As I write this I’m in San Quentin State Prison in California, finishing up a nine year sentence. Chino, Tehachappi, Centenella, Avenal, Wasco, Soledad and Jamestown are all prisons I’ve spent time in over the years. I’m 54 years old now and I’ve spent almost half of my life behind bars.
Both of my parents have died while I’ve been serving time, and other family members as well. Not being able to be there to honor them is a burden on my heart and soul that will never be lifted.
Things got mixed up for me when I was a very young man. My parents weren’t around a whole lot and had their own issues. I started drinking and smoking pot, and through this I was able to find a sense of ease and comfort I hadn’t known before. And I guess things just went south from there.
In the late ‘90s, I was in prison and preparing for parole when I met an old friend named John K. We’d been on the same path since childhood and had known each other through juvenile hall and group homes. We were now in our mid-30s. At this time the prison system was incredibly overcrowded; we were being housed in a gym at Chino State Prison. It was good to see my old friend, and we came to the point in our conversation where we talked about going home again, and being too old for the prison life. John then asked me a question that would change my life: “What are you going to do differently this time?” As I sat there and thought about it, John mentioned that every time he’d been to prison was ultimately because of alcohol and drugs. He’d never been to prison sober. His plan this time was different: he wouldn’t go back to the life he left. He was going to a sober living home, and would not drink or use. He’d go to 12-step meetings and he would stay sober. “If it doesn’t work, I can always do what I’ve done before.” I agreed; what did I have to lose?
So I didn’t go to my Mom’s house. I went to a sober living home, and took alcohol and drugs out of my life. And life got good. I went to 12-step meetings. I was all in: new attitude, new friends, new life. I could call my Mom now and her first question wouldn’t be “Are you okay?” or “Are you in jail?” She knew I was sober, and there was no panic in her voice. That was the best part of getting sober: making amends for the harm I’d done, living my life gratefully and being of service.
Things went from good to great. New wife, business, home, cars, toys. I didn’t drink or use for almost seven years. But I got fat: almost 500 pounds. I’d traded addictions. I had a gastric bypass and lost 200 pounds. But there were complications from the surgery and I became very ill. And here comes the prescription narcotics.
I relapsed. All in.
Then 2008 and the Great Recession happened. I lost my wife and my health insurance. Next thing you know I’m in a new relationship trying to hide not only my addiction but my failure. Business went from bad to worse and I couldn’t afford my medication. I started doing heroin again. And robbing banks. I got busted and was somehow able to make a large bail, and before the court proceedings were over I fled the country with a fake passport. (There is never a bad time to visit Costa Rica.) But the bondsman was tenacious. The only way he could get his money back was to get me back to jail in California. And that’s just what he did: the authorities tracked me down and deported me back to the U.S.
Since then, I’ve remained in prison, and I’ve continued going to 12-step meetings. I plan on staying even closer to the program when I get out. I know what I have to do: go to meetings, get a sponsor, work the steps, be of service...sounds easy, right? Ask anyone who’s been through it and they’ll tell you it is not.
I hear people talk about how they can’t go back to prison again. But I think there is a comfort in what we know. I could easily come back—but would I get out again?
I know the best days of my life were when I was clean and sober, and that’s what I plan on having more of.
Mike Littleentered the criminal justice system as an inmate at age 11 and has spent more than half his life behind bars. He was recently released from San Quentin State Prison in California, where he wrote two novels and several short stories. He continues to write and share his story to inspire and be of service to others.