I sat in a large wood-paneled room as my brother sat in a pew-like row in front of me, but this place war a far cry from any church. We were in a jail courthouse 500 miles from home.
He was 18, in an orange jumpsuit, handcuffs on, sitting next to a cop that had the detestable tendency of smacking him on the back of the head anytime my brother tried to turn around and smile at me reassuringly. I needed reassurance more than anything. I sat between my parents and waited for my name to be called to give a character testimony in front of the court for my older brother.
It was my fifteenth birthday. I was wearing a starchy, modest dress that my parents instructed me to wear so that I’d look like a trustworthy young lady. Myriad thoughts were racing through my mind when I had to walk in front of the room and talk to these strangers, the prosecuting family, and the judge about my brother. I lasted about two minutes of speaking before my face fell and I stared ahead, crying, rendered unable to speak by the cruel silence and the scrutinizing glares of the scads of people.
I ended my testimony early and quietly retreated to my seat. The crowd’s glare followed me to my seat. They didn’t really want to know any of what I had to say and didn’t deserve to hear it. After they heard the evidence of the crime and the charges, the court gave him the maximum number of years in that state for breaking and entering—ten years. My brother, my best friend, was a felon. Our family was devastated. We quit going to our church home, we quit talking to old friends, and I changed schools shortly after because our upper-middle-class peers saw us as damaged goods. The worst insult of my adolescent life came when a friend that I’d gone to private school with and been best friends with for ten years sneered at me during a standoff of words and said, “You’re going to be just like your brother.”
In retrospect to that comment which was made over half a decade ago, those words don’t hold such a negative connotation to me anymore, because my brother, the felon, strolled into prison, kept his head held high, and inspired me with a few gems of wisdom along the way:
1. It doesn’t matter what other people think.
My brother lived by this philosophy way before he went to prison; it was evident when he’d stand in the mirror in my room to dance shirtless and sing to Justin Timberlake songs or when he passed out naked on our downstairs couch after a night of heavy drinking while I was having a big sleepover. But when he went to prison, he took it to another level. He became passionate about conspiracy theories and began spouting them off at anyone who would hear them, including his bunkmates and guards (although he mainly did it to make people think he was a little crazy, just for fun). He would enter the prison talent shows and sing System of a Down’s “B.Y.O.B.” in a frenzy of screaming ecstasy in front of crowds of up to 900 people. He would vividly reenact his talent-show performances in front of me during visitation, and all of the mullet-headed moms and toothless grandpas would glare at us from the next table over. He did it all with a smile, and anytime someone gave him the stink-eye for having fun, he’d smile bigger and nudge me with his elbow.
2. Never give up on what you love.
My brother always loved to read what I had to write, especially after he arrived at the Stony Lonesome. Sometimes, I’d send him small pieces that I’d written, just about mundane life or brief encounters with people. He thought they were a riot, and he’d write me commentaries on what to write about next or great book ideas in frantic letters; he couldn’t give me the ideas fast enough. He was afraid to start writing on his own when he first went into prison, because he thought that his vocabulary and ability to expound on emotions and circumstance wouldn’t keep anyone captivated. He started reading books and taking notes and writing me letter after letter of short stories and poems, asking me to correct them or give my opinion.
In the midst of his reading, he found a book on screenplays and discovered his passion. He wrote a 150-page screenplay about the beginning of mankind and used his obscure knowledge of prison conspiracy theories to add to the meat of the plot. He sent it out to professors at Berkeley and UCLA, using addresses he found in the title pages of his books. Today, he corresponds with one of the film professors at UCLA, and he is in the midst of writing his second screenplay (which is written in appropriately flowery language). And he is already writing to screenwriters’ guilds and talent agents about job openings, despite his own family members giving him the grim statistics on financial success after incarceration, as well as recidivism rates that stem from felons becoming burnt-out during job searches.
3. Never stop learning.
One of my favorite life mantras has always been this line from Socrates: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Little did I know that I would ever learn the true value of this from my brother, the felon. Inspired by my brother when I was in undergrad, I immersed myself in the research of prison environments. I wrote paper upon paper on prison suicide, prison attitudes, racism in prison, and, ultimately, prison as a form of slavery. I looked at some of the attitudes that guards have toward prisoners and their learning abilities, the attitudes that America itself has concerning its prisoners’ learning abilities, and it was bleak.
Considering that we have the biggest incarcerated population of any country in the world, it would seem prudent to encourage them instead of berate them and not try to make them Skinnerian pets under the state’s stringent rules. My brother tells me stories that prove cold academic research can’t even begin to explain the devastation, the racism, and the abuse that stems from these rules and this belief that asserting dominance over a group of people will help them change. Yet my brother still thinks for himself. He still writes poetry and displays a quiet peace when the racist, reactive gangs of state prisons rampage his room and steal his belongings. At first, he was angry. He thought all prisoners were the same and that he was a victim. He thought that the guards were out to get him. He thought that the different racial stereotypes of prison gangs were based on real people. Somehow, along the way though, he realized in that tiny little cell of his that if he keeps that narrow, negative mindset toward his fellow inmates and guards and stops learning about them, he is no better than the punitive system that tries to knock him down every day.
This is the most important lesson he taught me, and I hope it’s the most important lesson that my brother, the felon, can teach you, too—that those “animals,” those felons, who are portrayed in the worst light on shows such as NCIS and Law and Order, are not apathetic, cold-hearted drones to be reeducated by the state—they’re human, and they need to be able to think for themselves and keep learning to thrive on the outside.