Dant’e Cottingham, Inmate #259241, about his struggles and triumphs while being incarcerated.
Months and months went by as I awaited the phantom call from the Judge releasing me from an adult maximum security prison and into my mom’s care. My teenage brain lacked the ability to envision 24 years to life and my teenage logic screamed that my sentence couldn’t be true, so I invested a lot in my belief that it was a concoction of sorts. A childish hope indeed, but when I consider it today it was quite clear that I was too young to face the truth, it would have had a destructive impact. So believing in that fantasy served a very important purpose.
While waiting I had a difficult time adapting to and navigating through the prison system. Those early years were plagued with bad decisions. For it quickly became apparent, that the prison environment not only accommodated many of the bad habits that led to my incarceration in the first place, but it revered them. Smoking marijuana, being affiliated with a gang, skipping school, and wasting my time with trivial pursuits became my day to day reality, so being so young I was always at the bottom of the totem pole, where I was perpetually in a position to prove myself. A position that led to several fights and several aggressive and hostile situations. I was simply in over my head. For I had no personal ideas of how I should conduct myself, I didn’t believe in a religion nor have any other positive influences so I did what kids do, I emulated what I saw. My role models became the adult prisoners. I started the process of assimilating their methods of doing prison time and of seeing myself as I saw them.
Consequently I received many conduct reports for a wide range of violations including: Inadequate school and work performance, disobeying orders, disruptive conduct, disrespect, dirty analysis tests, fighting, group resistance (gang related) and because there are a lot of blind spots in prison, places void of correctional officers and cameras, I was involved in a lot more fights and violations that went unnoticed. Some I won, some I lost. Badly.
I spent a lot of time in the hole as a result of the conduct reports. In the Wisconsin Department of Corrections a prisoner can be sentenced to anything between 3 and 360 days depending on the nature of the violation. The hole and I became very acquainted during that period. So I know first hand it’s a place of violent solitude and it’s the most masterful thief on the planet. It is presumed to be a deterrent to further misconduct but in actuality it exasperates existing emotional and psychological illnesses and conditions, and or creates them where they previously didn’t exist, particularly in children. On several separate occasions, while in the hole, I was placed in an observation cell for 3 to 6 days at a time, for suicidal attempts and or ideations. Eventually in 2001, after being in and out the hole for nearly 6 years, the segregation psychologist recommended I be transferred to the Wisconsin Resource Centre (WRC) to be psychologically evaluated. I stayed there a year and was sent back to a maximum security prison.
In 2003 I received yet another conduct report, I was given another 360 days in the hole for battery and group resistance. But this time when I completed the 360 day sentence, and on the day I was scheduled to be released, I was informed that prison administrators were keeping me in the hole pending an Administrative Confinement (AC) hearing. AC is a status that permits prison administrators to hold a prisoner in the hole indefinitely, far beyond the 360 day maximum. It’s a status reserved for convictions of serious prison violations and for those with a disruptive/violent history. My hearing resulted in my being placed in AC, which consisted of being observed for 24 hours a day with only an hour out 3 times a week for recreation. There is no contact with other prisoners. And for about the first year I was not permitted any electronics. I was caged in with myself and the time would soon come where the ceiling, the floor and the four walls of my cage would become mirrors. For everywhere I looked I distractedly saw reflections of myself, from which there was no escape, and what I saw would either destroy or empower me.
I ended up doing two and a half years on AC for a total of three and a half years in the hole, counting the initial 360 days. I soon saw that one of the worst things about AC is that you don’t know when you’ll get out, being in a cage next to men who have been in AC 5,6,7 plus years compounds the anxiety.
To this day I am unsure why, but for some reason I was not emotionally and psychologically destroyed during my time in AC. For I’ve seen segregation destroy men, strong men. Men who have lost significant pieces of their emotional, spiritual and psychological selves within those cages and whose only glimpse of sanity can ever be found within the bottles of the strongest psychotropic medications. For whatever reason I responded to the intense pressures of segregation in a very different way.
I was 25 years old, within my 8th year in prison and stuck, indefinitely in the hole. At first I did trivial things to distract myself from myself, but over time the potency of the distractions ran thin, and that is when the walls of my cave turned into mirrors. For everywhere I looked I saw raw pieces of myself and there was nowhere to run. Cornered! I had no other recourse but to engage. Daily engagements that took me on an honest journey through my ideas, a thorough inspection of the parts of my history I had always been afraid to look at, an assessment of my beliefs, and acknowledgement of my wrongs and an understanding of my sentence. I would pace back and forth day in day out having very intense internal conversations with myself, and the night brought very little rest, for it seemed that the mirrors of darkness were even more profound and even more challenging.
After literally months of engaging myself, of pursuing self understanding, I began to see beyond my errors, my inadequacies and my history. I began to see what I could become. I began to see, for the first time, my potential, Instead of seeing an ending I began to see a beginning, over time I began to fall deeply in love with the image of what I thought I could become (IE: intelligent, responsible, a good father, thoughtful, genuinely caring, empathetic etc.) I had never saw myself in this way before and I was not sure if I could live up to it. Though what I was sure about, is that the way I’d been viewing myself, the things I had been living up to had been producing a wide array of harmful effects. Though I knew to produce a different result I had to do different things. So I began to focus on what I needed to do. One of the first things I did was to engage my definition of manhood, of which, was superficial, materialistic and childish. I reconstructed it to reflect the qualities of the greatest man I knew, my Grandfather.
