An Inmate’s Story: How I Turned Into the Person I Feared Most

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Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr

The house was dark and quiet. The only noise was the constant hum coming from the swamp cooler encased in the frame of our bedroom window. I lay there awake in my bed, as my brother Billy slept soundly in the bed atop of mine.

Billy, who was older than me, was the one person in the world that I looked up to and knew that I could always count on. He was my hero, and I wanted nothing more than to be just like him.  While lying there in the darkness, I was startled by a noise that invaded our bedroom. The faint sound of slow-scraping began to pierce my ears, and I knew that it was something to fear.

In all the years that Billy and I had shared our bedroom together, I had never once had anything to fear. This was our home, our safe haven, the place where we should have never had to worry about anyone or anything coming into our lives with evil intention. But I was wrong.

I knew that it was a stranger making the scraping noise by removing the swamp cooler from my window frame. I lay there still, quiet as a mouse. The man seemed to get bigger as his dark frame made its way into my bedroom.

He stood there for what seemed like hours, just staring at my brother and I tucked away in our beds. I knew that this strange man was here to cause us harm, and yet, I could do nothing but lay there frightened and unable to scream for help. I was paralyzed with fear as Billy lay there oblivious to what was happening.

Unable to move, I was forced to watch this strange man lurk across the bedroom floor and stretch to where my brother lay. Grabbing his ankle, in what I realized later was an attempt at dragging my brother from where he slept, the man yanked Billy from the top bunk with quick force. In that moment I found my courage to scream, matched with screaming reaction of my brother who had just been startled from a deep sleep only to realize that danger had already invaded our bedroom.

I watched my brother Billy kick and scream as the darkened figure attempted to pull him down from his bed, and eventually the man gave up as he bolted back out the window from whence he came. My parents rushed into the bedroom as the man fled into the night and the rest of the night seemed to be a blur.

Despite the fact that we moved out of that house shortly after, things were never the same again. My father, who was always quite the prankster, tried to make light of what had happened. It was too late. I felt like a coward and that I could have done more for Billy that night.

We never talked about the stranger in our bedroom that night, but it was a guilt that loomed over me like a darkened cloud. No matter how hard I tried, it was a feeling that I had let the entire family down by cowering underneath my blankets.

Looking back on all of this, after 30-plus years, I can see how this incident influenced a lot of my behaviors growing up. For example, I remember walking through a store with my older cousins and being in the toy section. I picked up an action figure that I wanted but had no money to buy. I asked my older cousin Keith to buy it for me, and he told me, “Just put in in your pocket.”

I knew that it was wrong to steal, but he then said, “Don’t be a coward.”

I felt embarrassed and angry. Something in my head clicked and I was not going to be a coward. Not again. I put the action figure in my pocket and we all walked out of the store together. In my head, I felt like I had redeemed myself and proved that I was no longer a coward.

In the years following, I became the kid that would take any dare that was thrown at me by my peers. I wanted to prove to them that I was not the lonely and scared kid that I really was beneath the surface. So, I wore the mask of deception that I think many kids at that age wear. Eventually, my actions began to have consequences that affected my family on a grander scale.

At the age of eleven, I started to experience bullying from other kids at school. His name was Ricardo, and he had become my nemesis.  Eventually, he caught up to me and bloodied my nose. Once again, I felt like a coward because I didn’t even try to defend myself. I ran home with blood running down my battered face.

I remember walking through the front door and, seeing the look on my father’s face, I told him that some kid had punched me in the face on the way home from school and I could see the disappointment in his eyes. He grabbed me by the arm, took me into the garage and told me he wanted to teach me how to defend myself. I never considered myself a fighter, but I did not want to let my father down any more than I felt I had that day.

So, I followed him into the garage.

I went back to school the next day and I could feel everyone looking at me. I walked through the hallways with a swollen lip and I remember feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed. It wasn’t that first day back, but later that week Ricardo, my bully-nemesis, did corner me and attempt to do what he always did. He pushed me, called me names, and took it a step further by spitting on me in front of everyone.

So, I did what my father had taught me in our garage. I balled my fists and ran at him like there was no tomorrow. Minus the scrapes and cuts from the asphalt beneath us as we quarreled, I sustained no other injuries and it felt good.

