… But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom…
-- Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird”
I first encountered Marlon Peterson as I hastily scrolled down my Facebook news feed. His image stood out in stark contrast against the viral shares and “woe betide my life” statuses. Set against a snow-filled urban backdrop, Peterson stares at the camera with his bare arm displayed.
The numbers are etched permanently into his skin. His dark eyes pierce through my screen, and his face cries out that here is a man who is wise beyond his years. Peterson has been photographed for Humans of New York, and his caption reads: “10 years, 2 months, 7 days. It’s the only tattoo I have on my body. I was the youngest person in prison, so I withdrew into myself, and I started writing in a journal every single day. That journal became my world. I used it to figure things out, and one of the first things I realised was that I’d stopped being me. It wasn’t so much the crime that had landed me in prison. It was that I had decided to stop being me. And I needed to find that nerdy, intelligent kid that I’d once been…
…So I started studying in prison. Then one day I got a letter from Principal Lopez. And she told me: ‘I grew up with you. And I know that you aren’t the person they say you are. So the moment you get out of prison, you are going to come speak to my kids, because I want them to learn from your experience.’ And I immediately started crying in my cell. And sure enough, two days after I got out, she called me on the phone, and asked: ‘Why aren’t you here yet?’”
Peterson’s story, all 191 words of it, has been liked on Facebook by 757,059 people to date and shared by 38,468 others. All those numbers, all those people sat behind a screen – influenced by his life, and I was one of them. Who was this man that, while incarcerated for a substantial period of his life, had also played such an active role in the lives of students at Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn?
“I grew up in a mostly stable home with two parents and two older siblings. My father was very religious as a Jehovah’s Witness and my mom was not. They often battled about the best way to raise us, but for the most part things were stable in comparison to our neighbourhood and building, which was crack infested. Gunshots and murders were normal. The 1980s in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was tough,” Peterson tells me of his childhood.
When the police came knocking at the door in 1999, his family “were horrified and in disbelief.” In 1999 and at 19 years of age, Peterson was sentenced to 12 years in a maximum-security prison, arrested and charged with first-degree murder, several counts of attempted murder, attempted robbery and several counts of criminal use of a weapon. Terrence Wells, 22, and Lerone Grant, 23, were the alleged gunmen; Patrick Fulton, 21, was on lookout with Peterson, and Akini Furlonge, 21, allegedly drove the grey Ford getaway car. Shot dead was Gary Crissey, the co-owner of the Connecticut Muffin store in which the botched robbery for $10,000 took place, and Jimmy Brown, the shop’s manager. Another employee and a customer were also injured in the shooting, while undercover police officers faced gunfire spray as Wells and Grant made their escape.
As Peterson told it to Humans of New York, “I was in technical school when it happened, and I was only three months from graduating. I was going to be a HVAC repairman. Then one day these two older kids asked me to come with them to Manhattan. They told me they were going to do something, and they needed a lookout. Honestly, it was just something to do. We didn’t talk about money or anything. We drove to the place and they told me to stand on the corner. There weren’t even cell phones in those days, so I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be doing…
… The two guys went into a store, and after about five seconds I started hearing shots. They came running back out, and somebody was chasing them, shooting at them. So I ran straight home and I turned on the TV. And I saw the faces of the two guys I was with. It said they were wanted for double homicide. A couple days later, two detectives came and arrested me in front of my entire family. My mother was screaming. I didn’t think that I’d done anything wrong. The first time I met with my lawyer, she told me that she could get me life without parole, like that was a good thing. It didn’t feel real.”
He tells me, “My family knew I hung out with questionable characters, but they couldn’t fathom I would be associated with a double homicide...” Before his arrest in 1999, the extent of Peterson’s involvement with the law was being caught for not paying on the subway and hopping the turn style instead. The repercussions of his arrest and time in prison proved to be profound on more lives than just his. “My father’s health declined rapidly, and my nephew, Devon, stopped talking for a brief period of time… I was extremely close to Devon, who was 11 when I was arrested… It was easily the toughest period my family had ever experienced. No one knew how to interact with jails and courts, and lawyers. Everything was new and monstrous.”
