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Life Inside

My Dad Taught Me How to Build Things. Now I’m Doing It in Prison.

“What neither of us knew was that coming to prison would create new worlds for me to build.”

My father, a recovering drug addict, counseled others during the day at our local community-service board. At night, he built and fixed things. He told me simply that he’d learned every trick of every trade, both legal and otherwise, during his addiction.

He helped me build winning wooden derby cars for Cub Scouts. His dad had never helped him, so he made it a point to do so for me. I admired the way he could shape wood, often by feel rather than measurement. He once carved a mirror-stand so realistic it looked like miniature oak trees had grown around the glass.

Some of my fondest early memories involve band saws and wrenches. Cutting firewood was my favorite, though. Dad got to keep the stove when he and Mom divorced, and it ended up in the living room at the house we then shared with my stepmother. Burning the wood we had cut and chopped together made me feel like we were a team.

I internalized that a man should be able to put on a suit and tie but also get his hands dirty. I always thought I would be a professional who built decks and rebuilt engines on the weekend. I always thought there would be more time with him to learn how.

We grew apart. He kicked me out at 16 for smoking pot. By my 18th birthday, he and I barely talked—because I had graduated to cocaine, which I also sold, to support my habit. I quickly screwed that up too, snorting all the profit and going into debt. Then I committed a desperate burglary, and later I shot and wounded a man after an altercation. That was the last of my free life.

Sitting in jail, after my arrest, I was most scared to call Dad. He sounded crushed when he answered, not angry, and blamed himself for everything.

What neither of us knew was that coming to prison would create new worlds for me to build. Now I'm part of a machine. Most everything in prison is made possible with inmate labor, from the cooking of food and washing of clothes to maintenance of the institution. Things couldn't run without us. A group of unemployable cons somehow joins together, usually without training or instruction, and keeps the lights on. It's amazing, how we rise to the opportunities we’re given.

Over 16 years, I've had about every job imaginable. Some, like my volunteer position mentoring at-risk prisoners who suffer from mental-health or medical issues, are so rewarding that I gladly do them for free. But I hate to be in the kitchen, working for 27 to 45 cents per hour, when I could make almost twice as much working other jobs.

I don’t think I was ever paid for the night we went out at 6 p.m. to replace a concrete walkway. There was no jackhammer, so we took turns with a sledgehammer until 6 a.m. We were exhausted, half delirious, and without compensation—but somehow in great spirits, because we had learned how to do a thing, and because we had made use of ourselves.

None of us had done concrete work, so we didn’t know to install rebar connecting the new and the old slabs. So now there is a section of the walk that sinks inches below the rest. Now I know better; I know how.

I also work as a maintenance tech, doing a bit of everything, mostly with electronics. Cable work orders make me popular, because I’m there to improve the TV reception. Building new fences to contain us, though, wasn’t.

I’ve changed a hot electrical receptacle with nothing but fingernail clippers, because no one could go get tools (the alternative was a guy without power for a weekend). And I’ve crimped cable ends by slamming them in a service door, and made very temporary and hazardous extension cords out of scraps when the power strip in the TV room went out during the NBA playoffs.

I work with good guys, but more than that, I look forward to work itself. People call prison labor exploitative, but it has been important for me. I’ve developed a sense of presence I hadn’t felt since the total immersion of playing as a child, and certainly not during my period of addiction and crime. Plus, these jobs prepare me for being in the world again.

I get to use tools. It feels special to handle hammer-drills and side-cutters in a place where a paper clip is contraband. There’s a trust in my person and in my competence, which gives me validation.

I’ve learned woodwork, electrical, carpentry, drywall and plumbing. I’ve ordered supplies and organized tasks. I also completed a degree in psychology and have learned to counsel and mentor others in this work.

Learning about the things my father did so well is like getting back a piece of him.

Work in here is more appealing than the alternative. On the street I could clock out and look forward to parties, friends and my girlfriend. In here I don’t go home, I just go back to my cell. That means my job is what feels like the break, from an otherwise limited routine.

At the same time, I’ve learned to enjoy leisure precisely because of work. It’s more relaxing and rewarding to take it easy after a long job. Everything I do in here feels more connected and meaningful when I’ve accomplished something tangible that day.

Having caused so much harm and screwed up so much, I finally slow down and take my time. I’m not in a rush, so I don’t make as many mistakes, and I’m grateful for what's in front of me.

I now realize that I admired not just my father’s skills but his presence and appreciation for where he was and what he was doing. He used to tell me, “You’re supposed to be a human being, not a human doing.” I’m starting to understand.

I was too young and too caught up in my own head to learn directly from him as a kid. He died while I’ve been in prison, so I’ll never have that chance. Fortunately, through the work opportunities available here, I’ve been able to walk the same path he did and discover that I am, in fact, my father's son.

Jesse Luke Crosson, 34, is incarcerated at Buckingham Correctional Center, in Buckingham County, Virginia, where he is serving a 32-year sentence for charges stemming from a 2003 home invasion and a separate shooting.