I was born in 1962, in Long Beach California.
I was taken from my mother at the age of four, after watching my father almost beat her to death as I tried to keep my sisters safe.
Somehow though, what managed to stay bright throughout my childhood, were those who cared for me along the way.
We were living in filth and hunger when we were finally found. Someone—perhaps the old lady who set out food for us—reported us to the cops, who brought social services.
The sight of our ragged clothes led them into the house, where every one of their senses was laid to waste.
We were removed from our house and our parents. They kept saying “Oh my God, oh my God” as they registered the condition of my young body.
Raised by the System
From the age of nine I was in and out of foster homes and institutions, enduring violence and trauma I only dare recall in the hopes that it might help others.
I became a child I hated, with no response to conflict except violence.
One morning when I was nine, I was eating breakfast and hating the yolk from the fried eggs. I had always found a way to dump it into the trash without Florence Dupont, my foster mother, knowing.
This time her daughter saw me. So when I went to take out the trash, I was met by Florence’s flat hand across my face.
She slapped me so hard my ears rang, and I tasted blood bubbling in my mouth.
Then she grabbed my head and stuffed my face down into the garbage. While she was yelling at me to find the eggs and eat them, I passed out.
Eventually, I ended up at the California Youth Authority, the last stop before adult prison. There I met Hershey, a counselor whose support helped me take myself seriously enough to earn a diploma.
But when I walked back out amongst the people and places of my childhood, I knew I was on my way back down south.
Upon my release from CYA I was working two jobs. My life had taken a dramatic turn from the violence that had kept me bouncing in and out of the juvenile justice system for years.
I felt torn between the desire to make my mother’s dream of living with the family again come true and the fear of ruining my life forever.
In winning a new life, I was losing everything that connected me to my identity.
And so before long, I was only doing enough not to violate my parole.
It wasn’t long before I found myself back inside, this time in adult prison—sentenced to twenty years for armed robbery at San Quentin.
I was nineteen years old.
With no bills or drug habits, I began giving all my stolen money to those in need, earning the name ‘the robbin hood’ from local law enforcement. After a series of staged stickups, my uncle’s childhood friend Sammy Lee came to me with a proposition to go in on some heists with him.
We had no intention of holding up a store the size of Kmart, but as we stood in line waiting to pay, we saw the store manager moving from one cash register to another collecting sacks of money.
It was the first time I’d ever fired a shotgun. I even jumped up onto the counter like something I’d seen on TV. But the money sacks were all gone—they’d already been collected. The whole scene was a disaster.
Less than a day later there were warrants out for our arrest, charging us with crimes in towns I’d never even heard of. I had spun so far out of control that I was lucky finally to be caught. Sammy Lee was never charged. But I was charged, convicted, and sent to San Quentin, where I remain today.
MY DEATH SENTENCE
Four years later a prison guard was killed. The authorities suspected that many were involved, but only three of us were charged.
Everyone who knew me knew I was innocent, but the jury found me guilty of conspiracy to murder.
I was sentenced to death by lethal injection and have since spent 21 years in solitary confinement, longer than any other prisoner in San Quentin history.
When I first got charged with murder, it seemed unreal to me.
A woman judge was assigned to the case, and I remember having had a woman judge the first time I was taken away from my mother...I had stood in a courtroom while they tried to figure out what to do with me, where I should live.
I was a ward of the state, and they told me they wanted to protect me. And now I was in the same kind of room, with dim buzzing lights, and they were figuring out how to try and kill me.
That night I reflected a lot on the difference.
BUDDHISM & WRITING
My Buddhist practice soon became my best companion, and my writing and spiritual practice inseparable.
Shortly after my death sentence, I read an article called “Life in Relation to Death,” by a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. I wrote to him a letter and eventually he came to San Quentin.
Rinpoche encouraged me to use my intelligence toward “harmlessness, helpfulness, and purity.” He reminded me that whether I was in prison or in a mansion by the sea, each moment provides an opportunity to practice. I learned how not to cause myself more pain. I stopped cussing out prisoners and guards. I discovered that every bit of love I could conjure up meant that I didn’t have to hate.
I began to write stories about my life in order to make sense of it all and use it to help others. It is unimaginable to think of what I might be like if I didn’t have the dharma, my teacher (who has since passed), and the love and care of my friends.
They have enabled me to turn a situation as bad as mine into an opportunity to be of some benefit, if not for myself, then for kids and their teachers who write to say that I’m making a difference, that my writings and my example are an inspiration in their lives.