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Life Inside

Even My Dreams Are Behind Bars

After being locked up for years, a prisoner’s ability to see freedom fades.

I’ve always been a dreamer—literally. I sleep straight through the night, every night. And I dream. Some dreams I remember in the morning. Most I don’t. I used to always dream about running from a mob of attackers in slo-mo, while they ran full-speed. I’d eventually jump off a building or a bridge or some other ledge to end the chase, then wake up sweaty in my attic-turned-bedroom in Reading, Pennsylvania, happy to be alive. Sometimes.

Then there was Dec. 11th, 1995. The morning after my arrest.

I’d cut a sharp left, hurdled a fence, and picked up the pace, all the while looking over my shoulder. The sound of boots stomping and keys and handcuffs clanging grew louder as I sprinted through the red-bricked alleyway that led to Mom’s backyard.

Half a block more. Barking pitbulls and Dobermans, saliva flying everywhere, rushed me on both sides. Sirens and screeching tires echoed in every direction; red and blue flashes lit up the night.

I gasped for air. Just a few more feet.

Suddenly a loud pounding sound brought me to a different scene: the inside of four gray cinder-block walls, interrupted only by a small window, a steel toilet-sink combo and a solid steel door. Still breathing hard, heart pounding, I sat up and rubbed my eyes—wishing this too was a dream, that I could wake up and return to being hunted.

After 12 hours of interrogation the day and night before, I’d finally gotten dumped off at the county jail and wanted nothing more than to sleep. But now it was morning, and reality was clear as day.

Then the pounding returned. It was coming from the wall. I staggered to the door and called over to the cell next door. “Yo.”

“Here,” said a familiar voice, “stick your arm out.”

I reached through the open food-tray slot and to the left, a rolled-up newspaper awaited my outstretched grasp. I carefully pulled it in and opened it up.

I stood there, frozen. Staring back at me on the front page was my own cold gaze: that of an 18-year-old just booked for murder. Instantly I remembered the camera’s flash when the cops perp-walked me out of the courthouse.

I sat on the bunk and devoured the article, pausing as I read the accounts provided to the police by the only two witnesses—my cousin and my childhood friend.

When I got to the last period, I tossed the paper aside and sat motionless. No longer high on haze, Hennessy, and whatever else I’d taken that night, I began to comprehend the severity of the trouble I was in.

With no way to awaken from the nightmare that was now my reality, I dropped to my knees and sandwiched my head between my hands and the thin mattress. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d prayed.

Lacking the audacity to ask to be spared the consequences of a sin I could barely recall, I simply uttered, “God, forgive me.”

For the next seven months in county jail, I’d continue dreaming freedom and waking up to concrete and steel, a pattern that persisted another few months after being condemned to life in prison and shipped upstate.

At some point, though, a shift came. My dreams got locked up—just like me.

It happened in increments. At first, the scenery of my dreamscapes would start blending in elements of the cell-block or chow hall or yard or corridor. People I’d met on this side of the wall started to randomly pop up. Soon, remnants of the outside world became sparse.

Even when I wasn’t physically in prison, in a dream, it lurked in the background. Either I’d just escaped and was on the run or I’d just gotten out but, for some reason, had to return the next day.

No matter what, I’d lost my ability to dream freedom. I couldn’t shake the shackles, even during those priceless moments in the middle of the night.

I went through my first years of confinement doing all I could to avoid the reality of being sentenced to breathe my last breath behind bars. I smoked, drank, popped everything I could get my hands on.

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And I slept—a lot. I’d sleep until 1 p.m. most days, stumble to the sink, slide the cell door open, and ask the first person I knew where the weed was.

But in year nine, I did 90 days in solitary for a dirty urine test, and it was in that cage that I got so tired I woke up.

One morning I lay there, eyes wide open, a thin sponge of a mattress the only thing between my back and a concrete slab. I asked myself—for the first time—how I got to be in that position, how I went from deemed gifted to deemed irredeemable.

I retraced my steps and ended up in that alley across from Southwest Middle School, standing in that circle with those boys smoking that first blunt.

That’s when my sleep, death’s cousin, first set in. Now it was time for the scales to fall from my eyes.

After leaving the hole, I made some serious changes. Against all odds, I went on to find hope and meaning in a place that fosters neither. I took the focus off myself and put it on helping others; I started writing, facilitating, co-founded a restorative-justice project, earned a bachelor’s. Doors began to open. I began seeing over the wall.

Soon, aspects of my wakeup wandered into my nocturnal voyages. In one dream, I was walking alone on the 700 block of Chestnut Street, which at least as I remembered it was one of the roughest in my city, and ran into a group of young dudes who surrounded me and started asking who I was and what I was doing there.

Without hesitation, I jumped into a version of the spiel I give at the beginning of the workshops I now facilitate. “My name’s Phill, and I’ve been fighting a death-by-incarceration sentence for the last X years … ”

Within minutes, all eyes, in the dream, were on mine. The masks of displaced aggression fell, just like they do in prison classrooms. Hugs and pounds ensued. I ended by begging them not to be me.

Still, in the back of my dream’s mind I wasn’t free. I had to hurry and return to Graterford before count-time.

Around that time, a friend stopped me on the way to chow to tell me, excitedly, that he’d dreamt I was free. He described the whole scene in full detail, us on the outside kicking it at some spot in Philly familiar to him from his pre-prison days.

Not long after, someone else would tell me about having dreamt of me free. Then another. And another. I started a list on my Inspiration Wall (where I hang pictures, prayers, cards, newspaper clippings and other items that inspire me to fight for my freedom).

Today, 16 names, from inside and outside prison, decorate a rectangular yellow Post-It titled “Have Dreamt Me Free.”

And after two decades behind Graterford’s 30-foot-high, fortress-like concrete wall, I too finally dreamt of myself free—completely free. I was sitting on the stoop of a row house in the northeast section of Reading, 11th Street maybe, talking with different people who stopped on their way east.

I didn’t know a single one of them. They weren’t guys I eat chow with or COs asking to see my ID or folks I’ve met through organization work over the years. Just random, ordinary people from my hometown going to work or to the corner store.

And I wasn’t running. I hadn’t just broken free, with my head on a swivel. I didn’t have to return before the next count. I just sat there, breathing in all that free air.

When I woke up, I wasn’t gasping, sweating or cursing the walls of the cell that has trapped me for more than half of my life. I wore a calm smile that remained throughout the day.

The day will come when I no longer wake up wishing I hadn’t. I sometimes wonder if when I finally make it home, my dreams will take some time to catch up, if I’ll wake up relieved to be in a bedroom and not a cage.

For now, I’ll just keep dreaming and fighting my way there, where my days can be as free as my nights, and where I can help those kids from Chestnut Street wake up and not be me, for real.

Felix Rosado, 41, is incarcerated at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where he is serving a sentence of life without parole for one count of first-degree murder. Rosado is also the cofounder of Let’s Circle Up, a restorative-justice project. In 2016, he earned his Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree from Villanova University.