A practitioner and long-time meditator, Troy “Kogen” Williams lives inside the walls of San Quentin prison. His connection with one of our community members allows us to post this new column and read the first of many of his stories, thoughts, and insights–as well as those of his fellow inmates and practitioners–in relationship to the dharma.
Written & Contributed by Troy “Kogen” Williams
A lone unarmed security guard stood inside the lobby of a computer parts company. It was the end of a long workday, and he waited to provide security escorts to departing employees headed for their cars. As a safety measure, the entrance remained locked at all times. There was one way in and one way out, and the security guard was the gatekeeper.
One employee gathered her personal items then proceeded through the lobby toward the exit. As she approached, the security guard removed a set of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door. In that moment, several gunmen armed with semi-automatic weapons burst inside. The last thing he probably remembered was a fist flying toward his face as he fell to the ground unconscious. On November 14th, 1994, a group of criminals entered into a computer parts company with the intention of robbing a company of merchandise. I was one of those men.
Today, I am writing from within the infamous walls of San Quentin State Prison, having realized that what WE took from people was much, much more than mere merchandise. On that day I was a clueless young man who lacked the tools necessary to cope with the physical and emotional trauma that I endured during the formative years of my life.
Today I realize that my actions affected the lives of many people. There were fourteen human beings working inside that company. In the process, the security guard was knocked unconscious, workers were assaulted, battered, threatened, and held at gunpoint in fear of their lives. My actions took away a fundamental sense of safety and security from people who were simply trying to earn an honest living. They had families and friends. In addition to the workers, there were over a dozen first responders. And little did I know that the ripple effect of harm would expand to include my own flesh and blood.
Since being incarcerated, there have been questions that I’ve had to answer from a place of ignorance. Through trial and error, I learned that I could not do it alone. One of the most important questions that I had to answer was, how did I get here. In other words, how did I get to a point where human life meant so little in comparison to capital gain. How did I go from being an innocent child with so much reverence for life–that I literally would not step on an ant–to being a gun-totting, gang-banging felon with very little empathy for others? And in the midst of prison’s aftermath, how do I turn it all around?
As a child I did not understand my emotional makeup and did not have the proper tools to cope with trauma. So, I habituated in order to survive. The abnormal became normal. And so it is for our children.
Desiring change, I realized that I had to take responsibility for my actions in life. But that’s easier said then done. For years, I sought physical freedom through the courts and momentary relief through aggression. I desperately searched for freedom through external measures. Bitter and angry, I felt trapped in a system that wanted to punish me.
Most people have not seen the power of restoration. In order to effect change we, as members of society, must reanalyze and reshape our willingness to seek holistic and inclusive approaches to problems in our community. The retributive methods utilized by our criminal justice system did not awaken me. Admittedly, there is a need to remove men from society when they are dangerous to themselves and others.
Nevertheless, not a 4′ by 10′ cell, iron bars, razor wire, gun towers, prison violence, nor the 40′ foot wall that continues to separate me from society conveyed what I needed to realize–that I was not worthless. That I was a broken treasure that needed to be restored.
The truth is my imprisonment began long before I was placed in the back seat of a police car. My imprisonment began when I was eleven.
One day I positioned myself in the hallway of my parents’ home. My plan was to wait for one of them to walk by, and then I would utter the words, “Nobody loves me.” Upon hearing this they would respond, “Of course, we love you,” and give me the affection I desperately longed for.
The response I got was, “I feed you. I cloth you. And I put a roof over your head. Go sit you’re a** down before I give you something to whine about.”
In order to cope with feelings of rejection and worthlessness I locked my heart in, what turned out to be, a prison of sorts so that no one else could hurt me. By the age of thirteen I was so lonely and starving for love and affection that I was subject to any influence that showed the slightest emotional concern. I attached myself to a gang because they were available, and I learned how to be a criminal because I wanted to be accepted.
I remained imprisoned in this state of denial until given the tools necessary to embrace my fears, loneliness, and anger.
My imprisonment began within the recesses of my mind and eventually expanded into the physical world. Freedom must retrace the same route back home.
In closing, the problems our children face are conditioned based, wide spread, and systemic. I hope that writing this and future assignments my life’s experience will inspire collective action toward restoration.