Stanley Craddock is a contributing author to Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail, published in 2015. He participated in David Coogan’s Open Minds writing program while incarcerated. Stanley was released in October 2014 and now aims to serve as a mentor in local prisons.
I grew up in Richmond, in the West End. I had a beautiful childhood—rode bikes, climbed trees, had apple fights.
I got sidestepped early in life. I was 10 or 11 years old when I wound up as a ward of the state. There was a guy at school I couldn’t beat. I picked up something to stop him from harassing me, and I hit him with it. Everyone made me out to be the villain. But when I took his two ass kickings, I didn’t feel like the villain. I felt that hitting him was saying, “Hey, I can stand on my own. I have worth. I’m empowering myself to defend myself.” But the judicial system just looks at the meat and potatoes of it: it was an assault. It’s contrary to what your parents tell you. They tell you to protect yourself, but in doing so, you might get tangled up with police, courts, and prison. That was my way into the judicial system.
When I entered the judicial system, I became an actor. And I acted aggressively because I didn’t want the pack of hyenas to discover that I was a loving and caring child. I wanted them to see me as they saw themselves—as animals. You move better when you run with the herd.
When you’re a juvenile and they lock you in a dark room alone, you wonder—what’s the purpose of it? You’re not helping me understand who I am. You’re hiding me away and not educating me. If you want to help me to grow, keep me in the light. Sitting in the dark only taught me how to live in the darkness. It taught me to not share my feelings. It taught me to hate. I hated you because I believed that you hated me.
I’m not saying that offenders shouldn’t take responsibility. But is the goal rehabilitation? Or is the goal to rock them to sleep until death? There are some people who have committed heinous crimes and forfeited their rights to return to society. In those cases, we actually don’t need them among us. But the majority of offenders in Virginia are nonviolent. If VCU can take a student, teach that student for 4 or 5 years, and then introduce into society a changed, educated individual, then why is it that the Department of Corrections keeps some folks for 20 years without making it possible to earn a GED—or learn skills that will enable those individuals to thrive on the outside?
I was released from prison with one pair of pants and $45 in my pocket. They put me in a program called New Path. It was a great program for me. As quickly as day one, it gave me an opportunity to test my wings. There was no curfew. I could come and go as I pleased. But the whole time I was in the program, I was preparing to be out of the program. I didn’t just want release from prison; I wanted freedom. And I still don’t have freedom today.
Right now, I’m dealing with the steps of probation and parole. One of the hardest things for me is to avoid referring to prison. Every conversation that I’ve been in takes me back there. Until I get enough new experiences, I have to speak about my old experiences.
In prison, there are some guys who seem to be no good. But I see the beauty in them. I know that everybody in there cries. I know what it feels like when you hang up the phone, or when a call is not accepted. I know what it feels like to not get a letter.
I want a purpose-driven life. I was created to support and help others. I’m going back into the prisons because I yearn to be with those dudes. I miss them. I miss the language we share. But now I'll walk into prison with authority. I'll go back as a Harriet Tubman, who says, “Listen, I found the way out. Follow me. Follow me. Follow me. I can show you how to go from being a prisoner to being an advocate.”
The justice system only needs one thing: to implement care. Just start caring about people. If you don’t give a damn about me, then lock the door and throw away the key. But if you think you can work with me, then put me in a place where you’re producing masterpieces.
—interviewed January 10, 2016