“I would look at San Quentin for hours as a child…not knowing what it was, but knowing that I would be there someday.” Mike paused, his eyes squinting in the afternoon sun. We are sitting at his work, outside of the River House, a component of the CrossRoads transitional living program for women who struggle with substance abuse and have been in the criminal justice system. “I guess I just never knew I would be there for so long.” He gives me a small smile. “I’m going to leave a lot out of this story,” he tells me, his fingers tapping anxiously on the green plastic table. “The things that happened there [San Quentin Prison]…the crazy, violent, unbelievable things…the stabbings and the murders…I am just going to skip over those parts.”
When I asked Mike if I could interview him, I knew exactly what I was going to blog about. I was going to focus on the vicious cycle that is the prison system and the successful, local CrossRoads Housing Program that is helping to change the way that Washoe County approaches rehabilitation and the transition of offenders back to society. But after listening to Mike begin to speak, I realized that all of my ideas would need to wait for a different day, a different blog.
Mike is one of my favorite people. Always on the go with an energy drink in hand, he is the type of guy who can make you laugh until you cry. The kind of guy who curses like a sailor, but with every F-bomb that he drops he becomes even more endearing. The kind of guy whose eyes tell of a life that many could not fathom, much less survive. Mike’s story is one of pain, of all-consuming rage, of addiction, of persistence, of hope, and ultimately of redemption.
Mike grew up in a seemingly normal, middle-class home. The youngest of five children with a father in the Air Force, he remembers his early days as stable and overall, uneventful. It wasn’t until his family moved off of the Air Force base and his older siblings started to leave the house one by one that things began to change. His father began to drink excessively, leaving behind a wake of destruction, abuse, and irreparable damage. Almost every night of drinking would lead to fights with Mike’s mother, the screaming and degrading comments quickly turning physical, and before long Mike’s mother had also fallen victim to alcoholism.
Mike began getting in trouble at school. Fighting, bullying, starting small fires. And while someone from the school administration always managed to pass on the the word of his ill-behavior to one of his parents, not once did a school employee, social worker, etc. intervene to see what could be causing this normal, before well-adjusted boy to act out so violently. And so the violence, abuse, and alcoholism continued. The culmination of Mike’s cry for help resulted in him stabbing his father multiple times and being sentenced to serve out the rest of his childhood (from the age of 13 to 18) in Youth Authority–essentially a prison for minors.
Within one month of serving his sentence, 13 year old Mike witnessed someone be killed. “It wasn’t a good place, you know? I became more violent than ever…I witnessed murder…horrible things…and I was just a kid.” Mike shakes his head vigorously, as if trying to shake out the things that he has seen, the things that he has done. When he left Youth Authority, Mike was 18. He had never had a true adolescence, and he had spent the last five years of his life learning that the only way to survive was to kill or be killed. He had become more violent and seen things so crazy that to this day, almost 40 years later, he can not speak of what happened in detail.
Once a “free man”, at the age of 18, Mike reached out to his older brother in the hopes of finding some type of support system, someone who could provide him with the resources that he needed to get back on his feet. What he ended up finding was the leading cocaine dealer in California. Enter the hard drugs, the women, the gangs, the fast life. “I never wanted to be that person,” says Mike, his eyes looking beyond me, his sight cast on some horizon that I could not see, a world where I was a complete outsider, a foreigner. “I couldn’t get out.”
And he really never did get out. The words that Mike had spoken as a child, declaring that San Quentin is where he would one day be, proved prophetic. At age 19 he was sentenced to serve one year and one day (thus bumping him from the county jail to this notorious prison) for his illegal shenanigans. This led to what he calls a “revolving door” of prison sentences. Serving short stints as well as one 10 to life and one 15 to life sentence resulted in Mike spending over 20 years as an adult prisoner. “Prison life is different. Your learn how to make it on the inside, how to survive….the culture. And you keep doing it when you are out. Prison life is easier.”
After Mike was released, about 16 years ago, his journey did not get easier. Once relocated to Nevada he quickly fell into alcoholism, heroin addiction, and homelessness. He lived that way for years, unable to get a job even if he wanted to due to his criminal record. He eventually was offered refuge in the CrossRoads Program (which he stated as having “saved my [his] life”), but even there, overdosed in the parking lot on his first day. It is only recently, after six years of working the CrossRoads Program and moving throughout the ranks from Assistant Manager to Manager to Property Manager of the River House, that he can verbalize the reason that he is still alive.
“I have been stabbed 15 times, shot twice…I realized that the only reason that I am alive is to help people. I don’t know who and I don’t know how… I don’t care about my life, but if I can help someone…that is something, that is why I am here…”
So I guess that is why I am telling you Mike’s story. While it is reverberating with broken systems and things to be fixed, it is, at it’s core, about an individual. And the importance of never forgetting the individual as we look at the system. My goal, my desire, is to fix systems, to be on this macro playing field that looks at the big picture. But we can’t ever really understand that big picture without the millions of tiny pieces that make it up.
Mike is one of these pieces. His story is not beautiful, it is not heroic, it is not sexy. It is messy. It ebbs and flows like a disgruntled tide, for every one step forward it illustrates two steps back. His is not a fairy tale of 15 years of sobriety and a life back on track. And yet, Mike’s story gives me hope. He gives me hope that despite broken systems and addiction and abuse there can be purpose. That regardless of time served, mistakes made, and freedom lost, there can be redemption.
“I have this thing where I try to practice something new every week to make my life better,” Mike explains, almost bashfully. “One week it was holding the door open for people at Walmart, you know to help them out. At least until a guy said I should try to do something else to make money and that I was a bum…Then I let the muthaf*cker have it. Then I was 86ed from Walmart…But anyways, right now I am working on not complaining. It just feels like a waste of time. And I don’t have any more time to waste.”
So if you have made it to this point, in quite possibly the longest and yet shortest blog I have ever written, I challenge you to not waste any more time. See the individual, know the individual, care about the individual. And let the individual be the reason that you care about the system. That you want to change the system. That you will change the system.