the day. They also made quite a fuss over my safety and told me how worried they were about me hiding in the woods where I could get snake bitten and die. I knew they really cared about me, but I just couldn’t turn myself in and go back to Mrs. Anderson’s house. But, I did miss my brother tremendously, and having my own bed to sleep in.
I was caught one day when I walked into town and into the IGA store where I planned to steal some food because I’d not eaten in a while. There a police officer saw what I was doing and caught me before I could leave. Soon after, at the station, the same welfare woman walked in. She, of course, said everyone was worried about me, but she really wanted to know if I’d been hiding at mom and dad Stegall’s place. When she told me that I was going back to Mrs. Anderson’s, I begged her not to do so. She claimed that she had no choice, and took me back.
I was absolutely miserable. Everything was the same and not getting any better for me. I turned my attention to finding out about my real mother, where she was, and why we weren’t with her. I was fixated on finding her, but became more and more frustrated with not getting any answers. No one would tell me anything about her. I had to find her to get out of the miserable house I was in. I knew that if I could find her, she would take us back and everything would be all right in our world. But, no matter my effort, I kept running into a brick wall, and that sense of defeat became my source of anger that wouldn’t fade for years to come. After three or four months, I had all I could stand and looked for an opportunity to get away.
I thought that opportunity had arrived one day when Mrs. Anderson went fishing with her friends and left her pickup truck behind. I decided I would go for a drive, but at 15 years old I had no experience and got stuck in a ditch just down the road from the house. Worse, Mrs. Anderson had come back for something and found me. After they pulled the truck out of the ditch and we returned home, she called the police and had me arrested for stealing her truck. As punishment, I was sentenced to the Wrightsville Boys School until I turned 18; a pivotal moment in my life, as I was stepping into hell.
Now, I’m not one to blame others for my own actions, but for the exception of the Stegalls, I had gone through ten years of my developmental years living with strangers who were indifferent to my care and needs. Instead of helping me learn, and supporting me, I was treated as trash, something less than human by people who only wanted a check from the State. No person cared to teach me what mattered in life, what I need to do to become successful, or offered a guiding hand to the child I was. I only understood the hate and cruelty I receive from a society that had failed me. And now I was to meet others society had failed too.
In a way I was sort of relieved that I was out from under foster care and that I would be eighteen years old, able to go anywhere, when I left the Boys School. My sense of relief was quickly quashed after I arrived.
The school was a disaster, pure madness. The older boys, men really, preyed upon the younger ones, who couldn’t protect themselves. I witnessed the sickness of rape and other perversions exacted upon young boys and the apathetic response by staff. I was thrown into hell and had to resort to fighting nearly every day. I was involved in so many fights with staff and other boys that I was soon assigned to the “maximum” dormitory soon after I arrived, where I would spend a year.
The Maximum was a mad house. Every door had a large padlock on it, and food was brought to you in a bucket. But it was in the showers, where we would be brought together with others boys, that the madness truly manifested itself. There, you always had to be mindful of others who would attack you with razors if you didn’t protect yourself. Many defenseless boys were raped by two or three others at a time. Again, the staff failed to do their job leaving us alone in the showers. Despite all this, though, I made a choice to get my act together, which did draw the attention of the dormitory supervisors.
I was soon given more freedom, allowed to come and go out of my cell at night to help clean, and eventually I was made a porter. By the time my first year was complete, I was transferred to a regular dormitory as a result of my good behavior. But after four or five months, I ran off. I don’ know why I left, only that I needed to go back to mom and dad Stegall’s and that’s where I headed. But, I was caught and returned, where I was put in the Maximum for six months.
After my time in the Maximum, I was again placed in a regular dormitory, only this time I was approached by Coach Harris, who seemed impressed with my basketball skills and asked me to play for the school team. I loved the game and it took little to persuade me to join. Besides, it was just the distraction I needed to stay out of trouble. When session started, we were off campus almost every week night playing against area schools. Everyone at the Boys School was crazy about my playing and it kept me from doing dumb things. I was enjoying it all, and could spend a lot of time in the gym alone practicing before the team came in.
