After ten years in prison on a mandatory drug charge, a new life.
Abrigal Forrester served 10 years without parole for his first offense, a drug charge. He was inside from age 21 to 31. He had a daughter, was married and divorced, and paid child support during that time. When he got out, he immediately got a job as a janitor at MIT, and ultimately became Program Coordinator for Street Safe Boston, an organization working to reduce violence in the most dangerous areas of the city. He works from the Roxbury Boys’ and Girls’ Club.
ABRIGAL: It was from 1991 to 2001 that I was in state prison. Long story short, I ended up getting a 10-year mandatory sentence for drug charges. I went from Walpole to Concord to Shirley. If I’d gone to the federal system, it would have been three years, eight months. But I wouldn’t become a government informant. And the state already had implemented mandatory sentences, and January ’91 was when they implemented that whole no-statutory good-behavior time rule.
ABRIGAL: I was going on 21.
TOM: Jesus. So you got out when you were 31?
ABRIGAL: Yeah. I got out when I was 31, yeah. For me, personally, the whole process of being incarcerated helped me—not because of the incarceration, but because of my own drive to make changes in my life and to grow and develop. Over that time period, I pretty much committed myself to change.
TOM: Did you find help inside?
ABRIGAL: I found help from older men who were willing to get engaged and question your thinking. But you have to seek that out. The system itself didn’t provide anything. It’s really about whether or not you want to change.
Around year six, I did some college courses and stuff. But then I went to a minimum institution, which meant that I had to sacrifice the education track I was on. I went because I didn’t want my family to have to keep going through that whole shakedown when they came in.
When I came home in 2001, I swent to Roxbury Community College, started working, got a job at MIT—my first job. I was making $16.21 an hour, because I did some networking on the inside with a family friend who told me what I would need to learn in order to become a maintenance person, or what they called a maintenance technician, which is really just a janitor, but (laughs) that’s a good title for it.
I always stayed ahead of my job. My thing was, get the skill set so that I can transfer the skill set outside to this other job that I’m trying to prepare myself for. And it worked. The superintendent offered to write me a recommendation letter.
I went to MIT, I interviewed, they hired me. My first nine months home, I was working from 11 p.m. to 7 in the morning, going home for two hours, going to school from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., picking my daughter up from school, sleeping from 5 p.m. to, like, 10—and doing that for nine months. Just to get myself acclimated.
And then, in the ninth month home, September, I got an offer for a job at this organization called Strive. They were more of a social service, a nonprofit, community-based organization trying to work with people and get them jobs, train them for jobs.
I ended up taking that job, then graduated with my associate’s degree from RCC. I then matriculated over to UMass Boston for undergrad in psychology, and I got that degree in 2008. Then I continued on the professional track, worked for Strive for five-and-a-half years, did some stuff with them, and helped them build out an ex-offender training program that I supported in developing and facilitating.
The sheriff of the county jail here, Sheriff Cabral, wanted to bring the job-training component to the House of Corrections, so I helped build that. I did the training in the House of Corrections for two-and-a-half years, then moved on to the Urban League to manage their employment resource center, which is just right across the street. And now I’m at StreetSafe Boston.
TOM: What does StreetSafe Boston do?
ABRIGAL: StreetSafe Boston is a violence-intervention program. The goal of StreetSafe is to work with five primary neighborhoods that have been identified through a Harvard research study as having the most violence in the metro Boston area.
The goal is to target those neighborhoods, target those individuals based on intelligence information. To try to intervene in violence, try to help support and extract those individuals, and then provide them with support for their basic needs, whether that be education, employment, mental-health services, housing, recreation, or health services.
TOM: And so you have one daughter?
ABRIGAL: Yes. I have a daughter, and I have a son. My daughter is 19, and my son is 5. My daughter was born six months before I was incarcerated.
TOM: And what’s the situation with the mom now?
ABRIGAL: We get along well. I paid child support to my daughter when I was incarcerated, because I tried to be as responsible as possible. There were jobs you could get that paid you $50 a week, which were like the highest-paying jobs in the institution. I was fortunate enough to work my way to those jobs.
