Re-Slaving America (Make America Great Again!?)

It’s a horrible sign that the country of America might actually be going backwards– towards the wrong direction… was this what was meant by the 2016 dog whistle calls to ” Make America Great Again”…?

Five states, here in America, are putting a rather interesting bill on their ballots this midterm election season… Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oregon, and Vermont are all trying to reintroduce “forced labor” back into the American penal system. This situation makes this month’s Brilliance writing prompt somewhat prophetic…

“Am I incarcerated for profit?” (Brilliance writing prompt for October 2022) detailed the very gruesome history of the many insidious ways the powers of this country have exploited the American justice system and configured it into a racist pitfall (a “black hole”). All of this, in an effort to re-enslave black people, subjugate American minorities, and further the seemingly impenetrable grip racism has on this country…

Maybe the powers are going to decided to use the cover of a poor post-covid economy to bolster the need for slavery in prisons? They’ve already put forth the footwork for the past four years and successfully weaponized a fringe base of poor, white people, armed and even ready to storm the capital — maybe in hopes of taking the country “back” to “make it great again?” It is easy to accept the state of the economy as broken or unfit by those privileged but in poverty. But to those who have aligned such privilege with financial success and are now in want more, pointing them in the directions of the prison system as a means for their salvation is a welcomed fix.

Maybe the minimal headway made on social justice reforms leaves most with an unmerited sense of self satisfaction? So much that they aren’t even the least dissuaded to publicly disregard the mental wellness of Black Americans by resurrecting their most critical of traumas.

I hate that the connotation of capitalism can be justifiably understood to mean: at times we sacrifice long term mental anguish in hopes of short term monetary gains. and in a democracy like ours, this expense tends to always fall on the minority.

Why is forced labor in prisons an issue of race?

Well regardless of what our leaders are touting as true social justice reforms, the dramatic disparities in incarceration rates are still very well alive and thriving. the emphasis on racial justice, these past two years, has barely put a scratch on the issue of unfair treatment between minorities and the penal system. Black Americans still greatly outpace white ones in America’s prison population. And as described in the latest Brilliance prompt, the current state we are foregoing in this country concerning Black Americans and prison was deliberate in its design.

Given the recent events taking place within the Alabama prison system– where the incarcerated there are demonstrating a work stoppage in protest of inhumane living conditions and unfair treatment by the Alabama justice system, the fact that Alabama is amongst the states considering forced labor is nothing other than a symbol of its stern unwillingness to consider to the pleas of its prisoners. A bold statement that power is in no need of a heart nor soul. It only needs lives to stand over…

My hopes are that these aversive proposals to enslave prisoners do not go further than just racist propaganda, designed to motivate alt-right fringe voters to the polls.

If this horrible, racist. vision does manage to make it to fruition, my hope then is that the human soul that will forever fight for equality and justice, beats loudly throughout all the hearts of the oppressed and imprisoned, and that of all of their allies, and stands in opposition of such travesty…

Continue to fight for righteousness, because it is not freely given. We are all the children of freedom and it is our birthright to be free…

Love, peace, and power,

Q. Patterson

Am I Imprisoned for Profit?

Editor’s Note: Quadaire has been on a long lockdown for the past few weeks, and spent some time researching the deep roots of mass incarceration. He wanted to share the facts he learned and engage the incarcerated population in Virginia.

Since its conception, America has benefit from free labor and the industry of slavery. Slavery has long been abolished, but the clause of ‘supporting it in cases of punishment for a crime’ has been continuously exploited by corporations and politicians. This has lead to the modern day social crisis of mass incarceration and the lucrative enterprise of the prion industrial complex.

Post-civil war, disgruntled Southern lawmakers sought to evade the parameters laid out by the Reconstruction Amendments (Amendments XIII, XIV, and XV). They used the exception marked out in the 13th amendment that legalized slavery in case of punishment for a crime as the basis for achieving their goal. Incarcerating former slaves disqualified their newfound citizenship, nullified their voting rights, and returned them to chains and involuntary servitude. These Southern lawmakers legislated numerous laws and policies such as “Race Codes,” “Black Codes” and many more targeting former slaves for incarceration. White Southerners effectively weaponized the law to enlist America’s Criminal Justice System as a device to perpetuate slavery under other names.

