BY KENNETH FOSTER
I came up around people that lived the street life. And in that setting, you learn a set of skills that helps you survive. If you go to a jungle, you learn a set of skills. Likewise with a desert, the country or the city.
In the street life, you learn that there is always that hawk in the sky looking for its prey. You learn that there’s always someone watching to find his “mark.” Be it for a robbery, to run a con game or whatever, there is always someone watching and waiting. You learn to see them before they see you. You learn to outthink the greatest thinker. You have to move before they move. It’s nothing different in prison. There’s always someone watching and waiting.
But then there’s those that are watching and waiting for different reasons. They are the ones that have grown old in the penitentiary, perhaps lost all family support and unable to go to commissary. They watch and wait because they are in need. They watch and wait because now, instead of seeking to do harm, they are seeking to do good. These are the inmates who now wash clothes for a shot of coffee or a bag of candy. They sew for a few soups. They’ve been broken down to the most humble of positions and all they’re seeking to do is get by.
But, while they’ve been humbled, and while they may have aged or just turned away from the criminal element, the elderly in prison have not forgotten how to find their “mark.” Like chameleons, they sit back and blend into their environment and they watch. True, some may call them flat out nosey or a busy body, but at some point we all watch our surroundings. They watch who makes commissary, who has this and who has that. And when they make their “mark,” they gently slide in with a proposition.
“I noticed your shirt has holes in it. I can sew that for a couple shots of coffee.”
From one inmate to another, we know what it’s like to be down on your luck. To miss commissary. And it’s hard to say no to these guys, even if you’re down to your last 3 shots of coffee. You try to keep in mind that you want to do this because you’d want someone to do this for you, if you was in the same shoes.
Prison is beyond hard for some people, although I’m not saying some didn’t deserve it. And the sad reality is that prison doesn’t provide you with all the adequate resources you need to rehabilitate yourself. The system tries to preach that inmates need to learn how to be productive citizens, but in places like Texas they don’t even pay you for your labor. How can one learn to mimic being a citizen when all he’s treated like is a slave? There’s a standard being held over our heads, yet how can we grab it when it’s a chain on our feet ?
I have had to laugh a few times when I have been someone’s “mark.” I have often been the one that has been approached to have a shirt washed or to buy a drawing for a friend. And knowing what I know, and trying to put out an act of kindness, I relent. I recognize that this inmate is no longer the con man trying to screw someone over, but is just the guy that has hit rock bottom and has humbled himself to his environment.
There’s nothing easy about doing that, so instead of treating these men like wretches, I not only offer that shot of coffee, I put a few cookies with it too. Because in my own darkest hours, when my heart has wanted to turn to stone, I always go back to the good things my family did teach me and in these times, I’m proud to say, those teachings come out.
When I first came to prison there was guys that lent a helping hand to me. I carry that with me everyday, because if it wasn’t for those few guys, I wouldn’t be alive today. I would have given up on myself and on humanity. But not everything in prison is wicked. Some are just errors and mistakes. No different than what some of these politicians, Catholic Bishops and CEO executives are making and getting slapped on the wrist for. Prison is just a microcosm to that macrocosm. You have to look beyond all the media and conservative propaganda.
Over the years I’ve been someone’s “pick” from time to time. It never ceases to make me laugh a little bit. And while I know how to put my foot down to make sure I’m not being taken advantage of, I don’t act so stone-faced (as that’s the popular prison thing to do) to where I overlook the chance to put some kindness out into a place where there’s so much darkness.
Some may say “What good does a damn shot of coffee do?” And I say what effect would a single candle have upon a mass of darkness? How shattering would that effect be? And so I accept being that candle. I accept that that small act may allow someone to keep pushing for one more day. And I accept that sometimes being someone’s “mark” isn’t that bad, after all.
Kenneth Foster is serving LIFE for Capital Murder in Texas.
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Kenneth Foster, Jr. #1451768
Alfred Hughes Unit
Route 2, Box 4400
Gatesville, TX 76597