Upon entering the New York State Department of Correctional Services, Peterson was given the new title of ‘02A3172’. In stripping him of his identity, the moniker was intended to force the incarcerated man to shed any negativity associated with his name and afford him a new beginning. As George W. Bush once said, “America is the land of the second chance – and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” For Peterson, this fresh start began while inside. And, in the words of Lao Tzu, “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”
As Peterson tells it to me, “In prison, you spend a lot of time watching people become prisoners. The new name and the new routine effectively rob you of the uniqueness and history you've come to associate with your real name. It presents a choice: you can either ignore the possibility of healthy beginnings - which is what incarceration does to most men and women - or you can start a new set of footprints. I chose the latter. I didn't wait for prison to fail at my rehabilitation. I made the decision that I would accept who I was and start a new beginning just days after my arrest in 1999. I didn't see the need in waiting, or worse, procrastinating. I decided that my prison experience would be my sabbatical.”
While incarceration was to prove long and arduous for Peterson, it would also be the foundation of his future. “Nadia was a family friend from the neighbourhood. When she reached out to me she was a teacher in a middle school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. This is an excerpt from the letter she sent to me in 2005 while I was six years into my sentence… ‘I would love for you to send me a letter that I could read to my kids in which you tell them in your own words how you ended up there, what you've been through, your goals, and any words of wisdom that you could share with them - if that's cool with you, no pressure! Thereafter, they'll send you correspondence via mail. I pray that you continue to gain strength and wisdom.’”
As Peterson notes, “I believe writing those letters served as the foundation for how I write now as a writer. At first I was overwhelmed by the request. I couldn’t see my worthiness to participate in such a project. So, I walked around for a few days with random thoughts in my head of what to write… That’s still my writing process today. I walk around with ideas for a while until I reach an eureka moment and everything spills out…
… For the first letter, I went into my journal (I kept a journal of my entire 10 years in prison), and sought inspiration, and saw a poem I had written a year before while I was in solitary confinement for 45 days. It later became titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” - inspired no doubt by the 1969 autobiography of Maya Angelou’s life, which shares the same title, and her poem “Caged Bird” – “I also discovered two Bible scriptures and a proverb that helped me understand where and how I ended up in circles where a fate like prison became more likely. From there, everything just flowed.”
‘Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’ – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
‘Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.’ – Proverbs 13:20
‘Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.’ – 1 Corinthians 15:33
The students that Peterson began communicating with at Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville know only too well the value of such wisdom. As 13-year-old Vidal Chastanet told Humans of New York when he was photographed for the Facebook page, “When you live here, you don't have too many fears. You've seen pretty much everything that life can throw at you. When I was nine, I saw a guy get pushed off the roof of that building right there."
Mott Hall Bridges Academy, which captured the world’s attention from the subsequent campaign that Humans of New York kick-started, knows this too about the students they teach. As Chastanet explained, "When we get in trouble, [our head teacher, Ms. Lopez] doesn't suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter."
As Mz. Lopez, or Nadia as Peterson knows her best, went on to tell Humans of New York, “This is a neighbourhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’ Our colour is purple. Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff. Because purple is the colour of royalty. I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so [many experiences throughout history] and still overcome [them]. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”
Peterson aimed to show this to the students too, but not without a dose of reality poured in, highlighting how fine the line was that they were treading in such a community when crime walked hand-in-hand with everyday living. As Victor Hugo once said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” The key was to show the students how to change, even if that meant discussing life in all its complexities, so they could avoid hearing the clang of the jail cell closing.
The initial letter sent by Peterson was heartfelt and profound, and included this lesson for his young pen pals: “In life you do not get to choose your consequences, only your actions. Prison life requires that I constantly reiterate things like this to myself since insanity is always one step away. And insanity is slick. It creeps up on you. You are usually too far gone to even realise when you've been swallowed by it.”
He also included the poem he had written a year earlier during a 45-day cell restriction titled I Know Why Caged Birds Cry…
…That gentle, exquisite, beautiful bird sings to
release that frustration.
It sings in defiance with the words:
No matter what you think of me,
no matter how you treat me,
no matter how or what you feed me,
no matter what you do to me;
I may be a caged bird,
but I will always be beautiful.
As Peterson tells me, “The program lasted for two school years. I still have every single original letter from the correspondence. If I had to estimate, I must have written 50-75 students 3-4 times each… The communication gave me a sense of relevancy. It pushed me to be a leader within the prison as an educator, program developer and class facilitator. It pushed me to go and earn my associates degree while in prison. It literally shifted my trajectory….
