Breath of Fresh Air

Nonfiction by David Steece

I was in prison when my youngest son was born. I remember how it felt coming home from prison and taking him in my arms: it was like holding a breath of fresh air. I was fascinated by the newness of life, the optimism, the promise of hope in him. He wore hope like a smile, right down to his peanut toes and his Buddha belly. He carried hope like water to a dying man, and I had been dying for a while. But by the time he was eight years old the hope had vanished, and I was off again; this time to serve a life sentence.

There is a metric researchers use to predict the likelihood of a child ending up in prison. Children accrue points for factors like witnessing violence, experiencing physical or sexual abuse, or having a parent in prison. The test takes an inventory of a child’s young life, crunches the numbers, and feeds it into an algorithm to determine if they will be a criminal.

I first heard about this metric a few years ago, while watching a documentary. I lay on my bunk in the dark as they systematically broke trauma down into categories and subcategories. They showed examples, graphs, charts, and projections while I melted into my bed. They used words like generational and environmental. I held my breath as they drew a line linking the hurts of my childhood directly to the bunk I lay on. They continued on, linking my own kids to bunks of their own. I lay there in the dark weighed down by statistics and probabilities, and began tracing lines of my own.

I traced a line from the bloody brawl I had with my drunken stepfather in the basement of my mother’s house as my son stood watching. His eyes were frozen in fear and wide enough to fall through, and I carried that line on through our phone calls from county jail, when he would ask me how old he would be when I came home. The line reached the office down the hall where I sat on the phone talking to that same little breath-of-fresh-air as he sat in some office down some other hall, somewhere in the prison he was in, and I wondered where his line would go from there


I did my first stretch of solitary confinement at fourteen years old when I was “grounded” to my room for the entire summer. It was there I learned what it meant to be powerless.I didn’t leave my room for months, imprisoned by fear and haunted by my own demons. This was long before there were things like cell phones, computers, or TVs in bedrooms. What I remember most was the unrelenting, sweltering heat. The house would empty out during the day, and I would open the door no more than a few inches, careful not to cross the invisible line that was drawn with fear and faithfully enforced by my stepfather whether he was there or not. I would lay on my back, sipping at the fresh air as it floated across my doorway like wisps of freedom, wishing that I could turn to smoke and float away on its back. I remember how lonely, small, and cruel the world became as the months melted away in the summer heat. I would fly into silent, soul-cleansing fits of rage, smashing my face into the carpet to scream out in despair. I eventually ran out of things to break, forcing me to turn my aggression upon myself, doling out crushing, well-placed blows to my fragile self-esteem, only wanting the numbness to go away.

My childhood imprisonment ended abruptly when I was granted a one-day pass to go fishing with my stepfather and my uncle, who was a gentle giant. I was grateful for the freedom and wandered off on my own. When they found me, I had climbed to a high point on the riverbank where I had a perfect, happy, little family pinned down on the ledge below me. I loosened rocks and kicked them over the edge while they scrambled for safety. I’ll never forget my uncle towering above me, asking me “Why?” with eyes wet from tears and a face red from the shame of apologies given to strangers. The perfect, happy, little family gathered up their picnic and headed back to their perfect, happy, little home as I returned to my den of fear and violence. How could I ever have explained to my uncle that I didn’t want to hurt them, I only wanted to feel powerful for a moment?

I know what it’s like to have the life knelt out of you, to be pinned under the weight of terror, crying helplessly out for a mother who cannot save you. But I also know what it’s like to spend a lifetime kneeling on the necks of others, to make you feel bigger than you are. I was once a racist, a skinhead, and the leader of a white supremacist gang. I’ve learned the cycles of hate and violence that swirl and flow through life, connecting each of us, one to the other, knee to neck in an endless struggle of power and oppression.


Once I started seeing those lines, it became hard not to. When I was older I had a homeboy who was wild in the eyes, young and violent. He was small, 175 pounds of seething anger. He looked at me with such respect that it was hard for me to maintain eye contact. He had the name of our gang tattooed across his forehead above his left eyebrow and wrapped around his neck in three-inch letters just in case there was any doubt. His favorite place to be was under my feet. We were walking to the rec yard one day, and he told me this story.

He said that when he was a boy, his dad took him fishing along the river a few days after coming home from prison. He was so excited. It was going to be their special day of reconnecting and spending lost time together.

His dad was drinking that day, and by the time afternoon came around, he was so drunk he could hardly walk. He stumbled off along the riverbank with his fishing pole and my friend entertained himself as kids do, playing and waiting, and waiting some more. But his dad didn’t return. At some point he started calling for him, yelling as loud and as far as his little voice would carry. Fear and anxiety welled up inside him, driving him into a panic as he screamed again and again for his father. As darkness fell, he attempted to search for his father, venturing out as far as fear would allow before running back to the safety of the locked car, doing that over and over. He huddled up beside the car in the dark, listening to the sounds of nature creep in around him. He spent that night curled up on the hard ground, cold and alone, hungry, scared, and tired. When dawn finally broke, he walked down to the river and found his father. He was face down, floating along the riverbank, tangled in tree branches.

