I was editing an article submitted by contributing writer Tommy Winfrey and he told me that he was turning 35 in April. I knew he came to prison as a teenager. I asked him after spending nearly half his life behind bars what does it feels like to turn 35 in prison?
Here’s some of what he said.
For some people, turning 35 is a big deal. But for me, April 8 is just another day in prison, where I have celebrated every birthday since I was 19 years old.
A lack of planning is the reason I’ve celebrated so many birthdays in prison. I went where life took me and let other people make all the choices for me.
I ended up in prison because I took another man’s life. In the end, I was the one who decided to take that life. With over 15 years of hindsight, I know I made that choice because I was trying to take control of my own out-of-control life.
I must live with this decision every day, and I am constantly reminded of it by my surroundings.
Now, almost 16 years later, I am wondering what my 35th birthday would have meant if I weren’t incarcerated. I wonder what it would mean to me if I did not take a man’s life.
Sometimes I imagine my life might have included a wife and a couple of kids, but reality sets in and I know this is far from my truth.
When I committed my crime as a 19-year-old, I never imagined making it to my 25th birthday, let alone my 35th.
Now that I am turning 35, I am wondering where my youth went, I am also wondering if I will ever experience a normal life.
“I was just a young kid trying to survive in prison”
When I came to prison at 19, I saw and experienced things that many people cannot even imagine. On my first day in prison, I was given a number to replace my name. Violence, oppression and loneliness defined my early days in prison.
Then, I was just a scared young kid trying to survive in prison. As I have grown older, I am not so scared anymore, and that kind of scares me.
I spent my youth trying to not be young. Now, I wish I could have it back. However, I know that is not the way life works.
I know that now, because I did grow up. I know I cannot take back the horrible things I have done. I know I cannot go back and erase those times that I regret.
Instead, I must live with all of my decisions – the decisions I made, and the ones that were made for me. Turning 35 years old in prison is a reminder of all those mistakes I made as a kid.
Over the last few weeks, I have reflected intensely upon my mistakes and wondered what my future will bring.
I have finally started making plans for my future. I have finally decided to live for tomorrow, instead of just for today. I have finally learned that every day on this planet counts.
Turning 35 in prison is probably not that different from turning 35 in the free world, but I wouldn’t know.
There are so many things I don’t know about the free world — things I think I should know, things every 35-year-old should know. I just don’t know what those things are.
Tommy is a graduate of the San Quentin entrepreneurial program The Last Mile. As a talented artist, his business idea, Art Felt Creations, is featured in the February edition of San Quentin News. He regularly writes prisoners profiles for the San Quentin News. He is currently enrolled in photography and philosophy classes at the Prison University Project. He answers questions for the website Quora