One of these reimagined forms of slavery mirrored a pre-civil war program used in Louisiana, known as “convict leasing.” Incarcerated prisoners were leased to private companies and plantations as laborers. Ironically, these programs were often many more times dangerous than slavery conditions prior. Private companies held no direct investments when it came to their leased laborers. Unlike former slave owners who stood to lose money if the slaves were to get horribly sick or die, private companies with leased convicts were less dissuaded to put them in very unsafe and hostile environments. Convicts were more harshly abused, and in many cases, company task masters would drive them to their deaths. Since the convict leasing program was facilitated through contracts between the prison and the employer, when a laborer died, the prison would simply replace them to meet their contractural obligations and business resumed as usual.

Convict leasing took numerous lives before it was outlawed. Eventually, the program was replaced by ‘correctional enterprises’ — state-owned companies that used prisoner’s forced labor. Correctional enterprises used prisoner labor to manufacture a number of products ranging from eye glasses, shoes, and state license plates. Correctional enterprises are still widely used today. While they gross multi-million dollars a year, their workers, incarcerated peoples, average to earn about $1 per day to take care of themselves and in many cases, their families.

The prison industrial complex has thus evolved. Today, the highest grossing business fueled by the incarceration of Americans is that of the private prison sector. Private prison corporations gross multi-billion dollars a year. The business arrangement set between these corporations who provide incarceration services to the governmental agencies that employ them is a simple one: Incarcerated service providers supply bed space to state and federal agencies and must meet a quote of occupants in order to satisfy their contracted obligations. The most sinister part of this dynamic is the corporations that provide private prisons are publicly traded on the stock market. Thus, anyone and everyone, even law enforcement officers can profit from an increase in the incarceration rate.

One more interesting concept to identify in the scheme of prison for profit is a little more subtle than others. In 1994, 10 years after the first installation of a private prison, the Clinton Administration enacted the Crime Act. This piece of legislation awarded incentives to the states who get more severe on crime. The Crime Act inadvertently encouraged systemic racism with monetary gain and further the profit-for-prison dynamic.

In a perfect world, we can see the logic in society profiting from anti-social acts such as crime. But in America, our racist past infects our criminal justice system to its core. Post-Civil War and Jim Crow politicians have taken advantage of that notion from the onset of the Emancipation Proclamation. Segregationist politicians worked hard to frame the tactics of the civil rights movement as ‘crime running rapid in the streets’ and spawned “tough-on-crime” politics that still serve as the breeding ground for dog whistle politics today. (as defined in Rethinking Incarceration, as racial legislation ensconced within coded rhetoric about the common good)

Never forget that the American justice system is built on principles of the slave trade, monetary gain at the cost of human lives. Everything from the low cost, low quality food being served in prison mess halls, the highly marked up nearly expired food products being pushed through commissary, excessive price tags on essentially free services such as emails, all combined with state-sponsored monetary incentives for persecuting felony charges, keeping an ample incarceration rate, and cutting corners on a bare essentials are all aimed at profiting of human lives…

All of this takes place under the guise of sound economical principles, public safety, and justice for victims, but just as slavery was regarded as a noble conquest in the eyes of many Americans, profiting from the misfortune of already poor, disparaged people is nothing more than vile, life-costing capitalism.

Quadaire Patterson

Thought Starter Questions for the Incarcerated:

Write your own essay, poem, or submit art relative to this topic. Do not forget to include your name and any contact information for any readers who may be able to offer you some assistance.

  1. Do you believe it is possible to overcome hundreds of years of slave trade mentality in America and your lifetime?
  2. Crime must be addressed in order to have a functional and productive society. How can society better use the prison system to work for those incarcerated and the general public?
  3. How can the prison system be used to serve communities?
  4. Do you believe that mass incarceration is racially motivated due to the past? Why or why not?
  5. Do you believe America can survive without the use of slavery in one form or another?

Speech by Q at the Rally Against Earned Sentence Credit Revocation

Listen as Q speaks at the rally about what it’s like to be incarcerated right now, and what it’s like to do too much time. He also addresses all of us out here and reminds us how much WE can take action and show up as families of the incarcerated. Thank you to Voice for the Voiceless, Humanization Project, Delegate Don Scott and others who were able to show support today. The work isn’t done!

Our editor, Santia, holds an iPhone to the microphone for the public to hear.

Too Much Time: A Letter to the VA State Leaders about the Budget Amendment Rollback of Earned Sentence Credits

By Quadaire Patterson

I can say, with utmost certainty, that I have been in prison for TOO LONG. And the longer I stay, the harder it is for me to keep my spirits high, to give my all to the pursuit of ‘better,’ and to truly be the change I’ve become.

