"My clemency petition WILL be granted! I WILL be going home this year! My clemency petition WILL be granted! I WILL be going home this year!" These words are written in large black letters on the back of an institutional request form taped to the front of my bunk. Ever since I was contacted by the Virginia Governor's office in 2017 to confirm that my clemency petition was received and is being investigated, these words have become my mantra. Having studied countless books on the power of autosuggestion - repeating something to yourself until it burns into your subconscious and begins influencing your actions - I've convinced myself that if I recite these words enough and believe them wholeheartedly, I will speak them into fruition! These words have become my only source of hope that this nightmarish existence called prison will soon be over.
Therefore, every morning when I'm startled out of my sleep by these rude correctional officers loudly blowing their whistles, smacking their clipboards against the metal rails, and banging on every cell door during morning count, I recite these words. When I open my eyes and realize that, despite the previous night's dream of being back at home relaxing with my family and friends, the reality is that I'm still trapped inside this tiny, 8 x 12 foot metal and concrete cell for the next two decades, I recite these words. When my inconsiderate cellmate wakes up and lights his morning blunt, and I have no choice but to duck my head under my blankets to avoid catching a contact high, I recite these words.
When I leave the building for breakfast, and I'm immediately overwhelmed by the presence of power stricken C/O's everywhere - some pacing back and forth on top of the housing units, shooting us antagonizing glares while gripping their M-14 rifles; some posted alongside the walkway, struggling to hold back German Shepherds and Rottweilers on leashes as they growl, bark, and lunge at us; and the rest shouting senseless orders for us to "KEEP IT MOVING!", "HURRY UP!", and "TUCK THEM SHIRTS IN!" - I recite these words.
As I'm sitting in the chow hall sweating profusely down my chest, back, and armpits due to the sweltering heat (note: the A/C is intentionally kept off to discourage straggling), and unable to enjoy my meal because of the incessant flies that the food service department doesn't care enough to do anything about, I recite these words. When it's time for afternoon count and I'm locked down with my cellmate again - who always uses this time to fire up his second daily blunt - and again I have to duck my head under my blankets to avoid inhaling his secondhand smoke, I recite these words.
As I'm impatiently waiting in these insanely long phone lines, sometimes for hours at a time since there are only 5 phones in my 80-man housing unit, I recite these words. When I promise my children that "I'll call back later," but can't follow through because the Unit Manager locks down the entire pod as punishment for an isolated incident involving only a few inmates, I recite these words. When I'm outside walking laps around the rec yard and I see a group of gang members mercilessly assaulting another inmate while the C/O's posted in the guard towers either watch in amazement or turn a blind eye and pretend not to notice, I recite these words.
When I see another inmate suffering a seizure, stroke, heart attack, or some other potentially fatal medical emergency, and the nurses don't arrive until 5 - 10 minutes later with absolutely no sense of urgency (often in a bad mood, as if they're irritated that they were bothered), I recite these words. When I'm locked in my cell for evening count and much to my chagrin, my marijuana-addicted cellmate again pollutes the air with his toxic smoke, I recite these words. Finally, at the end of the day as I'm stretched out on my 3-inch, twin sized mattress, staring up at the ceiling wondering if all the effort I'm taking to better myself, remain infraction free, continue my education, and show that I've been overall rehabilitated will pay off, I recite these words one last time before drifting off to sleep.
By no means should I have such hope that my clemency petition will actually be granted, or that I'll be leaving all the violence, discomfort, humiliation, oppression, and danger of this environment behind me next year. In fact, the odds are that I'll still be here not only next year, but every year after until my official release date in 2037. However, behind these walls the hope of returning to a normal life is the only motivation to continuing getting out of bed each morning and facing all the inevitable disappointments that come with being incarcerated. To lose hope is to allow this place to break you, and I refuse to be broken! So as I traipse through each tumultuous day in this hellishly oppressive environment, my coping mechanism will continue to be the recitation of my mantra: "My clemency petition WILL be granted! I WILL be going home this year! My clemency petition WILL be granted! I WILL be going home this year!" Maybe these words will manifest themselves into reality. Maybe I'm naively deceiving myself, dangling a fairytale fantasy before my own eyes. Regardless, these words give me hope...and until I leave this place, my hope is as vital to my survival as food, water, and air.