How I survived over 16 years in the Federal Prison System
A story of resilience
I remember my first day in prison. Almost 17 years years later I still remember my first moments in prison. I think I remember the first day so vividly because it was a day of contrast. See for the ride to the prison the bus was freezing cold. On top of that we were dressed in these paper jump suits that were literally made of a paper fiber. One snag and the whole jumpsuit was ruined. But when we pulled in front of the Federal Prison in Coleman, FL. and got off the bus, it felt like 110 degrees. The Florida heat was on high just like the United States Penitentiary I was headed into.
I confess: On or about June 21st 2004 I, Keith Gaffney, knowingly and willing entered a Banking establishment with the intent to comment a felonious act. That is my truth, no cut.I will not make excuses nor will I justify my behavior. I will say this: in 2004 I thought as a child, I spoke as a child, and I understood as a child. But when I was released from prison on May 13th 2021 I left out a man and put away my childish ways. Prison didn’t just change me. It transformed me. To fully understand the transformation, you must first understand whom I transformed from. Or better put, what type of mentality I transformed from.
Dr. Ni’im Akbar has written a book entitled:”Visions for Blackmen”. In his book Dr. Akbar describes three types of personalities. The first being the Male. In this state the Male is dependent much as a newborn baby. He constantly has his hand out and is always looking for someone else to meet his needs. As Dr. Akbar points out, the male wants to invite their ”Baby’ over to their “crib”.
The second Mentality speaks of a Boyish mind frame. As the male physically grows, so does his desires and needs. As he enters the boyhood stage (8-9) he transitions from dependence to independence. He now desires to make decisions for himself. He feels he is a “big boy” now and can do “big boy” things. The problem is: his mind has not developed as fast as his body. Though he seeks independence, he is still dependent. For example, he wants the right to ware what he wants, yet he can’t afford to buy his own clothes. Or, he wants to stay up as late as he chooses but then he can not get up for classes or other responsibilities because he is lethargic. Another characteristic of a boyish mentality is the “game player”. This is the physically grown boy who always wants to play. It doesn’t matter the game, as long as he can play. This is why his relationships never last, because to him it is just a game between ”boy” and ”girl”. After all, doesn’t he call himself a “Player”? now let me pause right here and be honest with myself. For many, many years I was stuck in this “Boyish” mentality.
At this point I could insert some statements about nature vs. nurture . I could go on and explain how my life was tuff and things where hard. But the fact of the matter was this. I don’t know what the heck happened. I mean yes, it was challenging, and things weren’t always easy. But my greatest obstacle was my thinking. Childish thinking in an adult world does not mix. When I used child like thinking I found myself getting child like results. I would obtain a job, like An adult. Then I would quit for some stupid reason or other. That was the child like behavior. I mean who quits a job knowing they need the income? This boyish thinking even affected my relationships. While the female I was with may have been serious about us. I was still “playing the field “. Like it is said, a boy doesn’t care what type of game is played, as long as he gets to play the game. Not only was my thinking off, but emotionally I was stunted. Please be clear: the emotional well being of a person is directly related the the persons mental stability. This is also true in the reverse. Therefore, because I was emotionally stunted, it is safe to say that my mental growth would also become stunted since both are related. Let me paint a picture: take any neighborhood, mine is Harlem in New York City, and think of the conditions in the 1990’s.Now see any young Brown skin male. One who is lost, alone, and scared but scared to admit it. What usually happens to our young men if you leave them out there alone? The System gets them. And that fate would be mine too.
My first memory of my first interaction with police was in Jr. High school. What started as two kids having a snow ball fight. End up with him having a black eye and me in Family Court explaining why. From then is was just a matter of time. As soon as I reached 16 years old the systems came for me. My first experience with incarceration was with New York State Division for Youth. Basically it’s the prison system for youthful offenders. I spent a total of 18 months with D.F.Y. I even spent a short while with a foster family. See upon my release from child prison I could not return home. (The reasons I will save for another story) So the state of New York placed me with a family. Hold on let me translate that for you. They stuck me somewhere to get rid of me. I served my time and I was no longer their concern. From the point of my release from Juvenile in 1992, to the the year 2004 my life was a true Hell. There are stories in between that time frame that will have you on the end of your seat. But again I shall save that for another time. I will say this: take the character Bruce Banner, you know the guy who would turn green and became destructive if you angered him. Mix him with the young Damion from the movie “ The Omen”. That would have been my mind frame by the year 2004. A 29 year old “Boyman” who is out to destroy the world, himself included, and calls ”Satan“ his father. I had no direction, no hope for a future, and a present state that was filled with a secret desire to destroy myself. This eventually lead to the decision which would alter the course of my life dramatically.
It was early to mid June 2004 when the thought first started playing in my mind. It didn’t hit me all at once, like one day I woke up and said “I should rob a bank today!” No, it was a decision that was made in little increments over time. Understand this, even though I was into the street activity I still had some rules and standards. One being, I never robbed any civilians ( a civilian is anyone who is not involved with the criminal lifestyle). And up until that point I never went into any business establishment. So how did I decide to commit this crime? Let’s look at the circumstances. One: I had been on the run from Texas law enforcement since 1998, so at this point I had been running for almost 6 years. I was tired of running. Two: At the time I didn’t know what a healthy relationship looked like. So my relationship at the time was far from healthy. Constantly arguing, cussing and name calling. All the things that would destroy any relationship. So the stress from that was building. The biggest factor was my mental health at that moment. Without going into too much detail ( just trying to save something for later), let me just say I was two seconds away from a mental meltdown. It had gotten so bad that I remember thinking that I should go to jail just to get away from the stress. Crazy right? But that was my reality in 2004. And the reality was: Something needed to give. Now we arrive at the point of no return. The point when I decided robbing a bank was the best choice for me.
At this point in the story I must pause. As a new writer I am building my audience. Therefore I must see if others like my work. If enough people like this piece, then I will continue with part two. Part Two is my 16 year experience in the Federal Prison system where I traveled to 8 different prisons in 6 different states. I will talk about life inside some of the worst United State Penitentaries like Beaumon, Tx., Florence Co., or even the USP in Pollock Louisiana. I will share with you my emotional journey and how fear (real or imagined) was both use for offense as well as defense.
Again if you like this story wait till you hear about the rest of my life.