Friday, March 6, 2009

Milestone of Misery

"If you don't respect and embrace life's good offerings, you will struggle through and feel the pain of life's bad offerings."

Dear Friends,

I come to you with a few humble words on this somber day. It's a day I could not let slide by without some form of recognition.

You see, today is a milestone for me -- but not one to be proud of.

Today, February 18, 2009 marks 25 full years in jail. And it has been laced with hardship and misery

I call it a milestone because, in our society, we measure our lives with milestones -- major birthdays, graduations, weddings, re-locations, births and deaths.

This is, indeed, unique, but in such a painful way that I must examine it.

We're talking about 25 years -- two-and-a-half decades -- a quarter of a century.

Now that is a very long time just to be dwelling in this cold, lonely place.

But I'm not writing this to get sympathy. Sympathy is not what the young people need to be feeling.

They need to be feeling and understanding fear, confusion, shame and determination.

They should feel the fear of doing something foolish, which lands them nowhere.

They should understand the confusion about how something could happen and how they would survive if they made the same choices I made.

And they should try to understand the shame that I feel -- the same of knowing that I let so many people down.

Now I know that I'm better than that.

Finally they must learn determination in a way I didn't learn it -- the determination wish I had known: the determination not to throw my future in the toilet like that.

As I simply size up my milestone, I can only acknowledge that I had to deal with the pain of this hurtful milestone because I didn't respect, appreciate or fulfill life's normal milestones -- births, graduations, weddings, etc.

It's a simple lesson that I've had to learn:

If you don't respect and embrace life's good offerings, you will struggle through and feel the pain of life's bad offerings.

Although I still consider myself lucky to be rather healthy and because I'm able to give young people this simple advice:
  • Be smart!
  • Stay in school!
  • Respect your elders!
  • And don't look for shortcuts!
If you can live your life with these things in mind, you won't be marking this type of gloomy milestone!

Thanks for listening.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

A letter to my eight-year-old self!

Hey young man.
This is some heartfelt words that I would have truly loved to have heard while I ws at this ripe age of eight years. I'm very certain that some of these wisdoms would have made your life much better.
First, Young man, you need to know that a lot of people really love you and, even though some may not know how to truly express love, the real feelings are layered away somewhere in there.
So, fortunately, it's a real good chance that you will never be alone.
Second, you must totally understand that education is the most important thing you need, next to food and water. If you truly embrace the essence of a very good education, you will see and do miraculous things, and may even be able to change the world.
If you've just turned eight, you just witnessed a great man, Martin Luther King, Jr., get assassinated a little over a year ago. I will spend a minute telling you how cruel this world can be, but before I do, I want to clearly, clearly say that Dr. King was able to achieve greatness and change the world -- because of his education.
There is no person who is successful, wealthy or brilliant who doesn't have a personal love affair with education.
Third, this world can be very cold and cruel. You will run into dishonesty, betrayal and hate. Try very hard to reject them because they lead to tragedy.
You also will be offered cigarettes, drugs and alcohol on a number of occasions. What the people won't tell you is that those things will destroy your life for sure!
Please avoid those things because, if you don't, your life will never be the same.
Fourth, be respectful to people -- especially to women -- because one day some woman is going to help you become the man you were meant to be. Always remember that every good man has a good woman standing next to him, so be very respectful.
Fifth, take care of your family and always put them first, because family is the most important thing.
There are so many things I would like to say to you, but if I had to just say these few things, I would be satisfied that you could make it by following this advice.
These five bits of wisdom can make you live your life to its fullest potential.
So, before I close, I would like to just say, REginald, you are a very special and unique person, and just remember that people really do love you!
Have a Very Long and Happy Live!
With Love,
Reginald at "45"

(Note: Don Ray posted this on behalf of Reggie, the boy, and Reggie, the man. He wrote this earlier this year, but I failed to post this and other items he sent to me on the blog. My sincere apologies go out to my friend Reggie, to his family and to all of the people who could have seen this and could have made adjustments to their lives because of Reggie's wisdom.)

Monday, November 26, 2007


As I sit and wonder how I, and others like me, get so tangled up in a system like this. There is a long list of surface reasons that come to mind.
But after all these years, there has never been a process of trying to find out "why" we do some of the stuff we do. We sonder how most inmates constantly return to custody over and over -- and then you come to realize that no one really tries to find out WHY!
You always get the basic question: Why did he do that?
But you never get to the bottom layer peeling -- why? It's continuous, like an onion.
  1. Why did you do it?
  2. Why were you feeling that way?
  3. Why did you think you had no choices?
  4. Why are you so angry?
  5. Why won't you let people in?
  6. Why did you react so fast, etc., etc.!
I think if you get inmates to to sit still and process (really precess) these types of questions -- in a group or structured setting -- you start to get to the meat of what makes inmates tick.
I didn't decide to do any internal inventory until I had access at some structured group settings where some questions were being asked and some life stories were being told.
Then you start to connect and upen up. You become less defensive and more humble! I feel that if you are spending $40,000 a year, you can at least require and Alcoholic Anonymous-style meeting once or twice a week. You'll find that inmates act better when people listen -- and hear them.
It did wonders for me -- and made me want to do better. And that makes society better.
Isn't that what we all want?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Being Thankful from the Inside?