I think a lot about my little homeboy. I think about the anger that rested behind his eyes, gluing his heart together as he walked the same prison yard that his father had walked. I think about the fire that burned inside him, the pain written on his face, peeking out from behind gang tattoos as he told me that story. After my little homie got out, I heard he was stabbed to death on the streets of Spokane, Washington. I hold my breath when I think about him. His line was so short, drawn for him the day he found his father dead along the riverbank. I don’t know how to erase those lines once they’ve been drawn. All I can do is make room under my feet for wild-eyed youngsters.

I’m no longer a gang member. I guess I’m no longer a lot of things. I came to a point in my life where nothing made sense to me anymore. I’m still in prison, but today I speak out against things like hate, racism, and violence. Whenever I talk to the youngsters around me, I try to tell them that story, to give them something ugly and real to carry with them back to their bunks. I want them to imagine their own child, cold and hungry, screaming out for a father who floats face down in his addiction, tangled in the trauma of his own childhood.

Not long ago, I was working out with another youngster who was having a hard time. The mother of his children had disappeared, leaving their kids with her family, who were seeking custody. Between sets of pull-ups, I asked him how it was all  going.

He looked at me with cold eyes and said, “I’m just pissed off that there’s not a fucking thing I can do about it. I don’t even know how to fight it.” He said, “All I do is sit on my bunk and stew on it trying not to explode on anyone.”

“There’s not a single moment in life that leaves you powerless,” I advised. He looked at me like I was stupid or hadn’t heard him. I said, “Just not exploding is a win. The only way you’ll ever be powerless is if you give your power away.”

I spoke to him again the next day, and he had reached out to the family who wanted to take his kids from him. Things seem to have worked out: he’s going to sign a temporary custody order so he can have them back when he gets home.

Sleep is hard to come by these days. It’s there in the quiet of the night that my heart will whisper to me. It was only a few weeks ago now, but it feels like a lifetime ago that I lay in the dark, using my eyes to trace the outlines of old stickers and photos that had once been glued to the bottom of the bunk above me. I couldn’t stop thinking about a phone call that I’d had with my son. I pulled my blanket up over my chin, tucking it tight so that I could feel the weight of it pressing against my body, holding me like the thin arms of a stranger. I closed my eyes and felt my heart squeezing in my chest, wringing its hands in hopelessness.

I drifted around in my mind remembering when my children were children, laughing and tumbling, blinded by innocence, crippled with hope. I remembered sunburns and Sunday mornings, baseballs and bare feet, skateboards and skinned knees. I remembered a little house filled with little dreams, and I turned and faced the wall to hide my tears. There is always a wall.

I know I built these walls around me. I remember placing every brick, chipping away at life, knocking the soft round edges into sharp corners, grinding and shaping it into blocks to stack one upon the other. I crawled on my belly in the filth to lay the foundations, standing on the back of my addiction to set the highest course. I ground fear and violence into a paste and wet it with the tears of strangers to mortar each brick into place. I set the final stone with the acrid smell of gunpowder pinching at my nose and a mother’s anguish filling the courtroom.

The fingers of a panic attack tightened its grip around my throat while I imagined my cell filling with water. It felt so real—pouring in under my door, pooling at my feet, slowly rising higher until I floated on my back, sipping at the last few inches of air trapped against the ceiling before losing the desperate struggle. I wonder if that water was the same tears that once filled the courtroom.

I lay there in the dark that night, replaying the phone call in my mind until I could no longer hear his words over the sounds of him chipping away, knocking the soft round edges out of his own life.

Not long after that call, a kid showed up at my unit. He transferred here from another prison and since the first time I saw him, he reminded me of my youngest son, my breath-of-fresh-air. The kid just turned nineteen, but he looked closer to fifteen. He was rail thin and wide-eyed, never venturing far from his bunk. A quiet guy doing all he could to not look scared, but you can only do so much. He walked up to me a couple of days ago and asked me what my name was. He said that he was told to find me when he got here, that a good friend and ex-homeboy of mine had helped him get his transfer. He said this friend had even filled out his kite for him, and that had told him that I’d take care of him here.

I reached out and took his hand; his grip was small and frail like him. He said he’d only been in prison a couple of months, and that he has ten to twenty-five years to do. 

The next day, I got five messages in a row saying “Call me! Call me, please!” Between deep, agonizing sobs I was told that my youngest son, my little breath-of-fresh-air, had died in a car wreck. The only thing I could feel was the coolness of the wall where I rested my forehead. I tumbled into nothingness. The world fell away, leaving me in an in-between place, between here and there, between right and wrong, between then and now.

