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After a Decade on Parole, I Saw 2021 As a Fresh Start. Life Had Other Plans.

A workplace injury derailed Alfonso Cobb’s progress, but the Arkansas wood factory worker is still holding on to his freedom dreams.

Around this time last year, I was really excited for New Year’s. After spending a decade of my life on parole, I rang in 2021 as a free man. It was a big deal for me. I planned to save money and buy some land and a nice mobile home. I wanted to travel too, maybe to a big city in California or New York. The furthest I’ve ever been from home in Monticello, Arkansas, is a seven-hour drive east to Auburn, Alabama. When you’re on parole, you can’t move around and go places like you normally would. You’re just stuck. I wanted to change that.

Monticello is a small town. Only about 9,000 people live here, and the main store we have is a Walmart. There aren't too many jobs and there isn’t a whole lot to do, especially if you have a felony record. The neighborhood I live in has gotten a lot worse in the past couple decades. There are more shootings and more drugs. The first time I went to the penitentiary, I was barely 20 years old. I shot at an undercover police officer and was convicted of aggravated assault. Less than six months after I was released, I was arrested for selling drugs. Several years later, I was incarcerated again on another dope charge.

I sold drugs for the reason most people do: to make money. I was the second youngest of five children on my mother’s side. Our parents liked to run the streets, so unfortunately we had to raise ourselves. Three of my siblings joined the military, but my older sister and I went down a different path. I wasn’t even scared to go to prison because I thought it would make me tougher. I fit right in when I got there. My homeboys were already incarcerated.

But when you spend more than half of your life in jail, prison or on conditional release, you end up missing a lot. When I got out of prison for the third time, I finally saw how selling drugs affected my family, especially my mother. I was watching her slowly fade away from drug use, and I didn’t want to be locked up when she passed. I felt like 2021 would be a big year for me because I could finally do things without anyone’s permission.

Things got off to a good start. In January, I started working at the hardwood factory in my town. I worked on a machine called a knot saw, where you pull boards of wood through and cut them. I managed to save up a bunch of money, too. But one day this summer, instead of cutting through the wood, I sliced my hand. I was in shock. The blade nearly cut my hand in half, and caused nerve damage that required surgery. Since then, things have just gone downhill. The money I had saved up has vanished paying bills. I go to physical therapy twice a week, and the drive to get there and back takes longer than the appointment.

It’s frustrating to work so hard and have things play out like this, but I try to stay focused on being grateful for what I do have. It’s a blessing to just be out of prison and to be alive. I try to help out others where I can. I give the kids on my block money when I have extra. I drive my great nephew to the school bus stop almost every morning. The other day in the car, I turned back and asked him if he brushed his hair. It may seem small, but I didn’t have someone doing this for me when I was growing up — so I try to be that parent figure for him.

I’ve learned that a long life isn’t promised to everyone. I see all the old school folks that were around here when I was a kid passing away. Maybe I’ll be lucky to live that long. But you realize when you’re older that you don’t really have that much time left. I’m 48 years old now. Life has shown me to just be happy where I’m at.

I consider 2021 a learning experience in patience. It could always be worse. When things get hard, I pray like my mama taught me. I’ve learned to count my blessings. I don’t need a mansion or a fancy car, and I know when to walk away from situations before they escalate.

My dreams for the future haven’t changed. I still want some land of my own. I think somewhere deep in the country might be nice. I want a double-wide trailer so my family can live there, with a yard big enough for my great nieces and nephews to play in. I’ll have a couple of dogs, too. If I save up enough money, I might even open my own landscaping business.

It just might take me a little longer to get there.

Alfonso Cobb lives in Monticello, Arkansas. The Marshall Project’s Lakeidra Chavis is his niece.

Lakeidra Chavis Twitter Email is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. She has written extensively on gun violence and gun enforcement in Chicago, as well as Black suicides, gang structures and the opioid crisis. Her work currently focuses on juvenile justice. She previously reported at ProPublica Illinois and for NPR stations in Chicago and Alaska. Lakeidra was a 2021 Livingston Award finalist. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.