Melvin L. Boone Jr. was awarded Second Place in Essay in the 2015 Prison Writing Contest.

Built in 1851, Waupun Correctional Institution is a maximum-security facility in Waupun, Wisconsin. It looks like a medieval castle in the middle of a small town. In 1852 Henry Brown became the first commissioner of the prison. By the end of the year, there were 27 inmates in the facility, including two women. There are now over 1,200 inmates.

I arrived there in October 1981. I was 18, convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery, and sentenced to life in prison. As the gray prison bus approached the facility’s mammoth walls I could feel my spirit slowly draining from my body. I walked through the huge steel gates, each one slamming behind me with finality. The heavy shackles clutching my feet and hands cut into my flesh. Several of us were herded into a massive shower room with 17 shower stalls on each side. We marched in a rhythmic line of despair. The room was humid and the floor wet as if it had recently been used. The sounds of our “ankle bracelets” dragging against the floor tiles echoed within the quiet emptiness. I looked down and shifted the handcuffs on my wrists in a futile effort to evenly disperse the pain when a voice from behind me said, “Hey, young blood. Is this yo’ first time in the penitentiary?”

“Yeah,” I replied, wondering if this was a rhetorical question.

“Well, le’me give you some advice,” he continued. “If someone offers you some canteen, don’t take it.”

I instinctively knew what he was warning me against. But I felt slightly disrespected because it wasn’t as if I were a frail young girl who might go out on a date with someone and feel obligated to have sex because the guy had bought me a Happy Meal. The way I saw it, if someone wanted to give me some canteen, I was getting something for nothing!

A tall, heavyset guard with a burgeoning gut, wearing a tight, faded uniform ordered me into one of the stalls. He was breathing hard and pieces of his blond hair stuck to his sweaty forehead. He spoke with a deep, raspy voice and a determination that left no doubt who was in control: “Melvin Boone, #89173. Get in there, take off your clothes and spread your cheeks.” I got undressed, placed my fingers in my mouth and pulled my cheeks apart like he ordered. “Your butt cheeks, idiot,” he finally said. I puffed up my chest and looked at him askance. I’d seen movies where inmates were raped in prison and I’d be damned if I assisted someone in raping me, so I hesitated until I looked and saw others doing it.

“Now raise your sack,” he ordered.

Sack? What the hell is a sack?

I soon found out. Once that humiliation was over I was led down a long tier past dozens of inmates standing at their bars. Smoke and people yelling filled the air. I tried to look as mean as I could. But I was a kid in an adult prison, and I doubt I intimidated anyone. Fortunately I was put in a cell by myself. I didn’t turn on the light; I just sat in the dark listening to the voices surrounding me, wishing somehow my parents could rescue me like they always had. But there would be no reprieve this time.

I muddled through a couple of years, until one day in 1983. I was waiting anxiously at my door to be let out for school. The guard hadn’t come around to open any cells by this time, which was odd, and I was late for class. But I could sense something wasn’t right. It had never been so quiet before: no guards barking orders, no cell doors slamming—just an eerie silence. After a couple of hours, a guard finally rushed by my cell with a panicked look, counting each inmate as he passed by and ignoring questions hurled at him. I heard someone in the distance yell, “There’s a riot! They’ve taken over the school!” If I’d had any illusions before of what prison life would be like, it was now clear.

I was raised on the north side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by both parents.

