A Conscious Choice

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| This is the 418th story of Our Life Logs |


What is a flower in the dark? It is nothing—

But in the light

It can be made new.

-CW

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I was a Hispanic baby, born premature in Indiana in 1988 to a single mother and an absent father. I guess with him gone, my mother didn’t have much interest in parenting. I know she loved me, deep down, but she loved drugs more. When I was little, she tried selling me for $1,000 to make a quick buck. When my grandma caught wind of that, she took me to Corpus Christi, Texas, to live with her.

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Little me.

It’s funny. After that, I mainly only saw my mother at the keggers she threw, and while my grandma loved me and treated me like I was her own son, I still sought affection from my mother who only had time for dealing and getting high. This led me to some impulsive and destructive behavior. Well that, and I that was exposed to the ugly side of my neighborhood in Corpus Christi. From the age of eight, I was smoking pot, just like my mom and those around me were doing. I saw the joint between their fingers and followed suit.

Unfortunately, I mimicked everything else going on too, which only got worse after we moved back to Indiana in 2001. Eventually, the “mimicking” became a habit, and I graduated to being the role model.

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By the time my 16th birthday came around, I was a full-blown alcoholic, drinking for stability and angry at the world. My buddies and I would get loaded and do dumb stuff like climbing onto the roof of a jeep or jumping the railroad tracks seconds before a train came barreling by. At some point or another, my best friend came up with what became our go-to evening entertainment: break into houses around the neighborhood and steal what we could. Then, we would get rid of the stuff we stole so it couldn’t be traced back to us. Or so we thought.

I didn’t really think twice about all of this. Consequences didn’t really register with me. After all, how can you care how others feel when you don’t even care about yourself? I was too charming to be caught (I learned that cockiness was a good way to cover up what I didn’t want to deal with).

Life continued with fleeting purpose: carry out a bad idea; get drunk to celebrate; think of another; repeat.   One evening when I was 19, my younger cousin and I spent the night cruising around with the windows rolled down. The wind whipped our puffed chests while we saw it.

Blue. Red. The flashing lights in the rearview. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Had we been found out? If so, I sure as hell wasn’t ready to face a judge for it. In fact, I was ready to bolt out of that car and save myself. That’s what I’d always done.

But then…I saw my 15-year-old cousin’s fear-stricken face. He looked like he was going to pass out. He pleaded with me to stay with him—he didn’t want to be alone when they caught him, because honestly, both of us couldn’t get away. Something changed inside me in the moment. I consciously decided to accept and to face the officers. That day was the last time I saw the streets as a teenager because I was arrested for the burglaries.

• • •

So how did they find out? Well, my brother ratted me out after he was caught with a stolen item from one of our sweeps. Instead of dumping it, he wanted it for himself. When he got arrested for having it in his possession, I guess he told the police not only about the burglaries, but also about a multitude of other crimes I’d recently committed. The sheer anger and betrayal I felt that day is unmatched. I couldn’t even look at my brother.

Even though my best friend and I both organized the burglaries, I took the fall for everything. He and I had plans of going into the military together just before I got caught, so I figured if we both couldn’t go, he at least should. But that doesn’t mean I was angry.

I was slapped with felony after felony, all adding up to a max sentence of 16 years. In March 2009, I was sent to one of the most violent prisons in Indiana. I was 19 with a far-off future.

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Life in prison started out as bleak as you could imagine. All around me were men with no roots trying to kill or shut people up with their fists. And I was right there with them; full of rage and a murderous glare pasted on at all times. I felt like my life was over.

I had an old cramped cell with a tiny window. It smelled damp and ripe until I forgot what home smelled like. Then it was my new normal. Each day I sat in my frustration, never reflecting on my crime, just pissed that I got caught.

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Taken during my sentence.

In prison, everyone says you need protection (if not with their words, then with their eyes and fists). In search of a family, I joined a prison gang. My initiation was to beat the shit out of some guy they had problems with. I’d beaten up people before, so I didn’t think it’d be such a big deal.

I found the guy and threw my punches. And when it was over, I felt like vomiting. I’d never felt that way before. And as I stared at the bashed-in face of my fellow inmate, I couldn’t help but wonder, what would my grandma think? What did this guy even mean to me? What did I accomplish?

I’ll tell you what I accomplished. After 19 years of pent-up anger and violence, I accomplished getting my own jail cell and baggy jumpsuit. And if I continued…what would be next?