Despite the DOC’s egregious lack of true focus on rehabilitation, I know that I have made the most of my 14 years behind bars by leading my own journey to being the best version of myself. Day in and day out, waking up in prison slowly gnaws away at the intensity of that inspiration and stifled MY momentum… but never totally extinguished it.

I plea with Virginia state leaders to save my spirit and others like it, as time in prison can be just as destructive to a person, as it can be in rehabilitating them. It is true, time heals all wounds; but too much time begins to erode even the greatest of monuments.

My story isn’t one you hear often when thinking about the concept of prison – but its more common than you may think. Not once have I ever taken my incarceration, nor my rehabilitation, lightly. I always took the experience as an opportunity to grow and change my life around. From the onset of jail, before reaching prison, I worked tirelessly to build practice in meditation and spiritual strength, and gain purpose behind my life. Not once have I ever denied myself the responsibility of my own actions or felt as if I didn’t deserve to be in here. I chose books instead of card games, I chose to watch news programs instead of entertainment. At times, I even accepted that I wasn’t ready to return to society just yet. I used to say to myself, “even if they came to let me out today, I wouldn’t be ready.”

I’ve faced challenges along the way, as I haven’t always made the right choices. But still, I kept my head above the fray and the thick air of desperation and destitution that fills the penitentiary from wall-to-wall. I can recall great moments of inspiration, where I was more than ready to face the world with new eyes and put forth my newfound perspective toward the mission of making a better tomorrow… these moments began in the year of 2012, 4 years into my 20-year prison sentence.

I have never once sought my rehabilitation with the motive of early release. I’ve undertook every means of my own rehabilitation, purely because I would inevitably be released and finally got serious about my own life. Still, I continue to maintain the vision of a new day of freedom for me and to maintain a version of a future in my heart where I can use my past to help guide others with the guidance I needed as a child. I just figured the leadership finally recognized people like me when they passed the expanded earned sentence credits in 2020.

Maybe that’s why it hurts me so much to hear that people don’t believe I deserve a chance at earning an earlier release date. I’ve put faith in the system – even when it was hard to – and even when it imprisoned me. I sought to understand it, and in return, it has not reciprocated the same sentiment. The system has not sought to understand me as a person; to understand that against the odds of incarceration, I’ve still maintained my hope and faith in society regardless of what it has done to me.

Yes, I had to come to prison to find myself, but I am absolutely sure that I don’t have to STAY in prison to keep it. As a matter of fact, I feel a tiny piece of my spirit gets chipped away every time I hear another person has overdosed, or got into a fight, or stabbed. Every time, I lose a little more faith in the system, another fragment of my vision of a new day…

I know WAS a misguided young man, and in the process of being so, I may have caused harm to some people over a decade ago. I’m not making excuses and not saying that the pain of the people I hurt was not important. What I am saying is, I’m a new person, and I deserve a chance at being proactive with my change and begin to make amends sooner than later. The person I am now will NEVER revert to crime. The person I am now, at 34 years-old, understands his own potential: an understanding that isn’t afforded to a lot of poor, black youth.

I ask state leaders to not disregard my efforts, or others like me with a self-imposed rehabilitation and personal growth, by saying it is unworthy of actual redemption in the form of an earlier release date. When you disregard us, now it is YOU who are working against a greater version of what we are today.

-Q. Patterson, Brilliance Behind Bars Creator

Prompt: What’s Free, Now?

It has been 2 years since BrillianceBehindBars has been encouraged to ask the question about what freedom means to you. Since then, the earned good time credits bill has been passed. Though it might have taken on new meaning, the question remains the same… “What’s free?”

The beginning effects of the earned sentence credit legislation is starting to reach the general population in prisons statewide in Virginia. The spirits within the walls are brightening with a new sheen of hope. but this newfound hope does not come without its own unique set of repercussions — the kind that are sure to accompany any type of mild life changes, whether incarcerated or not.

With thousands of incarcerated peoples eligible for early release and are about to experience an accelerated return to the public, the general air surrounding talks of early release comes with a slight tinge of fear. The burdens of public living have escaped many of us who have experienced an extensive amount of time behind bars. It is not hard to imagine how sudden news of early release could possibly appear a little suffocating for some of us here who seek to be independent and more than functional members of society.