… I went from wanting to be an electrician to being the person I am now. I shared the letters with other incarcerated individuals around me and asked them to contribute to the project. I asked them for advice. Those young people gave all of us life in a place where darkness and defeat is a daily companion. I think that correspondence program changed the world, and I mean that literally.”
As he continues, “I learned the importance of listening without judgment. I learned that young people needed people to hear their very complicated thoughts. I learned that our young people were dealing with very adult issues. I learned that they needed and wanted love in a way that we as adults overlooked. I hope I showed them that I was fallible just like them, but that I loved them despite where I was and what I had been involved with. I hope I gave them a sense of hope in themselves and those closest to them. I hope I helped add value to their school experience. I hope they understood that Nadia and I loved them.”
Peterson and Ms. Lopez were strict about not letting the students send their home addresses: “All correspondence went through Nadia at the school address, so I had no way of remaining in contact with them.” However, that is not to say that they do not remain in Peterson’s mind - “I still have a few pictures of them.” The letters also continue to serve as reference – “[they] still give me inspiration.”
While many might see prison as the end of their dreams and ambitions, in so many ways it was the silver lining to Peterson’s cloud. “Prison has allowed me to see the humanity in everyone. For 10 years I slept next to people who were of different religions, cultures, levels of education, and sexual orientations. I was able to see their biographies beyond the offence that led them to prison. That essential pedigree of information inspires the social justice work I do today. It is why I say I do ‘people work’.”
“I wrote hundreds of pages of journals… too many to count. I’ve filled up several books with my journal entries. I wrote anything and everything I felt like expressing. I wrote about my fears, my anger, the loves of my life, about books I read, about social and political events. I wrote about everything. Those journals prepared me to be involved with the many different platforms I am involved with today. It helped give me a space to understand the world from a perspective other than my own.”
Upon leaving prison, the first thing Peterson did was go “to [restaurant chain] IHOP with my brother, sister, and nephew. Very uneventful, just how I wanted it to be.” Although there is no doubt that Peterson’s history will forever be overshadowed by the fact he was privy to a violent crime, he has since gone on to lead an immensely productive career: “I am a writer first. But, besides that, I recently launched my own social justice consulting organisation called The Precedential Group because I believe (social) justice is inspired. I intend to work to inspire policy change through humanising issues. I just returned from a trip to Trinidad, my parents home, and I will expand that work [in America] to Trinidad. That work includes youth development, gun violence prevention and justice system change (criminal justice and immigration).”
When talking to the troubled youth that he aims to help, Peterson uses his ability to relate as his key tool for communication: “I first tell them that before they say anything to me, I believe they need to know who I am. So, I tell them a little about me first. I want them to know that they can trust me. I let them know that I care for them. I care more about having them understand that I am coming from a place of sincerity. I try to model being vulnerable so that they know I am wearing no mask.”
I find the name of Peterson’s organisation ironic, in so many ways, when I read the quote from Nelson Mandela - “In my country, we go to prison first and then become president.” In order to execute change, those behind it must understand the problems from the intricacies of the roots upwards to the branches and the leaves. They must realise why these problems actually occur.
Peterson talks from experience. He knows how this works, and writing letters with students such as those at Mott Hall Bridges Academy – intercepting their minds at an early age - is one way of reducing violent crime and repetitions of history. Another is through talking and learning – and by bringing those who have offended back into the community, rather than ostracising them, and through helping them effect change as part of their rehabilitation.
As Peterson notes when discussing this idea, “the best way to initiate this is by having programming in the prison that prepares and screens folks for that sort of project. On the outside you need innovative and dedicated school officials to implement the program in schools. There also needs to be more general education around incarceration for the students before they engage in the project.” The key is in what we teach the next generation - “until we recognise that gun violence begins long before the trigger is pulled, we will never stop it from destroying our communities.”
Now, looking back with age, wisdom and experience on his shoulders, Peterson would do things differently. His advice to his 19-year-old self is simple: “Marlon, it’s okay to be who you are. You’re smart and will excel if you go away to college. The streets have no use for you.”
Words: Grace Carter