I decided to tell the gang leader I was out. The thing about gang leaders…they don’t like disloyalty. So, was I stuck? Oh, no, he let me go, but not before a goodbye beating from six of the other gang members.

After I got the shit knocked out of me, I went out to the prison yard with my bloody wounds and bruises and I did 10 body-ups just to show the gang that they didn’t break me. Blame it on the adrenaline. Blame it on the lightness I felt after that burden faded. I’m not sure myself. After that, all the inmates respected me and left me alone.

That day, I turned the page into a new chapter—a chapter where anger and bitterness didn’t run my life.

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Being behind bars away from society, I begin to realize just how good I had it on the other side of the prison walls. I realized how choices could aid or crush a person, and I was tired of letting bad ones twist my life.

Surrounded only by grays and brick and uniform, I learned to look for the smallest hints of beauty like a dandelion outside my window or the bright rays of sunlight raining down on me in the prison yard. I could look at a bird flying overhead and feel happy, even if it was just for a moment.

Determined to make use of my life locked away, I started taking all the programs and courses offered to me. I started working jobs within the prison to get my time cut down. I was a recreational worker, a dorm detailer, a tree cutter—and that’s not even the half of it. Keeping busy helped me focus on the positives and focus on becoming an authentic person.

Next, I tried building new relationships as the new me. In 2013, I started writing letters to a childhood friend. We caught up on each other’s lives (and she so kindly reminded me how I’d rudely thought she was ugly when we were seven). I learned that she had two children and she learned that I was not the person she remembered from childhood. We fell in love over letters and she made me want to never go back to the old me. Yet, she knew that part of me and still loved me. For that, I will be forever grateful. We got married while I was still incarcerated and made plans of how to be together once I got out. Because of all my good behavior, my sentence had been decreased to about five years.

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With my fiancée (now my wife), 2014.

In December 2014, I was released, ready to turn a new leaf into a person I wanted to be. No more nonsense. I was ready to be good.

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You might laugh when I say it, but becoming a step-dad might have been harder for me than prison! I’d never had to take on much responsibility before and because of my childhood, I wanted these kids to have a good, positive life. That was a lot of pressure to put on me, but I took it in stride. My wife and I had a baby together and I proudly became a father of three. From the moment I saw those kids, I knew that they were going to become my world. Coming from a voyeur bloodline and breaking away from it, I’m determined to give my kids a promising future.

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My kids.

Conforming back into society after doing time in prison isn’t easy for everyone. Many of the guys I’d known in prison had been in and out of the system their whole lives. I didn’t want to fall into that stereotype. I came home on a Thursday and began work on the following Monday as a car salesman. I haven’t stopped working since.

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With a client at work, c. 2016.

Since I got out of prison five years ago, things have been good–more than good! I have a great job, a beautiful wife, and three amazing children. It’s so easy to see beauty all around me now. I’m grateful for the chance to order pizza, to cut my grass, and to simply be. I spent so much of my early life focused on the negative in my life and all I want to do now is devote my time, love, and energy to my family and do good for the world.

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With my beautiful family.

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I didn’t just change. The thing about change is that you can change back. I didn’t want that to ever happen, so I completely transformed into a person I could be proud of. Today, I refuse to be a victim of circumstance. In life, we all make choices that can alter the trajectory of our lives. When I started thinking consciously about my choices, I transformed into a better man. If I could find beauty in a dingy prison, anyone can. You just have to make the choice to search for beauty instead of ugliness. You’ll be surprised by the outcome.

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This is the story of Isaac Pena

Isaac currently resides in Indiana where he works as a car salesman. Coming from a rough upbringing, Isaac fell into a destructive lifestyle of partying and crime which landed him in prison when he was 19. Rather than letting his hurt get the best of him, Isaac made the choice to become a different man and become more positive. This positive thinking helped him rebuild his life once he got out of prison, and he now uses that positivity to help the youth of his community and raise his children right. In his free time, Isaac likes to go fishing with his kids, hit the gym, or buy the latest car that catches his eye. He currently owns a BMW 550 and a 2019 Dodge Ram. Isaac hopes to one day run his own business and continue to spread positivity to others.

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Isaac and his wife at a Notre Dame football game.

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This story first touched our hearts on September 6, 2019.

| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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