I had three sisters and six brothers. I can recall many joyous occasions. I loved singing and dancing. My favorite entertainers were The Jackson Five and James Brown. I was very shy, but whenever my sister, Sandra, asked me to perform for someone I did not disappoint. “Mel, Mel,” she’d say. “Show Aunt Jackie how you do the James Brown.” I’d dance across the floor on one leg, spin around and sing, “I don’t want nobody… to give me nothin’. Just open up the door… and I’ll get it myself.” This act would send Sandra into a fit of laughter. I never knew if she was laughing at how stupid I looked, or out of amazement. But as children, a deep sense of self-hatred poured through our veins. When we were babies our mother would often run her fingers down the bridge of our nose. She believed she could sculpt its contours to look straight like a Caucasian’s. One look at any of us today, you’d think that her efforts had the opposite effect. Because my skin was dark, my siblings called me “Blackie,” as if it were a curse. My brother, Demetri, had full lips, so we called him “Liver Lips.” And you had “bad hair” if you didn’t have “good hair” that was soft and manageable like white people’s. To this day it irritates me to hear someone say, “Oh. He has good hair.”

At a mere five feet two inches, my mother was the first female in Wisconsin to drive a school bus. She looked half her age, which led to her frequently being pulled over by the cops. My father was an unapologetic womanizer and a welder who sometimes drank a lot. But he kept a job and no matter what he took care to make sure that my mother always had enough food and money to provide for us and pay bills. My parents fought often, and with ten children in the home, they struggled to maintain their marriage. It was a stressful environment for me too. I peed in the bed until I was 10 and suffered from undiagnosed ADD that caused me to drop out of school in seventh grade (I was also bad as hell). It wasn’t long before I was introduced to drugs and crime. The streets became my school and I roamed the “hallways” like a stray cat. My parents were overwhelmed with keeping their marriage intact while my life spiraled out of control.

When I was five years old there was a couple who lived upstairs. The guy beat his girlfriend violently and regularly. She was a very large woman—our entire house shook when she hit the floor—and I feared that one day she would come crashing through our ceiling. When she didn’t, I’d sneak up the back stairs and peek under their door. What I saw isn’t clear to me today, but it would be years into my incarceration before I understood the impact those memories had on my own violent behavior and my anger about domestic violence.

It’s easy to understand why I embraced violence at an early age. Poverty was the driving force. It can destroy compassion and empathy, especially if expressing those emotions is a sign of weakness. Poor neighborhoods lacking opportunity become a breeding ground for violence, and this atmosphere becomes a way of life for its inhabitants. I would not have considered myself poor, and though my own situation was not desperate, I experienced that desperation indirectly when my friend, Darrel, for example, didn’t have any breakfast and punched me in the mouth.

These are not excuses for anyone—especially me—to justify violence. They’re an attempt to illustrate how a kid who appears to be a good kid on the surface can come to a point where he’s crossed over and there’s no one there to prevent him from stepping off a cliff. I am an example of what can become of him.

The ’70s was the DNA of who I would become: a time when being poor and black was a preexisting condition that could get you killed whether you were wearing a hoodie or not; a time when the impact of globalization and deindustrialization was felt most strongly in black inner-city communities. Described by William Julius Wilson, in his book When Work Disappears:

“The overwhelming majority of African Americans in the ’70s lacked a college education and had attended racially segregated, under-funded schools lacking basic resources. Those residing in ghetto communities were particularly ill equipped to deal with the seismic change taking place in the U.S. economy; they were left isolated and jobless. One study indicates that as late as 1970, more than 70 percent of all blacks working in metropolitan areas held blue-collar jobs. Yet by 1987, when the drug war hit high gear, the industrial employment of black men had plummeted to 28 percent.”

In my community, and in black communities across the country, this downturn in the economy had a devastating effect: crime, violence, and drug use rose exponentially, families grew desperate, and as the divorce rate increased, so too did the number of young girls giving birth.

My introduction to crime began, like many, with the simple theft of candy and occasionally clothes. In each case I was chasing an adrenaline rush rather than a need. But as time passed, these things weren’t enough. I needed more. I started stealing bikes and cars, breaking into garages, homes, and businesses. There seemed to be no end in sight. Each theft felt like Christmas, and who doesn’t love Christmas?

