Hope Is Real...
This story is true, as relayed to me by my son-in-law Chris Leszczynski. This was his experience in a youth detention center at 15 years old. It is true, not only for Chris, but for so many of our incarcerated loved ones across the country.
I was fifteen years old the first time I was brought into the Maxiumum Secure Detention Center for Youth. I still remember sitting in the back of the sheriff's car. Every prison movie I had ever seen now exploded through my mind as we crept slowly through the steel gate of the facility. We were surrounded by razor wire, security devices, and thick forest, and my eyes wildly scanned the terrain for a method of escape, all the while trying to control the building fear that was silently screaming inside my chest. I had to learn quickly to control that monsoon of fear before I was to take my first step into this new world. I had to construct a stone facade, inpenetrable, lest my fear be detected.
Is This a Dream?
Once inside, the staff took down all of my personal information, half of which I had suddenly forgotten. I was then led into a harshly lit, cold, sterile room and told to strip. As I stood there, frozen with fright, I became angry and indignant, having a grown man staring at me as he inspected for contraband. I was given delousing shampoo and was instructed to wash in a freezing cold shower. When I was finished, I was given state issued clothing, a towel, soap, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. In my hands I held the only possessions I now owned. The clothes felt like cardboard when I put them on, and the residue from the delousing shampoo began to burn and itch my scalp.
I gathered my belongings and harnessed my fear as I was lead down a long hallway. I remember trying to decide if the trembling that had begun throughout my body was from the freezing cold shower, the cold hallway, or from the feeling of creeping horror within me that was slowly turning into panic.
Soon I began to hear loud echoing voices dominating the air around me. The sounds of outcasts; products of broken homes, broken hope, violence, and abuse. We came to a huge steel door with a letter and a number on it. As the door opened, I saw inside a long row of cells. We walked down the gallery, past each cell. I knew that the kids in the cells were sizing me up, like little wolves. I could feel the stares, the voices that were now turning into cackles and heckles from the nameless faces of the wasted youth. The sensory overload inside of me was almost unbearable. I wanted so badly to run, to scream, to cry, yet somehow I knew not to show fear, weakness, or any other emotion for that matter. I maintained my indifferent facade and kept moving on.
My New Home
We finally reached what would be my cell, my new "home". I stepped inside and the door slammed behind me, the provoking voices now muffled, yet still surrounding me. I remember putting my bed together, a stiff plastic mattress on a steel slab. I set up my meager possessions, everything else in my life having been stripped of me. I didn't have a pen or paper and I couldn't use the phone. I didn't know any of the staff, I didn't know any of the voices invading my cell, and I wanted more than anything you can imagine to just hear my mother's voice. I don't remember if I cried that night. The claustrophobic, sick panic that enveloped me may have suffocated that urge. I'm sure I did, though, how could I not have?
Waking up the next morning to the sun shining through barred windows with the view of razor wire wrapping around a crisp, blue sky was absolutely surreal. Feeling that this was just a terrible dream, and wishing with everything in me that it was, I had to bring myself back to harsh reality. The emotional and mental struggle to shift my perception into accepting that this was actually reality was insane. It was somewhere around that moment when I realized the most intense and profound sense of self. It was far beyond feeling alone. It was the feeling of being in a parallel reality where the only thing real was myself. It was like floating in space and watching the earth fading away.
Living With New Reality
I lost my fear of institutions that day, and, along the way, gained feelings of betrayal and anger. I was introduced to things that caused me to question, and lose a little faith in, humanity as well. My mother and stepfather thought that this incarceration would be a good lesson for me. It was only to last until my next Family Court date for criminal mischief and fighting, for which they had had me arrested.
Did I learn a lesson? I did. As I write this, 25 years later, covered in jailhouse tattoos, scars, my head shaved, and a perfected facade, I have no fear. I am in yet another prison cell and have accumulated approximately 20 years time in institutions. I am now living out a 16-to-life sentence. No, I have not taken someone's life. I was given this sentence because of my criminal record.
A Lesson Worth Learning?
The lesson I learned is that a child's fear of incarceration may be more conducive than the actual experience of incarceration itself. The lessons learned and negative experiences both within prison walls and within the confines of the child's mind while they live prison life will contribute more to delinquency and arrested development than living a troubled childhood on the outside ever could.
I have learned to take full responsibility for my actions. I have come to understand how the choices I've made through the years have created the negative results I've had to live through. However, I also recognize, in retrospect, that there were contributing factors outside of my own control, that influenced my actions as well.
I now have a beautiful wife and daughter who love me unconditionally. They support me and are waiting for me on the outside. They have helped me to realize the person who I really am and that there is hope for me to someday be the husband, father, and provider that I am meant to be. After years of running further and further into a life of destruction, I finally have a reason to stop, turn around, and truly see the wonderful gifts I have been given. Now I know that hope is real.
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