Magazine

Attica's Beacon

A prisoner finds his shining light in one of the longest-running prison groups in the nation

My father’s suicide prompted my mother to diagnose me as an alcoholic at age 12, before I’d even thought about a drink. “John, you must never drink,” she’d say. “You’re allergic to alcohol.” Understandably, she lied to me and told me my father died of a heart attack. Months later I learned the truth. Whipped by alcoholism, he’d blown his head off. The vision I had created of him—a vision of strength, love, hope and happiness—was false. He was flawed, which meant I was too.

Throughout my life, Mom herself was in and out of AA. Yet, despite her chronic relapsing, she would tell me sobriety was the only way to lead a quality life. Her hard sell of AA seemed comical to me because she was often stoned on weed. My older brother Eugene and I, also stoned or buzzed on something, laughed hysterically when hearing our red-eyed mother tell us to go to a meeting. In the end, mother knew best.

Growing up in New York City in the early 90s, I succumbed to the allure of Hell’s Kitchen. By the time I was 14, I was already working in the Broadway theater district as an usher, cruising Eighth Avenue’s hustlers, hookers, and peep shows, hanging out in an old Irish pub on Ninth Avenue and causing havoc with my hoodlum friends on Tenth. It was all so intoxicating.

Fueled on alcohol, I ran the streets chasing the gangster image that was woven into the fabric of my neighborhood. I squandered many opportunities: schools, rehabs, even union jobs gained through nepotism. I consistently made the wrong decisions at life’s most pivotal moments.

At 19, I was promoting nightclubs in Manhattan; the perks were free Long Island iced teas. By the end of the night I was transfigured from a debonair dude to a disheveled derelict, waking up in the Bronx at the last stop on the D train because I had passed out and missed my stop in Brooklyn. The night was a blur. Cocaine, I found, helped prevent blackouts, but it quickly got out of hand, creating a host of other problems.

Today, my brother Eugene is dead from an overdose, and I’m upstate in Attica prison. Drinking, drugging, immersed in gangster culture, I killed an associate in Brooklyn. Convicted at trial, I was given 28 years to life. My mother shamed me. “I wanted the best for you,” she said. “But you were dying to be with the lowlifes. Well, now you’re with them.”

I was sent to prison. The criminal lifestyle that I was attracted to on the outside was hardly attractive on the inside. The allure dulled. But cheap alcohol, heroin and weed were still available, and I did everything to escape from myself during my first years there. I went in and out of solitary for years.

One day I found myself stumbling in the prison yard, holding a wound under my arm, hoping that a prison shanking would not be my end. After I got my lung patched up I was transferred to Attica because I refused to tell the administration who had stabbed me.

Attica is the armpit of all prisons. Castlelike towers appear along its 30-foot wall, a wall that matches the perpetual grey skies over the prison. But Attica’s best kept secret is the Beacon Group of Alcoholics Anonymous. Established in 1946, the Beacon Group is one of the longest-running AA prison groups in the nation. (San Quentin’s group, established in 1942, was shut down for some time because the prison discontinued all programs.) There are meetings twice a week, and volunteers hail from surrounding regions like Rochester and Buffalo—even Canada. I joined the group in 2007. The inmates’ chairman, Sarg (short for sergeant), spoke the program and lived the program. In this unexpectedly safe place, I was ready to get sober.

Because I had been intoxicated and heavily influenced by the criminal mentality during my developmental years, my instincts were indeed warped. I was emotionally and socially challenged. I truly had no idea how to live life on life’s terms. But the pain from the way I’d been living was greater than my fear of change. The Steps and principles of AA became my script.

Surrender to Step One was easy: I knew where and what I was. But hope and faith—the principles behind Steps Two and Three—were difficult to grasp. I thought a regimented life, discipline and my will would keep me sober and give me the strength to handle my sentence. I observed men around me who had 20-plus years in prison on the pull-up bar, with chiseled V-shaped backs. I watched them and thought, I can do this time. An aspiring intellect, I started to read the classics, learned to write effectively and began college courses.

But I relapsed. It was then I realized that without a spiritual program, real sobriety was precarious, and without sobriety I had nothing.

I scoffed at religion, but the Third Step prayer made sense to me. I said it daily for a month, at my sponsor’s request. Cleaning house, listing resentments, fears, sexual conduct and harms done to others was uncomfortable work; and sharing it all with my sponsor made me vulnerable. I had never put such effort toward work for intangible results. This was foundational character work, not decorative costume work, which was the only work I had known.

The Sixth and Seventh Steps were everything. To be willing to relinquish my shortcomings, the characteristics that I believed defined me, was difficult. Grasping the principle of humility and praying for it to replace my shortcomings is still hard work for me. I made the amends I could make, but realized I had to make many amends indirectly, through service.

The Tenth Step, for me, is all about perseverance. It’s the flight plan that helps me navigate daily through the Attica life, the untreated alcoholism and the wrath. Emotional relapses are most dangerous. If I lash out at another inmate or get smart with a CO (corrections officer), things can get ugly—quick. But thank God for my new AA script, which makes me ask myself: What happened there? Did I pray today? Did I read my Daily Reflections? What part did I play in that? Should I say “Sorry”? Of course it sucks to be gratuitously harassed by the COs, but in these situations the script tells me to fade out of resentment and fade into forgiveness. Indeed, it’s a lot of “acting as if.”

In sobriety, my life here has become easier and quite rewarding. My mother and I no longer have a toxic relationship, where I disappoint her, then she enables me, then shames me. Today I’m kind to my mother and she’s proud of me. Also, I’ve fallen in love and married an extraordinary woman who moved across the country from California and changed her career to be near me. Inspired by each other, our lives become more enriched every day. Though AA has played a part in drawing us together, I always remember that she has her recovery and I have mine.

As a convicted murderer and recovering alcoholic, I’ve learned that much of society and the system will have a skewed perception of me. To many, I’m labeled a sociopath or psychopath, like a defective product. But AAs do this wildly cool thing: we say, “I too am driven by many forms of self-delusion, self-centeredness, and self-pity, yet we’ve found a way to rid that ugliness from our system.”

Gary M., my sponsor, friend and long-time Beacon Group civilian volunteer, says, “It’s not your business what people say or think about you—‘to thine own self be true.’” I love that quote because it’s humbling to be discarded in prison in a maelstrom of mania, yet still be able to find sanity in sobriety.

Sober in Attica, I live a fruitful life, full of service that’s more fulfilling than any life I’ve lived as a so-called free man.

—John L., Attica, N.Y.