On a cold, winter day in 1976, a gray Mercedes parked behind a funeral home caught my attention. (I would later discover it belonged to our alderman, Terrance Pitz, the owner of Pitz’s Funeral home). The door to the car was unlocked. I entered and looked inside the glove compartment. There was a pistol: a black snub-nosed 38 Winchester. I grabbed it gently and cradled its cold blackness in my hands. It was just like the one my father kept “hidden” in the pocket of the long leather coat hanging in his closet. I looked over my shoulders before placing it into my pocket. The funeral home was on a busy street so I did not have the luxury of silence to alert me to the sudden noise of someone coming. I took it home and hid it until the next morning.

Wanting to show it off, I brought it to my school, Edison Junior High, the next day. Staff found out and I was arrested. But it was too late. The sense of power I felt the moment I first held that gun in my hands festered.

To my warped way of thinking, I’d discovered a gold mine. I could take anything I wanted! At age 17, after breaking into someone’s home and stealing a gun, I would do just that.

I needed a foolproof escape plan. So I decided I’d shoot and wound everyone I robbed so they wouldn’t try to follow me. I bought a blue 1976 Chrysler New Yorker with some of the money I’d stolen. It never occurred to me that robbing people and shooting them was something sane people didn’t do. After all, I wasn’t trying to kill anyone. But this senseless violence ultimately took a human life.

My first few summers as a lifer at WCI were brutal. I’d always loved summer, playing sports, riding bikes, and creating havoc. Now I stood at my cell bars wishing I could feel the warm sun on my face. I stayed up all night, slept most of the day, and lived inside my dreams. This unwittingly sent me into a deeper depression. (Decades later I dream solely of prison life.) I got up to walk to and from the chow hall mainly to feel the sun on my skin. Afterwards I’d climb back into bed and stay there until 6:00pm. I’d watch TV all night and then go to bed after breakfast. I looked forward to winter because it freed me from the selfish and depressing thoughts of my friends and family having fun in the sun while I rotted away in a prison cell.

I was the stereotypical convict: lazy, uneducated, rebellious, and unmotivated. I got into many fights and spent years doing time in isolation as a result: six months here, one year there. I was a “lifer,” thought to be ruthless, uncaring, and dangerous, so that was how I behaved. But being confined to a very small room 23 hours a day with nothing to do and no TV or radio can mess with your mind. The adjoining cells prevented my view of the others in seg. Sometimes we’d talk and play chess by calling out the numbers.

One memorable moment came in 1987. I knew that my friend Michael was a few cells down and if I threw some contraband just right, it would land in front of his cell—avoiding the inmate between us who argued incessantly with imaginary people. Though they lacked physical reality, they could thoroughly entertain and animate him.

He shocked us this time when he threw his sheet into the path of the contraband Michael was tossing to me and snagged it.

“You get it?!” Michael shouted. I held a small mirror outside the bars and looked down the tier.

“No,” I replied. “I don’t see nothin’!” It was then that I saw his sheet on the floor, securing his catch and dragging it into his cell.

Though his actions enraged us, he never responded to our idle threats. I imagine he rested his feet upon his bunk, smoked it, and enjoyed the ride because we didn’t hear a word from him for two days! But from then on he acted like a junkie and tried ripping us off at every opportunity, and so we’d wait until we thought he was asleep before passing anything.

Those interactions with others in seg were rare. Mostly it was 23 hours of nothingness that compelled me to read and write and to look inside myself where I never looked before.

The agonizing decades of imprisonment began to take their toll on me and all the guys I’d been “jailing” with. I refused to see in me the changes I could not ignore in my friends: wrinkling around the eyes and receding hairlines. Some died of natural causes—one right in front of me. He’d been complaining to the medical department of chest pains. They’d give him Tylenol. He had no appetite and gave me his lunch tray as we sat in the dining room discussing his complaints.

“Here, Boone,” Pete said, sliding his tray over while grimacing. “I can’t eat this.”