So at every end of the month, I would send her at least $125.
TOM: Wow, that’s crazy. That’s great. So your daughter is all grown up now.
ABRIGAL: She’s all grown up now. It’s an interesting place to be. (Laughs.) I was on the phone with her this morning for about two hours. She’s just starting college, Palm Beach State. But she’s living in Lauderhills. And there’s a transportation issue. She’s struggling with getting a vehicle, all this stuff. Hopefully, once I get past this house situation, I’m going to try to drive my car down there and give her that.
TOM: What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up?
ABRIGAL: I grew up in Dorchester, on Regina Road, between Codman Square and Four Corners, which were two high-profile neighborhoods for crime and violence back in the ’80s.
TOM: Were your parents around?
ABRIGAL: My mom. My father was around—diabolically enough, he lived right up the street, but had a whole different family.
ABRIGAL: Yeah. I’d say I was, like, five blocks away. It was pretty much me and my mom. My sisters were much older than me. By the time I was 9 or 10, they were pretty much out of the house. Which created a somewhat vulnerable situation for me as a young boy growing up in a very socially threatening neighborhood. I was very astute in academics from age 1, grade 1 to 5. But then, middle school was different. I went to one of the toughest middle schools in the city, which was Woodrow Wilson. And that’s when a lot of changes started to take place for me.
TOM: There are 10 questions we ask everybody. First, who do you think taught you about manhood?
ABRIGAL: My understanding of manhood only began to develop when I went to prison, to be honest. Prior to that, I was in what we would call the state of just being a male—still living life by my desires, what I missed and what I didn’t have as a kid. You see a lot of grown men who have their priorities confused. They live at home with mom but they got a $30,000 car outside. I don’t consider that to be manhood.
You know, when I went to prison, and met men who were doing long sentences, for some reason these were the men that I associated with. These were men that I could have conversations with. They would question my thinking. And so it was really then, I believe, that manhood became a serious question for me.
TOM: How has romantic love shaped you as a man?
ABRIGAL: Oh, man. Romantic love. You know, I don’t know if I could say romantic love has shaped me as a man, as much as getting to a place where, as a man, monogamy has begun to shape me. Being at a place where being with one person and fighting yourself and desires and all that good stuff to try to stay and be with that one person. Because when you’re monogamous, it’s not always about running. It’s not always about leaving quickly.
I was married to my daughter’s mother once—while I was incarcerated. We got married when I was incarcerated and divorced while I was incarcerated.
There was the sense of her being romantically in love with me, and us thinking we could still build a future, and then me trying to convince her even before we got married, you need to move on. But she was like, No, I want to be with you. And we got married. And then three years later, she realized, I can’t do this whole 10 [years], you know? She needed romance, and she needed to move on. And me in a position where I could not even fight for the love that I have for her.
It was like sitting at a place with your hands tied, your feet tied, your voice tied, no speech, paralyzed, watching someone that you love just walk away. You know you love them, you know they love you, but you can’t do anything.
ABRIGAL: So that was my first experience, and then I came home, got married to my son’s mother, and that didn’t work out. You know, that was a tough assignment. And what I understood was that I didn’t know myself and I didn’t give myself time to understand myself. I think that the more you know yourself, you understand—you begin to understand the kind of relationships you need to get in.
When I met my son’s mother, she was very new to relationships, monogamous relationships, pretty much a virgin. And me, I had experience. But sometimes, an experienced person with a non-experienced person, it’s overwhelming. It doesn’t become just a thing about romance or love and growth. It becomes almost like puppy love, and if you’re at a place where you’re past that phase in your life, you’re now wanting room, and they want to cuddle, right? Or they want all your time.
And so, there can be a frustration in that kind of relationship. When I look back, I think that was the biggest challenge, was that my experience and her limited experience, it clashed.
And now I’m married again. (laughs)
TOM: What two words describe your dad?
