Congratulations to our own Jay Holder, Valedictorian, and Robert Wright, for graduating from Mercy College with their bachelor’s degree on Wednesday, June 6 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. It was the first time either had set foot back into the prison in which they lived for almost a decade.
When I woke up that morning and began preparing for the day’s graduation, it felt surreal. Like the point in a dream when you realize that you are not awake. I could not believe I was willingly returning to the place I loathe and spent every night escaping through my mind. It was only 3 months ago that I was treated less than human, caged in and counted 4 times a day. I was just a number. I wore a number on my chest, was referred to as a number. Rarely was I ever called by my name.
Today I return as Mr. Wright. As I stare in the mirror, really beginning to understand just how far I have come, I look down for confirmation of my new reality, and I am not wearing any state greens. This is real. Who walks back into hell after taking a tour of heaven? But I would not have it any other way. Who else could I celebrate this accomplishment with? I have to rejoice with the same men I suffered with, dreamed with. The same ones I spent countless time circling the yard, sharing our dreams, even when we were not sure we would ever wake up from our nightmare. I owe it to them to show them what hope can accomplish. I must show them that light still exists, and the darkness in which they live will pass. I know this because I was once hopeless. I could not see past my own pain and regret for a long time.
Today I walk back into this facility, not to parade my accomplishments or to rub it in the faces of all of who did their best to break my spirit. No, I am returning for my brothers who need to see what life is, who have been locked away so long they no longer feel alive. I hope my presence blew air back into your lungs and gives you new life. As I walk through the processing area, I get the urge to turn around and leave. I became angry as I am told to take off my shoes and belt before walking through a metal detector. Emotions I thought I had finally resolved began to emerge. I promised myself never to come back to this place. Now here I am. Then I start to think this is what my family and friends had to go through to see me for years. Who am I to complain now?
The ceremony was held in the same visiting room that I hugged my loved ones in for years. It felt weird, like maybe I never left. I was reliving the many times I walked this room as an inmate. At one point, I even asked an officer could I use the bathroom. In that split second, I was an inmate again. I guess the residue of my previous life was still seeping through my pores. I was only a visitor now and could use the bathroom designated for visitors. That felt good, I smiled inside knowing I had that choice now. And that is when it really hit me. I am a free man. I have prevailed over a system that was designed to crush me. Yet, here I am. Not only am I here, but I am standing. I hug and shake hands with every man that still gets locked in a cage at night, wondering what they will do when they get their life back. I hope when they went back to their cells and the lights go out for that final count, they see me, but instead of my face they see themselves, and realize that hope is only belief in yourself when you have every reason to give up. One love.