Dear 02A3172: Letters To and From a Caged Bird

January 28, 2013

In 1999, when I was 19 years old, I was arrested and charged with first degree murder, several counts of attempted murder, attempted robbery, and several counts of criminal use of a weapon. I was convicted of first degree assault and third degree weapons possession, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2002.

As a prisoner in the New York State Department of Correctional Services, my new name quickly became Department Identification Number (DIN) 02A3172. The '02' represented the year that I was transferred from the city jail (Rikers Island) to state prison. The 'A' represented the reception facility that I was sent to from Rikers Island. The '3172' was the sequence in which I was processed in that year. In 2002, I was designated inmate 3172 at Downstate Correctional Facility.

The point of this new "name" was to force the incarcerated man to shed any negativity associated with his name prior to his incarceration and afford him a new beginning. In theory, I thought this is a good idea. But 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.

In February of 2005, I got some help with that sabbatical from a friend named Nadia, who grew up just two blocks from me in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

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