ABRIGAL: My dad? I don’t know if I want to say stern—I would say rigid when it comes to what he thinks is right. But he still has his own way of going about his life. It’s hard for me to label it. My father was very interesting, because he wanted to be on deck in a certain kind of way, but at the same time, he abandoned many of the responsibilities.
TOM: How are you most unlike your dad?
ABRIGAL: I think my commitment to responsibility, regardless of the turmoil or tribulations. My father’s the type that if he wasn’t getting along with someone, like my mom, then he was MIA. I’m not that type. Compared to my father, it’s my stick-to-it-iveness.
ABRIGAL: Criminal life, you know? Making bad choices, going to prison. Having people tell you this is the pathway to your dream, your hope, your desire, and not researching enough. Or not being able to look at the reality of it. So now, I do more research. I look into things a bit more before I make a final decision, because other people can make a lot of things look really good.
TOM: How would the women in your life describe you, and is it true?
ABRIGAL: Ah, they’d probably describe me as stubborn. I stand firm on certain things. But not because I think I’m right. I stand firm because I do the research.
TOM: Who’s the best father you know, and why do you think so?
ABRIGAL: A gentleman named Stanley Green. He’s faced some of the same challenges as I have, and I’ve watched how he’s fought hard to raise his son. His son is an athletic star. He has the ability, even through a rocky relationship with his son’s mother, to stick and stay and fight it through. He has really been on deck. I think being a good parent is just being on deck, you know? That is what parenting is all about.
TOM: This isn’t on my list, but why do you think so many fathers either aren’t physically there, or aren’t mentally there?
ABRIGAL: You know, it’s work.
TOM: Tell me about it, dude.
ABRIGAL: Yeah, it really is. And it’s a different kind of work, because the work is so encompassing. It changes all the time, it’s not one-dimensional. Like, you go to your job, that work is one-dimensional. You get into a bottom line, you’re just working. But a husband and a father—today your work might be emotional. Tomorrow, your work might be getting up at 2 in the morning and going to the store. The next day, it might be that you’re being attacked financially.
It changes, it evolves, day to day. And if you’re not stable, if you don’t have a support system, you’ll run, because of your own insecurities in that work. Because there are times where you may not have the answer.
TOM: That’s why we’re starting with this conversation about manhood among men, because what the hell, we can’t figure it out ourselves.
ABRIGAL: Yeah. How can you teach what you don’t know? In my younger years, no one talked to me about manhood. When you really start to understand manhood, you see that when you go into a situation, you need to ask yourself what is it that you’re doing.
TOM: So what advice would you give teenage boys now, about manhood?
ABRIGAL: A 16-year-old has to understand what responsibility means at 16. It’s different from what it means at … For instance, my son is 5. My responsibility is to teach him: You need to pick up your toys and put them away. You need to put things in the trash. When you finish, you don’t throw it on the ground. If we’re riding in the car, you don’t throw trash out the window. Those are responsibilities right there, but then he’ll get that. And then he’ll become 10 and his responsibilities will shift, and it will increase over time.
Manhood is something that is developed. It’s about understanding what it means to be responsible in different phases of your development. That’s how you become a man.
TOM: When was the last time you cried?
ABRIGAL: About two weeks ago, in my therapy session.
TOM: What was it about?
ABRIGAL: We were reflecting on some of my experiences when I was incarcerated. I was talking about my relationship with my daughter’s mother, and losing that relationship that I had, and it brought tears to my eyes. And then I was starting to understand a little bit more about love. I was taught to shut down that love thing. You know, like, don’t love no one. That’s how I was taught in my neighborhood. Like, you love a chick, you going to be a mess, man. When I finally got to a place where I started to understand what love felt like, I got incarcerated. So I never even got to express that love.
TOM: Last question. What’s your favorite man ritual, guy ritual?
ABRIGAL: Favorite guy ritual? Hmm, I love sports, man. I’m a sports fanatic. That’s my thing.
A related story of how an original contributor to The Good Men Project anthology, Julio Medina, is helping ex-cons reintegrate: here.
♦ ♦ ♦
Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.