In 1999, when I was 19 years old, I was arrested and charged with first degree murder, several counts of attempted murder, attempted robbery, and several counts of criminal use of a weapon. I was convicted of first degree assault and third degree weapons possession, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2002.
As a prisoner in the New York State Department of Correctional Services, my new name quickly became Department Identification Number (DIN) 02A3172. The '02' represented the year that I was transferred from the city jail (Rikers Island) to state prison. The 'A' represented the reception facility that I was sent to from Rikers Island. The '3172' was the sequence in which I was processed in that year. In 2002, I was designated inmate 3172 at Downstate Correctional Facility.
The point of this new "name" was to force the incarcerated man to shed any negativity associated with his name prior to his incarceration and afford him a new beginning. In theory, I thought this is a good idea. But in prison, you spend a lot of time watching people become prisoners. The new name and the new routine effectively rob you of the uniqueness and history you've come to associate with your real name. It presents a choice: you can either ignore the possibility of healthy beginnings—which is what incarceration does to most men and women—or you can start a new set of footprints.
I chose the latter. I didn't wait for prison to fail at my rehabilitation. I made the decision that I would accept who I was and start a new beginning just days after my arrest in 1999. I didn't see the need in waiting, or worse, procrastinating. I decided that my prison experience would be my sabbatical.
In February of 2005, I got some help with that sabbatical from a friend named Nadia, who grew up just two blocks from me in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Dear Marlon (DIN) 02A3172,
Surprise, surprise!! First and foremost, please don't think that I am lame for not writing you. If anything, blame my mind and not my heart... I no longer work at Verizon, instead I teach eighth grade at the Dr. Susan S. Mckinney School of the Arts. It's basically 6-12th grade school... By July, I'll be finished with my Masters in Special Education. I would love for your to send me a letter that I could read to my kids in which you tell them in your own words how you ended up there, what you've been through, your goals, and any words of wisdom that you could share with them—if that's cool with you, no pressure! Thereafter, they'll send you correspondence via mail. I pray that you continue to gain strength and wisdom.
Miss you, love, & respect,
It was a no-brainer. Of course I would accept. It did take some time, however, to calm down. You would have thought I'd received my release papers in the mail. I felt dizzy, and I had plenty of questions. What was I going to write the kids? How long should the letters be? Who was I to be giving words of wisdom?
I wasn't Tookie, "Hurricane" Carter, Malcolm X, or Mumia Abu Jamal. I was a 25-year-old man from Brooklyn convicted of assault and weapons possession. I couldn't figure out why they'd listen to me or care to write me back if I managed to write anything in the first place.
After about three days of contemplation, I pulled out my dinosaur-age Smith Corona Wordsmith typewriter from under my cot. And I wrote.
To the Young Scholars,
Before I introduce myself, I want you all to appreciate how much of a caring teacher you all have in Ms. López. You lucked out this year. What she is doing by reaching out to me goes far and beyond her paycheck. She is one of those teachers that you will remember years from now. Believe me!
As you already know, my name is Marlon Peterson. I am 25-years-old, born and bred in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and a proud descendant of Trinidadian heritage. Y'all know where Trinidad is, right?
As the youngest of three children, I grew up with the need to always fit in with others. I was the valedictorian of my elementary school in the sixth grade. I also wrote for the Fort Greene News at the age of 11 in a program sponsored by Spike Lee and Nike. As a matter of fact, I had just finished the seventh grade when I wrote for that newspaper. I also wrote for my junior high school newspaper. At fifteen, I was granted an internship at the NYC Opera while also taking journalism classes at my high school, Martin Luther King Jr.
I barely graduated from high school, then went on to NYC Technical College right there on Jay St., and dropped only one year later. After that, I went to Apex Technical School. Twelve days before my twentieth birthday, in October of 1999, I made international news in connection with an attempted robbery and double murder in Manhattan.
Six years later, you're hearing from me from behind bars.