Anyone who has spent even a night in jail has a larger frame of reference to draw from when the idea of “freedom” is loosely thrown around in town hall debates about wearing masks in a pandemic.

However, for anyone like us, who are armed with heightened awareness of what it truly means to be “imprisoned” – the idea of what “freedom” is (or what it means to be “free”) has evolved. That is to say, we know what it means to be free while still “locked up.” True freedom is achieved on multiple levels. Freedom in the truest sense involves freedom of the mind, and in our capitalist society, financial freedom is a must to say that we are truly free…

There is still a matter of tremendous amounts of suspended sentences looming over the heads of many who will soon leave the prison. Along with that, there are still major obstacles facing ex-felons in securing adequate employment and the restricted level they are allowed to participate in the political process. Sure, some of us will be leaving prison soon, but if not properly prepared, we could end up just trading one prison for another. If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will continue to have what we’ve always had. For most of us behind bars, that is unacceptable.

I am interested in hearing what some of us have planned to obtain this truer form of freedom. Whether or not you have benefitted from the new law, freedom for a lot of us now is only a matter of time. For others, freedom may still be in reach someday soon. What will you do with it?

Prompt questions to help inspire writing:
-Do you believe there’s more to true freedom than getting out?
-If you were set free today, what would you do and where would you go? What are your plans?
-What’s your ideal job or career? Do you think it will be difficult to attain?
-Do you see restoration of rights as an importance to your freedom? Why or why not?

With great love and respect for each and every one of you,
BrillianceBehindBars Creator, Q. Patterson

A Trick

“…it’s a trick… thinking its a right of passage for a black male, ain’t real n!##@ til you enter that jail…”

-Royce Da 5’9″, “Tricked”- The Allegory

That line hits home hard. As a black man who, as a child, knew nothing of racial conflict and black stereotypes, as I look back, I see my preteen childhood as a testament to that truth–we’ve seen prison as a right of passage for us.

It’s an unspoken tradition– a vile trick that has effected, to this day, the lives of many young black men and boys. When confronted with great adversity, children normally look to their heroes for guidance on how to handle life’s issues. But many black boys suffer from America’s increasing culture of fatherlessness. What is a little black boy to do then?

Due to the struggles of black men to provide for their families in the overtly racist America of the very recent past, they found themselves faced with a life threatening dilemma– make their own way with any means available to them, or suffer the sight of a family deprived. In a country that blatantly disapproved of them solely because of their appearance, black men expressed their anger with American society by disregarding the laws – the same laws, that legally ostracized them. Therefore, the black rebel became a symbol of heroism for black Americans across the country– strong black men who stared into the face of overwhelming odds and chose survival. This became the definition of a black man. But this is also where the trick began…

It’s not a secret – for a time, America was all but inhospitable to black people. Sadly but understandably, what it has meant to be black has become an embrace of anti-establishment ideology. Why? Well, we have to understand that every prominent black American hero, at the hands of white people, have been harassed, beaten, imprisoned, and/or killed! We think if we are bold like our heroes, who had to brave the violence and strife brought on by racism and the government leaders who either participated or enabled it, only then are we strong enough to be black men in this country.

If the world of American racism is symbolized as a battleground, then the prison system would be behind enemy lines. The jails became a place where survivors of the struggle were held. The same way we honor prisoners of war, we honor the ex-convict black man who survived the extent of white oppression.

As the world evolves, so too should the mindset and model of the black American male. But I fear that if there is always a going to be a battlefield (societal racism), there are always going to be fighters, and prisoners of war (black men behind bars).

This Black History Month, let’s take some time to reflect on how we can change this for future generations.

-Q. Patterson

Introducing Caged Cranes

The crane is born to fly… Caged, some cranes peck at themselves until they are bare. Some of them conform to their entrapments, others, they continue to fly…

The description above is not only about the tall wading class of birds known for their grace and elegance. It is also a survey of the many men I have seen held to the confines of the Virginia State Correctional System.

For over a decade, I have been one of those men… bound and surrounded. I have been sentenced to murkily strut the grounds of state correctional facilities speckled across Virginia – quite simply, as a crane caged and barred from its birthright. However, I’ve always been accompanied by the practice of prayer and meditation: my means to fly…

Furthering my spirituality by body, a friend and I came into possession of a few books on the art of Tai Chi and Chi Kung a year ago. We took to the practices in the books, got more into general health and wellness, and had an idea to help make a difference beyond the walls, Caged Cranes.