I dedicated myself to living up to those qualities, to making all of my decisions accordingly. A dedication that instantaneously removed many adverse things from my life, including my affiliation with the gang I’d been a member of since I was 13 years old. A dedication that also instantaneously added many things to my life, including an insatiable thirst for knowledge, education and enlightenment.
I began to read everything I could get my hands on. Plato’s logic introduced me to a different way to think, each of Shakespeare’s plays woke up a new piece of me, Pablo Neruda’s odes bought new flavours and colours into my life, and the details of world history inspired me. I read and read and read. I read so many biographies, so many treaties, classics, historical overviews and points of view on a wide range of topics, the more I read the deeper I became dedicated to my new and emerging self perception.
I got out the hole in 2006. My thirst for knowledge, education and enlightenment was stronger than ever. I sought every college credit that the Department of Corrections offered, which were not many, I made sure that my old gang associates knew that I was no longer affiliated. One of them in particular asked me why I dropped out and I remember replying, “I have my own laws and polices now!” so I began to surround myself with other men who genuinely sought enlightenment as I did, men who lived according to a thoroughly thought out definition of manhood as I was endeavouring to, men of which, were and are rare.
Included among the pieces of myself I began examining in the hole were:
–How did I end up in prison at such a young age and with such a long sentence?
–Why did I join a gang?
At the end of the day children are children, so why was the sanctity of my childhood violated by forcing me to be an adult?
I continued the examination of these questions long after I was released from the hole. Eventually I’d reach a place of complete understanding, a place where it became completely clear to me that not only could a combination of efforts have redirected my childhood path fro prison to college, but similar combinations could redirect the path of hundreds of thousands of today’s at risk youth. It became clear that children joined street gangs to feel some emotional, familial need, not because they are bad seeds.
Fulfil the need = we cure the gang disease. It also became clear to me that it is extremely irresponsible on so many levels, for our judicial system to waive children into the adult criminal courts and incarcerate them with adults. All of which led me to the place where I acknowledged and accepted the fact that the nature of my heart, the content of my experiences and the depth of my understanding of the issues has made it my life’s task to:
1. Guide as many kids out of gangs and off the path to prison or an early death
2. Empower youth to dream without limits
3. Advocate for the reformation of America’s laws and policies that permit the waiving of children into adult courts and prisons
With this understanding I had the pleasure of meeting Reverend Mother Julie Clarence, now Bishop of Chesterfield, through a correspondence prison ministry program based in the United Kingdom. Upon learning my story and life’s task, researching America’s juvenile justice laws, thus finding out about the enormous amounts of children in adult courts and prisons, she became a very dedicated ally to this cause and issue. Assisted with my ideas and insights, the support of her Archbishop and several concerned people around the US and the world she founded a non profit organisation called Advocates for Abandoned Adolescents (A.A.A.).
A.A.A. is intent on generating awareness, increasing the volume of the voices of imprisoned children and their families, organizing our nation’s concerned citizens, reaching inside prisons and neighbourhoods with programs that will inform, inspire and assist, and restructuring America’s juvenile justice laws. I have been working very closely with A.A.A since it’s creation in 2008, and am currently mentoring and writing 23 kids in adult prisons across the United States via an A.A.A program. For I believe that if I can’t immediately stop children from being put in adult prisons I can however immediately inform, inspire and assist them. For I share with them the things I wish I’d known when I first came to prison.
By 2009 I would have my para legal degree, working as a law clerk in the prison law library and a passionate member of the ‘BRICK ‘ program (very similar to the widely known ‘scared straight’ program). In 2011, after several years of a good conduct record, I was finally given a reduction in my security classification. I had been in Maximum security prison for 16 years but was finally on my way to medium security, where I’ll be able to enjoy a lot more privileges, simple things I had not been able to enjoy for a long time. When I got here, New Lisbon Correctional Institute, (NLCI) one of the privileges that struck me the most was the significant access to the outdoors. We have access from 7:45 am to 9:00 pm. In maximum you could easily go months without going outside. So my love affair with the out doors had been very intense over the last two and a half years I have been here. Actually I’m sitting outside this chilly October morning as I conclude this article.
I take full responsibility for the mistakes I have made over the years. Child or not I have many regrets. My history does not design my future, nor does it define my legacy. I am the author of both and there are so many chapters left to be written. There’s so much work to do and love to give. For I will spend the rest of my life passionately serving the issues and causes I have been equipped to serve.
I am currently one of four law clerks in NLCI, I am on the planning committee for the Restorative Justice Alumnus group, I’m seeking sponsorship for a college correspondence course (I would like a Bachelors degree in business) I have gigantic dreams and I am preparing myself to realise them, I don’t have as many friends as I’d like, but when they come I am prepared to be a great friend to them. I continue to work tirelessly with A.A.A. It’s a phenomenal organisation and always in need of assistance and volunteers, so if you have time and would like to be a part of a great and growing NGO then please sign up. The juveniles of America definitely need you.
Thank you for taking the time for reading my story, if you have any questions please send them to:
Dant’e Cottingham #259241
New Lisbon Correctional Institute
PO Box 4000