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Guestwords: 17 and in Lockup

Wed, 08/09/2023 - 11:28
A sample of the writing in longhand Mateo David did while incarcerated.
Courtesy of Andrew Visconti

Today is April 14 and in two weeks I will be released. I am 17 years old and would like to share my experience as a minor in a county jail. On Aug. 24, 2022, my friend and I went to jump a 20-year-old man because he was talking too much shit to us. He even disrespected my mom. We beat the crap out of him. I got arrested the next day since he ended up in critical condition at the hospital. We were charged with gang assault in the first degree.

I first went to court and the judge placed me under custody. At the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank, they put me in a holding cell. There, I began to cry. At 16, I was supposed to go to school, finish my senior year, and graduate. Instead, I was sitting in jail. I thought of myself as a failure. What hurt me the most was seeing my mother cry. I felt like a piece of shit for making her go through that.

Because of the pandemic, I was in a cell 23 hours a day with only one hour to go out. Being stuck there all day makes you go crazy and I got depressed. I cried so much to the point where I felt numb, I felt like my life was over. I ruined it. Everyone was out enjoying their summer, and I was rotting inside a jail cell.

After six days, I got moved from Yaphank to the Nassau County Correctional Center. There I was extremely worried. It looked so dirty. It was pretty intimidating; however, when I saw the dorm, I felt a sigh of relief. I was in an open-bed dorm with people my age. I was finally out of isolation and able to talk to someone. The food in Nassau was way better too. I ate for the first time in six days.

When I found out that school had started, I got upset. I kept thinking about how I was sitting in jail instead of getting an actual education.

After 29 days I came back to Yaphank to 23 hours in and one out, but soon was sent to a facility in Albany. There I was able to hug my family members for the first time in two months. On weekends, we would get outside food. The food in general was better. We had a TV with regular channels and on-demand, and we had a PlayStation. Every day I walked around the fields and looked at the landscape. It was supposed to be jail, but it was cozy because it was a juvenile facility. That’s why kids go back there.

Then I got sent to Yaphank, again. On the way back there, the officers bought me McDonald’s. That stuff felt amazing. To someone like you, McDonald’s is just a regular fast-food place, nothing fancy. But to me McDonald’s was like a five-star restaurant. When you eat nasty jail food, anything in the outside world is amazing to eat, even pizza from a 7-Eleven.

Even though in Yaphank I felt hopeless, I am very glad that I came to a county jail because I really got to know what it is like to suffer. There I was, back where I started, a cell where I had to be in for the whole day till who knows when. Every morning I woke up thinking about how I could be doing something valuable with my life, how I was wasting my time and would never get back the days I spent there.

The day I turned 17 in jail I felt lost. On my 16th birthday I was happy with my family. One year later I was in jail. My 17th birthday felt like a regular depressing day in jail. One month went by and I was still being kept in a cell 23 hours a day. Every time that one hour out of the cell was over I would feel sick going back in. My attorney reported my living conditions and then I was allowed out of my cell all day. I would mostly watch TV, talk to the other minors, call my mom, play cards. Even though I was still in jail, life was getting better.

The only times I would get sad were on my way to court. It would be a reminder of how beautiful life is on the outside of jail since I would get driven there. I used to love feeling the sun beam on my body, but I was in a room with no windows 24/7, so the only time I saw the sun was once a month. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s were sad days. I missed my family like crazy. I would think about how it hurt them not being with me on such special days.

Jail changed me physically and mentally. I lost a lot of weight from not eating the nasty food and getting very small portions. My mentality changed because being here made me truly realize how beautiful life really is, how us humans take our freedom for granted. To think before you act, to never go anywhere you know you could get in trouble, and to appreciate that freedom is the most valuable luxury in this world.

If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that sometimes shit has to get a lot worse before it gets any better. At first for me everything was terrible: I was locked in a cell all day, starved throughout the day, got moved to different facilities a lot, and had no idea when I was going home. Now, I am housed in a two-story dorm with my own room, I buy commissary so I never starve, and I am not leaving Yaphank until I go home.

The best part of it all is that because I am a minor and this is my first and last crime committed against the State of New York, I was sentenced to only eight months in here. As I write this, I leave on April 25, 2023.

This might sound crazy, but I am glad I came here. It made me a better man. It made me realize that I need to be more careful with the decisions I make. I was living too recklessly before I came here. Jail made me more mature. I stopped doing the little kid stuff I did. I realized that I have to make time for everyone and do different activities because time is precious. I could never take back the months that I lost being here, but I can make up for them and be better.

Another thing jail made me realize is what I am going to do with my life. I’m going to get into the insurance business with my father. Before I came here I had no idea what I was going to do. I thought I was going to enjoy my adolescence and die before 25. But ever since I came here I realized I have my life completely ahead of me; I have to live it to the full extent and make up for the time I lost.

It’s crazy where life can take you. I may be here in jail right now, but after these two weeks I’ve got left, maybe I’ll be in another country, maybe I’ll be in another state, maybe I’ll even be attending memoir writing classes in East Hampton.

If you have kids, make sure you guide them every step throughout their lives, make sure they don’t make the mistakes I made, because no family or kid should go through this. It’s just the simple fact that if you do the crime, you do the time.

I am extremely grateful for the fact that I get out of here with a clean record. I’ve got big things planned for my life. I graduated here in jail, I’m taking classes in here for a job in insurance, and I became a different and better person. In 11 days I will start the next chapter of my life, which is called success and happiness. Every day I am preparing for it. 

Thank you for reading this. May God bless your soul forever and always.

After eight months in jail, Mateo David is now home in Brentwood. This essay was written with the help of Andrew Visconti, who conducts weekly writing workshops in a Suffolk County jail and at the East Hampton Library.


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