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Life Inside

How I Went From Gangster to Geek

Prison forced me to be still and start my mental metamorphosis.

In my debut Life Inside essay, I wrote that prison has been a blessing in disguise because it interrupted my life of drug dealing, drug using, gun carrying and running from the police.

Based on some of the feedback I’ve received, let me clarify: I am not advocating for prisons! I believe they do more harm than good, and I support abolition. I just so happened to land at SCI-Chester, a Pennsylvania state facility that understands the importance of education, rehabilitation and self-help.

But the truth is, no matter how unique this place is, all I see are white brick walls.

I hate these white brick walls.

They’re a constant reminder of how much I’ve screwed up. I am 26 years old, and I've been incarcerated three times. Over the past nine years, I haven't been on the streets for more than six months at a time. My family has at times questioned whether I like it here. It’s embarrassing.

Have you ever seen a dog chase its tail? That was me when I was home, chasing something that couldn't be caught.

Teachers always told me that I had such potential as a student and writer, but school wasn't a priority. I was too busy trying to survive.

Seeing so many of my friends fall victim to gun violence made me cold. My mindset was, Why plan for the future when you probably won't live to see it? That’s why I spent my first couple of years in prison learning how to be a better drug dealer.

Eventually, incarceration forced me to stand still and look at my life more objectively. I began to see the trap I was living in for most of my life for what it was.

Since then, I’ve spent many nights soul-searching and I’ve developed daily habits that keep me focused on my end goal, which is to get out of prison and be an agent for change.

I spend most of my days reading books such as “A People's History of The United States,” by Howard Zinn, “As a Man Thinketh,” by James Allen and “Discipline and Punishment” by Michel Foucault. The locker in my cell has become quite the library.

My practice isn’t limited to education. To improve my physical health, I’ve removed sugary soda and juice from my diet. I exercise six days a week, sometimes with a friend, other times in yoga class.

To maintain my mental health, I participate in self-help groups and meet with my psychologist once a month. We discuss my past traumas, including the deaths of my mother, father and stepmother by age 17. I've never been good at being vulnerable, but I am learning to express myself without the fear of judgement.

I feed my spirit by meditating and praying daily. I also guard my tongue; I’m a firm believer in manifestation, so I try to speak positive things into existence. Before I go to sleep each night, I evaluate my day. I think about the things I could've done differently, how I could've been more productive.

My cellie sometimes jokes about how much time I spend reading, writing and participating in programs. “Check you out, getting all educated and stuff,” he says. “You went from a gangster to a geek overnight!”

I laugh because I did in fact wake up one day and say to myself, You know what? I'm done with this life; I want better for myself.

But prison didn’t change me; I transformed myself, by standing still, soul-searching, developing healthier habits and taking advantage of the programs I have access to. I simply refuse to waste any more time.

Jy’Aire Smith-Pennick is originally from Wilmington, Delaware. He is working toward becoming a certified personal trainer. During the pandemic, he took a writing course with Widener University and discovered he had a gift. His work has appeared in the Kitty Knight House in Germany. Follow him on Instagram at @FREE_JYAIRE_SMITH.