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A mentor in prison can help during the darkest of times.
Photo by Mathias Reding on Unsplash

I had just reconnected with my sister. We were trying to stay in touch as much as possible. I picked up the phone and dialed her number. She didn’t answer. I tried again.

On the fourth ring she picked up.

“Jessie, I’m here at Mom’s,” she said in an urgent tone. “I can’t talk. Someone murdered Manuel. The police are here. I gotta go!”

“Wait!” I said. “Where’s Mom?”

She said Mom wasn’t with her and that she had to go.

Manuel was 23. He had been living with my mom for a few years because he had nowhere else to go. He came from Mexico with an American dream, and now he had lost his life. He was fatally shot in my mom’s driveway. I worried that my mom was a witness to Manuel’s death and that his killers took her.

I stood in the dayroom in shock, not knowing whether my mom was dead or alive. My face was wet with tears. I decided to call my mentor David. I told him someone was just murdered at my mom’s house and that I was worried for her.

“Don’t think like that, bro,” he said. “Just wait and hopefully she’s OK.”

Finding a mentor

When I first came to prison, I was housed next to a Mexican mafia member. For years, he was, to me, what you could call a negative mentor. Then a decade later, I sat in the hole and took stock of my life. I had no love and no real relationships. Everything was based on fear and prison politics.

I decided I wanted a better life filled with love and visits with my dad. But I was still lost. What I needed was a mentor who could answer a very specific question: “Is there hope for me to get out and be successful, despite my 200-year sentence?”

Then I met David, and he answered that question. He had a double life sentence himself, and he was now free. He came back into prisons with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition as a life coach to teach classes on rehabilitation. ARC is an organization founded by movie producer Scott Budnick to help system-impacted people.

At my prison, David shared his story of serving a double life sentence for a double homicide. He told us how he eventually gained freedom and was now helping people to lead better lives. I knew that could be me too.

Over the years, David saw the hard work I put in to help the ARC group run. If people were not there, I would go check on them. If they needed a roster filled, I would go door to door, visiting 400 different cells. I opened up about my father and cried in a room with 30 convicted murderers.

Weekly sessions were held in the room next to my work office. David would ask about family and how I was doing. He would give me life advice and tell me stories of freedom that were food for my soul. They gave me strength and hope that someday I would be home.

He told me of lifer picnics in Los Angeles with hundreds of lifers in attendance. Before I heard these stories I thought I was headed for death in prison. My mentor's stories showed me it was OK to hope.

I had been corrupted in my youth by negative mentors and that made me closed off to guidance. But David was the light I wanted to be. “Mentor” was a title that came after the bond, a term of respect I gave him when I was ready. I was tough and callous because I had been led wrong in the past. I had to learn to trust again and to recognize the values and character I wanted in a role model.

In prison, it is rare to have a mentor you trust completely. Advice from other prisoners is often received with skepticism. But when free people take time to talk to us, it feels different. They are where we want to be and their advice is tethered to the outside world.

Mentors are important because when you get news that shatters the ground beneath your feet, you need someone to help you hold on, to help you stay focused on your goals.

A mentor is somebody you can turn to in times of crisis for insight, clarity and encouragement. A crisis can break us, or it can serve as a test of our ability to cope with stressors.

Safe and sound

That’s exactly how I felt when Manuel was murdered. Manuel’s murder was the second murder my sister had seen at my mom’s house in 11 months. This time, I feared again for my missing mom. She was the main reason I wanted to get home.

Growing up, I would have used a situation like this to lash out and attack someone who disrespected me earlier in the week. But I had changed for the better after two decades of incarceration and after David’s help.

Later that night, I replayed the call with my sister in my head. I couldn’t think about anything else.

I tried to focus my mind. I did my bedtime routine: I brushed my teeth and set my TV turnoff timer. When you’re lost, routine can save you. I repeated to myself that this was all beyond my control. I fell asleep not knowing my mom’s whereabouts. The next morning I woke up emotionally numb.

I went through my morning routine. Even though I was worried that my mother was dead, I reminded myself that reaching freedom was my one way to honor her, dead or alive.

I went to the phone room and dialed my sister. I knew the news on the other end could change my life forever.

It turned out my mother was OK. She had been scared to come home after the murder at her house.

I called David. He told me I needed to get home from prison, but not to live in a house that had seen two murders so close together. He said I needed to get my mother out of the house. I agreed. He reassured me that I’d eventually be free again.

I believed him, and now I still had a mother to return to.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jessie Milo is a writer, artist and poet incarcerated in California. He is a volunteer for and an advocate for mental health.