He slowly got up from the table, walked upstairs, and collapsed. The low-wage, untrained staff at Corrections Corporations of America (a for-profit prison we’d been outsourced to in Whiteville, Tennessee), stood over his body and asked us if we knew CPR. I got up from the table and ran up the stairs. Everything seemed to slow down and move in slow motion. As if wearing earplugs, I only heard the sounds within my own body: my labored breathing, quickening heart rate, footsteps hitting the floor; even the sound of my joints moving were magnified tenfold. But something told me to stop. I did not want to see Pete’s face. I’d seen it before. Reluctantly I looked down at him lying motionless. Two inmates were performing CPR on him. In my mind the deafening sound of police sirens blared. I was 18 again. A shot rang out. I could see the bullet slowly exiting its chamber and smell the gun smoke. With the advantage of hindsight, I reached out to pull it back. Tears began to stream uncontrollably down my face. Were they for Pete, my victims, or me, I wondered. I wanted to help, to fix things, but the sirens in my head were getting louder and all I could think to do was run. It didn’t occur to me that he would die, or that he might already be dead! I just needed to get away. “Someone call the ambulance!” I yelled, not only for Pete, but for all my victims I had failed to yell for in the past. I stood there, frozen and helpless, looking death in the face for the second time. I left that scene feeling lost and confused, as if something in my life was missing. Pete was only 34 years old.

Some comrades committed suicide. It’s easier sometimes to give up under pressure rather than to continue fighting. I can’t say that the thought has never crossed my mind. Guys who once played sports now sat in their rooms all day. And due to Tough on Crime legislation, (for the most part) we went from being rehabilitated to warehoused. Prison was never meant to be pleasant, I know. But even in a Nazi concentration camp a person will try to make the best of a bad situation.

I’m thankful that I’m able to be in an environment where I can see my loved ones, hug them, and have meaningful conversations. Then there are those times such as when my best friend came to see me right after discovering that her mother had died. She began to cry. I instinctively reached out for her, wanting to comfort her in my arms and share the pain, but I could not. Incidents like that forced me to look closely at my environment, which is constantly changing and growing. I don’t consider my family or myself victims of an unjust system. Like any man, I yearn to be free; to repay in deed a debt to society that can never be adequately paid with time. But as a black man in this state—not that white men don’t have their own problems—what are my chances?

Within two years of being incarcerated, I was transported to UW Medical Center in Madison, Wisconsin, several times for medical appointments. Each time I’d encounter one, maybe two inmates from other facilities, who were also there for the same reason. Flash forward to today, there’s on average (I’m guessing) 20 to 30 inmates there on a daily basis seeking medical care. In April of 2012, when the U.S. Census Bureau conducted its decennial count of Wisconsin residents, it found 12.8 percent (or 1 in 8) of African-American working-age men behind bars in state prisons and local jails. This rate of mass incarceration is the highest for African-American men in the country and nearly double the national average of 6.7 percent (or 1 in 15). What keeps them in prison varies. A lot depends on what political party is in office. The parole commission must evaluate violent offenders and decide which ones are worthy of release in a politically charged environment. People second-guess their decisions: old law “lifers” convicted before January 2000 were required to serve 13 years and 3 months before becoming eligible for parole, but today eligibility is set by judges. Commissioners become reluctant to release those who are parole-eligible and pose no threat to society. And since African Americans are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate in Wisconsin, this reluctance—however unintended—contributes to the mass incarceration of blacks.

I spent many years in prison accomplishing nothing. I lived in a state of arrested development. Then one day I was struck by a flood of repressed memories: someone was dead, actually lying in a coffin because of me. It was like two stormy clouds colliding. I sat up on my bunk, turned off the light, and wept. I had become mature enough to deal with a past I had purposely avoided.