Even though it was a Boys School, there were women on campus who worked in the office. One particular secretary, I’ll call her “Mary” (not her real name), began to come to the gym and watch me in early practice. She would sit and watch me shoot and run drill, but as soon as the rest of the team arrived, she would leave. After a few weeks, we began to talk. I was captivated by how beautiful she was, and, at under 17 years old, vulnerable to Mary’s advances, a woman ten yours older.
It wasn’t long until Christmas rolled around and I was allowed to go home for two weeks. To my surprise, when I got off the bus, Mrs. Anderson was there waiting on me, who gave me a hug and told me she was glad I came home. I was glad to see Willie.
Over the two weeks, we boys talked a lot about the Boys School and other things. It was an enjoyable time. At some point, Mrs. Anderson inquired into what I had planned to do when I turned 18 and left the school. I expressed my plans to go to Job Corps in Texas, but after that I was not certain. That’s when she suggested I come stay with her, which seemed very odd to me. Being in that family environment, though, made me sick to find our real mother and father. I needed an answer to why they had not attempted to find us; it was something I couldn’t understand. I left Mrs. Anderson’s and went back to the Boys School with these thoughts on my mind, depressed, frustrated, and angry. But what was waiting on me would make it all worse.
As soon as I returned, Coach Harris called me into his office to give me some bad news. The superintendent had decided to transfer me to Pine Bluff because my personal relationship with Mary was suspected after someone had seen us walking together holding hands. Although Coach Harris had done all he could to keep me at Wrightsville, the issue was closed.
Needless to say, I was consumed with anger. I was unable to understand why all this was happening. I had been doing my best to do the right things but nothing would change the fact that I was being transferred. As I waited in the front office, Mary came in and I told her what was happening and why. She became very distressed, left, and I never saw her again. By the time the couple from Pine Bluff arrived to pick me up, I was distraught.
On our way to Pine Bluff, the couple tried to get me to talk to them, but I was keeping my anger and hurt in check. I had about a year to go before I turned 18 and would go to Texas, and I didn’t want to do or say anything that would cause problems with my plans. At the same time, my emotions were giving me thoughts of running away as soon as possible, but only the lack of knowledge of the Pine Bluff area kept me from continuing that line of thought. The questions didn’t end when we arrived at Pine Bluff, but I was still too angry to talk with anyone. Yet that would change before the night was through.
To my surprise, the first people to come talk to me were two coaches, Stought and Spencer. They said they had no idea why I had been transferred, but they knew I played basketball and wanted me on the team there. They said there were but a few games left in the season and wanted my help to get into the tournament. I couldn’t get over their apparent selfishness, simply assuming I would play ball for them, not asking me how I was doing. I know now that they did care and that playing basketball would help me cope with feelings and problems that, at the time, I did not understand nor knew how to cope with. Needless to say I was taken aback by their suggestion and told them I wouldn’t be playing ball. Then I met the superintendent.
Mr. Sharp called me into his office and first asked me if I knew why I had been transferred. I told him what I had been told in Wrightsville. He told me that it would not be held against me, and noted my time left and plan to go to Job Corp in Texas. Then came the biggest surprise. He asked me about trying to locate my real parents since I’d been in the system. It was a real shock to me because he was the only one who’d ever asked. I expressed my frustration and explained how some dormitory parents had unsuccessfully tried. Yet, out of the blue, Mr. Sharp made me a promise that if I would do my best to do the right thing there, he would do his best to locate my parents or at least find out what he could. Whether he was sincere or not, I couldn’t tell, but at least I left feeling much better.
After being assigned to a dormitory, getting settled, and cleaning up, I ran into “Pop” Moore, who asked how I and my brother were doing. I think he was just trying to size me up. Then he asked if I was going to play basketball for the school, because, he said, they could really use my help. My answer was the same: I would think about it. Not long thereafter I met the dormitory parents who, while explaining the rules, asked if I was going to play ball for the school. They got the same answer.
