My journey from ‘product of’ to ‘creator of’

I will no longer allow my environment to define me

Illustration by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash

By Rob Barton

I partnered with Pam to launch this blog as a “voice for the voiceless,” hoping to use the stories of people behind bars to paint vivid pictures of our pain, struggles, losses — and resilience — to both humanize the experience of incarceration for those on the outside and galvanize support for dismantling and rebuilding our broken criminal justice system to be more holistic and humane.

But I never foresaw what this blog would become to me personally. It now is a huge part of my support and personal development during these trying times. It has become a place for me to “write my wrongs” (as Shaka Sengor titled his book). It has become the place where I go to vent…a release valve for my stress. It has become therapeutic, the place to which I retreat to heal from all these years of trauma. It is like my diary. And never has this been more needed than over the last 50-odd days I’ve spent trapped in a cell 24/7 with nothing but a few books, some paper and a pencil, and my thoughts to get me through.

I have been re-reading Chris Wilson’s book, “The Master Plan.” As he describes how he perceives Plato’s allegory of the cave, I was struck by how he saw himself in the kid who was able to escape because, unlike his peers — whose only frame of reference for life/living was the nine-block radius of their ‘hood — he was fortunate enough to have a parent who lived outside. I too had been able to escape the “cave” of my dysfunctional neighborhood. And yet….both of us ended up in prison.

As I thought about this, I contemplated a question Pam recently posed to me: Why do you think other kids who were less intelligent and fortunate than you managed to escape the sort of trouble that landed them in prison, while you weren’t? Like an epiphany, the answer became clear: I realized that, for most of my life I had behaved as a “product of” — a product of whatever dominated the environment I was in.

My environment as a child

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

I was fortunate enough to have had a mother who loved me unconditionally. As her only child, I was spoiled with everything she could possibly give me, including the best schools she could scrape up the money to afford. She also attempted to establish structure, setting curfews and rules for homework. In a good community that values education and discipline, this is great. But in the ghetto culture, it’s not so good. It’s almost like I grew to “hate” that I had a loving mother, since I wasn’t allowed to do everything my friends did. So, as I grew older, I rebelled. I conformed. I became a product of…

I remember when I was about 6, my mother bought me a drum set. I took it outside to show my friends. Of course, they were jealous and busted my drums. This taught me two lessons: 1) That in the ‘hood I had to fight to protect all the goodies my mom bought me, and 2) never demonstrate that I was more fortunate. It was more important to fit in. When I wore my uniform to school, my friends “joned on” (ridiculed) me, so I started wearing my regular clothes on my commute to school, hiding my uniform in my bookbag so no one would laugh at me. I was behaving like a “product of…”

This also worked in reverse. My mother sent me to military school because I was getting into too much trouble. It was a learning environment, without violence, drugs or the other distractions of the ‘hood. I again conformed. I even graduated as valedictorian. I was a “product of.”

This would unconsciously become the theme of my life. When placed in “good” environments I succeeded. And conversely, when I was in bad environments, I behaved to match.

My environment in prison

When my over-adaptation landed me in jail and I was thrown in the juvenile block, I woke up that first morning to discover someone had taken my breakfast and I had to fight for my food. I was really scared, but after I learned that violence ruled the day and the more violent you were, the better off you’d be, I conformed. I became “a product of” once again. This was my indoctrination into prison life.

This is how your identity is set by others. You are tough with a few people and you become known as someone who can and will hold their own. And now, every time you have a problem, you have to deal with it in that manner or you lose “points” and you’re seen as someone who fakes. Do this long enough and it becomes you. It became me. I became a product of.

When there is no tangible possibility of another life, the only reality is the present. Photo by Javier Esteban on Unsplash

So, although I matured, studied, read and learned, by this point I felt I had to do what was expected of me in certain situations. And that’s what I did.

That was my challenge when I reached my IRAA hearing (an opportunity for a judge to consider a petition for early release, thanks to a new law passed by the DC Council). My cellie, who is serving 142 years, told me last night that he often questions the point of participating in programming or doing anything good when there is no incentive. This was my reality too, until I arrived in the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility, where I was suddenly treated with humanity and respect.

What the judge/society looks for is a “change point.” Even Pam asked at one point when/what made me change. But until then, I hadn’t yet. I knew I would adapt and succeed (legally) if I was ever released. After all, I’d already once escaped the cave and done well (I operated as a product of!). And while in prison, I studied real estate, business, stocks and bonds. I knew I could do well outside. Meanwhile, I did what I thought I had to do inside — and part of that, for me, was getting money somehow so I would not be as a great of a burden on my family and could even show them some tangible love on their birthdays by having others buy them gifts for me. And that’s why, in 2017, I stupidly (and illegally) tried to make some money inside.

My change point

It was that disciplinary infraction that caused the judge to deny my request for freedom. And it was that action, along with the taste of an almost-free, dignified life, that snapped me out of my 30-year-to-life mentality and brought the realization that I could be a creator of my destiny — not a “product of.” I now understand I can’t straddle the fence. I know that to succeed in society, I will have to surround myself with like-minded people. I know that I have to truly dedicate myself to being the man I want to be — and know I am.

Today, I no longer allow others to set my identity. Today, I no longer think I have to live up to what is expected of me. Today, I am a scholar, a mentor, an advocate, a blogger, the co-founder of More Than Our Crimes and — I hope — a soon-to-be-successful returning citizen. I no longer conform to my environment like a leaf blowing to and fro in the wind. Today, I am no longer “a product of.” I am the creator of my own destiny, my own dreams and ideals and ideas. And a lot of that is thanks to all of you, who showed me — by building up a large audience for this blog — that I can make change.

Rob will have his parole hearing April 21. His petition will be heard, however, by the federal parole board, since D.C. does not have its own. Do you want to write a letter expressing how Rob’s words educate and enlighten and thus indicate that he could be a positive force on the outside? Contact Pam at pam@morethanourcrimes.org.

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

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