I’m so sick of talking about self-mastery… and the redemptive power of writing… and race. Ugh, race. I wrote a 140,000-word novel on the subject and still feel no closer to closure. How about Trump? Anybody wanna argue some more about Trump? Such an easy target. Lately, I’ve been noticing how all my essays adapt this stuffy, professorial tone. Like I’ve got it all figured out. Weird how I do that. Especially since I’m writing them from my bunk which, let’s be honest, is a clear indicator that I don’t know jack.
There is, however, one subject that I’m fluent in: Prison life. After two long bids and a quarter-century behind the razor wire, I feel like I have a PhD in this violent little microcosm of civilization. Since it’s the anniversary of my last arrest (March 2005) and my time is finally winding down, I figured I’d write about some of the people who populate my world… Starting with Mustafa.
Crazy name, right? Mustafa is his Muslim name. His real name is Josh. And he’s the smartest person I know. I can guess what you’re thinking: The yard is not exactly a Mensa convention. Agreed. Still, I think you’d be surprised.
I used to walk the track with a dude who taught literature at a state university. And every compound has a few former doctors and lawyers that walk among the uneducated and gang affiliated.
Not that all gang members are uneducated. Josh was a gang member. He was 16 when he got locked up. And that’s what young Latino men are expected to do when they come to prison, join gangs. So he did. It didn’t hurt his résumé that he’d been boxing since he was 12 and was a technician with his hands. One of the first things you notice about him are the words “Thug Life” tattooed across his knuckles. So misleading…
At age 24, right around eight years into a mandatory 25-year prison sentence, he found himself alone in a confinement cell, hungry, lonely, miserable, cut off from his brothers, cut off from his family, cut off from the world. His only company was a paperback someone had left under the mat, a book on the Jewish religion called The Road Less Traveled. He read it. Then he prayed the prayer that most of us humans pray in our darkest hour. There was no bolt of lightning, no sun breaking free from the clouds, no cliché calm that fell over him. But if there was a watershed moment in his life, a pivot point between the unconscious gangbanger he was and the brilliant young man I call my friend today, that night was it.
The way back was gradual. Ground was gained incrementally. He spent two weeks in his bunk healing from the beating he took upon renouncing his affiliation. Then he went to the chapel. Ironic that a confirmed Catholic who found God via a Jewish book in confinement finally settled on Islam as his spiritual path.
But it’s not jailhouse religion that makes him unique, it’s what he’s accomplished. He’s now a GED tutor with an unbelievable success rate. Once his students have demonstrated a firm grasp of the required criteria, he pushes them even further. He teaches them physics. He’s teaching ME physics. In addition to English and Spanish, he’s fluent in Italian and is now tackling Japanese. But the coolest thing about Josh is his ability to impersonate any inmate or guard on the compound. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Keeps me rolling. Keeps my time moving.
It could’ve gone either way. A 16-year-old gangbanger with a 25-year mandatory sentence does not have much incentive to evolve. Not in a beneficial direction at least. But against all odds, Josh has.
I’m proud to call him my friend.
(Next up, Eli. A half-Senegalese, half-Jamaican, 21-year-old surfer with the sunny demeanor of a Walmart greeter and the hardheadedness of an eighth grader.)