I felt that my debt to society demanded more than just my incarceration. I had finally felt the full impact of my violent past and it made me want to be a better person. It was as if I began to truly value life, in all its many forms, once I accepted that I’d stolen life from someone else. My best friend Donna encouraged me to write a book about my life. While I chose not to do that (though this essay came very close to it), she motivated me to study, write, contemplate, and discover who I really was. I earned my HSED, began writing children’s picture book manuscripts, earned a certificate in Building Services (a curriculum that focuses on home repair), and later completed an apprenticeship as a maintenance repairer through the Department of Workforce and Development. I’m now a licensed journeyman and tutor an electrical and plumbing class.

But my biggest challenge in life was yet to come. In 2006 my brother, David, was killed by a Milwaukee police officer. They thought he was someone else they’d been looking for and attempted to stop him as he rode down the street on his bike. Unfortunately for David, there was a warrant out for his arrest. And thinking they were looking for him, he fled on his bike. The police caught up with him in someone’s yard, and though David was unarmed, he was shot several times. He died on the scene. David was the first member of my immediate family to die in such a tragic way. I was devastated. I sat in my room crying and thinking how unnecessary his death had been and how I regretted missing so much of his life. It had been nearly 20 years since I’d seen him, and as with my other siblings, we became strangers. Though we sometimes spoke on the phone, now our communication would forever be silenced. I spent the subsequent days walking the track alone. And then it struck me. This is exactly what my victim’s family went through! I was shocked. I felt that I deserved to suffer in this way. That feeling I had of something missing in my life the day Pete died was now clear to me. Up until that moment I had merely experienced such pain from a distance. I now had a front-row seat.

I was not able to attend David’s funeral. I needed to see his lifeless body and touch him, to make his death real and find closure. I was fortunate David’s death occurred when I had the capacity to see the parallels between my pain and that of my victim’s family, otherwise a lesson in empathy could have been lost. I wasted my chance to be a brother to David, but in his death I found a gift, a lesson decades of incarceration could not teach.

In 2007, my academic accomplishments in prison paid off. With the support of many friends and staff, I was transferred to KCC (Kenosha Correctional Center, a prerelease/work release center in Kenosha, Wisconsin). Riding there that warm summer day will remain etched in my memory.

It had been decades since I’d driven through a residential neighborhood without being shackled like a slave headed to auction. As the driver began his routine speech about the perils of escape, my mind began to drift. It was a beautiful day so I rolled down the window. I rested my arm on the window ledge, relaxed, and let the warm summer breeze crash against my face. For the first time in decades, I exhaled. The houses appeared very small, much smaller than I remembered. People in shorts and sandals casually walked their dogs. Their lawns were immaculate, and brilliantly colored flowers lined the front of their houses like multi-colored jewels around the neck of a gorgeous woman. I’d sometimes glimpse a woman sitting at a table reading and drinking coffee, a child playing in the yard, or someone with their feet on a coffee table watching TV. I tried desperately to remember what it felt like to live inside such houses, but could not. Decades of being imprisoned and living in large institutions had thoroughly erased those memories.

As we approached KCC, I felt like a proud parent peering into the window of a nursery for the first time at my new baby girl. I couldn’t believe that I’d be living in such a place. KCC is a small, one-story, brown brick building flanked by sycamores. Its manicured lawn and well-kept flowers hinted at being cared for by inmates eager to bask in the sun. Once we arrived, I got out of the van, kneeled down, and kissed the ground. I didn’t know anyone there and was sure no one inside—mostly short-timers—could relate to what I was going through. They could not understand that I had given up the idea of ever living in a place like this: no fence, no tower, just a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood with children playing nearby. I needed time alone to process it all. I asked one of the staff if I could go outside.

“Sure,” she said. “I don’t care.”

Her response implied a freedom that caught me off guard.

In my favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is given a chance to see what the world would be like had he never been born. This experience drives him to near-suicide. When George realizes he can go back home, he darts off down the street yelling “Merry Christmas!” and waving emphatically at everyone he sees. I thought about that scene as I took my first walk outside and had to contain my excitement to keep from running down the street yelling “Merry Christmas!” even though it was mid-July. I waved at everyone I saw.

