This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
I shake. I scream. My heart pounds. I jump out of bed, and immediately the steel walls are closing in.
Thick bars are in front of me. I reach for them.
“Someone help me.”
I hear a voice and struggle to respond.
“It’s okay, Jason…breathe…it’s only a nightmare.”
Suddenly, I’m awake and in a room roughly the size of a king-sized bed, fronted with a steel gate that opens and closes by an unseen hand. My bed is a slab of metal, cushioned only by a thin, plastic mattress. The walls are layered in green enamel, punctuated by a constellation of unidentifiable stains.
I’m still afraid to go back to sleep, but I don’t want to look at the walls of this cell, either, so I pull the covers over my head and try to nod off. I choose a nightmare over this place.
Four hours ago, the steel gate slammed shut behind me, as it has done every day for the past 18 years. But I’m still not used to that sound — it reminds me of how I got here in the first place.
It was July 1997. I was 18 years old, living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and I didn’t have a criminal record. I had a stepfather who had a serious cocaine and alcohol addiction. Just knowing he would return home from work filled me with fear.
If I was watching TV when he wanted to, he’d slap me across the face, choke me, punch me in the stomach so hard that it would leave me on the floor crying and gasping for air. When I couldn’t finish my dinner, he’d smash the rest of it in my face and make me kneel in a corner, stripped naked, face hard-pressed against the wall. He’d force me to repeat, “I admit my wrong. I’m sorry, sir.”
My stepfather didn’t ease his guilt by offering gifts or affection, like you may have heard some abusers do. Instead he forced me to do things for his sexual gratification.
Each assault left me feeling that my life was not my own.
I started using drugs to feel numb, and two years before I went to prison, I met a kid named Steven, a.k.a. Drama.
When Steven began singling me out, bullying me for being skinny and because of the way I dressed, I didn’t defend myself. I was used to dealing with abuse silently, no matter how much rage I felt. He would call me a coward and threaten to “rearrange my fucking face” if I even looked at him wrong. He stole my money, slapped me, threw rocks at me, beat me with a steel pipe — anything to demonstrate his dominance. The more I pleaded with him to leave me alone, the worse he got. As the months passed, I tried avoiding him by hanging out on another block. But he sought me out.
I became depressed. Paranoid. I started questioning my reason for living. I contemplated hanging myself from the light fixture adjacent to my bathroom, slitting my wrists, or jumping off a bridge. I settled on placing a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger.
On the night I planned to kill myself, I contacted two friends — one to buy alcohol, and the other to bring marijuana. They said they would pick me up at 8 p.m.
My mother was nodding in and out of a heroin-induced slumber when I entered her room. I opened the closet door and began rummaging through her clothes until I found the wooden box. Inside was the same gun my stepfather used to threaten me if I ever talked back to him or told anyone about the abuse.
I closed the box and stood for a minute. Then I opened it again, removed the gun, and placed it in my pocket. I could feel the weight of it against my leg.
When Miguel and Israel arrived, we drove to a liquor store, where Israel bought a half-gallon of Bacardi. Israel1 then dropped us off at a nearby park while he went back to finish his shift as a livery cab driver. Before long, I had nearly finished the whole bottle. Then we started smoking blunts.
I start thinking about my sister, Lenamarie, who always washed and ironed my clothes, and made sure I never went to bed hungry. She told me stories at night. She even tried to protect me from our stepfather’s abuse, but he’d just slap and threaten her, too. I wanted to tell her how much I loved her, and to thank her. Maybe I needed to say goodbye.
When I got to her house, she realized how drunk I was and demanded I stay for the night. As soon as she went to the bathroom, I left.
The thoughts of suicide felt overwhelming.
Miguel and I rejoined Israel, and I told them to drop me off at the park. They first stopped at a corner store to buy some beer and cigarettes before going home.
I got out of the car to get some air. My mind was spinning from the marijuana and booze.
As I slowly took in my surroundings, I noticed a crowd of familiar faces from childhood. Monsters seemed to lurk. I felt terrified. That’s when I saw what seemed like a hybrid of Steven and my stepfather, punching and kicking me. Their faces shifted and melded in my mind. I heard the rush of blood in my ears.
I took out my gun and closed my eyes. There was a loud pop — a sound I still think about to this day.
I opened my eyes expecting to see my soul departing or a bright light. Instead, I saw someone lying on the ground.
Sitting here in this dark, cramped cage, unable to sleep, haunted by these reminders of what brought me here, I can’t help but hate myself for what I did. For becoming one of the monsters.
I think about him, Steven, and the fact remains that he bullied me. But I killed him. Today, I think, maybe he had an abusive parent. Maybe someone was hurting him, too, and that’s why he hurt me. I don’t know.
But I’m broken. And no matter how much I wish this was all just a nightmare, the steel gate slamming shut reminds me of the truth.
Jason Rodriguez, 37, is incarcerated at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill, New York, where he is serving 37.5 years to life for a second-degree murder he committed when he was 18. He was also convicted of criminal possession of a deadly weapon and first-degree robbery. Rodriguez claims he did not commit the latter offense.