How My Peter Pan Syndrome Landed Me In Prison For 10 Years

Never Never Land turned out to be a maximum-security penitentiary.

I grew up in north Philadelphia. The youngest of three, I have two older sisters, five and eight years older than me. In my 35 years of living, I have yet to meet my father and it seems as though I never will. When I was younger, I didn’t think much about what I was missing because I never knew what it was like to have a father. But now I realize I needed one. I had no big brother or no male role model. That’s why I started looking up to the guys I met on the streets, the guys with the corner operation, the guys who sold drugs.

My mother was (and is still to this day) an extreme alcoholic. And one day, when I was five years old, she tried to beat my two sisters to death in a drunken rage… I was able to call 9–1–1 and we were saved by the authorities. That incident led to a string of Department of Human Services placements, group homes and foster homes. My sisters were placed in the same foster home up until I was about 10 years old, then we were separated.

As a kid without family structure I kind of raised myself. I didn’t have any toys and things like that, so instead I liked to draw. It was an escape from the realities of my childhood.

The Simpsons started my whole obsession with art. My sisters and I used to watch The Tracey Ullman Show together. One time, when I was nine, my sister drew the entire Simpsons family, including their cat and dog. She was a very good artist when we were younger, so I took her drawing and traced it, in an attempt to get the same attention from our foster parents that she did. But I was ultimately unsuccessful. Instead of celebrating it like they did with her, they just said, oh that’s nice, and pushed aside.

I eventually decided, around age 15, that I didn’t want to be in a foster home anymore, so I ran away. I moved to different parts of the city—North Philly, South Philly, West Philly, the Northeast, Germantown — all considered dangerous crime-infested neighborhoods. When I say crime-infested, I mean, drug dealing, drug using, prostitution, robberies, murder, cops killing innocent people, cops planting drugs on people, police brutality, stuff like that.

There was no disciplinarian to tell me to go to school — so I stopped. I was like a black Peter Pan with no real comprehension of reality. I was just in my own world. But one day that all changed. I was riding my bike when someone’s dog started chasing me and I got hit by a car. The hospital told me there was nothing wrong with me even though I had a broken ankle. There was a warrant out for my arrest because I was skipping school. I went to the youth study center and from there I went to a place called Sleighton Farms. I was 15 when I arrived and 17 when I left.

Some years later, when I was 20, I was arrested again… this time for drug charges — possession with intent to deliver crack cocaine. I had fallen into the wrong crowd. Drug dealers were my role models, so I did whatever they asked me to do. I got three to nine months because I was a first time offender. A number of arrests followed for the same charge. Each time I got arrested, my jail time got longer and longer.

As you can see, recidivism was a big problem of mine. I was locked up every time for the same thing: crack cocaine. Why’d I get caught like this? Because I had no education and no parental guidance. I thought that selling crack was the only way to make a living.

I fell into the downward spiral because of my lack of understanding of the consequences and the nature of that whole lifestyle — that Peter Pan syndrome again. Never never land turned out to be a maximum security penitentiary.

One time, I got a paid lawyer and he got me a one to three mandatory minimum sentence; the public defender got me 11 to 23 years. All of the other times I couldn’t afford a lawyer. I would mostly have public defenders telling me to take the deal, whatever it was. And most times, I did take the deal. They would use scare tactics, explaining that I would most likely lose and get significantly more time than the deal. It wasn’t a lie. Most of the time, that’s exactly what would happen.

There was one time, though, that I refused to take the deal and it paid off. I was falsely accused of having drugs and selling. The police had made up a story about the whole thing — none of it was true. My lawyer believed me and represented me well, so I won the case.

I was unfortunate in my last case because I didn’t take the deal and I lost. I got a 5 to 10 mandatory minimum, and I spent two years in a county jail before I got that sentence. The courts didn’t credit me the two years, so I actually did seven years.

Every time I landed in prison, I would pick up art. I had never pursued art when I was living in the streets because I never believed that I had talent. Inside prison, I started to really work on the skill. Mostly I drew portraits of those on the inside. A lot of inmates would ask me to draw them or paint their girlfriends, their children, family members. I found my direction and art became how I kept my sanity.

My sisters and I were all incarcerated for drug related offenses at various points. One sister was in the feds and the other was in Muncie. I still don’t actually know where one of my sisters is…

The judicial system is completely corrupt. I was just one of countless black Americans who all suffer the same fate. The Department of Corrections does nothing to correct the individual who commits a crime or needs to be rehabilitated from his way of thinking and actions. The system design is a modern day slave trade. Pennsylvania shipped me to Virginia because they needed bodies to fill a prison. So they made a deal with Pennsylvania without the inmates’ consent. Malcolm X said prison is a microcosm of society at large, and I agree.

I know guys who have changed their ways, but can never leave.

You know, the Graterford prison wall is so large that you cannot even watch the sunset. Imagine not seeing the sunset for a number of years — or never seeing it for the rest of your life. That’s just one of the things that is taken away from us.

America imprisons more of its citizens than anywhere else in the world. This systematic monster has many heads. If you were to cut off one of the heads, there would always be many more. It seems there are no heroes to slay this Dragon once and for all. So for now this beast remains mighty.

the composite

made up of various elements

Russel Omar-Shareef

Written by

the composite

made up of various elements

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