I gave myself the name Emotional Poet because it reflects my prolific, God-given ability to articulate the unspoken words of my soul.
Prior to my incarceration, I had no interest in poetry, perhaps because I didn’t really understand the concept or how it could factor into my life. However, when I was sentenced to life, that changed. I remember returning to the D.C. jail after being informed of that harsh sentence, and as I sat at a table in the common area of the unit, lost in deep thought as I tried to make sense of what had just happened, a guy walked over and sat next to me in an attempt to console me.
“Man, I heard they gave you life,” he said. “I feel your pain.” I looked at the guy in disgust, then got up and walked off to my assigned cell. I thought to myself, “How in the heck can you feel my pain? You aren’t the one just sentenced to life.”
I sat at my small desk, trying to doggy paddle through the wave of emotions. I picked up the stub of a pencil in front of me and started writing my thoughts on a sheet of paper. I don’t recall thinking about anything in particular, or even trying to organize my thoughts. I just wrote. When I read the result, I was shocked. During my younger years, I had never been good with verbally expressing myself, outside of physical violence, so the outpouring of feelings, as well as the fact that it naturally rhymed, was a revelation for me.
I had never been good at expressing myself, outside of physical violence, so the outpouring of feelings, as well as the fact that it naturally rhymed, was a revelation. It jarred me out of my black mood for a few minutes. I felt a small bit of relief. It was a “waiting to exhale” moment. I titled the poem, “You Don’t Understand My Pain,” because that is exactly how I felt:
You don’t understand my pain,
so don’t say you do.
I’m the rose that grew from concrete,
struggling so hard to break through.
Yet I’m still not free.
And you say you understand.
Well, try being me.
Don’t stroke my ego,
’cause I can’t go with the flow.
I have to go by what I feel
and with what I know.
Now I know your heart
may be in the right place,
but experience is my guide.
I now sit here wounded,
mentally and emotionally,
which I try so hard to hide.
You don’t understand my pain.
From that moment on, every time I found myself emotionally rattled, I’d put pen to paper to express the unspoken words of my soul. It wasn’t long before I realized how therapeutic writing poetry had become for me. I wasn’t used to talking about my feelings, because I didn’t want to be looked down upon as weak. So, I kept a lid on my emotions. But finding an outlet for my feelings on paper (and in a poetic way, at that), helped me feel truly alive…maybe even for the first time in my life. I didn’t share my poetry at first, but I still felt that I was finally being seen…even if it was by my own eyes! Over the years, I wrote more and more frequently, my skills improved, and my expressions became more detailed. My wife (who I consider to be my angel in human form) played a significant role in my rise to the throne of legitimate poet. In these 23-plus years of incarceration, our shared conversations and personal experiences have inspired me to write poetry that readers enjoy as well as “feel.” Her love alone generates a wave of positive emotions that ricochets throughout my being, and that’s what I call “poetry in motion”!
It’s amazing how writing can be so cathartic. It has become a way for me to heal some of the emotional scars I’ve borne practically all my life.
Sharing my ‘epiphany’ with others
When I was at a previous prison (the medium-security Hazelton institution in West Virginia), I shared my love of writing and reading via a book club formed with about 14 other prisoners, supported by several outside volunteers. We were inspired by our participation in an “inside out” program with West Virginia University. In that program, 15 college students from the outside and 15 men selected from the inside (prison) met to discuss topics related to incarceration. It was an opportunity for prisoners to present a different perspective about “us,” considering that many people’s views are shaped by what they read in the newspapers and see on television. The program was three months long, and we came together five days a week. It was transformative for a lot of us – the college students in particular – because many of them were planning to pursue careers related to law in some form or another. They learned that we aren’t bad people; many of us just made bad choices! And even more importantly, we helped them understand why people make those mistakes. There are underlying factors for just about every crime committed. Many incarcerated people don’t consciously choose to commit crimes; they feel pushed into it by their circumstances or conditioning.
I like to say that it’s virtually impossible for a person to be confined to a smokehouse for an extended period and emerge without the smell of smoke. In other words, the environment in which people grow up shapes much of how they live, what they do and who they become. That’s a fact, but many people choose not to acknowledge it because they think it gives a pass to those who do wrong. But that’s so not the case! Instead, acknowledging that fact allows you to notice the human being. Everyone has a story, and it’s not until you learn it that you can understand and appreciated the person.
Many of our conversations during book club meetings revolved around this topic. For example, our first book was “Just Mercy” by Brian Stevenson, based on the author’s attempts to free people on death row. It was during these meetings when I felt the most “humanized.” I was surrounded by people who came to care genuinely about one another.
I also tried to share the therapeutic value of storytelling by developing a program for other prisoners called M.A.N. (Mentality Adjustment NOW). I developed the class after signing up to train as a facilitator. The final project for the class required was to create a program of our own. And that’s in part how M.A.N. was “born.”
Antonio, middle, shakes hands during a M.A.N. session (photo from the BOP)
Forgiveness will set you free
I say “in part” because the inspiration for the concept behind M.A.N. was the death of my brother Dan. I dreamt about his death the night he passed away, four days after he was brutally beaten in May 2004. I was devastated, bleeding emotionally. I vowed that night to avenge my brother’s murder. Although I am a Christian, I was dead set on taking matters into my own hands; there was no way I was going to allow that guy to escape the rage boiling inside. However, God had other plans.
