The following is an autobiographical account of a young black man imprisoned in Illinois. I met him in 1985, when I was teaching high school classes at a county jail, and we have kept in close contact ever since. He first came to my attention because of his cocky intransigence, but given another chance, he quickly distinguished himself in memorable ways: his reading was superb, he earned his high school diploma in record time, and he even became my personal aide in tutoring the many illiterate inmates. I make no excuses for the crimes the young man has committed, and neither he nor I have any delusions about the difficult road he now travels and will have to travel for years to come.

I was a character witness for him at his sentencing hearing and was asked to testify as to his classroom accomplishments over the year I had known him. The state prosecutor asked for a sentence of 30 years in prison, but the sentence was for 15. Before concluding the hearing, the judge reminded the young man that convicts leave prison in one of three forms: as better men, as bitter men, or as dead men. He might have added that the first are rare, the second quite common, and the third—as the following account makes clear—a real and ever-present possibility.

        —Theodore Pappas

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I was born in St. Louis on October 30, 1966, the youngest of three boys. I was really raised by my grandmother, and I’ve always called her momma. She has always been the one person in the family who everyone could count on, and all of the kids always wanted to stay at her house. While we were growing up she would go without things to make sure we had food, clothes, and whatever else we needed. She is a very strong and sweet lady. She has 18 kids and I can’t even count the number of grandkids. My brother and I are the only two that have gone astray. He’s served six and a half years of a 12-year sentence for murder. I really don’t know much about my father, but I’ve always wanted to know him. To this day I wonder how I might have turned out if I had known him. He would come by my grandmother’s house and give me money, but he and I never spent much time together. I don’t even know what kind of work he did or even if he worked at all. I’ve heard that he was murdered during a drug deal in St. Louis, but I don’t know for sure.

One day in the summer of 1969, when I was two and a half, I was following my brother across the street when I was hit by a, car. I don’t remember much about the accident, other than my grandmother bringing balloons and candy to the hospital. It wasn’t until I was four years old that I went home. It was hard at first because I could not understand much of what had happened. I was very shy. At the age of five, my mother came and got me from my grandmother. She wanted to move away from St. Louis and start her life over. We moved to Rockford, Illinois, and on the day we moved we had a car accident. No one was hurt, but this just added to all of our fears about moving. Once I started school, things got a little better, until my mother began drinking. My oldest brother had to take care of us. He did the cooking, washing, and everything else that had to be done. He was eight years old. For the next three years I tried everything to get away from my mother and her drinking. I told my grandmother about how she was treating us, I told the people at school, but no one would believe me. I began breaking the law.

By the time I was eight years old, I had been arrested fifteen or twenty times, for stealing candy and other little things out of stores. They made me a ward of the court when I was nine and told me and my mother that if I did anything else wrong they would take me away from her. This was exactly what I had wanted. One day in August 1976, I told my mother I was going across the street to see a friend. I think if she had known that this would be the last time she would see me for the next three years, she would not have let me leave. I walked across the street and broke into a house. The people who lived there caught me inside and held me until the police came. For the next six months I was in and out of foster homes, and often the homes were no better than being with my mother, if not worse. So I ran away. I was caught and placed in another foster home, and I ran away again. This went on for the next few months.

Then one day my caseworker told me that I was going to a group home in Rockford, and I thought this would be like all the foster homes I had been in and that I would hate it, but was I ever wrong. I was the youngest kid there, at ten years and eight months. I stayed for 18 months. I loved being there, and the people who worked there really cared. They took me camping, fishing, and helped all of us with our homework. I felt like I was finally growing up, and I was getting good grades in school, until one day my caseworker came and said I had to go back to court. I didn’t know why, and I never thought they would kick me out of the place I loved. The morning I went to court I can still remember the staff telling me “no matter what happens, just keep up the good work.” When I found out what the court was doing, I cried, because for the first time in my life I was happy and now even this was being taken away from me. I told the court I didn’t want to go, but it did no good. They said I had been there too long and had to leave. Being that I felt strong about not going back to my mother, the court sent me to my grandmother, who had moved to Rockford. I was then 12 years old.

My mother was still getting drunk. She would call me over to her house and yell at me and make me feel guilty for telling people about her drinking and would make me cry by saying things like “you don’t love me” and “why did you tell all those lies about me.” I told my grandmother about this and she said that my mother didn’t mean the things she said when she had been drinking and to ignore her. But I couldn’t deal with this. I too began drinking. I also began stealing again, and the courts took me away from my grandmother.

I was sent to a group home in Freeport, Illinois, but I soon ran away. When they returned me to the home and refused to move me out of there, I set one of the rooms on fire. My caseworker then had me sent to Lake Bluff, Illinois, where I was put in another group home for about two months, until I ran away again. When they caught me this time, I had broken so many laws that they sent me on my 13th birthday to a juvenile facility of the Illinois Department of Corrections. There I got into a gang known as the Black Gangster Disciples. I joined the gang because I wanted to be something, to accomplish something, and I tried very hard to do what I was told so that I could get promoted within the ranks of the gang. Because of all the gang fights I got into, I was transferred to the state’s maximum-security facility for juveniles. In 1982, while on a home visit, I broke into some homes and stole guns, money, and anything else I could carry in my hands. I gave one of the guns I had stolen to my brother, and it was with this gun that he committed murder. The court judged me a “juvenile habitual offender,” and I was sentenced until my 21st birthday to the Department of Corrections. I was now 15 years old.

