18 and Change

18 and Change

Photo by kalei peek on Unsplash

We don’t see things the way they are.
We see them the way we are.
— The Talmud

Most teenagers can’t wait to turn 18, a time marked by the independence (and adventure) of them moving out on their own, embarking on their dreams via college or serving their country, or the mere prospect of forming new relationships. However you slice it, it’s when youthful adults venture out into Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) to come into their own.

So tell me, when you were younger, did you ever like a guy or girl, a food, or anything, and as time passed, you stopped liking him or her or it? It’s like you “aged out” of who or what you were previously enamored with or entranced by. I mean, I used to enjoy hanging out with certain types of people, and now I avoid them like COVID-19. Unless they’re doing something positive, I classify such types as “Hi and Bye” acquaintances, whom I spend as little time as possible with.

For example, I have some past “so-called” friends who believe I’ll get out and smoothly segue back into our youthful pastime activities without missing a beat. Some even say, “Jay ain’t changed.” Hmm, that’s naive and mildly disturbing given that I will have spent “18 and change” (i.e., over 18 years) in prison, and they expect me to leave prison as the same person I came to prison as?! Although, and most unfortunately, there are some guys who press the psychological and behavioral pause button upon entering prison, and re-press it when they release, I’m definitely not one of them.

Contrary to prevailing frenemy belief, prison turned my life upside down, which as I later discovered was actually right side up. I came to prison because my upside-down outlook on life skewed my perception of reality. Paraphrasing my opening quote, the world did not change, rather, only my perception of it did.

I’ve spent years trying to figure out where I went wrong, and the further back I looked the closer I got to the answers. Pre-prison, I was living my life through my tattered past. As Dr. Phil said, “The past reaches into the present, and programs the future, your recollections and your internal rhetoric about what you perceived to have happened to you.” I learned that I was living my adult life through the tragedies of my negative social environment growing up.

And since my formerly-flawed thinking produced criminal behavior that, in turn, resulted in me having to serve 18 and change in prison, I’m often overtaken with residual guilt, shame and remorse. It’s like a web that wraps you tightly, squeezing tighter and tighter with an endless thread. Don Miguel Ruiz explains this in The Four Agreements:

How many times do we pay for one mistake? The answer is thousands of times. The human is the only animal on earth that pays a thousand times for the same mistake. The rest of the animals pay once for every mistake they make. But not us. We have a powerful memory. We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty, and punish ourselves…. Every time we remember, we judge ourselves again, we are guilty again, and we punish ourselves again, and again, and again.

And then there are those in society who seek to tighten the web even more by reminding you of your past mistake at every corner — without considering the mitigating factors that contributed to your downfall — pushing you to relive the past on an endless loop. They forget that every saint has a past, and every sinner a future. They judge with four fingers pointing back at them. They demand retribution, but when they (or their loved ones) are standing in the shoes of the accused, they beg for mercy and leniency.

But the good thing is: I’ve incubated for years in this concrete cocoon and improved myself in ways that the majority in society cannot because they haven’t walked my Road to Redemption, where I’ve had to revamp and reinvent myself and overwrite my faulty thought processes with success-oriented programming. Every day I use my 18 and change to update my life outlook and further disentangle myself from the web of guilt and shame.

I approach each new year as an exciting new chapter in my life, as one of many phases of my metamorphosis. I am a new creation, a phoenix risen from the ashes, a butterfly ready to explore and perceive the same world (i.e., minus the landscaping of technological innovation) through a different, more colorful lens.

And if ever accused of being the same person I was when I committed my crime, I would simply reply, “True, I am the same essence. But in terms of form, I have changed by leaps and bounds and become someone exceedingly better.” Therefore, my world has changed — but only on account of my perception changing over the course of my 18 and change.

As you embark on the new year and hope to improve some aspect(s) of your life, I want to give you a handful of positive affirmations for 2021 (in the era of COVID-19) from my affirmation stockpile that has helped me develop the right attitude to overcome WHATEVER life throws at me.

God willing, I’ll be released in 2022! Happy New Year!


Positive Affirmations for 2022

We have to be greater than what we suffer.
–Spiderman, movie

The world is hard. You have to be harder.

