(Part 2) “The Way Life Is”: 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.)

“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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