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Prison bars in the foreground with a toilet and sink in the background
Photo by yenwen on iStock

In December 2020, I contracted an unforgiving case of COVID-19.

As soon as I tested positive, I was told to pack for two weeks and move to isolation. I did as directed, grabbing only essential items because of my sore body, fatigue and low oxygen levels. I just wanted to sleep.

At that moment, I did not think a prison would endanger a person or their property. The scare of the pandemic had everyone on edge. I was assuming the institution was a part of the serve-and-protect community. It slipped my mind that it’s still a house of criminals.

A week into COVID-19 isolation, officers started to bring us the rest of our property, but mine never came. After 15 days of isolation, I was sent to a new general population unit with different rooms, new faces. I was out of my comfort zone, with no property.

I was down to a quarter bottle of shampoo, one bar of soap, a brush, two sets of clothes, a toothbrush, and paper and pen. I was embarrassed, angered and completely out of my element. Two weeks later, I was informed there was no property to be returned.

Devastation set in. All I could think about was my late mother’s pictures, jewelry from home and the other personal property I would never be able to hold again.

I could not grasp the reality that my personal belongings were gone, never to be returned. I just wanted revenge. I wanted to cause harm to the person who violated me in such a way.

This was an instinct I developed at a young age. I grew up in a family where abandonment was a common thread. In response, I would attempt to protect, save or fight the alleged good fight for another person. This martyrdom fulfilled my need for recognition, belonging and heroism that stemmed from my parents’ neglect.

My habitual criminal history was a result of this. Since the age of 14, if any of my friends or loved ones needed something or were hurt from wrongdoing or heartbreak, I took it upon myself to seek revenge. My revenge would always come in the form of physical harm, humiliation, theft or emotional turmoil.

So long as no one saw me as the weak one, I would be praised as strong, instead of how I truly felt inside, which was weak, unloved and unworthy.

For 23 years I created a defense for myself without a care in the world for how it affected others. It never occurred to me that I was judgmental, callous, controlling, violent and ignorant. It never dawned on me that I was doing the very thing I despised.

Both of my prison sentences — served over 19 years so far — have been for taking another person’s property by force and fear. And I did so because of their actions toward another person.

Back then, I never deeply considered the motives behind my actions. I never made an emotional connection to my behavior. I only felt justified.

All of that changed when I learned my belongings were gone. I spent weeks trying to retrieve what was mine — several years’ worth of life, but I was told it wasn’t the prison’s responsibility.

I was frustrated with the process and overwhelmed with grief. Then I reflected. I had an epiphany: I could use my experience to stand in the shoes of my victims — the very thing I endured was akin to the pain I caused others.

I let go of my personal grief and loss, and held tight to the emotional turmoil and harm I had caused others. For the first time, my mind and actions aligned with each other.

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.

Jamie Rozelle Harrison is a writer incarcerated in California.