At breakfast the coaches wasted no time in starting in on me to play ball for the school. They only had one thing on their mind: to get me on the team, and they made sure my work assignment for the next few days was to report to the gym. Of course, I started to play basketball for the school, and went on a few road games with the team. Then, I ran away again.
I was homesick, and went back to mom and dad Stegall. I didn’t stay there because I didn’t want them to be in trouble, so I stayed away, visiting off and on, for four months. I would be caught in town and returned to Pine Bluff. I received a whipping from the Superintendent then he turned around and wanted to talk to me about my problems. It wasn’t a good time for me.
What the Superintendent insisted on telling me was that his efforts to find my real parents was met with difficulty. No one would release any information. By now I was angry at the world. I stopped playing basketball and insisted on doing work details daily until it was time for me to leave. And the day I turned 18, I was taken to the bus station and sent to Job Corp in St. Marcus, Texas.
This marked the end of my pre-adult years. It should have been a celebration, filled with hopes and dreams, but I was not prepared and had no idea of what I needed to succeed. My life up to this point had been pure hell. Moreover, no one seemed to care. I had spent all those years looking for the answer to the one question that I needed answered – why? Why were Willie and I separated from our parents? Why had they not attempted to find us? Why would no one give me information about them? I had 18 years of anger pent up inside of me that was bound to come out. I was the product of a failed system, from which I would not recover.
My stint in Job Corp was short lived. The program had strict ‘zero tolerance’ rules, including no fighting, for which one would be sent home. Fighting, however, was the only method I knew to solve disputes, having been through three years of learning such in the Boys School. I was not prepared to handle disputes amicably, and thus, when a ferocious fight broke out on the basketball court, I resorted to that which I knew. That fight involved many of us and was bloody, prompting officials to call local police, after which we were all arrested and subsequently removed from the program and sent home.
I returned to Mrs. Anderson’s home at first, to be near my brother. Mrs. Anderson seemed genuinely concerned asking what was wrong with me. I had no way to tell her as I did not understand what it was. Again, I was a product of a failed system, where I only knew to go to extremes to settle disputes. Even so, I managed to keep it in check for two years. During that time I did spend quite a bit of time with mom and dad Stegall helping them on their farm. Also, we were trying to find my natural parents.
Attempting to find my real mom and dad and constantly running into a brick wall was the underlying cause for my troubles throughout my young life. I felt debased the entire time and this fueled my anger and anxiety, which I knew not, nor had been taught how to control. These things I would learn much later in life, but not before running afoul of the law, which I did a few years later by committing robbery.
I was sentenced to prison for 25 years with 15 suspended, for a net of 10 years. It was very difficult for me as I was constantly fighting with officers and spending time in isolation for rule violations. Three years into my sentence, however, events outside my control would forever affect my life.
First came the news that my brother was incarcerated. Then I was told that Willie had found our real mother and I was given her address in Brookhaven, Mississippi, along with materials to write her. I had 24 years of pent-up emotions to deal with and questions to ask, including the one I needed most to be answered: why had she given us away and then waited all these years to come back into our lives? But, I wouldn’t ask that question right away. Rather, I planned to wait until we’d established communication.
I wrote a simple and short letter initially and she answered and included a picture. I was stunned at how beautiful she was and how much she looked like Willie. Having established contact, I decided I’d wait until her next letter to ask the big question. Weeks passed but no letter came; then a month. I wrote a short letter to see what was wrong, but weeks of no answer turned into four or five months. I knew something was very wrong. Then one morning, I was visited by the Chaplain.
This time, instead of bringing me good news as he had with my mother’s address, he brought the worst ever: my mother had died and that she had been dead for four months. I was devastated but I was unable to grieve, not just immediately but for a full year. Moreover, I couldn’t understand why I was unable to become emotional over my mother’s death. I wanted to talk to someone about it but I had no one available whom I felt comfortable. Hardest, I believe, was not being able to ask mom why she gave us up and who was our father. This ate at me for years, in which it took for me to come to terms.