I was sent back to the maximum-security facility for the next three years, where I fought other gang members, guards, and anyone who crossed my path. I became a Junior Captain in the gang, which meant that I could tell any junior members what to do and how I wanted, it done. Sometimes I had to hurt people for the gang and a lot of it I didn’t want to do, but at that time all I felt like doing was making myself known. I could gain no higher rank in the gang at this time and could only move up by getting out and back on the streets or by getting into prison. Then, in January 1985, something surprising happened: I was set free. I had always thought I would be at the juvenile facility until I was 21. I was then 18 years old.

I was released back to my mother, and within six weeks of being out I was appointed Head Enforcer of the street gang. This meant that I kept all the guns for the gang, and if someone owed the gang money, it was my job to get it back anyway possible. If one of our members had broken one of our laws, it was my job to carry out whatever punishment the gang thought necessary, and if another gang tried to sell drugs on our streets, it was my job to put a stop to it.

A lot of the older members did not like the fact that I was so young and had so much say in the gang. So for the next six months I set out to prove myself to everyone who thought I couldn’t handle the job and responsibility. Within eight months I saw that I was headed for either prison or death. In my heart I wanted out of all this madness, but my mind was set on being known on the streets. I was arrested on October 15, 1985, for “accountability,” for being an accessory to armed robbery, aggravated battery, aggravated kidnapping, attempted murder, and home invasion. I hadn’t committed these particular crimes—an armed gang member had broken into a hooker’s house, where rival gang members were known to hang out, and stolen $200 and a bag of pot—but I knew the guy in the gang who was responsible and I wouldn’t identify him. For this I was sentenced on June 26,1986, to 15 years in prison.

While at the county jail, awaiting trial and sentencing, I signed up for high school equivalency courses. My reason was to get out of my cell, and school was the only way to do this. Most of the guys in the class I knew from the streets, so I thought I’d just come to class to talk and see everyone. But the teacher thought differently and didn’t put up with my b.s. I was mad at the world, but this teacher saw past all the bad things about me and tried to show me that I could learn. At that’ time, if someone had told me “that this teacher and I and his family were going to become the best of friends, I would have said they were crazy. He kicked me out of class in the beginning for not wanting to learn and for not letting anyone else learn. He let me back in, but the same thing happened. After about two weeks of being out of class he came to my cell in “seg,” meaning segregation or solitary confinement, where I had been placed for smarting off. He made it clear that I was going nowhere in life, and that only I could change my future. He agreed to let me back into class—against the lieutenant’s suggestion that I be allowed to rot in “the Hole”—if I paid attention and worked and tried not to take over the class. And I did what he said. I passed all of the exams, got my high school diploma, and then became his aide, tutoring other inmates how to read and study for their degree. This surprised everyone.

A lot of people said I was going to school only because I wanted to look good for the court when sentencing time came, but I really didn’t care what people thought, because I could see and feel a change in myself. When I was sentenced to 15 years, I knew the only way people would believe that I wanted to change was to give up what I had tried so hard to be, a “gang chief.”

The prison I was sent to just happened to be run by the very gang I had belonged to for most of my life, and if you were a member of this gang you would not want for anything. I knew that if I was going to be strong and give up this life, I would have to do this here and I could not put it off. So when I walked through the door I let everyone know that I was no longer active in the gang. At first I thought that everything was going to work out with no problem, until the gang told me that I had to remove the gang’s symbol—a tattoo of a six-point star—from my arm. One day some of the gang members told me that I would have to stab an officer for the gang or die. I reported this and went into p.c. (protective custody), which means solitary confinement. After about four months of going crazy in p.c. I was transferred to another medium-security facility.

I liked this place a lot, because it was close enough for me to have two or three visits a month from my ex-teacher and his family and I could enroll in college classes, I had high hopes that I could stay out of trouble and at the same time study toward a college degree. This worked out fine, for about a year, until the gang fights began again because of my tattoo. The Disciples at this prison told me that if I didn’t get the tattoo removed, they were going to burn it off me. After four fights with gang members, I talked to the prison officers and warden and told them the reasons for the fights and asked if I could have the star removed. I was told that I would have to pay for the removal myself, which I said I could arrange for, but instead of following through with this, they had me transferred to a maximum-security prison.

Here the same problems happened, the same fights for the same reason. This time, when I refused to rejoin the gang, members began taking things out of my cell when I was gone, and after what little stuff I had was all stolen, like my tennis shoes and blue jeans which people had bought for me as Christmas and birthday presents, they came after me. One day they arranged with an officer to have all of the cell doors on my gallery open at once, so they could roll me. I had a pass to get some clean sheets from the laundry and while coming back to my cell all the doors opened up and about sixty guys jumped out. I really don’t know what happened next, except that someone came up behind me, grabbed me by the neck, and when I woke up I found I had been beaten. My face was cut badly, over and under my eyes, my nose was broken, I had a concussion and bruised ribs, and my clothes had to be thrown away because they were covered with blood. After two weeks in a city hospital, everything came back to me and I identified the guys I could remember. I was put back in p.c. and made to take a lie detector test to prove I really didn’t have anything to do with the riot, which I passed. They then transferred me back to a medium-security facility, where I am now.

Because of the six-point star on my arm, all the officers here think I’m still part of the gang and all the gang members give me problems because I’m not. I spend most of the time by myself, just trying to survive and stay out of trouble. I’m currently back in p.c. because the administration says both the Disciples and the Vice Lords, the rival gang, want me dead. I’ve again asked the warden if I could get this tattoo removed, but so far no answer. At times I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to rejoin the gang, but this would mean I would have to hurt someone. The prison nurse put me on tranquilizers to calm my nerves, because I’m getting increasingly frustrated with this whole situation. I’m also enrolled in two college classes, and have a radio I can listen to so that, when I do get out of p.c. I can stay inside my cell and have something to do other than mixing with the gangs. I could be released in 20 months, and with any luck, I’ll survive the time and have a chance to start my life over.