A couple of weeks later several other inmates and I were dropped off at a Catholic church to do volunteer work for their annual festival. “I’ll be back later to pick y’all up,” yelled the staff member as we piled out of the van. So there I stood. After having spent decades in bondage. Children buzzed by me on their bikes, others ran around playing tag. Finally a guy walked up to me and said, “Would you go over there and help Jim?” He pointed to a garage in the distance that appeared to be a mile away.

“Sure,” I said. “Are you coming?” I couldn’t imagine walking all the way over there through throngs of cars, people, and children frolicking around without an escort to make sure I didn’t escape. But, in complete disbelief, I did as I was asked… alone.

As I entered the playground area, smiling, reflecting on my own fleeting childhood, a boy of about three approached me, crying, his arms held out, beckoning me to pick him up. Every fiber in my body cried out to hold him in my arms while my mind screamed: “MELVIN, DO NOT PICK THAT BOY UP.” After all, I was still an inmate and I’d been conditioned to never make physical contact with a civilian. What if someone sees me and thinks I’m a kidnapper or pedophile? All of these thoughts raced through my mind. Before I could figure out what to do, he was in my arms! He was dirty and abnormally thin and I felt sorry for the little guy. He’d given up trying to keep up with the older children. As he rested his little head on my shoulder, I found his slightly older brother and chastised him for leaving the little one behind. When I kneeled down to hand him over, he held on tighter to my neck and began crying. I couldn’t believe it! I was a complete stranger to this child, but he’d rather stay with me than go home with his brother. I reluctantly pried him loose and walked away, wishing I could keep him and be the father I’d always wanted to be and felt sure he did not have.

After completing my year-long maintenance commitment at KCC, I was given a job at Unified Solutions, where I worked on an assembly line. Before my employment there, I’d done many things and gone many places. I’d gotten my driver’s license, gone to church every Sunday (even though I’m not religious), AA meetings each Tuesday night (at a bar that no longer served liquor), and crossed busy intersections with the unexpected hesitancy of a child crossing the street for the first time. I went shopping with my boss, who got a kick out of watching my reaction to the cost of bread that was no longer 27 cents a loaf, doors opening automatically, as if they’d seen me coming, and black people walking down the street in the suburbs! “Yeah, black people can live anywhere they want nowadays, Melvin,” he’d say sarcastically. But I was not prepared emotionally for the type of freedom I encountered working at Unified Solutions. It was a taunting kind of freedom that coworkers unwittingly flaunted: leaving work during lunch breaks to go home or to a restaurant, having lunch outside on the grass with family, or calling home to see how things were. As an inmate, these things were off limits to us. We were forbidden to make friends because that could lead to engaging in sex or receiving phones, food, alcohol, or money. Though I understood the necessity of some of the rules, it didn’t ease my frustrations, or soothe my yearning to have the normal life they seemed to take for granted: to make friends with normal, law-abiding people, or comfort a coworker whose boyfriend had blackened her eye the night before.

Being free is easy, but being “inmate free” while in the midst of people with absolute freedom is torture. It’s like sweating profusely on a blisteringly hot summer day while sitting at the edge of a pool with your feet dangling in the water—but you can only watch as others jump in to take a cool swim.

At those times I’m reminded of the day I met the little boy in the park. As I sat alone at a picnic table eating lunch prepared by a woman in the congregation—chips, BBQ, chicken, corn on the cob, spaghetti, and cake—I was visited by an all-too-familiar rush of guilt. My victim would never experience the beauty of sitting in a park on a warm summer day. I felt unworthy—a kind of gnawing guilt a drunk driver might feel if everyone in the car he’d crashed died but him. I searched deep inside for that 18-year-old who walked into Waupun in 1981. I wanted to chastise him far more severely than I’d chastised that little kid earlier. But he was nowhere to be found.