Finding a Way to Be Somebody During and After Incarceration
In a world that demands you be somebody in order to get anything done, I found myself imprisoned in a system whose goal is to make those inside it feel like nobodies.
I was once in a prison segregation cell in the aftermath of a riot. The acidic odor of tear gas floated in the air, along with a feeling of chaos and violence. There was no plumbing, electricity, or food. Under such harsh conditions, anybody can be made to feel like a nobody – particularly when so many of us were already deemed nobodies by society before we even saw the prison doors close behind us.
The criminal legal system makes a person feel small and insignificant, dwarfed by the power of something much bigger than themselves. Even on paper, and certainly within the depth of the human soul, how can a person feel anything but small when he or she is faced with the words United States of America v. you? When I was in that situation, I came to understand why the man outside, in the cold, without friends or family, alone – trembles. At just 16 years old I was escorted out of a courtroom, handcuffed and shackled, and was placed in a dirty, cramped cell. I was told that I would die there, without first ever having the opportunity to live. I felt inconsequential. And I took notice of how others avoided me, seemingly afraid of being contaminated by my nobody status.
I thought that I may spend my entire life trapped inside that system. I had to find a way to reclaim my feeling of somebodiness – and that was through education.
When I was restricted by prison walls and cell bars, I traveled the cosmos through books and scholarship. I learned about ancient societies and the plethora of philosophies, ideologies, religions, and practices that have dictated the course of human affairs, unrestricted by borders and time.
Through education, I was better able to define myself rather than let someone else define me. I became better equipped to find meaning and purpose for my life. Similar to a child learning how to talk, I found a way to express myself and serve as my own advocate. Soon after I began pursuing education, I began to feel again that I could be somebody – not just among the group of men I was imprisoned with, but in free society as well.
I dropped out of high school at a young age. Growing up, I never viewed education as a path toward making something of myself. I was intimidated by the tedium and herculean effort required to succeed in a formal educational setting. And at the time, that path lacked the sense of awe and uniqueness that I craved. I wanted so desperately to be somebody and to rise above the hardship and shame I had become accustomed to. I was convinced that by avoiding the drudgery of society – in classrooms and workplaces – I could quickly and easily obtain a life of repute and luxury.
Alas, my destiny proved to lead me to the exact situation I had tried to avoid: I spent nearly four decades in isolation, poverty, monotony, and imprisonment.
I have only been a member of free society for less than 90 days, and I am still grappling with how to be the somebody I want to be. Grace, the gift that God gives to us all simply because He loves us, has shown me that I can always improve upon the life I created for myself. But I can never improve upon the life that God has created for me.
I can’t blame any of life’s circumstances for the conditions I have found myself in. All I can do is decide every day to move forward, because I believe that people with good character wake each day and search for the circumstances they desire – and if they can’t find them, they create them.
Arlando “Tray” Jones III is a Program Associate at the Prisons and Justice Initiative. He is also a published author, public speaker, and advocate for wrongfully convicted people.
Read More From Tray:
Arlando “Tray” Jones III describes the everyday struggles and joys in his first weeks of freedom since he was 16 years old.
October 11, 2022
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