You gotta do what’s best for you with the time that you got.
–Detective Pikachu, movie

I am the captain of my ship, and the master of my fate.
–Dr. Ivan Joseph

Fall seven times stand up eight.
–Japanese proverb

Sometimes, the only way to heal our wounds is
to make peace with the demons who created them.
–Godzilla II: King of the Monsters, movie

Sometimes we’re tested not to show our weaknesses,
but to discover our strengths.

The darkest nights produce the brightest stars.
–Bumblebee, movie

Mercy Works Best: Finland vs. Los Angeles

In Finland, they’ve reduced homelessness by 35% because they attacked the problem radically. They tried a little bit of mercy. From the Daily Mall:

“We decided to make the housing unconditional,” says Kaakinen. “To say, look, you don’t need to solve your problems before you get a home. Instead, a home should be the secure foundation that makes it easier to solve your problems.”


With state, municipal and NGO backing, flats were bought, new blocks built and old shelters converted into permanent, comfortable homes – among them the Rukkila homeless hostel in the Helsinki suburb of Malminkartano where Ainesmaa now lives.

They didn’t create a giveaway program. Read the article to find out how they improved the problem.  Meanwhile, in LA where they have thrown more money at the problem without considering new ideas, homelessness has risen by 16%.

“The residents are seeing more encampments, more people sleeping on the sidewalks in dirty, unhealthy and heartbreaking conditions,” she said. “They are frustrated by this problem. We need to give people answers.”


Lynn pointed to two vulnerable groups as proof that resources work. Even though nearly 3,000 more veterans were reported homeless last year, there was no noticeable change in the number of homeless veterans on the street. Families experiencing homelessness grew by 8% with nearly 8,000 families being provided homes.


One of the largest increases, however, was among people 18 to 24 years old. Lynn said a 24% jump was partly the result of a change in the methodology of the count. But still, he said, “there was a significant increase, many more unsheltered. We were able to house more youth this year than last year, but this is an overflow population.”

Maybe Los Angeles and other cities should try what is being done in Helsinki, mercy.


Letters From Prison: Mercy Precedes Healing

Letters From Prison: Mercy Precedes Healing

Submission to: The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth

Pride precedes destruction, and so every teenager dwells on the doorstep of disaster. I lived it; I was 16, an honor-roll student with loving parents and no criminal record. But I had serious emotional problems – maybe even PTSD – from abuse I suffered as a boy, and I refused to face it. I told myself i was fine, indestructible. I was wrong.

In February of 1996, I killed my mom, step-dad, and younger brother. I didn’t know I was going to hurt anyone. I didn’t want to, but I did – because I denied my problems. Because I thought I was infallible, I wrecked my community, devastated my family, and killed the three best people I have ever known.

I was saved by acceptance into a prison that offered both college and therapy. Through five years of therapy sessions, I learned about how stunted my emotions were and how to open up to people in healthy ways. In college I not only got an education, I was also exposed to new ideas and to our society’s many needs for community service. From that, I gained direction in my life.

Now, I have committed myself to two missions – starting the Susan Rae Foundation, a charity I’ll name in honor of my mom, and working to develop better community systems for recognizing and assisting at-risk youth. I want other kids in danger to get help before it’s too late. I mean “too late” for everyone; not only the victims, but the kids themselves.

Right now, a kid who commits a crime like mine is done in life. I have 90 years. Many similar kids get life without parole or huge numbers like mine. I’m an author, I serve as a facilitator in the Alternatives to Violence Project here at the prison, and I’m always seeking opportunities to reach out to and aid the community. I do it because it feels good to help, and for my mom. I don’t do it because I hope it will pay dividends; when it looks like you’ll never leave prison, you need hope, but not too much of it.

That is my wish for all the children who are entering prison – hope. Coming here at 13-17 years old and knowing you’ll never see the world again is crushing. Young people who might be saved by a realistic sentence and education are lost to drugs, gangs, and despair because they see nothing in front of them. Pride precedes destruction, but mercy precedes healing. If we save our children, even when they err, we save ourselves as well.

I personally know two men who received life sentences as teens, but they both got an education and therapy, and received sentence relief in court. One now owns to software firms and the other appeared in Forbes magazine. How many more stories like this could there be? We will only know if we show our children mercy.