by Ray Corona
Friends incarcerated with me know me as “StingRay.” I have been an inmate of the North Carolina prison system for five years. Through the trials of my mistakes, the people I’ve shared time with and my refusal to give up on myself or surrender to institutional norms, I have come to understand the purpose of my incarceration experience to be one of awakening to the truths of humankind. To see another human being as simply that: Another you. Another me.
The current correctional environment internally promotes recidivism.
I’m sure you’ve heard this statement before, but none have been able to truly express the tough skin required to break this mold. The community in which inmates are trapped in is one of extreme violence and subjugation from other inmates and from prison staff. When our society empowers crimes as unforgivable and monstrous without redemption, we make spectacles like a man being dragged around with a bedsheet by the neck while he’s nearly beaten to death as correctional officers look on and laugh not only possible, but the norm, the standard. That is the incarceration system today. There are no one-off horror stories. The system is the horror story.
There is only one point in which inmates have the chance to change their existence for themselves: when they find hope. When they see within their future a chance to feel like a person again. When someone looks up at them when they walk into a room and greets them with a smile instead of a scowl. When they are reminded of the hope they can give others, they are empowered. Through this empowerment, they can once again define themselves and their lives.
As children, if we made a mistake and caused harm, the first thing to do was to apologize, learn from the experience, and then make amends. As intelligent creatures, we never stop learning.
When did our society decide to never forgive and never forget? When did we lose the ability to see the struggles of our fellow humans and instead condemn them to live like animals? We are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and we are subjected to treatment that is considered animal abuse in the law.
Before this experience, I always wondered why people applauded when someone says, “I am a recovering drug addict,” or “I have been sober for an X amount of time.” They are championed and admired for surviving a struggle in which they chose to participate in. What turmoil and agony within their lives made them feel like that was their only option? Their only chance of relief?
Think about a member of your community exposed to violence and abuse, not cared for or considered, and think about the options they perceive from their situation while they’re surrounded by it.
Is this not similar to the choices we make in enacting a crime? When a loved one loses everything to hard drugs, are there not victims? Are there not fractions of their community affected in a similar way? But in crime, our country’s consensus on the matter is relentless.
A vast majority of people firmly believe in the statement – “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” What they fail to grasp is that the time is only a part of what the system does to its citizens, and that event changes as more and more offenders are sentenced to life without parole, where the time they do is now the rest of their existence. A true death sentence without the public moral backlash. Even after our time is done, we are forever after considered by many a thorn in society. In so many eyes we are lesser human beings because of mistakes we made when we were young, when we truly comprehended no other way due to our upbringing, for a choice we made under extreme circumstances of stress and anguish, or while ensnared in untreated mental health issues due to own community’s social stigma about treatment.
Most people cannot say what they would actually do under such circumstances. They act as if each criminal had their full mental and emotional capabilities and made their choice with written consent from the devil himself. In my own untreated depression and bi-polar disorder, I began to feed off of a doting and affectionate teenage girl with a teenage crush to fill the holes in my mind and heart that I didn’t understand. I was in so much emotional pain in my life that I didn’t care where the attention came from. I let this affection consume me until I threw my life away to chase it.
In the first few days I spent in prison, I called my best friend of fourteen years to confide in and look for support from someone who knew me inside and out. He admitted to me then that he once found himself in a similar situation with the same temptations, but that didn’t matter. I made the wrong choice, and he didn’t. Therefore I will always be a monster. A sexual degenerate. A predator, without a chance of forgiveness or redemption. For this self-destructive choice after a life as a model citizen, I deserve twenty years minimum taken from my life and my family, never to be given a chance to reconcile, to apologize, make amends, or to ever have a voice again.
After he condemned me in his own words he said to me, “I will not abandon you. Don’t call again. I will contact you.” Years have passed, and I have never heard from him.
We are all fallible. We all have the capacity to do great things, monstrous or honorable things.
I refuse to look at another human being with bitterness and judgment. I refuse to surrender anyone’s humanity in my eyes ever again, including my own. We are all loved, always, and I will do everything in my power to make sure we all know this as I do.