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There are no Children here
We come and we go and we are who we are, nothing can change this. Fate. That’s what we believed when we were kids if you could call what we were, kids. We quickly learned, there are no children here. Many of us, too many, believed there was only one path that lay in front of us. Sometimes I think none of us were ever really children, the curiosity and amazement of childhood evaded us in the absence of able-bodied parents or positive role models, the lack thereof which caused the streets to step in to raise us. We really thought we knew it all.
Mousey died this week. He died sitting at his desk in his office in the law center he worked as an advocate for prisoners. He spent his last decade helping those who could not help themselves. He enjoyed the peace and serenity that Sunday days provided. It was his time to reflect and perhaps, hide from an overwhelming world, a time when the buildings grey slate marble halls and offices were empty of anything more than the creaks in the old walls and whispers of his memories. What memories ten years of freedom offered him. Splayed out in front of him the mountain of weekly prisoner correspondence he received asking him for his help in securing others freedom as he had secured his own. It was a far cry from how he spent his previous three decades.
Mousey is how I knew him, that was his street name. His Christian name was Brian Nelson. It wouldn’t be until years after we first met that I would know his real name nor he mine. Even as kids on the street or in juvie halls and jail cells most of us never knew each other’s birth names. We thrived and survived on our street alias. Your street name is your identity. It brought you the respect you earned or the scorn you deserved. We were the products of the streets and, some of the largest most organized street gangs in not only Chicago but all of America.
It wasn’t something that we were unusually proud of nor at all ashamed of, it was simply a matter of fact. In our commitment, we were soldiers to a larger cause, our respective nations, and aimed for the lofty goals most would never attain, money and power and a career in crime. Like so many things in life, few of us saw it for what it really was, we dedicated ourselves to a lifestyle that in the end would let us down and be our undoing. Most of us joined gangs because we had nowhere else to turn, the gang provided the structure, albeit ruled by violence and a false sense of family that we yearned for but could find nowhere else. Many of us saw it as a means to survive a perilous street existence or navigate the treacherous halls of county jails and prisons. The massive networks we wove enabled us to survive.
Mousey and I crossed paths on the street, re-united in the county jail as seventeen-year-old kids, then continued our journey behind prison walls. He brought me into the picture and system as a seventeen-year-old teenage inmate clerk for the processing center in the Cook County Jail. There were six of us that worked under the direction of Gym Shoe Joe, the principal in charge of this branch of the Chicago Public School system. Not your average classroom. We weren’t receiving any awards for excellence. Most of us members of different gangs needed to be able to break bread and set aside any street rivalries in order to be one of the fortunate few clerks. It did come with its special privileges. There were many before us and have been many after us.
The requirements were basic, an ability to read and write, take direction and possess impulse control. The latter, most important though not widely held skill amongst the kid-con clientele. The job, to ensure as many inmate-kids as possible between ages seventeen and twenty-one who resided on the county jail gang wing received GED diplomas before they were shipped off to the penitentiary to complete their respective sentences. In truth, most of the kids would never need a GED diploma as they would spend many years if not decades behind prison walls. It was more of a way to provide hope in a world devoid of all hope, especially for a kid.
The crimes for which we were incarcerated ran the gamut from the mild; burglary, theft, and simple robbery to the worst; home invasion, narcotics and weapons trafficking, kidnapping, and rape to multiple homicides. We shared space and cells on four various tiers or gang wings, not separated by any classification. If you were housed on the Cook County Jail gang wing, you were considered incorrigible, the worst of the worst with a propensity for violence. You could wind up sharing a cell with anyone but only one could call the shots behind closed doors. We often referred to it as ‘gladiator school’. If there was ever any doubt the system was set up to rehabilitate it was glaringly obvious on the gang wing. Violence was the rule, show of weakness unacceptable and punishable by beating or sometimes death. This is where Mousey and I learned the way of the world, our world, that which we would be relegated to for some years to come.
I would wind up going to prison for some years, then hit the bricks, only to end up back behind the walls for a couple more bits in a few states for various crimes. I was quickly on the road to, in jailhouse parlance, life on the installment plan. Until, by the Grace of God, I somehow finally found my way back into society by a recipe made up of desperate desire, belief in a higher power, a grateful addiction, and accepting help from others.
In the 28 years, Mousey would spend in prison, he would become a shot-caller for the gang. Doing what one must to survive in prison he would also end up spending over 12 years in solitary confinement, denied any social interaction to the point of madness. His story is not the story of cruel and unusual punishment but instead the story of torture and an indictment of a system designed to punish and break, not rehabilitate. Those are the things he spent his last decade-plus fighting against. He never denied the crime for which he was convicted, instead, he chose to focus on helping others even at times when he could barely help himself.
I recall during one of our many coffee chats about the gladiator school and various prisons we had been in he reminded me of something I too often took for granted. That, as much as I believed otherwise, people like Brian and I were the exception and not the rule. He would say we were amongst the fortunate few to have been given a shot and change and a life worth living. Whether we earned it, deserved it or not we were obligated to do the best we could in life and reach out to help another.
Most inmates, especially when incarcerated early in life, spend their lives in the revolving doors of jails, institutions, and prisons. We spoke of this often. We shared, we, reminisced, we laughed, at times we cried. We knew the reality of prison and what it can do to you in a best-case scenario, and we saw first-hand the worst-case scenario. Yes, admittedly, we had some fond memories of jail and prison. How could we not, we were kids, and those memories were the foundation on which our formative adult life experience would be built on. These memories, until we would get the chance to experience other, more positive memories were all we had.
I have been beyond blessed, yet I still don’t know if I ever really left those years behind me. They still haunt me. I don’t truly believe I ever wanted to leave them behind, maybe because without them I would have nothing to remember of those periods in my life. For better or worse my years in prison from teenage to adulthood would be the brick and mortar on which I would build much of my future life. Those years and the experiences made me who I am and who I am not.
I implore you to read about Brian and learn. He believed he was put on this earth to teach others about things they don’t want to think about. Brian Nelson, it is safe to say will not be remembered for the offense for which he convicted. Nor will he be remembered for the things he may have done in the name of survival in a predator/prey world. Instead, he will be remembered for all that he chose to give back when he got his second shot at life. I hope in learning from him, I too will be remembered by mine.