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 Spotlight Story: Reflections Behind Bars



I have no memory before age 7. Maybe it was best that I can’t remember.


However, I can recall very well the treatment I received from the foster mom afterwards…hitting, slapping, ears being pulled and twisted. She was the disciplinarian in the home and would man-handle me, tossing me around like a ragdoll whenever she became angry at whomever for whatever reason. There were times when I would be hungry, and I would actually eat some of the “pies” that were supposed to be for the hogs. The name of the pie brand was Home Run. I only remember this because of the flashbacks many years later when I was in Salinas State Prison and we were given Home Run pies in the chow hall.


One day, I came home early from school. No one was home. Out of curiosity, I picked up the water hose and put it to my eye.  I turned the water on because I wanted to see where water came from. I thought that I would see the water coming from a lake or wherever, but the water felt like a rock hitting me in the eye. I took off running around the outside of the house screaming at the top of my lungs like I was going crazy. I was given a beating when the foster mom came home because I forgot to turn the water off.

I was very afraid of her. I tried running away a couple of times at night but always came back. It was dark, the dogs barking, and I was scared out of my mind. Besides, I didn't know anyone else nor did I have anywhere to go. 


My foster parents employed adult field workers to take care of the fields and the hog farm. The hogs were our pets and friends.  Yet I had to watch and participate when they were slaughtered. I had to shoot them in the head. I had to gut and remove their insides.  It was so gross!  I was traumatized by the slaughter of the animals, and was even more devastated when my dog Blacky was hit and killed by a Big Rig.


I didn’t know my biological mother. One day, a two-door black and silver Ford Falcon pulled up to the house. I saw a white woman and a black man in the car. The woman came to the door. She said she wanted to take her children for the holiday weekend. I knew she was my mother because she sounded as if she was claiming what was rightfully hers. “I'm here to get my children,” she said. It had to be me, my brother, and my sisters. We were the only children there.

On the road, I told my mom about the abuse.  She decided not to take us back. After a couple of months, some officials from the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) in Los Angeles came to take us from our mother because she lived in a run-down, roach-infested hotel on Skid Row. But I didn't go without a fight. She was my mom, and I didn't want to leave. My seven-year-old self fought with all of my might to the point of crying, kicking, screaming, and digging my little fingers into the door jamb and holding on for dear life. I was carried off to another foster home with tears in my eyes and a torn heart. 


Well, smiling faces greeted me at the new home, but as soon as the social worker left the rule of law was laid down. What we could and could not do. Going to church wasn't a choice – we were going. Any adult was allowed to punish us if we were bad and then the foster mom would whoop us again with switches when she returned home. There were times when she would chase me around the house when I would get loose from her grip. She would try to put a leg over me to lock me in, but I would get loose and then she would start locking the doors until she had me cornered. She would be pissed off and whoop me even harder and I would hate her that much more

I got creative one time when it came to getting a whoopin’. I put on extra clothes so I wouldn't feel the burning, stinging pain of the switches as they impacted my legs, arms, back, and my butt. But I couldn't do anything to avoid the wild swings that often caught me in the face. I cried and screamed, flailing my arms and legs, and even grabbing ahold of whatever I was being whooped with. I would be held out of school until the marks and the swelling were gone.


Between the ages of 8 and 9, my sisters and I went to another foster home but we were eventually separated. They were picking on me and I started acting out and running away. I felt all alone, unloved by my sisters, and I hated them because they were being mean to me. In school, I had a teacher who every day would check our fingernails and hands for grooming and cleanliness. One day, my fingernails were all jacked up and my hands needed some cleaning. The teacher would have us line up side-by-side, extend our arms out, with our fingers pointed out. He took his yardstick and hit my fingers several times. I remember crying and the other kids laughing and making fun of me. When I refused to hold my hands out any longer, I was sent to the principal's office where I was spanked with a paddle off of his wall because he was told that I wasn't following the rules. After being hit several times and being filled with pain, tears and fear, I ran away from school. When I got back to the foster home and walked through the front door, there was a stack of switches on the floor next to the recliner chair, which meant that I was getting another whoopin'.  


At age 10, I was placed in a home called Children's Baptist Home (CBH) in Inglewood, which housed boys and girls. My mom came to visit me, and she brought my oldest sister who was about twenty. To this day, that was the only time I could ever recall seeing her in person and I remember her chasing me and trying to kiss me. I would learn later the dark family secrets that she kept.


At age 11, I was sent to a place called McClaren Hall where I ran into one of my sisters that I hadn’t seen since I was eight. I met a girl there, Tina Mitchell. She was housed in Sr. Girls and I was housed in Jr. Boys. That was the first time I believed that I felt in love. We messed around and then she broke my heart by hooking up with another guy. It made me feel used, unloved, abandoned, rejected, and unworthy, which is how I felt before I met her anyway. I eventually met another girl, Tammy Eades. We also messed around, and she also broke my heart. I felt angry and that I wasn't worthy of love. I didn't know how to love myself or to even feel good about myself, but something in me kept me going.


When I was 13, I was placed into a co-ed group home in L.A.  "Fresh meat," they would call me. I was scared of bullying by the other boys. A number of girls had expressed their desire for me, and they would tell other girls that I belonged to them which started to cause me problems and stress. 


