Terrell was arrested and charged as an adult with armed robbery at the age of 16. He joined Free Minds just prior to his transfer to federal prison. He quickly became a loyal and enthusiastic member, writing us stacks of letters, as well as requesting, reading and reviewing more than 25 books during his incarceration.
Terrell is now 23 years old and is back home. He has spent nearly the last 7 years of his life behind bars. Free Minds recently sat down with Terrell at a Starbucks in downtown DC to catch up:
FM: What kind of life were you living before you were locked up?
Terrell: Well, I’ve always been a thinker, but when I was 16, I was just constantly trying to prove myself. That means that I went with the crowd. Whatever they were doing, I was doing it too. I was trying to prove myself, and that’s what got me in trouble.
FM: What did you envision for your future at that time?
Terrell: What did I envision? To be honest, I never had a concept of the future. I was busy planning my legacy. I didn’t expect to survive and so I just wanted to be remembered as someone who was bad. I wanted my tough reputation to be glorified. I wanted kids in the neighborhood to be saying, “Yeah, I knew him!” Now when I look back, I see that it was all just ignorance and stupidity.
FM: Were you a reader before you got in trouble?
Terrell: I never read much, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t smart. I’ve always been intelligent. The teachers at my school labeled me as “special ed” because my behavior wasn’t good. When my father died I stopped caring about school at all. I was embarrassed to be in special education classes, so I just made sure everyone knew I didn’t care and wasn’t even trying. Once I became incarcerated, I just had to gear up my mind to focus on self-defense, and that was all I cared about. I had to adapt.
FM: When and why did you first begin to read?
Terrell: It was because of you! It was because of Free Minds. I remember meeting you in the hallway and you gave me a book. I just started reading. I remember two books in particular that really affected me. Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall, and A Question of Freedom by R. Dwayne Betts. They were both written by intelligent young men who had committed crimes, been locked up and yet still, they made it out. Those books meant a lot to me. And as I began to read, I began to be determined to improve my vocabulary. I got a dictionary that I kept with me whenever I read and when I’d come to a word I didn’t know, I’d stop reading and look it up. I looked up every single word that I didn’t know. I think if you were to go back and read my letters from after we first met until just before my release, you would see a huge leap in my maturity and my intellectual growth.
FM: Why do you read?
Terrell: Well, at first I read for entertainment. I was reading all of these so-called “Urban Literature” books about the streets. But then I began to see the effects that these stories would have on the people who were reading them for entertainment. “Urban lit” has the same as the effect on people as violent or sexist music videos, negative stories on the nightly news and violent movies. It has such a huge psychological impact on young people who see it and hear it. They eventually believe that is reality. I realized this and decided that I only wanted to read for my education. I started asking you all for books that could help me. I even decided to change the way I talked. I used less slang and people noticed. At first they thought I was fake, but then they realized I was serious and they saw me carrying myself differently. They began to look up to me, and that felt good!
FM: You have been home now for six months. How hard has it been for you to adjust?
Terrell: I tell everyone this. You have to start preparing yourself for the community when you’re still inside. I got very clear on what I wanted for myself before I actually came out. I knew what would happen if I made a wrong turn. If I go with “that” crowd, I’m going to be walking “that” walk. It’s like the game of chess (which I learned and became good at while in prison). You have to think before you make a move. If I take that rook now, what’s going to happen several moves from now? Is it going to be worth it? So I had to think if I go with these people, is it really worth the possible consequences? Is it worth getting put in a position of either hurting someone or getting hurt myself? The most important change I have made is that I’ve stopped trying to prove myself to others. Now I just want to prove something to myself!
Terrell is currently working full-time with a local construction company as a carpenter. When he began an apprenticeship with the union and took the entrance test, he scored so high that the supervisor decided to employ him immediately. He has already been promoted and is now applying to work as a Project Manager. Terrell is also a full-time student at Westwood College, pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in Construction Management. On November 6th, Terrell voted for the first time in the presidential election.
“It felt so good to be able to use my voice—it was powerful knowing how hard people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fought just for me to have this right, and I will never take that for granted!”