Caged Cranes is a concept that seeks to unite at-risk youth with the spiritual practices of Tai Chi and Chi Kung as a means for greater personal growth and spiritual development. It is based off of the idea that the opening of spiritual awareness is an opening to a greater outlook on life and an increased chance to see better options in less than opportune circumstances.

Fortunately, I found spiritual desire in my own journey, but I know I would have benefited from this type of programming in my teenage years. In the past 13 years of my incarceration, spiritual development has been a key pillar in my overall growth. 2008 is when I received a 20-year sentence for a mistake I made as a wayward young man, after the loss of my grandmother, Sharon Lynn Dixon. She was my rock and a vehement believer in God. She was an evangelist at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Virginia. For as long as I had known her, she was bound to a wheelchair, where she had been ever since she was shot in the back by a possessive ex-husband. As tragic as her situation was, my grandmother never let it stop her from taking to the streets every Saturday, going door-to-door to share the joy and strength she received from her belief in God. From a wheelchair, she still managed to stand as tall as anyone in the room. Her voice was always filled with vigor and passion, spirit and truth. Her hope was never sealed to the limits of her chair, it buzzed around the air she carried, and it flew as high as the heavens she envisioned.

I’ve held the spirit of my grandmother close every step of the way through my incarceration. Through her spirit, I have found my own connection and relationship to God and spirituality. A relationship that has kept me on a path of great personal growth and spiritual development. Growing up, we didn’t have much, but what my grandmother gave me has proven itself a priceless and irreplaceable treasure. A message I wish to share with others who find themselves caged: imprisoned by circumstance. No matter the obstacle or situation, we are all cranes with a birthright to soar.

I am imprisoned, but by body only. My mind continues to soar above and beyond the prison walls. I never gave up on my desire to seek higher education and help others. When I first entered the prison system, I didn’t have a high school diploma. Not only have I acquired my GED, I’ve also been blessed with an opportunity to fulfill my college-level education goals. Currently, I’m taking correspondence courses at Ohio University. As of right now, I’m seeking to obtain an associate degree in social sciences. For years, I brainstormed this very platform to help showcase the brilliance of people incarcerated and was given an opportunity to bring Brilliance Behind Bars to fruition, going strong for nearly 2 years.

My successes in the darkest of places only prove that progress is possible for those who may have experienced difficult childhoods or economic drawbacks.

I truly believe that the troubled youths of today can benefit from the practice of Tai Chi, and we can work with them to identify the spiritual beacons of their own lives. My hope is that this would result in an increase in youth achievement and lower incarceration rates for young vulnerable black men and boys – helping them find a higher purpose within themselves to achieve their goals.

I plan to implement this and other programming to give back to the community when I am released.

Q. Patterson, Founder of Brilliance Behind Bars

Editors Note: To learn more about Q, take a look at his origin story here.

Prompt: The Education of Critical Race Theory

There’s been quite a stir these past few years in the mainstream media about critical race theory. It’s extremely important for us, as incarcerated people, to understand it because it speaks to why the prison system is disproportionally black.

I posed the question: ‘What is critical race theory?’ to many of my colleagues. To my surprise, most of them were uncertain. Education Weekly defines critical race theory (CRT) as an academic concept that observes the perpetuation racial inequality. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a new concept. It’s a scholastic perspective that’s over 40 years old.

Some suggest that the teaching of critical race theory is essential to the healing concerning racial conflict in America. Others say that the teaching of this history serves to maintain the divide in black and white relations in this country. Consider it a case of the ‘truth hurts’ vs. basking in blissful ignorance.

CRT views race as solely a social construction without any truth bearing in biological reality. That is to say, the CRT scholars acknowledge that there is no biological difference between races, and that the concept of races being fundamentally different is a complete fabrication. Though a construct, CRT acknowledges that the idea of race is significant and thus, guides race relations and interactions on cultural, social, and legal spectrums.

CRT suggests that this country systemically promotes a racial caste system, where minorities are relegated to the lower tiers of society.

If CRT has been around as long as 40 years ago, why is it just becoming popular now? Well, to anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last decade or so, the recent events leading to what is now recognized as the ‘racial reckoning’ has brought awareness to many Americans about the unfair practices used to continuously oppress the black American population. In the view of CRT, the subjugation of black people has persisted way beyond their enslavement, and has been legally promoted and protected by law in America. The issue now — with the continuous validation of this theory — it has enough merit to guide the curriculums of K-12. Many state legislators (largely conservative Republicans) are rushing to ban the teachings of this theory at the grade school level.