As I sat on that filthy floor in central booking smelling mixtures of human waste and vomit, I tearfully asked myself, "How did this happen?" I never saw it coming—or did I? In the weeks thereafter, my father almost died, my mother and sister were walking zombies, my brother was delirious, and my 11-year old nephew was without his best friend/uncle/big brother.
How did a nerdy little kid dressing up in suits and ties, knocking on doors preaching "Watchtower and Awake!" end up on trial for attempted murder?
I have a cousin that was a Crip and a friend that was Blood. When I was home I would try to do what I could to steer them in the right direction and discourage their reckless lifestyles. The weird thing is that they never served more than a couple months in jail. While not wishing they would ever be caught in my situation, I couldn't help but wonder how it is that I'm mentoring these young brothers to stay away from the nonsense in the ‘hood and here I am sharing a shower with brothers I don't even know in a prison bathroom.
Initially, I was able to find an answer to those questions, at least partially. This part of the answer can be summed up in two quotes: "Do not be misled, bad associations spoil useful habits."-1 Corinthians 15:33, and, "He that is walking with wise persons will become wise, be he that is having dealings with stupid persons will fare badly." –Proverbs 13:20 NWT
The second part of the answer took me a couple of years to realize. In life you do not get to choose your consequences, only your actions. Prison life requires that I constantly reiterate things like this to myself since insanity is always one step away. And insanity is slick. It creeps up you. You are usually too far gone to even you realize it you've been swallowed by it.
I want to leave you a poem. It is untitled, but maybe you all can give it a title for me. Until next time...
Love & guidance,
P.S. I am waiting to hear from you so don't take too long. I'll tell you all a little more about myself, my experiences, and my observations in future letters. Make sure you ask a lot of questions too. Being able to communicate with you is a blessing to me and the other brothers in here that I talk to you about. You contribute to our sanity. Thank you.
…That gentle, exquisite, beautiful bird sings to
release that frustration.
It sings in defiance with the words:
No matter what you think of me,
no matter how you treat me,
no matter how or what you feed me,
no matter what you do to me;
I may be a caged bird,
but I will always be beautiful.
I'd written that poem a year earlier, when I was extremely frustrated with the 45-day cell restriction that I was serving. The disciplinary action limited me to one hour of recreation in the yard about the size of a baseball field with one pull-up and dip bar. I also lost one month of all telephone and commissary privileges for 90 days, and I was restricted to one five-minute shower every other day, not including weekends. And the officers working my cellblock were rarely eager to open my cell to allow me to get that one-hour of recreation or that shower. The rule I'd unknowingly broken was taking a picture in my father's jacket during a "trailer visit" with my parents.
About two weeks later, I was sitting on my cot in my cell. Lite, my cellmate, was sitting on the top bunk listening to his walkman, when an officer dropped a large manila envelope on our cell window.
The envelope had some weight to it. The return address read N. López, Susan S. McKinney JHS. I tore into the envelope like a seven-year-old on Christmas morning.
Dear Marlon (DIN) 02A3172,
I have a lot of questions, but first I am going to tell you who I am. My name is Johnny Gonzalez, I'm 13-years old, and you could call me Johnny. I never had a friend in prison, but it feels good. I just wanted to say, what was on your mind when you heard the gunshots? Also what were you thinking when those cops came to your doorstep? I know I would be scared for my life. Why that day, Marlon? Why that day did you have to hang with your friends? What was going on?
Well, "Caged Animal," is what you should call the poem. It's a nice poem too, real deep.
All love from,
Dear Marlon (DIN) 02A3172,
I'm Calvin, a student from Ms. López school. I heard the letter you set to Ms. López to read to us. It just made me think about the friends I hang out with. I had more than enough people showing me examples and constantly telling me about the people I hang out with although I still continue chilling with the same people. One of the questions I was willing to ask you is, how did you feel when you heard about this? Did you get into any kind of fights or any kind of disagreements with any of the jailers? I'm sorry about what happened to you. I kind of learned my lesson, but I hope I learned because I am the type of kids that people say has great talent, but hangs out with the wrong crew. I'm thirteen and do things as if I was in my twenties. Alright, hope you write back. Keep your head up.
