What if you gazed through an impenetrable steel grille, into a cell in the solitary confinement unit at Pelican Bay State Prison…

And saw yourself?

Pelican Bay is where I spent an amazing three days with the incredible “Mavericks” (program participants) and volunteers of Hustle 2.0

Coaching Mavericks in entrepreneurism, employment, and self-advocacy

Through the course of the weekend, we also encountered many remarkable Corrections Officers, who supported the Mavericks’ work to turn their lives around

We volunteered an afternoon in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU)—solitary confinement—where Mavericks spend about twenty-three hours a day in boxes, cells sized similar to a standard bathroom 

Steel grilles’ smooth cool steel prevented physical contact with Mavericks, except through fingertip-touches

One nearly gets a clearer picture of what a Maverick looks like from his ID affixed to the outside of his cell, than from seeing, through the steel, his face

As Catherine “Cat” Hoke, Hustle2.0 co-founder and facilitator for the day, likes to ask: Imagine being locked in your bathroom for one day?—faucets and fixtures, tubs and tanks

We met Mavericks who had spent over 30 years in the SHU

Hearing Mavericks life stories, one can almost check off boxes: growing up with few books in the home, dropped out of high school, not provided a college education

Close relatives dying violently, gunshots outside childhood yards, physical and emotional abuse, absent parents, choices given to join gangs or be stomped by them

When I was a little kid, still going by my first name, “Peter,” one of my toughest challenges? Was getting a haircut

My father set up a stool in the basement, the cemented stone like fortress walls, below my well-appointed bedroom, filled with plush stuffed animals and all the toys a kid like me could want

He’d sit me down and scissor-cut my hair, while I’d cry hysterically…bawling, terrified…I really feared those haircuts! Would’ve done anything to get out of them

Had I been born into the world of a Maverick?…neighborhood gangsters’ knife-blade “options” to “fit in” by joining the gang, or face the alternative

I surely would’ve not found strength to avoid joining…and maybe, in an attempt to overcome my self-loathing, called myself by some street-gangster name

Soon after I quit meth in 2007, I began going by my middle name, “Ed”

Today, while in most cases I might prefer not to be called “Pete” or “Peter”

It’s a beautiful reminder: how much I love the few human beings who do still call me “Pete”

Wonderful, exceptional people, for having remained in my life since my meth days, and given me another chance

It’s tempting to want to hate “Pete” as despite the opportunities he was given, his choices were mostly unheroic, Earthly checks and balances totaled up

He put Ed in some of the less-than-ideal circumstances he finds himself in: ongoing symptoms of old psychosis, home-sold-proceeds-gone, no longer dog owner

And, of course, the most important part…knowing I hurt people close to me, through my actions and poor decisions

Yet it’s said: When you reach the top of the mountain, don’t curse the path that got you there

“Ed” is learning—thanks to a lot of help—to put aside self-interests, live a beautiful life, follow my dream of becoming a writer…while bringing some small measure of good to a world around me

Like the Mavericks are doing…although their accomplishments far exceed mine

Through the obstacles they are overcoming, the spiritual development they’re achieving, the dream-making they bring to their own lives and lives of others

The Mavericks teach me to appreciate: being called a name I don’t care for, is a fairly minor inconvenience! As are those less-than-ideal circumstances

While Pete may never have done anything society could use to justify locking him in solitary confinement

It was only because society gave Pete unfair advantages…his safety net more solid than the steel grilles separating Ed from all but fingertip contact with SHU Mavericks

Who just as easily could’ve been me, or I them…had my self-hatred rage been compounded by things the Mavericks faced, that I never did…racism, poverty, extreme violence

I might find myself reflecting upon a person who was and wasn’t me, whose actions led to the circumstances I find myself in

Of course: Pete, Ed, and me, are all the same person!

Forty-odd years ago, on a weekend night when all three of us (that’s a joke) were still in Massachusetts middle school—which, at the time, seemed like a prison

I locked myself in a bathroom outside the school gymnasium, crying

During a school dance, for which I’d dyed my hair purple…it was Halloween, and I’d been trying to dress as a punk rocker

I don’t remember why I cried in that fluorescent-lit bathroom…maybe some other kids making fun of me, calling me names, and I felt unable to dance, that it was impossible for me to fit in

Today, my hair is gray…and I don’t cry much in public, nor do I do much dancing

(Hard to tell which is more mortifying)

But there came points during my weekend in Pelican Bay, where I couldn’t help but cry, realizing those Mavericks had taught me how much the same we humans are

On the inside, despite external circumstances

There came a point in the SHU, when Cat led an exercise in forgiveness

One point being, we consider extending forgiveness to our past selves, at least as much as we extend forgiveness to others

Gandhi said the weak can never forgive, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong

After the exercise, to bring the energy up, Cat turned on the music, and we all danced

The Mavericks behind their steel grilles, the other volunteers, and…yes…even Ed

I adjusted my name-tag, which had become torn in transfer from my sweater to the protective vests Pelican Bay protocols dictated we wear

And danced my best impression of the “running man” (the “walking boy”?)

And maybe in some Universe somewhere, Pete was dancing too

While my body was on the one side of the steel grilles

My spirit was with my coaches, the Mavericks, inside their SHU cells

My spirit was free

(Special thanks to Tom Kubik Photography)

Resources For You

If you know or are a person who is struggling, check out my free PDF: Ten Helpful Questions to Ask When Someone You Love is Recovering From Addiction

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3 Responses

  1. An outstanding piece of work. So very real, and well written. I was surprised to read you had access to the SHU Unit, and the guys were able to participate from their cells. Great work Ed.

    1. Thank you Ernest for your very kind words. And for your inspiration through the years. The men I met in the SHU were amazing in their dedication and perseverance. As are you.

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