About six months later, I was sitting on the edge of the bed inside my cell, still grieving, when the Lord spoke to me in a quiet, inner voice: “You know the pain you’re feeling right now?” I responded, “Yes, Lord.” He replied: “That’s the same kind of pain you caused other people with your bad behaviors.” Something awakened inside me that I had never experienced before. I felt compassion and remorse at the same time. I had never realized until then that my actions during adolescence had caused so much pain to others. I never saw other people for the human beings they are, due in large part to the way I was conditioned to viewing myself while growing up. The way I was treated by others (my mother in particular), caused me to become numb to feelings. And as I grew older, my heart became colder than ice.
But when God spoke to me, my heart thawed. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” it says in Proverbs. I suddenly felt compassion for the guy who murdered my brother, so much so that I said to myself, “If ever our paths should cross, I will forgive him.”
Meanwhile, the man who murdered my brother was apprehended and accepted a plea deal for 20 years in prison. Almost two years later, I learned via phone call not only the name of the person who killed my brother (Ronald), but also that he was incarcerated in the same prison! My heart began palpitating. I never expected to run into him so soon. But the time had come. The Lord was testing me: Had my heart truly changed, or was I going to seek revenge? God already knew the answer, but I had to discover it for myself.
I learned that Ronald was in a unit across from mine, so when there was a five-minute move to the recreation yard, I went outside to see if I could locate him. It wasn’t hard, because our names are written on our khaki shirts. When I saw a person whose first initial and last name was a match, I calmly approached and asked if I could have a brief word with him. I explained that I was looking for the guy who killed my brother, and that his name matched. Immediately, he said, “No, I’m not him. I’m not in for murder. I’m in on a (parole) violation.” I knew he was lying; I could feel it. Nevertheless, I told him I just wanted to address the matter in a “spiritual” way, not anything physical. Again, he assured me he wasn’t the guy.
Fast forward: Later that day Ronald went to work and spoke with one of my friends. Ronald told my friend about our brief encounter, and how he had lied to me. He wasn’t sure what I would have done had he said yes. But Ronald remembered my professed desire to handle the encounter spiritually, and added, “If he really wants to address this matter that way, then I am willing to talk to him.” Later that day (after the 4 p.m. count), we met outside on the yard: me, Ronald and my friend, who acted as mediator in case things went sour. But they didn’t.
As we walked the track, Ronald told me his side of the story of my brother’s death. Once he finished, I said to him in a serious but pleasant tone, “If our paths had crossed several months ago, we’d be having a different kind of conversation. But the Lord revealed some things to me about the pain the old me caused others, so rather than continue the cycle of evil, I want to let you know that I forgive you.” I could see that it was like a big weight had lifted off his shoulders, no longer having to walk around in fear of my possible wish for revenge. I shook his hand firmly, while looking into his eyes, then pulled him in for a brief, brotherly hug.
I did something that day that I never could have imagined having the strength and discipline to do. But I did it. And it was genuine. Ronald is the first person I had ever genuinely forgiven…And it felt good!
Even as I share this story, I can think about Ronald without any ill feelings. Ronald did what he did because he was disconnected from his inner self (the better version of himself). Just as I once was a product of my environment, so was he. I destroyed lives, and he destroyed lives, but in our underdeveloped minds, we saw nothing wrong about it. It was “normal,” especially on the streets of Washington, D.C.
I’m in no way justifying poor choices…his, mine or anyone else’s. I was once a product of my environment, so I speak from personal experience and since I overcame the darkness that once loomed over my life, it’s become a lifelong commitment to be a beacon of light, guiding others out of their own internal gloom. No one ever said things to me like, “Man, you are a good person; The world needs more people like you; I hope you make it home one day.” But now they do, and it feels so darn good.
Becoming a ‘beacon’ for others, despite the BOP
Since being transformed by own “renewal,” I have become intentionally committed to being a beacon of light, helping to guide others out of the darkness. It feels good to hear people say, “Man, you are a good person. The world needs more people like you. I hope you make it home one day soon.” That is a big accomplishment for me.
The purpose of M.A.N. was to help other incarcerated men develop a healthy, cohesive sense of self by identifying and understanding their own characteristics that trigger addictive personalities, violence and criminal behaviors. Small groups convened once a week for three hours over a course of 14 weeks. Among the subjects we explored were conflict resolution, integrity, forgiveness, anger management, resentment, emotional control and how to de-escalate noxious thinking.
Unfortunately, Inside Out, the book club and M.A.N. all came to an end with changes in prison management. For example, M.A.N. was ended because the staff wanted control, and I would not compromise: Anyone who teaches the program must be totally committed to the human-to-human connection. M.A.N. is a very intimate program that addresses complex, sensitive issues. A rote, uncaring approach would not be acceptable, and prison staff made it clear that humanizing us was not a priority.
As soon as the programs ended, nothing positive to do remained for the incarcerated inhabitants, making room for the devil to have his way with so many of the guys (getting high, fighting, robbing people, getting drunk, and going back and forth to the hole).
Meanwhile, however, I remained, and always will be, an emotional poet, sharing my hopes and dreams with the world, wondering if anyone is listening:
During a crucial moment in my
something phenomenal happened…
a transformation of ME—
in my purest form:
The embodiment of a poem,
with a personality that
breathes life into the
soul of others.
The spiritual side of my
testifies to how bondage
can be loosened,
and generational curses broken…
Unmasking the past,
yet not allowing it to become
too acquainted with the present…
aka “my today.”
A brilliant work of true poetry…
I am it, and it is me—
a human butterfly in motion!
To order a copy of Emotional Poet, visit Amazon.
*Editor’s note: Today, Antonio is housed in a prison hospital, following a hunger strike staged in protest of his treatment, which caused serious damage to his health.