While I was there, I was sexually molested by a male staff who had gained my trust. One night I was feeling alone and depressed. I was alone in my room when Jay came in and sat on the edge of my bed and talked me into relaxing. He told me that he cared and was there for me, and he gave me oral sex. I began to struggle with my identity. Who was I? What did I want? Why did I allow this to happen? I am so stupid. I was so confused about a lot of things, and I was withdrawn because I felt so much shame for what had happened. I felt it was my fault because I was vulnerable and l should’ve stopped it before it happened, or I should've told someone after it happened. But I didn't want to get anyone in trouble and I was afraid that others would pass judgment on me, or worse, do something to me. Jay told me not to tell anyone because he was my friend and that no one would believe me anyway.


I started working in the kitchen with a lady cook who REALLY liked me. She flirted with me and teased me with her body in the way she moved up against me. She would wink and even lick her lips as though she wanted to devour me. I was cool with that -- it was like a fantasy. I found myself wanting her and looking forward to working with her because I wanted to believe that I was special to her. She was at least twice my age, maybe in her mid-thirties. I was fourteen. She would call me handsome, run her fingers across my face and tell me how soft my skin was. We never did anything beyond hug, which was all I needed. That comforted me, made me feel safe, but my fantasies took us well beyond hugs. When I was 15 and in another group home, she convinced me to go to her apartment with her and we had sex.


By now, I had very little, if any, respect for girls, women, and even for myself. All she wanted was sex with me due to my age and the attention I had shown her, but I wanted something deeper. I wanted love and have a real connection, and I believed that was what she was going to give me. I never got into drugs or alcohol to feel good because sex was my drug of choice. I think the physical contact was my way of making up for the affection I didn't receive as a child. There were more girls that I also hooked up with, and now there was more physical contact than I knew what to do with. But my feelings would eventually get involved because I wanted more than sex. I wanted a connection with someone which seemed more than what any girl or woman was capable, willing, or able to give. I didn't know who I was without someone to make me feel something other than what I already felt about myself which was, no good, worthless, used, abused, and thrown away.


At 14, I was in and out of various Juvenile Halls in Southern California as well. I was sent to a Juvenile Camp for six months. After six months I went AWOL in one of the Camp's vans and I was chased by the C.H.P. up in the mountains from the camp. Next thing I knew, I was involved in an accident where I went over a 200ft cliff in Lake Hughes near Castaic Lake. It was around midnight and there were no lights on the long and winding road. As I attempted to further my late-night daring escape, I missed a turn and went over the edge. I still have no knowledge of how it happened. I was unconscious and came to about a month later only to discover that I had had a serious head trauma—my left eye was swollen shut, my right collar bone was dislocated, and I had a compression fracture in my lower back that almost paralyzed me.


At 14, while yet in another group home, I ran away because I couldn't take it anymore. There was name calling and bullying because I didn't act like everyone else. My clothes weren't name brands and were the wrong size. I had to pay for school meals with meal tickets which made it obvious that something was wrong with me, or so I believed. The high school students were very harsh towards me and I felt as though I had a target on my back to be bullied. I was a square because I didn't fit in, and because I was from a group home. I felt embarrassed. I felt a great deal of shame. I felt alone, hurt, abandoned. I was angry at everyone. I hated and blamed myself, and many times I just wanted to die. 


So I split to where my mother lived. But there was no room for me there and my mom told me to go to my sisters and stay with her and her dad. I hadn’t seen my sister or stayed with her since we were really young and I had no memory of our time as children. I didn’t even know who she was prior to my mother telling me about her.


I called her and her dad to see if it was okay. I explained my situation and they said it was okay to come. I went to stay with them but eventually I screwed up a good thing by stealing, lying, and manipulating. That was who I had become, how I learned to survive. She was my sister but at the same time I really didn't know her. I didn't have any love for her as my sister because we didn't grow up together and I believed that she was like everybody else who really didn’t care about me. Her dad pulled a knife on me, and I was afraid for my life. The irony was that all I wanted to be loved and cared for, to be held and told that I meant something to someone, that I mattered.

Violence seemed to be the okay way of dealing with whatever problem a person might have. That’s what I grew up around. So eventually also started acting out with violence. 

I split back to L.A. and was placed in another group home. I was emancipated at eighteen.  I was struggling on my own, working at McDonald's for $3.35 an hour. I had an older girlfriend who was twenty-six that I let come live with me. She lied to me about being pregnant. She knew that I was happy she was pregnant, but I was hurt and pissed that she wasn't. A female friend at work used me to get me to get a male friend of hers to move in under the pretense of helping me with the rent. But he moved out a month later when rent was due and didn't pay.


I let my mother move in with me to get her out of Skid Row, which would also help me with rent and I hoped bring us closer together. She then moved back to her mother‘s in Oklahoma. She promised to mail me the money but it never came. Now I was pissed at my mom because I felt used and as though she had left me all over again.  I felt like that little boy at age seven being torn away from his mother, kicking, screaming and crying, feeling unloved, abandoned, belittled, worthless, and so much rejection.


I was still angry at my girlfriend, my mom, my female friend and her friend. I was angry at my boss for shorting me on my pay. I was mad at a girl at McDonald's that I took to dinner in a limo instead of paying my rent who ditched me for someone else who had a car. I was angry with one of my sisters and her boyfriend for messing up my apartment. Angry at so many people, I felt unworthy of love and inadequate.  I did nothing to try to understand why I was so angry.


Although I didn’t know him, I ended up like my father—in prison with a life sentence for murder. It was in prison that I found out that my mother had been raped at a young age and that her dad raped my older sister who fathered his child. Hearing this crushed me. Now I am starting to understand why I can’t remember anything my before I was seven, how desperate my younger self was to concealed even a drop of the pain. I only wish it didn’t take me this long to understand the impact of my past traumas and that I need to process what happened to me as a child rather than run from it, misdirecting my shame and anger.

Click below to see Donald's handwritten first draft.
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