Today, it would be easy for me to blame my behavior on being from a broken home or because my brother and I were passed around from place to place, some of the foster parents not treating us as human beings, but concerned only about the check from the state. But I do feel as if my life as a young man was cut short. The only good thing was that Willie and I were not split up, for which I am grateful to God.
I also know that I was responsible for some of the things that happened to me because I had made some very dumb decisions not only as a young person but also as an adult.
I know that given an opportunity I will be a better and productive person in society. More so, I know that God is real. He has given me a second life, and I believe a new purpose to help others who don’t know what it is like in a place like this.
I accepted God into my life in 1982, and without Him I would be dead today. I admit that I made dumb decisions and paid a price for those acts. However, now I’ve finally gotten myself together, stayed out of trouble for over a decade, and proven to myself and others that I can be a greater and successful person.
I am seeking relief not just for selfish reasons. My brother is battling cancer, he is the only family I have, and I want to be there for him before God takes him home. I am also preparing to be married to someone who has been there for me for over 14 years. But it would be difficult for us if I remained in prison. She has a wonderful family and they are ready to accept me as one of them; something I’ve not had in my entire life. I fear it would be a burden to her if I were to remain incarcerated.
I know that I broke the law, more than once. I had to be punished accordingly. However, I feel I have paid my debt to society and now have a real chance to be a productive citizen given the opportunity.
My rehabilitation process really didn’t actually start until 1982 whenever I accepted Islam under the teachings of the most honorable Elijah Muhammad. I must say that it really came at a crucial time in my life because I had no knowledge of what was going on around me. To be truthful, I didn’t have any knowledge of my true self. I was headed for a path of self-destruction if I didn’t find some kind of help soon.
Islam became my savior by helping me establish a culture of self-love, self-respect, hope, and the initiative to think and do for myself in a self-enhancing and self-persevering manner. Through my rehabilitation, I found out that one cannot know (God) without first knowing themselves. So I have been blessed to know myself.
I had no knowledge of any kind of responsibility nor did I have any true knowledge of what discipline was until I accepted Islam under the teaching of the most Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I have found out that in order to allow yourself to be rehabilitated, one must be willing to make the necessary sacrifices in life that would allow themselves to change in a righteous way.
Also through my rehabilitation here, I have learned how to respect other individuals and their property. I have enough knowledge now to know what it really feels like to be rejected and denied compassion.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with youth here. It has really been a blessing to me because I’m able to look at them and see who I used to be like. That really gives me a head start with the 30-member group of young Muslims I closely work with who also have accepted the teaching of the most Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Some of these young brothers were just like savages. They didn’t have any kind of respect because they didn’t know what it was. Only by the blessing of (God) was I able to help these young new people educate themselves and become better men.
I have also been able to mentor individuals other than Islamic. I had to rehabilitate myself first before I could even think about helping anyone else. Now I don’t want anyone to get the wrong understanding as I don’t confess to be the answer to everyone’s problems. Neither do I have all the answers but I’m willing to do whatever I possibly can to assist them in their problems that they might be experiencing because I used to think the way they do. My behavior was the same as theirs is now. So I know that I’ll have a much better opportunity of tapping into their minds than anyone else would who hasn’t experienced their lifestyle. I’m no one’s savior but I am a survival story and sharing the work of (God). What it has done for me in the way of allowing me to be a better individual.
Many individuals might call me crazy for saying this, but I could care less because the truth is the truth. By coming to prison, it gave me a second opportunity to live. Meaning, a much better life through this incarceration. I have been blessed to identify with who I am. It would have been impossible for me to live under the savage condition that I thought was life. So I owe my ability to rehabilitate myself to (God) Almighty. I’m showing my appreciation to (God) by helping others. He (God) has blessed me to be successful in this battle with some of these individuals. Once you can get a younger individual inside of a prison to make that sacrifice to pull away from his home boys who mean him no good, this is a blessing from (God). Because many young individuals allow their home boys to think for them which is their biggest problem. So, whenever you go at them you got to have (God) on your side. No matter what you do in this life you got to have (God) in your life because your ability to win them over will be because of (God), not you.