From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Confessions of an Ex-Con

The longer I live, the more deeply I’m convinced that the difference between the successful person and the failure, between the strong and the weak, is a decision.

Willie E. Gary

“By the power invested in me by the State of Washington, I hereby sentence you, Dennis R. Mitchell, to two consecutive twenty-year terms with the Department of Corrections.”

Talking about dissin’ a brother! Without forethought, my immediate instinct was to leap out of my chair and inflict my own pound of justice upside His Honor’s head.

Fortunately I found myself cut short of my goal and face down on the floor as several sheriff’s officers finally tackled me to the ground and led me out of the courtroom in handcuffs, kicking and screaming obscenities. When the good officers wrestled me into the elevator out of sight, little did I know that they were going to give me something to scream about: wall-to-wall “counseling”! The next day the headline read, “Man Screams and Yells!”

Much to my dismay this series of events was only the beginning. Soon I would find myself in a holding cell with five thousand skinheads—well, it seemed like five thousand skinheads. Needless to say, my odds of surviving didn’t look too bright, and off to the hospital I went. By the time I was finally able to open my eyes, I would find out that things were going to get worse for a player.

That bus ride to Shelton Penitentiary was about seven hours long, and although I had a lot of experience being in the back seat of law enforcement’s cars, it was a totally different experience; my bondsman couldn’t help me now. As we pulled up to my new home and the gates swung open, I looked around and saw barbed wire around the joint. Behind me, the gate closed and locked. Inmate onlookers were watching as the new chain came in, some just to see who they knew and others to see who they wanted to “get to know,” if you get my drift. The gangs are always waiting just like vultures, watching for their next prey.

That was back in 1979. From then on my life was filled with fighting, partying, drug and alcohol abuse, and denial. Run DMC had just hit the airwaves with rap music and “my song” was, “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge.”

I decided 1981 was going to be my year. After all I just knew at most I would spend a couple of years locked up and be back in the hood kicking it live as always. I had stopped getting in trouble or at least not getting caught for it, and I found myself in front of the parole board.

“Come back and see us again in two years!”

I was stunned and dazed! It felt like I had just gone fifteen rounds in the ring with the great Muhammad Ali during his prime years. The pain was so intense I wanted to cry, but big boys don’t cry, especially in prison.

Take it like a man, I thought to myself while my inner child was in tears. In prison, if you get caught crying it’s a sign of weakness and there is always someone watching you, waiting in the trenches, lurking in the darkness behind the cold hard steel, waiting for you to show your weakness.

I staggered out the door as the parole board almost knocked me out with that left hook. I needed some fresh air to clear my head, so I went to the big yard to walk around the track. “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge. . . .”

For the next year, I continued to drift along with no road map or sense of purpose. Then, one Friday night, three days before my birthday, I was lying in my cell watching TV. Suddenly my name boomed over the intercom: “Mitchell, Charlie 3-25, report to the sergeant’s office!”

My son Little Dennis, whose fifth birthday we had celebrated, had been murdered by an impaired driver. All I could think of were our daddy-son phone calls when Little D would sing my favorite song, “I love my daddy all the time, all the time.”

Monday on my birthday, two armed guards escorted me home to Spokane to attend the funeral at my mom’s church. That’s right—I am the son of a preacher woman.

I entered in leg irons shackled to my waist and my wrists. I felt like dead man walking; after all a part of me was dead, a very special part.

As I made my way up to the casket and saw Little Dennis so peaceful and so handsome, all the anger, rage, hurt, guilt, bitterness and remorse vanished and I thought to myself, What would Little D want?

Immediately I knew that he would want his daddy to be the absolute best he could. As tears filled the wells and flowed down my face like a torrential Niagara Falls, my eyes closed and I heard him singing, “I love my daddy all the time, all the time.”

After the funeral I said good-bye to my family, friends and those who came to pay their respects. On that dark, cold and lonely road back, I decided to get involved in the “Scared Straight” program to deter young people from making the same mistakes I had.

Soon I found myself going to the library, reading books; one was called Think and Grow Rich. That book said for every adversity comes the equivalent of a greater benefit. I remember thinking to myself, Where’s the benefit? I definitely had tons of adversity; adversity was my lifestyle back in the day.

Then I heard about a guy in California into that positive-thinking stuff, so I wrote to him explaining my situation and in a few weeks I got a call to the mailroom. I had received a package. Inside was a four-cassette audio album titled “How to Outperform Yourself Totally” by Mark Victor Hansen!

Listening over and over, I stared out into the sky through the broken windows from my cell. I remember thinking to myself, I sure would like to be able to motivate and empower people in a positive way. Back in the day, growing up in the hood, the only motivation I knew was fear motivation: You’d better, or else! What a radical paradigm shift this was for me. The more I listened as Mark sprinkled the prosperity seeds into my fertile mind, the more I became excited! I had never heard anybody like Mark before. I thought, just possibly, I could be somebody who could make a difference.

Then I thought to myself, What a great testament to Little Dennis’s memory—going to schools when I got out and sharing my story and talking about the insidious effects of drugs, crime and alcohol abuse. After all, I’ve been there and done that and look where I ended up!

For the next several years I immersed myself in a personal development retreat. No longer was I going to serve time; I was going to make time serve me. Prisoner number 265212 was going to take charge of his life and his destiny.

Finally on December 24, 1987 after spending eight and a half years doing hard time, I was paroled. My prayers were answered. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty; I was free at last!

Now it was time to put up or shut up, so I went to work speaking everywhere I could. Articles started appearing in newspapers and my speaking career was launched. In 1990, I founded, hosted and produced my own TV talk show, Choices, where I had the opportunity to interview stars of the big screen like Edward James Olmos, Ellen Travolta Bannon, LL Cool J, The Guys Next Door, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Yolanda King and others.

My life has been about overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. As I tell my story—whether it is on the news, to an audience of six or several thousand people—I share my earlier life as an example of what not to do. I also let all my brothas and sistahs know that no matter how bad things are, you’ve got the power within you to turn it around. If I can change and turn my life around from gangs, drugs, crime, prison and the ultimate tragedy of all, losing my son, anybody can do it!

Take my word for it: Being out there representing with the right attitude is the only way to go.

Dennis Mitchell

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