I found myself standing at my locker next to my bunk with my head in my hands trying to breathe when I felt something heavy resting on my shoulder. I lifted my head to see my friend Bill standing next to me with his hand on my shoulder, asking me in a distant voice if I was okay. I turned to speak, but only a whisper came out—as if my son had become a secret, something so precious that I had to hide it away from the rest of the world. Bill leaned in close, and under the weight of his heavy hand, I whispered to him about my son. I whispered about hope and heartache. I whispered about karma. I whispered about a baby boy, fat, happy, and full of life. But most of all, I whispered about failure.

When Bill finally spoke, he whispered back to me as if he understood that I wasn’t ready to share my son with an undeserving world. He said, “The only way to get better is to heal others.” He whispered, “You need to put your thoughts and your energy into the people who need you.” As he spoke I looked at the new kid, curled up sleeping on his bunk across the way. He was a thin form tucked under his blanket, huddled up like a lost child.

I spent the next few days drowning in my cell once again, only this time they were my own tears. I couldn’t shake the emptiness. I kept screaming over and over inside my head until my silent voice was hoarse and strained. My heart shrunk away, hiding itself like a wounded animal. My thoughts seemed to have thoughts of their own, filling my head with happy, crushingly sad memories. I felt numb, like I was wading through a world made of cotton. I couldn’t out-strength, out-think, or out-will the convulsing sobs that seized control of my body.

A few days later, I stepped outside myself. I woke the kid up out of his sleep. His eyes flipped open, wide with fear, as I stood over his bunk. I said, “Wake up, kid, and brush your teeth. You’re working out with me.”

He put his feet to the floor without question and followed me out to the rec yard. Between sets, I asked him if he had anyone on the outside taking care of him. He said, “I have a lady who’s like an adopted mom to me. I don’t have a dad, he left me when I was three.”

I stood there, sinking backwards in my mind. “I just lost my son a few days ago.”

At the end of the workout, I said, “Look, don’t worry, I got you. You just stay out of the drama, show up for every workout, check with me before you do anything stupid, and we’ll do this together.”

After twenty years in prison and a lifetime surrounded by death and betrayal, it becomes hard to do anything “together.” But I’ve seen so many guys turn to stone and sink away into a cold and empty existence. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to turn to stone, and if I do sink, I don’t want to sink alone.

One night, many years ago in the maximum-security prison, I looked out the window of my cell and saw two little birds nestling up to each other in the coils of razor wire three feet away. It was cold and stormy outside, and I wondered what had brought them to my little piece of wire. Why were they not tucked away wherever it is that little birds tuck themselves away on cold and stormy nights? They faced in opposite directions with their little feathers fluffed against the cold, each with its head tucked under its wing. I watched for hours as they huddled close to each other, holding tight to their perch, squeezing that strand of frozen wire with all their might as the wind tugged and pushed at them. I watched helplessly, willing strength into their tiny bodies as the wind drove the rain against my window, shaking furiously at the wire as if intent on driving them from their perch. But together, they endured. I love the word, endure. To weather the storm no matter how small and overwhelmed you are. I found strength in those little birds, and I take strength anywhere I can find it.

Spring is here and I love the feel of it, the newness of life, the marking of time, the forward motion. I love the feel of new spring sunshine, thin and crisp, resting on my shoulders and wrapping me in possibility. I love walking the rec yard, lifting my eyes above the fence, breathing, thinking, feeling. I love to watch the birds as they swim through the air, flitting from perch to perch as if unsure what to do with the abundance of it all. This is the time of year when splashes of color start to appear in the grass: sprinkles of tiny flowers pop up blue and purple, the size of clovers, delicately lifting to the sun. Sometimes I’ll stop just to watch the bees as they bumble from flower to flower, poking their heads inside each one as if searching for lost treasure.

I’m still working out with the kid, and he’s starting to settle in. My heart kicks every time he looks me in the eye, lifting his chin to seem just a little taller. The other day I told him, “I know you have a long ways to go. I know how you’re feeling, but I promise you’ll be okay,” and I stopped myself just in time as the word “son” tried to jump from my tongue and settle in comfortably at the end of the sentence.

I look around and feel amazed at how different the world is to me today. I think about how narrow my world was when consumed by gangs, hate, and violence. There were so many times when I could have given up on myself, but I knew who I wanted to be. I knew that if I let go of my little place to stand, then the night would win, and I’d be swept away into oblivion. And whenever I feel myself turning to stone, I find a way to feel. I go out to my little place to stand, and I close my eyes, I wrap my heart in hope, and I think about life. I think about a world that must exist somewhere, somewhere out there beyond the fence line, a world with soft round edges where parents never have to outlive their children, where children never have to pull their father’s bodies from the river by the cuffs of their pants. Where children won’t have to carry their father’s legacy into cells of their own.