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(Part 1) “Quadruple Bad Luck”: AL Prisoners on Childhood Trauma, Childhood Poverty

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

“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.

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