October is a very memorable month for me. For starters, you have the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron St. of Animals, and I have quite a few friends and family members who were born in October. I always say that if I were not born in August, I would choose to be born in October. There is something very special about this month. It is one of the most beautiful months of the year with the different colored leaves. According to a book of daily quotes I have called The Daily Calm, the month of October is the month of Wisdom. Oh how I couldn’t agree more! Besides the feast days, birthdays and wedding anniversaries that fall in this month, there is one day in October that I shall never forget: the day I visited Fishkill Correctional Facility on Friday, October 22, 1999.
After 15 years, the memory is still clear in my mind, and it is something that my close friend, Mary Wu, and I talk about till this day. We were both seniors in high school taking courses for Mercy College credit, one of which was Criminology. Part of the course included a visit to prison to learn about the realities of crime and prison life. I had heard all kinds of stories from students who had gone the previous year. I heard things like: “They get in your face and yell at you.” Because of my very sensitive nature, I was very nervous about going. How would they react if I didn’t see something or hear what they said? What if they ganged up on me?
The prison had a youth program called YAP (I think it stands for Youth Assistance Program). It’s primary aim was to warn teens not to travel down a criminal road, which ultimately leads to prison. Because of the program’s effectiveness, I am assuming it is still around today.
Anyway, many of the inmates I would be meeting were in gangs and were serving time for murder. This was serious business, and I remember asking our teacher if I would survive the experience. I will never forget his response: “Yes, you will survive, but it will be a day you will never forget.”
We traveled by school bus to the prison, and when we arrived we wanted to turn back around. After seeing the barbed wire that surrounded the prison, my classmates and I got all nervous. We were all told to wear plain dark clothing that day, and I remember wearing all black, hoping not to stick out like a sore thumb in the crowd.
We went inside and went through something similar to a booking process. We were finger printed, and we walked through metal detectors. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to end up back there again. The officers there gave us a rundown about what we should not do, like giving out any type of personal information. They also told us the realities of prison life and despite what people think, prison is a dangerous place. I remember hearing that inmates make their own weapons and get into nasty fights.
We went downstairs where we were met by eight men with very thick New York City accents. They were yelling and cursing, and I was trying my best not to pee myself. We were led to a room that had chairs arranged in a circle. There were some windows around to let light in, but for the most part, it was a dimly-lit area. We were told where to go and how to stand. I remember them looking at each of us straight up and down. One of them stood just inches from my face and said: “Put your hands at your sides.” Like a good soldier, I did what I was told.
Then they all introduced themselves by saying “My new name,” which was followed by a series of numbers. I remember learning that the first two numbers was the year that they were convicted. Most of them were convicted in the early to mid-90s. They definitely had me scared. I remember one of them saying to us, “Today you don’t belong to your mother! You don’t belong to your father! You don’t belong to your teachers! You belong to me!” In my mind I cried out: “I belong to God!”
When we were finally told to sit in our chairs, each one of them took some time to speak on various subjects ranging from peer pleasure, drugs, violence and prison life. I was wide-eyed the whole time, afraid to move. There was a lot of yelling and cursing. The F word was definitely used quite frequently.
I did not dare move. If I had an itch, I did not scratch it. I sat as they instructed us with both feet flat on the floor and my hands on my knees. My gaze often fell upon Mary, who sat directly across from me. I wondered what kind of thoughts were spinning around inside her head.
I remember the loudest guy there was the biggest, and his name was Mr. Attitude. I remember him sharing his story about what happened to him when he arrived to the facility. It was a very loud and emotional account, and I remember at one point he began to cry as he spoke. All different kinds of emotions were flooding inside of me. I felt afraid, but I also felt moved with compassion for them. It was all happening in front of me, and all the stories were real. This place was real.
At one point, my class and I were broken up into four groups. Each group contained three students and two inmates. Mary and I were in separate groups. At this point, the volume was taken down a few notches. They spoke to us in a softer tone and answered questions we had about their stories and how they became part of the YAP Team. I remember I didn’t ask any questions because I was just so taken with the whole experience. I knew it was real, but it was so surreal, and I couldn’t believe I was there. I had never spoken to anyone who killed someone, and I had never been inside a prison.
The overall message that they had was they wanted to reform and live better lives, and they wanted to prevent teens from going the route they had taken. Their message was to listen to your teachers and your parents and to do the right thing and not end up where they had ended up.
I admired them for their efforts to change, and I truly believed in them. To this day, I think about them and hope that all eight of them have found the better path to follow. I remember walking around with a heavy heart that entire weekend, trying to take in everything that I had witnessed. I remember thinking about what they were doing at that moment and what would become of them in the future.
That following Monday, our teacher told my class and me to write letters of thanks to the YAP Team. After completing my letter to them, my heavy heart became a bit lighter. I felt a sense of closure, and I was glad I had visited the facility and that I heard what they had to say. They had a powerful message and the experience had a very profound effect on me. I remember writing something like: “I did not particularly care for all the yelling, but I understand why you did that. You were trying to scare us away from hell and in order to do that, you had to scare the hell out of us.”