A Prisoner’s Guide Towards Rehabilitation: Transcending Our Past

Ashly Ernesto "Christian teacher"

October 31, 2016

Dear World,

Being in solitary confine, for an indefinite SHU term at Pelican Bay, felt like an eternity. The mental picture I will carry with me for the remainder of my life, is like a scar in our bodies, visibly reminding us of a past hurt. Solitary confinement is much alike, the only difference is that the scar is not visible because the pain is hidden within my mind; deep within the confines of my memories … However, these memories can surface when I access such horrific experiences of my past like a dream or a nightmare that stays with us forever.

 

Today, I want to share this vivid image of solitary confinement in hopes that you may know what I survived. What every person held in solitary confinement survives … Each unit in solitary confinement has six pads with eight cells in each pad. Four on the bottom tier and four on the top tier. The cells lack privacy. Each inmate can hear each other’s every movement and thoughts. I often wonder whether others around we can hear the words I write in a letter. The cells are all the same concrete that was used to build this torture chamber. The walls are disguised by white paint. They have a psychiatric asylum feel to them that can drive men mad with insanity. There is a unit that adjoins the sink and toilet, a concrete slab you can place the little you have and yes, a concrete slab to sleep on. A prisoner can go to showers or yard, both of which are located within each pad, accessible through the opening of a metal door, controlled by the jailer at the control booth. A prisoner spends about twenty-two to twenty-three hours in his cell. Every day of his life, the only time a prisoner comes out of his cell is to go to yard or shower. The few fortunate ones are visited by brave family and friends who muster the strength fueled by love, to see their sons, brothers, uncles, husbands and loved ones. Otherwise he never leaves the unit.  He never gets to see the sun or the moon. (Even at yard one feels as if he is looking up inside of a well, forever lost, forever forgotten.) One’s memory fades of the colorful green on a tree, a bird flying through the sky or a smile painted on a loved one’s face. One has to gather up the courage to stare right back at the beast and use his mind to defeat it, to conquer it. Most prisoners will spend decades, if not – the rest of their life – in solitary confinement by the corruption with those walls. An arbitrary power given to our captors by legislators to “label” prisoners as a threat to the security of the institution state-wide. Just for having a mind, becomes eternal in this solitude when you walk into solitary confinement. Often there is never a return. A return to what often seems like a dream – life before this never ending nightmare.

This is the grim reality for most inmates housed in solitary confinement. It was my reality. I remember that when I wrote that excerpt of an essay paper I did for college. I truly believed that I would stay in solitary confinement until I paroled more than 2 years in the future. However, inside of solitary confinement, I turned my focus towards education. Basically, I realized that I could not sit in that lifeless tomb and let myself be buried alive and rot away. So in 2010, I earned my G.E.D. and enrolled in a Bible college correspondence courses, which I completed. I enrolled in actual college at the Feather River College to earn my A.A. degree. I also completed programs such as: GoGI, A.A., N.A. criminal, Love lifted me Recovery, Crossroad Bible Institute, College Guild, Saints Prison Ministry, Prep-Turning Point, Pre-Anger Management, Finding the way Publications, 12 step Christian ministry, New Jersey Bible Club, Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, T54fcorp Affiliates & Offender’s Recovery Program, Dismas (?) Ministry, and Rock of Ages Ministry … Why did I become so focused towards education you might ask? Well, I knew that I’d spend the rest of my life helping at risk youth avoid learning about life the way I did or experience what I did in Solitary Confinement by being a youth counselor. This would be the only way to find redemption in my own life and mistakes. Living a life of service is the best antidepressant that would also grant me inner liberation from the torture I experience being deprived of basic human senses.

In December of 2015, I was released from Solitary Confinement and sent to High Desert State Prison general population. I remember the first time I went out to the main yard. It was snowing heavily. However, I began to run around the big track. As I began to run, I began to pick up the pace. Soon enough, my shirt was off, and I was flying, soaring around the track with all my might and speed! I was truly flying! When I finally stopped and as I gasped for air and tried not to pass out from the lack of oxygen in my brain (High Desert has thinner air due to the high attitude), I noticed all of the inmates looking at me as if I was a mad man. What they did not fully understand was that after years of being buried alive, in a concrete casket at Pelican Bay SHU, being able to run as I did, allowed me to feel as free as I’ve felt in years! No wire blocking the sky, no concrete walls stopping me from running as I did. I truly felt as if I was flying!