I am of the opinion that, though the truth can be hard to bear, the truth sets you free. I believe that the teaching of critical race theory will be the start of setting this country free from its vile racial divide. Others believe that the teaching of CRT will lead to further the divide in this country. What do you think?

Prompt: Write a paragraph or more describing your opinion on CRT, and your opinion on whether or not it should be allowed to be taught in grade school. Additionally, if you can, trying answering some of the foundational questions of CRT to add more opinion to your piece.

*How do you think law protects racism and upholds racial hierarchies?
*How does law reproduce racial inequalities?
*How can law be used to dismantle race, racism, and racial inequalities?
*How do you think law constructs race?

— Peace and Love, Q

Prompt: Introducing Second Look

Thousands of us in the prison system are serving lengthy sentences, some even without any hope of making it out of prison alive. Since 1995, several states, including Virginia, removed parole from their legal system, deepening the prison as a pit of despair. For the last 25 years, people (largely black and brown) have been unfairly profiled and incarcerated for sentences often doubling (or even tripling) the age when they received that sentence. Currently, there are over 53,000 people in America who are serving life without parole, and every 1 out of 4 are serving sentences of 15 years or more.

More locally, there is not much incentive to encourage a large portion of the population in here to seek better. Seriously, what is a 20-year old young man to think when he receives a 30 year sentence? Even with the updated good time bill, sentences of 30 years are more than likely not eligible for 65% (15 days of good time off your sentence for every 30 days time served).

So – what is a better motivating force for a young man who is now getting a good look down the dark tunnel he faces, if he continues with the pattern of choice he made to get locked up? I can tell you this, it’s NOT getting out when he’s 45 after serving a 25 and a half year bid (and that’s with no disciplinary infractions), a GED, and a trade certificate to go along with the permanent scar of ex-felony attached to his record!

The answer to many questions concerning rehabilitation, relief, and incentives thereof, is prospective legislation called Second Look.

‘Second Look’ is an additional route to a second chance, differentiating from parole, as it involves petitioning the court for a sentence modification. It proposes that after a defined period of time (like 10 years or so) served on an extensive sentence (I.e. 20 years or more), people behind bars can petition the court of the district they were sentenced in. There is even a chance that your sentence can be reduced down to time served. Now, this isn’t automatic. The draft propose that a board of more than the judge who sentenced you has a say in it. The prosecutor and prison staff might even be able to chime in on your potential time reduction. Ideally, you would be able to show rehabilitation, such as education, infraction-free, programs completed and trades obtained.

Second Look is already federal and versions of this legislation have been written, reviewed, and even passed in several states, most recently Texas. Now, in 2021, advocate groups are pushing to make it a reality in Virginia. It goes without saying, that such a law isn’t going to pass without a fight.

Prompt: After reading the topic above, write an essay (at least two paragraphs in length, if you can, please). answering some, one, or all of the questions below.

Are there any problems you can foresee with legislation like Second Look?

Do you have any ideas to improve this proposal? if so, what are they?

If this became law, how would this effect you? How would it affect the system?

What are some of the pros and cons you see with Second Look versus parole?

-Q. Patterson

A Thin Line Between a Hero and a Criminal, Q’s Origin Story

I’m not sure how many people understand how thin of a line there is between the path of being a criminal, and the path of being a hero — other than the people who have walked it. More so, the people who have unfortunately stumbled upon the darker side.

I have been incarcerated going fourteen years now. Over this time, I’ve lost my grandmother, chose to pick up the practice of prayer and meditation, and through the help of a loved one, been able to embrace my great desire for higher education. Reflecting on my life, I’ve been able to ascertain the point where it all changed for me — a childhood experience where I trickled over the line where hero meets villain.

I’ve always considered myself a good kid. After several different location changes in my childhood, concepts like school and friends did not have the time to take an impacting hold on my life. However, I’ve always honored my parents, respected my elders, and was always ready to help anyone I could, when I could. My mother struggled with jobs and relationships as she tried to raise my siblings and I. She didn’t have enough energy to work long hours, endured massive migraines, chased behind three pre-teenaged boys (and a baby girl), on top of being very poor. An over-premissive parenting style seemed the viable option for her, so my brothers and I were free to roam and interpret the world on our own. Innocent enough, all of these factors set the ground for the childhood experience that changed my life.

