Every day, every hour, offers the opportunity to make a decision

A book ‘found me’ in the dark of prison and changed my life

Pete on the left

From Pam Bailey, Rob’s editor and publisher: This is the second in a series of periodic interviews with D.C. men who were imprisoned in their early teens and, essentially, grew up in America’s “gulags.” Our goal is to explore how communities could prevent these young men from being funneled into the mass-incarceration system, as well as how prisons could be transformed to better facilitate rehabilitation and thus release.

The first in this series was with Roy Middleton, now living in the “free world.” This interview is with Anthony (Pete) Petty, who has been incarcerated for 29 years, since the age of 16. He is currently in the D.C. jail with Rob, where he is awaiting a hearing on his petition for early release under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act.

What is the right age to try to intervene to “save” kids and why, based on your own childhood?

I would intervene starting at the age 10 or so, because that’s when kids are most impressionable. The things they see in their neighborhoods are what gives them their idea of what they want to become in life.

I remember telling one of my instructors (in prison) that I didn’t have positive role models when I was growing up. She replied, “No. You had positive ones. You just didn’t pay them any attention.” When I think about it, she’s right in one respect. There were teachers, police officers, mailmen in my crime-ridden neighborhood who had decent jobs and went to work every day.

(Reacting to my question about a police officer who was a role model:) Yes, there actually was a police officer who lived in my neighborhood who we all liked. He knew everybody. If there was a problem in the neighborhood, he would come out and solve the problem. And if other officers came in, he would stop them from causing any problems. I think it’s important for officers to live in the neighborhood they police.

But he wasn’t always accessible like the pimps and drug dealers. My mother had drug problems, so I knew all the dealers and the killers. Plus, they were the ones who got respect. They were even respected by the police. Everybody in the neighborhood respected these guys. That’s what I wanted.

What could be done to intervene and show kids another way?

Dupont Circle is in the same city, but a world apart.

I’d take kids out of that environment, to Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Kennedy Center. Just to give them a better understanding of things outside their neighborhood. You don’t really need a lot of money to do these things. But the average person from our neighborhoods never get to see outside.

When I was 16 and they locked me up, I was sent to juvenile block. All of us on the block loved the TV show “Saved by the Bell” and “90210.” But they were like fantasies. We couldn’t imagine going to a high school where people pull up in cars and have fun. In other words, it was a normal type of high school, although we didn’t know that. Those programs showed us something different.

Ideally, someone like me or Rob would mentor these kids — somebody who has been down their road but now know right from wrong. We now know what we really want to be in life. Otherwise, kids will say, “How can you tell me not to something if you’ve never lived it?”

How did you start looking at life differently? How did that transition happen for you?

It wasn’t until I was in my 30s. I read a book called, “A Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl. In it he said this:

“There are always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offers the opportunity to make a decision, a decision that determines whether you will or will not submit to powers that threaten to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determines whether or not you become the plaything to circumstance.”

At the time, I was in a special management unit” (SMU, a euphemism for a detention facility for “problem” inmates). After reading that book, I realized that I was putting myself in these situations because of the choices I was making.

Once I left the SMU, I never was hit with a disciplinary action again. I’ve been locked up for all my life and I knew if I continued to go down that road, I’d end up in prison for the rest of my years too.

So, reading was a lifesaver of sorts. When and how did your love of reading begin?

I learned to love reading in prison. I used to always get locked down for fighting and stuff like that. And when you’re locked down, you don’t have anything to do except read. Every time I was locked down, I tried to get something to read. No matter what it was. The first book I read was “Manchild in the Promised Land,” but my real love is fantasy books like the “Game of Thrones” series. I wish I would have started reading when I was 10, 11, 12 years old because it probably would’ve changed how I spent my time, my outlook on life.

When you think about your neighborhood and the kind of kids you associated with, how do you think we could get them to get into reading sooner?

The thing about kids now, you have to make it look cool. So, maybe it would work if we got rappers to speak about reading books, the books they like, instead of about the drugs and violence. A lot of these kids, they will follow that lead. That would be something beautiful.

I’d definitely like to start a book club in the ‘hood where I grew up. There’s a book that came out when I was young called “Shogun.” But I didn’t read it until I was locked up. It’s one of the best books I ever read, but when I saw it, I was almost scared off. It was about 1,300 pages long. So big! But when I read the book, I realized that the honor code followed by the samurais reflects my values: I’m not going to disrespect you. I expect you to treat me with respect. I’m never going to harm an innocent child or innocent woman, etc. Imagine if I had found that book earlier.

What could be done earlier, when somebody’s first in jail or prison? What do you think could be done to sort of speed up that process for people?

Today, Pete is a mentor for the Young Men Emerging program at the D.C. jail

Education. They need to be able to go to school or participate in similar programming. The first time I was offered education, it was about 12 years into my bid (years in prison). I was 28 years old when I got my GED.

Do most federal prisons offer some type of education?

They offer some things. But so much is off limits for “lifers” like Rob and me. They feel as though if you got a life sentence, there’s no reason for you to get programs. But any program that was available, I tried to get into it.

Federal prisons are totally different from what Rob and I have encountered in the D.C. jail. It has a college program (the Georgetown Prison Scholars)! We need that federal prison, in penitentiaries, where we spend most of our time. If you can’t pay for it, you’ll never get it. In the last five years, it’s even become hard for us to receive books in federal penitentiaries, supposedly due to drugs coming in the mail.

Is this an environment that is conducive to rehabilitation?

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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