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AL Prisoners on Childhood Trauma, Childhood Poverty (Full Version: Parts 1 & 2)

Author’s note: Incarcerated sources are kept confidential to protect their safety and privacy. Each prisoner is identified by a randomly chosen letter.)

(Part 1) – “Z” – “Quadruple Bad Luck”

“Z” has been incarcerated in Ventress Prison on nonviolent charges for around two years. In June, he interviews about mass incarceration, his background, and other subjects for several articles. 

“I wouldn’t really say we was poor” growing up, says Z, “because I was an only child.” He was raised by his mother and grandmother, who “always made sure” he was taken care of, had what he needed and wanted. 

“When my grandma died,” Z recalls, “my momma got on drugs and stuff like that…I was around 15 or something like that, and then I had to start selling drugs, because my momma couldn’t pay the bills, so I had to start paying bills. And then I said I wasn’t going to stop until she had her own house, because we had – our house had ended up burning down, also, around that time.” 

Z pauses, then explains, “Man, look, man, my dog died, my grandma died, my house burned down, then my momma got on drugs,” all “in a few months.” 

Asked how their house burned down, Z elaborates, “My momma – this guy she was talking to at the time, he got mad because she left him, and he set the house on fire. I was in the house sleeping at the time, wasn’t nobody there but me. And I lost … clothes, trophies.I had all kinds of stuff in there, for years.” 

Z reflects: “Like, I was real good at sports – track, basketball, football. So, I always felt like that [trophy collection] had sentimental value to me.” 

After that man burned down Z and his mother’s house, “So, my momma’s stuff got burned up. So, she started gettin credit, gettin stretched, hangin around the wrong crowds, gettin on drugs. And I had a few cats and a lil puppy at that time, new puppy, and um … actually, I had to put all the kittens and the puppy in my car, runnin around in the car for a while till we got a house, and sometimes we stayed with a friend of mine. Yeah, so, I was like, ‘Man, bad luck outta nowhere.’ I’m talkin bout, like, quadruple bad luck. It was, like, in just a few months, everything went down hill. We were homeless.”  

Z remembers the early stages of being suddenly homeless as a young teen. 

“I was like, ‘Man, I ain’t ever been homeless. I ain’t ever live like that before, man.’ And I was smellin, because all my clothes that I did save smelled like smoke. So, like I said, I wasn’t old enough to work. So, I found a dealer and started sellin dope. So, eventually, came up, got my momma on her feet, got her a house. I started paying bills, learnin how to grow up early.” 

Z pauses, and remembers, “I had some plans, man. I was gonna leave Alabama, period. I was planning on [leaving] with sports anyway. But, like I said, all that backfired when all that happened.” 

Once Z made enough money to get his mother, himself, the kittens, and new puppy all a place to live, and continue paying the bills, “Then, I ended up getting the house or whatever,” still in his mid to late teens, at which point his mother “ended up coming back for real out of the hole she was in,” says Z.  

Shortly his mother’s recovery, Z “caught a Federal [nonviolent drug] charge. A dude set me up … And I did, like, 20 somethin months on that” in his late teens.

Z is around middle age now. 

After serving time in those early, formative years, after all those struggles at home and in the streets, “I hadn’t been in no trouble since,” he says, until his arrest and conviction, also on nonviolent charges, a couple of years ago, of which he claims to be innocent, for which he’s currently doing time.

Ever since his late teens, during his first prison sentence around that time, and afterward, Z has read and educated himself on building things, repairing things, real estate, business, personal finance, and economics. He also reads about history, current events, particularly mass incarceration, and frequently reads and rereads the Bible. 

“I’ve always read stuff, and I was always knowledgeable about cars, [and] fixing stuff … even before” his first time in prison. I always wanted to buy houses. And, from taxes, I always knew about it [as a teeneger], but just never really studied on it,” Z recalls. 

Following his release from his first prison sentence decades ago, he went legit, continuing educating himself on finances, business, real estate, and mechanics. He soon opened a repair shop, bought properties, rented to several tenants, became a father. 

Around the time Z was first in prison and after his release, he says, back “around when there was a lotta millionaires … I used to asked them questions, just write it down, and when I got home, I just started studyin, reading books… and learnin how to buy houses.” 

He’d buy houses at low cost that need fixing, “and then I just get somebody to fix them up, wire em up. Like, that be the main thing wrong with them. You strip the wires up. The windows, you might have a few people threw rocks and stuff through the windows, stuff like that … But other than that, just sheetrocking the house, wirin, paintin, replacing the windows. Somebody’ll have to come put some carpet or somethin like that down, and that’s about it.” 

