I’ve been in one type of state-run institution or another since the age of 12. As a child, my behavior was so bad that my family would tell me I wasn’t going to make it to see 25. They weren’t completely wrong.

Now, at the age of forty-three, the majority of my life has been spent behind bars. It’s not the death my family predicted, but it sure isn’t living. As a juvenile, I served five years for armed robbery. As an adult, I did another three years for the same thing. On December 7, 2002, I was arrested and charged with murder in the second degree. I’ve currently served over 20 years of a 25 to life sentence.

On January 9, 2017, I was forced, by circumstance, to reevaluate myself. It was just another day behind the wall. Get up for the facility count, go to the mess hall for breakfast, then back to the cell to prepare for programs and recreation.

The imam, a fella dressed in black, stopped by my cell and told me I should call home. When I asked why, he didn’t respond and walked away. I remember feeling scared. It’s never good when the chaplain says something like that. As soon as the cells opened, I went straight for the phone to call my father. When he answered, the tone of his voice confirmed that he had bad news. Taking a deep breath, my father let me know my mother had died earlier that morning.

Anyone who has done a long stretch in prison is aware of the possibility of losing loved ones. It’s one of my greatest fears. Death comes for us all, but at least when you’re free there are options to help you grieve. In prison you’re limited to the uncaring mental health staff or crying alone in your cell.

I couldn’t speak after my father relayed the news. The TV in the day room had the volume blasted. Three guys sat ten-feet away and argued over sports teams. A thick fog started to consume me. As my father spoke, his voice slipped away. He kept asking if I was still there. “Are you okay,” I heard him say. As the rec area grew louder, I told my father I would call him later and hung up. I found myself personalizing the noise. I needed to get away from it before I did something irrational.

I ended up in the block’s courtyard. The only thought I could hold on to was how badly I wanted a cigarette. I pulled out a Newport and lit it, then sat alone until it was time to return to my cell. Aside from the first drag I took to light the cigarette, I didn’t even smoke it. Like my thoughts, the entire thing turned to ash. My guilt over the love-loss between my mother and I had finally caught up to me. The feelings of anger and resentment I had for myself left a hole burnt in my heart.

The last time I saw my mother was June 5, 2003. She came to visit me at the Westchester County Jail while I was awaiting my trial. It was one week before my 24th birthday. This scene was too familiar for us. Through all my troubles with the law, my mother was the one who never turned her back on me. I knew that this time would be different. I wasn’t just accused of taking a life. I was accused of taking the life of my girlfriend’s two-year-old son, Maurice.

My mother never asked if I was guilty, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that it was true. Even still, I’m sure she saw, as mothers do, the truth behind the sadness in my eyes. The truth I’ve avoided for so many years that the lie became a part of who I was. It’s only here and now, writing this, that I’ve been able to come clean about committing murder. A confession 20 years in the making.

At the end of that visit, my mother said she would be back for my birthday, but I never heard from her again. I wasn’t angry over her abandonment. I realized my bad decisions forced her to put distance between us. Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe I deserved to be abandoned by my mother because I took Maurice away from his. I always thought I would have time to fix things, time to redeem myself in my mother’s eyes.

Redemption is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about since my mother’s passing. I’ve asked myself what it means to be redeemed, or if redemption is possible for someone like me. Deep down, I don’t think so. Even if it is, do I deserve to find it? I realized there can be no redemption without responsibility, and I’ll never have another chance to tell my mother the truth.

I lied about killing Maurice because I was terrified of the judgment I would face. In prison, there’s a hierarchy of criminal acts. Drug dealers and killers are at the top, sexual predators at the bottom. Any crime against a child is considered the worst. This put me in line to receive the most judgment.

Confessing everything I stole from Maurice and his family is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Nothing I do or say can return Maurice to his family. Nothing will absolve me of the harm I inflicted on them.

The death of my mother brought all of these thoughts and emotions to the surface. It made me think of the impact of my decisions. I needed to change more than my behavior. I needed to change in the core of my soul. This was the part of me where the lie became my reality. Even now, six years after my mother’s death, I’m still struggling with this process of change. Writing this essay, working back and forth with another incarcerated writer pushing me to reveal more and more, is the first time I’ve connected the grief of losing my mother with confronting my crime.

A year ago, I decided to write an apology letter to Maurice’s family. I didn’t know what to say to them. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and cause them more pain. I rewrote the letter so many times before mailing it. Do I ask for forgiveness? Don’t I? I only hope it expressed my apology without being offensive.

There are parallels in what I did say to Maurice’s family and what I wished I had said to my mother. While I’d come clean in that letter, I was still lying to everyone else, selectively taking responsibility. I knew, at some point, I would have to fully accept what I did. It’s not a conversation piece with guys in the prison, but if it comes up, I don’t want to feel the need to lie.

I’ve spoken to my counselor about my crime. It wasn’t like what I’d seen on the television, how they put you on the couch. I told her when she called me down for a quarterly interview, in a windowless room with white cinderblock walls. She asked about my goals, college, and if I was being sexually abused. I told her I was writing an apology letter, that I’d killed my girlfriend’s child. She told me I needed to forgive myself.

The burden of my past is a well-deserved torment. Maurice will never have the chance to fall in love. He will never become successful or enjoy true friendship. His family won’t cheer for him at graduation or cry tears of joy at his wedding. I stole these moments from them. What gives me the right of being forgiven?

This is a conflict that’s torn at me for years. I want to strive for redemption, and at the same time I refuse to forgive myself. I am not the same man as when I committed this crime. But until I stop lying about my guilt, I have no chance to be redeemed or forgiven.

That’s another reason for writing this piece. My prison writer friend tells me confessional is not the best writing, but I am trying to figure out how to live with myself. There’s nowhere else to do it but this page. Even if I can’t forgive what I’ve done, maybe I can find a way to accept who I’ve grown to be and find something close to redemption.

First, I have to admit that my fear of confessing is really just the fear of myself. I recall the memories of the night I killed Maurice. I was just treating him like I was treated, I told myself, figuring that this is how I was raised and I turned out okay. Obviously, I was not okay, and I hate that I hurt this child. That I was so sick to think my past traumas justified hitting this innocent child, is hard to admit. I’m terrified of the man who didn’t know that was wrong.

I lost my mother before I could redeem myself with her. I never thought the visit in 2003 would be the last time I would hear her tell me she loved me. Or that it would be the last time I could tell her the same. I hated myself for forcing her to walk away, and struggled for years to find reasons to continue living. I haven’t had the courage to attempt suicide since I was nine, but that didn’t stop me from thinking about it.

In prison, I learned to get lost in the everyday routine. That’s what so many of us do in here, live on the surface. I buried my self-loathing with the lie. When my father told me about my mother’s death, the grief intertwined with my guilt of what I did. Writing the truth has been the first form of healing in over 20 years.

I can’t hide from who I was anymore. I still have a long walk to redemption. I may not get there, but I have to try. I owe that much to my mother. I owe it to Maurice and his family. I may even owe it to myself.


Dyego M. Foddrell is a writer in Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York. He is currently working toward an associate’s degree.