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Colie Long: I chose not to be broken

 

I was born in a D.C. neighborhood known as the district’s “heroin capital.” Unlike many other kids I knew, I had two parents with good jobs: my father was an HVAC technician for the Department of the Navy and my mother was a teacher’s aide. But while my father was an excellent provider, he was a religious zealot with a real bad temper. He used to beat me with sticks and extension cords and all types of stuff.

One time when I was a kid, I guess I closed his car door too hard. I was walking on the porch, and my father walked up behind me, cocked back and punched me in my jaw. Damn near knocked me out. I couldn’t take it. So, I ran.

The first time I ran away I was 14. I’d sneak over to the house of a friend. His mother was on drugs all the time and didn’t really know who was there. If it got bad there, we’d move on. We used to sleep at the high school, in the field or on the bleachers. By the time I was 16, I was full time in the streets.

When I was 17, my friend Rodney was shot and killed. My friends got into a beef with some older dudes and they just started shooting. I heard the bullets go mmm mmm. You know how you cover your eyes with your hand so you can squint and see better? The bullet hit me in the arm; I don’t know how it didn’t hit my face.

After that, I started doing a lot of things. And they ended up in me getting locked up for murder and life without parole. You gotta realize, we were like child soldiers. That was the mentality in my neighborhood. The only means of making money was to sell drugs and to do that you had to be tough. You had to be willing to kill with no reservations.

Like, my father was pretty much raised by my uncle, who was arrested for being a drug kingpin when I was 8 years old. All my uncles are locked up. These are the guys who were my examples of being a man.

Into the gulag

Violence was the culture in prison too. Prison is a predatory environment. I was immersed in a maximum-security setting, but stabbings, rapes and gang fights were common. I called my crew. Back home and talked to a guy who just did 20 years himself. The first thing he said was, “Man up. Whatever you have to do, just go full throttle. Bust somebody’s ass, or whatever.” You have to be ultra-aggressive. My teachers and my mentors were wolves and gorillas. And I emulated these guys.

Everything changed in 2003. I had been in prison for about seven years and was sent to the hole for 27 months. One of the others with me was a guy from Chicago, a Gangster Disciple (street gang). We called him Strong because he was a real athletic dude; I mean he was really ripped: 5’10” and all muscle.

One day, I would say about three months in, I woke up and I hear this sound; it’s hard to describe. It was like a soul-piercing scream: agh, agh. Like somebody being killed. It wouldn’t stop, for hours. You’d think the person’s vocal chords would bleed with all that effort. But he just screamed and screamed and screamed until the sun came up.

When the COs came and got me for rec at 7 a.m., I was one of the first. I stripped naked, shook my clothes out, cuffed up and then they escorted me to the rec cage. That was the routine. On the way, I saw the person who had been screaming was Strong! I don’t know what was in his hair. It looked like feces. His eyes were bloodshot, like a zombie from the walking dead, and his T-shirt was filthy.

Even though we hadn’t been on the best of terms — we were from two rivals — we had a common enemy: insanity.

That was the first time I actually saw a person break, mentally break down. It was so severe that the counselor and COs brought other inmates to his cell to talk to him. But he was catatonic. He wouldn’t talk. He just paced and lapsed into bouts of non-stop screaming. They sent him to a medical institution and I never heard about him again.

It’s a common saying in prison that only the strong survive. We don’t mean strong like in the number of burpees you can do, or even how many people you can fight off. It’s about the stress placed on the mind and the spirit, and the fortitude and resiliency you need to prevent these walls from breaking you. A lot of times when you’re in that cell, the only companion you have is yourself. A lot of people have demons they carry within themselves.

But when I went back to my cell that day, I said to myself, I can’t let these people, these walls break me.

The next day, when the book cart came around, I grabbed some books off of it. Before, when I was in the open compound, I was always ripping and running. It was hard for me to stay still. But you can’t do that when you’re in your cell 24 hours a day.

Two of the books I grabbed were Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist and Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Dr. Frankl found himself in dire straits in Auschwitz. Every day, he saw somebody get killed, gassed, exterminated, set on fire, shot in the head. Despite that, he realized that “I have the power to decide how I’m going to meet my fate.” And that changed me. Even though I had life without parole, I determined I was going to be the best person I could.

I came to the conclusion that I was fighting the wrong things. Instead of fighting other inmates, I needed to change the person who got me into prison in the first place. I realized that life is bigger than I thought. I was alive out there in the streets, but I wasn’t living.

Starting over

As soon as I got out of the hole, I start going to programs. My whole spirit changed and people could tell. They’d give me their address and phone number, saying, “I want to keep up with you, man…” I was like, “I got life without parole; I ain’t going anywhere.” And they didn’t believe that. That was a testament to the fact that even though I was confined physically, my spirit was liberated; people didn’t think I was a lifer. It felt good. That was my escape, being a positive person.

Prison doesn’t rehabilitate people, people in prison rehabilitate themselves. There are limited programming opportunities in penitentiaries because there’s always some trouble going down. You have to take it upon yourself to take the initiative, to really apply whatever you can get. Education is empowering; the more you know, the better you feel.

I published my first book, Drama City, about my childhood neighborhood. I wrote screenplays, I mentored other people around me. I spent a lot of time in the law library, and it was through that research that I identified how to challenge my life without parole sentence. A murder charge came with 30 years to life when I was first sentenced, but the prosecutors managed to add in conspiracy to make it life without parole. My suit got that taken off. And now, I’m eligible for a parole hearing in the fall, as well as a possible early release under D.C.’s Second Look Amendment Act, if it’s approved by Congress. What I visualized is coming true!

What do I want to be my legacy now? I want to be remembered as a person who made a positive impact on other people’s lives. I want people to say, He was a good person. He did this for me. He made me feel this way.

 

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