Around the same time, he “learned the stock market also, how to day trade.” 

He had just started “to learn how to do all that before I got locked up,” he says. 

He recalls that, when he got out, he was able to establish the two small businesses, which ran smoothly, and he had moderate but consistent success at day trading as well. 

Z reflects on his work, and some aspects of investing that he’d like to change and improve when he is released from the sentence he’s serving now. His goal is to become a millionaire when he’s released from Ventress, and he reads prolifically on how to go about doing so. 

He says he was usually most successful as an investor when dividing his investments into lower amounts and putting them into around a dozen companies simultaneously “and, whichever one’s losing, I’ll cash out of them, and ride the one that’s winning.” His biggest mistake and loss came, he says, when he once didn’t use that strategy, and “had all my money in one company,” along with a couple other factors. “That’s the first time I did that, and I really don’t do it like that, and I spent my money up that way,” he says.  

“So, you’re basically entirely self-educated.” 

“Yeah,” Z answers. 

“And never went to college?” 

“Nah,” Z replies, “I went to a technical college for … to be an electrician, but I ain’t finish … (pause) because I felt like, man, I ain’t wanna be around – when I started going to college for that, it was a school where after five years, they’ll certify you. But I used to work around all them power plants, transformers, and they’re talkin bout the stories of people dying, or fell off something that was real high that they was on. I’m like, ‘Man, I can make more money workin for myself anyway.’” 

He was still in the process of fulfilling his old dreams and building new ones, financially and in the rest of his free world life, when he learned he’d be doing time instead.

(Part 2) – “G” – “The Way Life Is”

“I had a good childhood, I was just bad, man. You know? I just – I had – my momma – I ain’t always live with my momma growing up,” says “G.” 

G is incarcerated in Ventress, and has been doing time in Alabama prisons for about four straight decades, since he was a child. Early July, he interviews with HTR for this series.

“My momma gave me to a lady to raise me up – you know – till I got old enough to know that I had a momma. I went and started staying with my momma when I was about 12 or 13. Then I just went to stealin, and doin all this other stuff,” says G. 

“I am an only child,” he adds. 

Asked to elaborate on the good parts of his childhood, G continues, “Well, the good part was – you know – I had somebody to raise me up. I had a place to lay my head. I had food to eat. I had clothes on my back. You know. So, that was the good part of it.” 

He “was not out in the streets like a lot of kids. They was out there in the streets – you know – just living wherever they could. But I had a roof over my head. I had hot meals. I had clothes on my back. I had all that. But it was just me. I was just rebellious, just bad, man.” 

G first met his mother at five or six years old. They had a good relationship and he was aware she was his mother growing up, even though he did not live with her until his teenage years. 

His mother “just wasn’t in no shape to raise me – you know – because she … my momma was a prostitute. So – you know – she did whatever she could to take care of herself, and feed herself. So, she put me in a good environment to [get] old enough to be able to do for myself. You know?” says G. 

Asked what it meant to G to be a “bad” kid, he elaborates, “Like I said, I was just bad. I ain’t go to school. You know? I quit school in the ninth grade, and I just went to stealin and robbin … I just took to the streets,” at “about 15” years old. 

“Like I said, I had pretty much everything a child could want growin up, but I was just bad,” he repeats. 

The woman who raised G for his mother until he was around 12  years old “worked all the time, man. You know? She worked, we raised animals, and we had a garden. It was good, man. She was a good lady, man. She was great,” G remembers. 

Asked about his relationship with his father, there is a silence, then G continues, “Yeah, well, I didn’t know who my father was till I got a lil older. But he was never in my life. You know? I had never been around him. And now he’s in a nursing home.” 

They still don’t have a relationship or keep in touch. “You know. I been locked up a long time,” G explains. Neither has written or called the other since G has been in prison. 

“That’s why I’m hoping to make it out, where I could see him before he die,” says G. 

He doesn’t have the contact information to write or call his father, “and I really don’t want to write to him, or nothing like that, because I’d rather just see him in person,” he says. 

“When I did go stay with my momma” around age 12, “she kept sending me to different places – you know – like, she sent me to California, Long Beach, Connecticut … Because my stepfather, he towed trucks, towed 18-wheelers. So, I used to ride with him, and go different places and stuff,” G recalls. 