Going back to school the next day was not like the other days. Everyone treated me differently. They moved out of my way as I walked through the hallways, and I could hear them whispering things about me standing up to Ricardo that made me realize they no longer saw me as the kid that used to run away scared. It reminded me of the time I first stole something from the store with my older cousins praising me.

What I would learn later on in my life is that this was a negative reinforcement to what I thought was important, having the approval of what others thought of me. I began to change all around. My attitude towards my parents began to get worse. I rebelled at their every attempt to discipline me. I started to get bad grades in school, and went against the family structure that we had at every opportunity I could.

I myself began to turn into what Ricardo had been all of those years ago. I was insecure and wanted everyone else to feel what I had gone through growing up. Inside, I was ashamed at what I had become and yet, it became a means of my own survival and a way for me to conceal all of my insecurities from everyone around me.

The more that I was able to intimidate others, I developed this idea that “No one could check me. I was the toughest kids around.” What I was doing was constantly trying to compensate for the insecurities I had stemming all the way back to when I felt I’d let my brother Billy down as a kid.

My mother placed me into Juvenile Hall at the age of 12, They thought this would be the best solution towards curbing my destructive and disrespectful behavior.

It only made me more rebellious.

I would spend the majority of my teens in and out of Juvenile Hall for various crimes: petty thefts, burglaries, car theft, and various other crimes against the community. The county eventually removed me from the care and supervision of my mother and sent me to my first placement home.

That first placement home would be the first chain-link in a long line of additional placement homes and boys’ ranches I would run away from. Before long my running days would end; the judge sentenced me to the California Youth Authority.

I gravitated towards the gang sub-culture while in CYA. It had everything I felt would enhance my survival while I was in there. Racism was something that was brand new to me, and though I’d grown up with friends from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, I knew right away that I had to “get in where I fit in.” So, I ran with the whites and did whatever was asked of me while I was in there.

Unfortunately, I have always looked back on my time in the California Youth Authority as being in a training facility for enhanced criminality. Kids were constantly figuring out ways to become better criminals than they were before they had come into the system.

At the age of 19, after years in the CYA system, I caught life without the possibility of parole sentence with a younger kid that I started running around with in my neighborhood. Coming into the adult prison system was much like walking into the California Youth Authority as a boy. However, it was “the house” of big boys now, and your actions could be life- threatening at a much higher cost.

The gangs embraced me as I walked into the California Department of Corrections. I was easily swayed by the political nonsense they had to offer and jumped right into formations with the rest of them. That was the old Tommy Traughber. It took me years to overcome the insecurities that I had stemming from my childhood.

But, when I finally did, I developed the courage to walk away from the gang ideology and everything that it stood for.

I found strength in my faith, my family, and was able to then start standing on my own two feet, no longer caring what other people thought of me. It was not easy. Turning your back on a prison gang in here is not something easily done without physical repercussions. But, I did it even when they attempted to take my life out on the yard.

The past few years have been life-changing for me and my family; California laws have changed where LWOP (Life Without The Possibility of Parole) inmates are concerned. I am currently waiting on a court hearing that will determine my future. Within the next few months I could very well be sitting on the other side of these chain-linked fences with my loved ones instead of spending the rest of my life in prison.

I would like to share one last thing with those youth who will be reading my story. Although I have lived my life filled with countless afflictions, including the harm for which I have used others in my community. There are also happy times that I have come to embrace and appreciate that much more now that I am older and wiser.

Growing up there were a lot of influences in my life that played a significant role in how my attitude and self-esteem was shaped. But, that did not give me the right to further harm myself and others. If I could give a grain of advice that I would like to resonate with a youth who is ether faced with similar circumstances or is feeling like they are not good enough, well here it is:

“Don’t let anyone or anything make you feel as if you are not good enough. You are more unique than you realize. You will have challenges in life, but the best thing about this is that you will become stronger and stronger the more that you respond to them in a positive way.”

Tommy Traughber is serving life in Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, CA. This essay was originally published by The Beat Within, a justice system writing workshop in San Francisco.

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