My story did not end there. In 2016, a new law called SB 261 was passed that allows people incarcerated before the age of 23, a second chance at life. I was incarcerated at age 18 and am now 35 years of age when I arrived at High Desert. Many inmates looked up to me because of where I came from. I used this influence, not for ill purposes, but for positive ones. I became involved in mentoring younger inmates to encourage them towards education, through a program called the Fair Chance Project – Walking the yard, I also got involved writing to troubled kinds through a program called Prison Letters 4 Our Struggling Youth, and the Beat Within. I also became a Peer Coach with the GOGI (Getting Out By Going In) organization. And started a GOGE group as a facilitator, to help other inmates make positive decisions and influence their lives towards a positive direction. So when this law passed, I had already met all the requirements and beyond to be given a second chance at freedom outside of prison walls. I was seen by a parole commissioner, a Kathleen Newman. Right from the start, she expressed she was very impressed with my file. And when I was done speaking, I could tell I had made a rare impression upon her. She expressed that I was a rare inspirational case and that people like we are needed in our society, to do the work I will be doing the rest of my life; counseling at risk youth. I knew this consultation hearing was different. Something special had taken place through that video conference as se both communicated via the television screen. Parole Commissioner, Kathleen Newman had not judged me by my past or why I was in prison.  In fact, She hadn’t judged me by my checkered past, within incarceration; which had been full of anger, destruction and harm. No. Kathleen Newman saw me for the person I was on that day of my consultation hearing, today. And the person I would be and am for the rest of my life. Kathleen Newman sincerely expressed that she believed every single word I expressed to her due to the fact that I had begun my transformative rehabilitative process … years before SB 261 was even conceived as a possibility. In addition, she expressed that my sincerity penetrated through the lens of the camera, which held our video conference. Indeed, something special had taken place. Something bigger than myself. A Higher Power was in that very room. Perhaps the same Higher Power that had kept watch over me my entire life and whom never gave up on me even when I refused to live according to his will. Was it the same Higher Power who instilled deeply within my heart to heal from the hurt that almost swallowed my heart whole? Was it the same Higher Power that persisted in bringing correction to my life, so that I was not lost to total darkness which seemed to pull me in deeper and deeper to such an empty abyss? I knew something special began to take shape within my life when I chose to focus on education in 2010. God, Christ, had a purpose in my life. Just as he has a purpose for every single person in the world. Just as he had a purpose with Moses, Noah, and Abraham. I contemplated about the Apostle Paul and how he persecuted Christs’ followers when he was lost to darkness, only to be chosen by God to do his will with the purpose God had in store for him. I know that just like Paul, I had persecuted God’s creation by contradicting his commandment of love. For God created us all and when I chose, in the past, to harm one of his creations, even beginning as a thought, I succumbed to the darkness of our corruptible human nature. And yet, God, still chose me and had a purpose for my life a he has a purpose for yours …

It is undeniable. He, God, freed me from solitary confinement. He passed SB 261 to free me from incarceration. For he intimately and personally shares a special bond and relationship with every single one of us.

I started the GOGI program at High Desert against all odds, at a place where there was no hope. A place where people no longer believed in the system. The GOGI program was to begin at High Desert and it dragged on, month after month, to no avail. Coach Taylor even visited High Desert personally made me a chairman and yet, nothing. So I began teaching GoGi to 5 individuals on my own. If we were on Lockdown, I’d “fish” my students their homework with the GoGi tool of the week and the keywords, which we would discuss over the “tier”. When our group “The Claim Responsibilitators” were off of lock-down, I’d hold our weekly meetings at dayroom … Each week I’d mail my weekly report to Coach Taylor, which led to more magic with my life. Coach Taylor shared the magic that was happening at High Desert of people who were doing whatever necessary to self-correct and learn tools to make positive decisions in their life away from the darkness of our corruptible human nature.

Perseverance is a word that I love very much. Most of us held in prison experience things in our lives that create a warped belief system that spark causative factors which corrupt our oneness with our creator. As humans, we just want to be loved. Solitary confinement finally got my attention from the voice that whispered to follow the light. The light towards God’s abundant love. For without solitary confinement, I wonder if today I’d still be lost in total darkness and no aim or direction in life. Solitary confinement was the physical example and metaphor of the inner confinement I’d been held captive for most of my life. In solitary confinement, I felt as if I was buried alive, secluded from the world, living in a physical embodiment of constant neglect and hurt … which was, I felt within my mind, heart and spirit, for most of my life; And for which I am thankful for … for God uses suffering to chastise us because he loves us. So that we may be found to share in his eternal glory, basking in his infinite love.

I want to thank Parole Commissioner, Kathleen Newman for not being like people in the past or present, who condemn and write people off for a single mistaken choice in life. For seeing in me the light, which God inspired within myself and being a tool to create the much needed change we need in society today. Sitting in Ironwood level 3 prison, I am able to catch a glimpse within my own spirit … Within my own spirit that is free from darkness and artificial emotions. It is light which guides my heart. The freedom my physical body is living today, being able to be at yard, basically all day or walk to breakfast as I enjoy the warm Arizona breezes, as I deserve the free sky with a flock of birds freely enjoying their nature in freedom. And even though my spirit is already free, I know, very soon, I too will fly free as I soar through life fulfilling God’s will through my service.

So to conclude this message, next year, I should be reunited with my family friends and doing the work I was put on this earth to do … To be of service to infinite others, in order to help them find their internal freedom and away from their inner solitude. We all have an inner light that we must nurture, in order to illuminate the world, our world with a bright light of positivity and love.

Sincerely and with much love and solidarity,

Ernesto Rodriguez