Soon, I will walk out of prison for the first time in 27 years. I’ve been preparing for this day for so long, I know exactly how it'll go: My wife will pick me up at the gates of Sing Sing, and we’ll drive over to Hudson Link, the prison college program that helped me earn my bachelor’s degree. They have a computer and a suit waiting for me. Then we’ll drive over to the DMV; I’ve been studying for my written driver’s test. I hear everything takes a long time at the DMV, but I’m hoping we’ll be done in time to pick up my son from school.
All the while, I’ll also be thinking about Tremain Hall. And about the boy I was decades ago before I came to prison.
I was 14 years old when my parents divorced. My father and I moved from our middle-class neighborhood in Laurelton, Queens, to an urban block in Jamaica, Queens. It was a community wrought with the typical symbols of urban ghettos: sneakers strung on telephone lines, drug paraphernalia-littered streets, and barely kept apartment buildings.
People earned what they could, how they could. If you weren’t lucky enough to secure a nine-to-five job, and at times even if you were, you had to find a hustle to make ends meet. Whether it was selling drugs, boosting cars, or robbing neighbors, both young and old were implicated in the struggle.
For naïve kids, the hustle was stimulating, invigorating, even exciting. Peer praise compounded the euphoric adrenaline rush that accompanied the risk, entrenching us deeper every day. I quickly assimilated into this new world where kids with empty pockets and hard eyes could afford the latest fashions and attract the most beautiful girls.
But within just two years, the lifestyle caught up with me. As I sat at the intersection of 150th Street and 89th Avenue with a few friends, a motorcycle turned the corner and sped in our direction. The passenger pulled out a gun and opened fire.
I woke up in the hospital with tubes plugged into seemingly every hole in my body; I had been shot four times. My father stood over me, his typically stern demeanor softened by emotion I had never seen before. Wiping away tears, he asked me what happened. I tried to muster the words to explain it, but there wasn’t much to say. He always warned me about hanging out in that part of town, but I didn’t listen and there was no excuse. So instead, I jumped to apologizing and promising that we wouldn’t be here again.
My father nodded. He put his head in his hands and mumbled, “Why is this happening to me?” But I was confused. Nothing happened to you, Dad. It happened to me, I thought. It would be a long time before I could understand what he felt—a pain that comes from comforting someone you love so deeply that you feel their pain viscerally inside your own frame, blurring the corporal boundaries that separate you. It’s a pain that comes from the realization that you failed to protect someone you swore you would — perhaps foolishly thought you could. It was the pain of a father who nearly lost his son.
Two weeks later, I was released from the hospital. My wounds had started to heal, but the trauma was still fresh. I had a persistent fear of death, paranoid everywhere I went and skeptical of everyone I met. Because my assailant had no name, face, or reason, he had every name, every face, and every reason. Not to mention, it was 1990 and the crack era had brought the deadliest year in New York City’s history. Murders hit a record high of 2,245, nearly three times the number that caused Chicago to lead the nation in murders in 2016.
Over time, my anxiety became overwhelming. I never wanted to be caught that open and unguarded again. I was not going to be a tally mark for that statistic.
So, I bought a gun.
The minute I held it in my hand, I felt empowered. For the first time, I thought I could guarantee my own safety. I had no intention of firing it—I knew that its mere presence, reinforced by my hard exterior, created a threat that no one would test. I wouldn’t be a victim again.
Later that year, on a crisp Christmas night, I headed to the movies with friends. About 15 minutes in, another group of teenagers walked in noisily. Others in the theater began shouting at them to quiet down. My friends joined in, and quickly we started exchanging offenses. The boys lunged toward us. One of them drew his gun and fired in the dark, crowded theater.
In a matter of seconds, more than two dozen shots rang out in both directions. And in that moment, time froze. The promise I made to my father to stay out of trouble competed with the promise I made to my boys to defend our respect. So, as smoke filled the room and the rapid succession of loud pops came to a deafening silence, I blindly fired once.
I crawled out of the theater and rushed home. I turned on the news to see if there was coverage. Four bystanders were injured and, one of them, was in critical condition. I pleaded to him, child to child, “Please don’t die. Please don’t die.”
Tremain Hall died in the next few hours. My heart throbbed, my stomach sank, and my mind raced as I wondered whether it was my shot that had taken his life. How could I live with myself if I had killed someone?
Two days later, I was arrested. According to the prosecutor, it was my shot. I was convicted and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison. After more than 27 years and dozens of understandably unanswered apology letters, I still sit in my cell thinking about Tremain and that one fatal shot—the dreadful, inexcusable, and irreversible action of my 17-year-old self.
Now I wake up at 6:15 a.m. every day to a quiet cell block. On my way to exercise, I pass a television in the common area airing the news. The other day, five gang members were arrested for conspiracy to commit murder. One of them was just 17 years old.
I looked at him intently trying to imagine his state of mind: Is it chaotic? Is he fearful? Does he understand? I know that stage very well. He wants to believe a jury will find him innocent, but he resigns himself to hoping that his sentence will be a short one. I know his fate better than he does. He’ll probably be convicted, sentenced, and do life next to me. Then, a generation later, he will sit in front of the parole board to re-live the anxiety of sentencing.
It was recently my turn to be sentenced again; would it be parole or two more years? Leading up to my parole hearing, the men around me built up my hope for freedom, selfishly protecting their own. I was their champion. The one who had done everything right, as they say, and traded the hustle of the yard for homework in the school building. I took a risk in shedding the hard-exterior prison culture encourages for something more human. If I couldn’t get free, how could they?
I brought the parole board my institutional file with my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, program certificates, employment records, community service acknowledgments, and letters of recommendation. They placed it right next to my 27-year-old criminal file, soberly reminding me of who I was: the boy who killed Tremain Hall. So, the question was: How do my accomplishments stack up against the fact that I had taken a life?
Apparently, they didn’t. I was denied parole the first time I sat in front of the Board.
Everyone was shocked. Many men around the facility were disheartened, and others angry, thinking about their own situations and how they’d fare. Officers were sympathetic. But me, I was defeated. I laid in bed and dreaded explaining the decision to my family. In the end, I found myself asking: What else could I have done?
I gave it some thought over the next day, and I knew I had earned my freedom. I started working on my appeal and filed two months later. Over the next eight months, I’d sit in front of the parole board another five times as they continued to measure the failures of my 17-year-old self against the successes of my 45-year-old self.
Finally, on April 16, I got my new birth certificate, the letter granting my parole. With my new lease on life, I still remember the one I took.
While I know I earned my freedom, I may be eternally undeserving of forgiveness. It’s something I continue to work toward without expectations. It’s how I live with myself.
Lawrence Bartley is currently incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. He is serving a 27-year-to-life sentence for second degree murder and other charges stemming from the incident he describes, and was granted parole in April of 2018. As a member of Voices From Within, he works on various anti-gun violence initiatives. Lawrence also volunteers with the Corrections Accountability Project at the Urban Justice Center on issues related to the commercialization of justice. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.