Dear Marlon (DIN) 02A3172,
I'm so sorry for spelling your name incorrect in my first letter. A lot of people say and spell my name wrong. Your handwriting is neat too. By the way I am 14-years old. I didn't write to you the first time because Ms. López isn't one of my regular teachers.
I feel so happy to have a person like you. A person that I can write or talk to when I am having problems. I should have said it before, but I thank you for writing me back.
First, to start off by answering your questions, I would never want to fall into one of those categories like getting pregnant at a young age, dropping out of school, being shot or jumped because I'm with my boyfriend. But if I was, I would most likely get arrested. Why? Because he wears red a lot and if he sees one of the Blood members, they do their code handshake.
I like him so much and I am going to stay with him. He is actually not that bad as a boyfriend. I really don't want to change the subject, but I have a worse situation. Now the problem is that Martin, my boyfriend, walks me home everyday and being a young girl, I am falling in love with him. By the way, he is 16-years old.
My mother had me at a young age, 15-years old. Now while he walks me home, we play around with each other. When we get upstairs to the staircase, I am not even going to lie, yeah I sit on him and he touches me, but it doesn't get any further than that. My mother believes that we do a lot of other things, like she believes that we have had "sex" in the staircase. But there is one thing I haven't told her, which are the things we do in the staircase. I have also been coming in the house late.
My mother has given me so many warnings and I have messed up all four times. Now she has taken my cell-phone and is thinking about making me live with Martin or my godmother. I really don't know how to explain to her how much I like him. Is there anything that you think I can say or do to make her understand, or just to make her trust me. Sorry my hands hurt now.
I can bet that I will have another situation coming. Like do you have any hints or tips on boys? I am tired of getting hurt by them.
Your New Young Friend,
Dear Marlon (DIN) 02A3172,
How are you doing Marlon? The high school that I want to go to is Brooklyn Tech, but sometimes I feel like nobody cares about what I want. A lot of people expect me to fail, but I am going to prove everybody wrong. A lot of people like to talk you down and I know you've been there. I have so many problems, but I don't show it and I don't let it interfere with what I'm doing. I'm not going to allow anybody to interfere with me.
P.S. I'm Puerto Rican
Dear Mr. Peterson (DIN) 02A3172,
I adored your lifestyle until you got locked up. I know that jail can change a person, but keep your head held high though the thickness and the thinness. When I become famous I will tell everyone that I knew a hero named Marlon Peterson. I really appreciated your writing and the way you've handled yourself. Oh yeah, did I tell you that my dreams in life are to be a model/singer/actress? Well, I have never been to prison and I am only 13 and I am not planning to go to jail cause I am gonna be something in life and I am gonna make your friend, Ms. Lopez, so very proud of me. I am gonna make everybody proud of me. They are gonna look back on life and say, wow, wasn't that the same little girl that used to run around the hallways and not want to listen to what anyone had to say. "Look at her now, she's famous. I should have never doubted her."
I was born in Brooklyn, NY at St. John's Hospital, but raised down south in Georgia. I still live with my mother and father. I have four sisters and no brothers. I have a sweet and kind boyfriend named Keenan and my life with him is great. My life with my family is okay, but not really okay cause we don't really get along. My mother is never home and when she is home she always sleepy and then she leaves. My father is two-faced. First, he wants to talk to me real sweet, then he wants to yell at me. Me and my sisters are close but not like that. My height is 5'2. I moved five times from Georgia to Maryland to Brooklyn living with my aunties. From my auntie's house, I moved to Hancock Street. From there I moved to where I am living now on Franklin Ave. Well, I'll write you later, friend.
Tamia Wendy Hendricks
a.k.a. Young B.
Dear Marlon (DIN) 02A3172,
This is my first time writing to you and I know your predicament, and to me it's sad that you have to spend ten years of your life in there. When I think about you, you remind me of my Uncle Sammy. He's been in the same situation. He's in jail for life for attempted murder. He's in jail because his friends said he tried to murder someone. I know it's hard staying in jail, but in the meantime try to stay positive.