I was ten years old when my family moved to a housing project in Durham, NC. Then, the Pokémon craze had set in heavy. Everyone had their gameboys, the videogames, and the trading cards. This craze didn’t fail to reach me either. I was totally in love with all things Pokémon.

I was at a cousin’s house, walking around their neighborhood. I was showing my cousins my rare holographic Pokémon cards, when a group of three older, unfamiliar kids walked up. I remember them clearly. One was a light-skinned boy, his hair was unkept and his clothes were a bit ragged and dirty. There was a kid who was big and round, he wore an old dress shirt that was too small for him, some old khaki pants and had a chipped tooth. The third was a very small boy who looked way younger than us. He had a bandana wrapped around his head with the knot tied to the front. “Hey, let me see those,” the light-skinned boy said. I looked at him with a smile on my face, and without hesitation gave him the cards in my hand. Excitedly, I began to explain the different cards and my love of Pokémon. Suddenly, he punched me in the shoulder and said, “These are mine now,” he then jumped back and threw up his fists in a fighter’s stance. I looked at him in amazement for a second before I understood what was going on. Outside of play – wrestling around with my brothers on the living room floor, I never had been in a fight before. Recognizing what was happening, I took a stance in defense of myself and my property. We danced in a circle, and before any strike was thrown, I saw a shiny piece of chrome glimmer in the corner of my eye, and then was frozen in astonishment. “What you gonna do now!?” is what the tiny bandana-ed boy said as he pointed a small handgun at my face. My mind and body were locked in place. Of course, I had never since an actual gun before, but being predisposed to cartoons, movies, and video games, I knew just how deadly a gun could be. Noticing how petrified I was, the boys turned away and fled with laughter and my trading cards in tow.

Seeing them disappear behind the houses of the neighborhood, anger and sadness boiled up inside of me. A raging ball of newly recognized emotions exploded, and I just erupted into tears. I sat on the porch of my cousin’s friend’s house shaking uncontrollably and bawling with my head in my lap. My younger brother sat beside me, his hand was rubbing me on my back in an attempt to comfort me. Strangely, I felt shame, cowardice, and disgust with myself. “Why didn’t I do something!? Why was I so afraid?” I cried inside and began I blame myself for being too kind, for giving the boy my cards. I looked at my little brother… I wanted to be strong for him, be his hero, and I felt like I had let him down. Through tear-filled eyes, I looked him in the face and cried out a promise, “I will never let anyone take anything away from me again!” Little did I know, that day and that promise would change my life forever.

Not too long after that encounter, I found it harder to walk away from confrontation or any type of situation that I could prove how brave I was. I found it harder to walk away from fights with the other kids, to walk away from challenges of thievery and delinquency. My behavior lead me to a childhood of truancy, underaged drinking, doing drugs and even joining a gang at the age of eleven. I no longer felt like a coward or a victim, but I didn’t realize at that age, that I was victimizing my mother and eventually myself with my erroneous quest for bravery. As a child, its hard to determine the line between being a hero and a villain. Even as adults, we look at most criminals as fearless or unhinged. These assumptions are not entirely true. Most of us here in prison were fatherless, scared children who managed our fear in distressing environments by imitating what we thought was brave.

Through meditation, prayer, and education, I’ve now come to realize what bravery truly is. I earned my GED within my first years of incarceration. I have been mentoring young men for over 10 years, helping them find their own spiritual journeys, tutoring various subjects, and motivating them to seek higher education. I currently take print-based college courses at Ohio University, studying to receive a degree in social sciences. I plan to use my education, reinforced by my experience to help deter youths who have fallen on the wrong side of that thin line. I also want to work with local legislators to create policies that support them.

While I’ve been able to achieve this level of growth during my incarceration, my story did not have to have this chapter of imprisonment. That leaves me with the questions: How can we save those noble little boys out there who are only seeking to be heroes? How do we teach them not only courage, but righteousness and strength, without ever having them see a jail cell? Through my story, I hope to increase the awareness that the world is full of these misguided good kids, who didn’t have a proper chance to find the heroes they truly were, before it was too late. If we can do a better job of identifying these special children, we can help them be more than just villains society believes deserve nothing more than a life of incarceration. We can create more heroes…

Our mission focuses on remembering the brilliance behind bars, giving incarcerated people who want to be heroes a chance to show the world that they CAN be.

– Q. Patterson, Creator and Organizer of BrillinaceBehindBars.com