It gives me great pleasure to be able to express some of the things I'm thankful for -- even while I'm in a place as dark as this prison. Prison can be -- and is -- one of the most dark, lonely, scary, hopeless and miserable places on Earth.
But one of the things I'm thankful for is somehow finding the faith, hope and strength to get past all of the negatives 00 and tap into the willpower to shine a little light on some of the despair. Contrary to most beliefs, the most noticeable emotion inside jails is not anger or hostility -- it is FEAR!
It touches everyone, but no one will admit it. The new prisoners fear what lies ahead. The seasoned prisoners fear what will happen if, and when they can't tow the line. And the older prisoners start to fear the mortality of themselves and loved ones.
The guards fear what will happen if they were to lose control. And society fears what will happen ever time a prisoner walks out the gate!
I'm thankful that I have a family that has kept me close -- especially my mother -- which inspires me to be strong. I'm thankful for a second chance at life because, even though I never considered myself violently dangerous, some of the stunts I pulled could have gotten me killed.
I'm thankful that most people around me have consistently seen the good in me -- even when I was acting like a fool.
I'm thankful that I'm allowed a platform in a daily basis to interact, and sometimes help people -- specifically youngsters who seem to be going down the same tragic path I was on.
I"m also thankful that I've been able to stay fairly healthy in an unhealthy environment.
There is a long list of things I'm thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day -- especially now that I truly understand the essence and importance of being thankful.
Finally, I'm thankful that, even in this dark place, I get glimpses of humanity from people every day as I sit and watch them go home to their families. They know -- and even say, "How important it is that you come home soon because we need you out there and there's so much that yhou can be doing to help in the community."
Some may have even prayed on it at their Thanksgiving Dinner table.
As I end this holiday expression, I just want to convey how good it is to just be thought about -- and that's truly worth being thankful for!

R. Wheeler

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Giving a voice to a natural teacher

This blog belongs to Reginald Wheeler, but Don Ray is writing this first entry as an explanation as to how this came about.
I'm a journalist. In 2005 I was working for a legal newspaper. My assignment was interviewing and writing profiles of Southern California judges. One notable profile I wrote was about Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kelvin Filer. Judge Filer reaches out to young people who are at risk -- young people who weren't fortunate enough to be born into a community-minded family like his.
In the profile that I wrote about Judge Filer, I tried my best to paint a picture of that remarkable family. Here's a link to the story I wrote about Judge Filer: Judge Kelvin Filer Profile.
Reginald Wheeler found the profile of Judge Filer while he was doing legal research inside a state prison in San Diego, California. Wheeler immediately wrote to the judge to ask for any help he might be able offer -- help in his attempt to earn a parole.
Judge Filer gave me a copy of the letter and encouraged me to write to Wheeler.
I did, and I learned about a foolish, young street thug who robbed a man of his watch and a few dollars -- more than two decades ago.
Wheeler insists that he deserved to go to prison the crime. But because Wheeler forced his victim to walk to a less-visible spot along side an apartment building, the judge sentenced him to what seems like an eternity. The prosecutors played the "kidnapping" charge and put the young man behind bars for what could be a lifetime.
From everything I've learned, Wheeler has been an honor inmate for most of the time he's been behind bars. And, yes, he's hoping that publicity can help him secure a parole.
He calls me occasionally and he seems to do more listening than talking. He cares about my life and my family and he always asks about them.
This week he called and listened while I complained about how busy I was. I mentioned that my wife was showing concern that I was working too many hours and, just maybe, I was not paying enough attention to her or our son.
Reginald lectured me -- pleaded with me at times -- about not neglecting my family. Then he gave me a lesson -- from prison -- about how I should pause for 30 seconds before I decide what to do in any situation. He said that he'd be a free man today if he had thought 30 seconds before he robbed that man.
"It's almost been one year for every second I didn't stop to contemplate," he said.
Then he gave me even more advice. I'd never heard this advice before, but I knew it was important advice.
"Don Ray," he said, "when you don't know what to do, you should then start thinking about what NOT to do."
It was simple, but brilliant. I don't know if it came from within him or if he learned it from someone else. It didn't matter, however. It was brilliant.
That's when I offered to post to a blog whatever wisdom he wanted to send my way.
We both hope that you'll make the time to read what Reginald Wheeler has to say. He has no expectations of you -- he wants only to prevent others from ending up destroying their lives and the lives of others.
Please consider writing to him or posting your comments on this blog.

Don Ray