To my Li'l Brother and Sisters,
Well, it's all over. This has been an extremely wonderful experience for me. Believe it or not, you all have taught me a lot. You Young Scholars have helped me refocus myself and I am grateful for it. You all have become a part of my life. Often, I catch myself walking somewhere and thinking about one of you or I am talking to someone about you all. You all have also helped in the growth and development of my homeboy, Merciful. He sends his love too. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I could be part of something so important and so great. Thank you a lot . And they say that youth are worthless-do you all believe that? Let me hear y'all say Hell No! (Notes to Ms. Lopez: Let them yell it out) I heard that!
But while my correspondence with you is over, your lives are now unfolding. Let me tell you why Ms. Lopez got me involved in this character development class. Honestly, there aren't too many people that expect anything good to come from where most of you all come from. Many people expect you all to fail.
That's the sad truth.
There are a whole bunch of statistics that predict that you will not graduate from school; that you will end up in jail, on probation, pregnant before seventeen, AIDS cases, drug users, drug dealers, thieves, worthless leeches, and worst of all, dead before twenty. There are more Black and Hispanic men in prison that there are in college. What does that tell you all? Well, it tells me that Ms. Lopez realizes that her position as a teacher requires more than simply teaching math and English. She understand that there are so many problems that you all have that can lead to you falling into one of those categories, like I did. Ms. Lopez knows that it still takes a village to raise a child, and even though some members of that village are in twisted situations such as my own, that village voice still needs to be heard. Altogether, Ms. Lopez cares for all you like you were her own children and she knows that I would too. People like us don't come around too often.
Please never forget that neither. I've talked to you about bad association, making good decisions, and I've emphasized that there are consequences to our bad decisions. I've given some of you all personal advice and joked around a little bit too. I've told you things about my personal life, my family, my stupid decisions, and I've told you things about the lives of others I've met throughout my years in prison. I have told you things that I have never told anyone.
Why do you think that I've been so intimate with you all? Why do you think that I always write to you about having goals and encourage you to write and do art projects? Because I care for you and your futures. Because I need for you to realize that you all have immense potential. I need you all to see beyond your 'hood and all of the craziness that goes on daily. I remember teachers repeatedly writing on my report cards I have potential but didn't apply myself. I ignored that counsel for years and only realized if when life chewed me up and spit me out. I don't want you to have to experience what I and countless others have had to go through, to realize that you all are truly gifted and talented. It would hurt my heart to ever hear that one of you all fell victim to one of those categories I mentioned earlier.
I know that feelings of discouragement will come from time to time. That's natural. Just don't allow those feelings to get the best of you. Take a look at Ms. Lopez and me for example. We grew up two blocks away from each other in Crown Heights. Even though a lot of people in our age groups fell into those categories, including myself, your teacher did not. This shows that it is possible to avoid the crap that goes on in the hood and succeed; it is possible to have dreams and reach them. This shows that those people that make things can come from the hood. But nobody is going to hold your hands and always remind you of what you should be doing and what not to do. Nothing is going to be easy. Struggle is part of survival. Trust me! I know that you can succeed, but do you?
Like I said before, this is the end of our correspondence unfortunately, but it is only the beginning for you all. Some of you will be going to summer school and I know that is not the place to be, but ain't nothing worthwhile easy, right?
I got one more stat for you: less than half of those entering high school in the ninth grade graduate. What will you do about that?
So once again, thank you for being my friends for the past four months. You all have helped this prisoner out a whole lot. I'll never forget you all. I won't say goodbye, I'll just see you later. For the last time...
Your Big Brother, Marlon P.
The students' names have been changed to respect privacy.
Marlon Peterson served 10 years, 2 months and 7 days of his 12-year sentence. He was released in 2010 and will be on parole until 2015. Marlon is currently a senior at New York University. He is also the Associate Director of the Crown Heights Mediation Center and the co-founder of How Our Lives Link Altogether (H.O.L.L.A.!.) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @marlon_79.
Images by Devin Rochford and Jim Cooke.