At about 15 years old, three years or so after he started living with his mother, he first started getting into trouble, becoming “bad,” he says. Asked if he feels that getting into trouble around that time was in any way related to the drastic and frequent changes that accompanied living with his mother, G answers, “Well, my momma, she was trying to do what was best for me, keep me out of trouble. That’s why she had to move me around like that.” 

G does not know the specific reasons his father was not in his life growing up, he says. “I guess him and my momma ain’t ever get along with each other.” 

G’s mother was 15 years old when she gave birth to G, “really young,” he says. He does not know how old his father was. 

Discussing his mother’s life in prostitution, G explains that she “was just doing what she could do to survive. She had to survive. You know what I’m sayin? She was real young. So – you know – she had to do something to take care of herself. Like I said, she was young – you know – and her momma put her out the house. So, she had to take care herself.” 

Asked what that was like for his mother, G replies, “Like I say, she was just living her life, just doing whatever it took for her to live, for her to eat, survive … Stuff like that affects any woman’s emotions – you know – but she just had to deal with that, or she’d wind up dead somewhere. She did what she had to do.” 

G’s mother was in prostitution by 15 years old, at least, which is when she had G.

After G was around 12 years old, living with his mother in one State after another, G continues, “I was a child – you know – so, I had to deal with it. I had to accept what she accepted. She was my mother. So, I was livin with her. So, whatever she went through, I had to go through the same thing, not like that, but – you know – we just went through hard times sometimes. And that’s why I was stealin, to try to make sure that she had – that we had food and stuff,” says G. 

“The hardest thing we went through together, man – you know – was really trying to get to know one another. She was stayin in different places. So, we had to move from one place to another, and – you know – we had to just do what we had to do,” he recalls about the hard times he endured with his mother growing up. 

After a pause, he continues, “The hardest thing I had to deal with, man, was dudes beating on my momma, dudes jumpin on her, stuff like that. You know. I couldn’t stand to see that. I would always leave. When they’d get to fightin and stuff, I would always leave.” 

He adds: “I went and got a gun one time. I was gonna kill one of her boyfriends – you know – but I just went on and left,” and instead bought a bus ticket back to Alabama, where he was convicted of a crime he claims he did not commit soon after arriving, at 15 years old. He elaborates on all of these details: 

“When I started stayin with her … she had this one particular one, used to jump on her and stuff. You know … he’d hit her, hit her, beat on her.” 

Asked if there were drugs or alcohol involved in these situations, G says this particular boyfriend was a drinker, but “my momma never drank. She never smoked. She never did no type of drugs.”

G was 15 when he witnessed his mother abused by this partner, the same age at which he was arrested for a crime he claims he did not commit, for which he was tried at the age of 16, as an adult. 

The abuse he witnessed of his mother while living with her in New England when he was 15 “was what made me leave” and come back to Alabama, he says. 

“He was jumpin on my momma, and I didn’t like that,” G explains.

He left the situation as he usually did. But this last time, as he mentioned above, he got himself a gun. Then, “to keep me from doing something” with that gun, “to keep me from killin him, I just left, came back home, came back to Alabama” on a bus, where he “did what I was already doin” in New England, “stealin, robbin, just takin care myself.”

G stayed with his grandmother when he got back to Alabama. 

Commenting on the fact that all of these experiences must have been a lot to deal with as a child, “Yeah, well,” G reflects, “You know. That’s the way life is. Certain things in life, man, you just got to go through, just got to deal with.” 

G sometimes wishes he’d had a sister or brother, “because I would’ve had somebody to talk to. I would’ve had somebody that – you know – I could have just related to, and talked to, and probably helped me with a lot of stuff.” 

Very soon after getting back to Alabama, after leaving New England to stop himself from killing the man who he saw abuse his mother, “I went to jail, and then I came to prison. So – you know – it was pretty much over with for me then,” he says. 

“See, I never would’ve come to prison if my momma would’ve been with me, but she was still in Connecticut when I came to prison. You know. She hadn’t come to Alabama. So, [the courts] railroaded me, man, and sent me to prison,” he says. 

Asked to comment on American children being tried as adults more generally, G says, “They give out the wrong time for the wrong crime. You know. They give you too much time.” 

Asked if he believes a 15 or 16 year old child should ever live in an adult prison in Alabama, “No,” G replies, “they shouldn’t. But – you know – if the law said they’ll try you as an adult, you’ve got to come.”

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