I was only 11 years old when I moved from my grandparents’ home in Saint Mary Parish in Jamaica to my mother’s one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, New York. I don’t remember much about where I was born, besides the country living. And yet, after serving 25 years for a murder I committed when I was 19 and earning parole, I may be deported to a place that I haven’t as much as seen in more than three decades.
Because my deportation is automatic due to the fact that I committed an aggravated felony, my only hope of staying in the U.S. is if the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, grants me an executive pardon. With the help of The Defenders Clinic at the City University of New York School of Law, I filed a formal petition in November. Now all I can do is wait at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility to hear about what will happen to the rest of my life. Here’s a short version of why, instead of returning home to my family in New York City, I’m in an ICE facility hundreds of miles away.
When I came to the South Bronx in the ‘80s, adjusting to junior high was difficult. I didn’t speak or dress the way everyone else did, and I was bullied every day. I would get blamed for the fights I got into and my mother—who worked as both a housekeeper and an aide in a nursing home—had to come up to the school to get me. I also had to defend my little brother.
The Bronx finally began to feel like home in high school. I had learned how to fight and made friends with older kids. Nobody was telling me to “go back on the banana boat” anymore.
I was also involved with two women at the same time. Both were pregnant by my senior year. My job at a fast food restaurant wasn’t enough to support children, so with a little convincing from friends, I dropped out of school and started selling drugs. When my mother found out what I was doing, I left home in shame. My girlfriend and I started living in a broken car that belonged to a friend.
On June 23, 1992—two months before my first child was born—an older, bigger dealer ordered me to stop selling in the same building as him. When I ignored him, he smacked me in the face. I left the area, but later when I came back to see my girlfriend, I encountered him again. He assaulted me and blocked my exit. That’s when I went and got a gun a friend was holding for me and fatally shot him. Thinking I was the victim, I turned down a 7 1⁄2-to-14-year plea deal and opted for a trial. I spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial and one out on bail. Finally, at age 24, I was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25-to-life.
Now, this may sound contradictory, but considering the life I was living, my incarceration was a blessing. In Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where I spent most of my time, I was fortunate to meet individuals who took responsibility for their crimes and dedicated their time while incarcerated to improve their lives and the lives of others. These men later told me that they saw the potential in me for change and took a liking to me. They urged me to get involved in all the therapeutic and educational programs offered in order to keep me from being overcome by the pitfalls of prison.
One program I participated in was the Alternatives to Violence Project. A friend of mine, an older gentleman, signed me up for it. I developed ways to address problems without resorting to violence. After a lot of introspection, I was able to address my regretful past and rebuild my value system. And Alternatives to Violence set me up to get educated. At the urging of another friend, I earned my GED. In 2017, I got a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science from Mercy College. Last year, I earned a master’s degree in professional studies from the New York Theological Seminary.
Hoping to give back to the community I harmed, I co-founded a group at Sing Sing called the Forgotten Voices Committee. Our mission is to redefine what it means for incarcerated people to pay a debt to society. We have brought kids ages 10 to 17 into the facility, not to “scare them straight,” but to listen to them and help them deal with violence arising in their communities. We also formed Voices From Within, an anti-gun violence initiative that resulted in a video series of the same name.
For many years I also ran Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education, a program that serves 400 clients a year. I was responsible for day-to-day operations and trained dozens of staff and peer educators. I also did curriculum development and coordinated with college professors to ensure that the science was state-of-the-art.
In June, I was granted parole. If things were different, I would have gone home to my family and entered the Justice-in-Education Scholars Program at Columbia University.
Instead, I’m in the ICE detention facility near Buffalo, which is more restrictive for me than Sing Sing. There are two bunks per cell here, and we’re locked in most of the day. Even if my family could travel more than 300 miles to get here, there are no contact visits. You talk on a phone in a booth and struggle to hear what your loved one is saying.
Since arriving here on Oct. 24, I’ve had plenty of time for my mind to race.
Frankly, I feel terrified.
Yes, I spent 25 years in prison, but I’m still worried about how I will survive in Jamaica. When I got to this facility one of the staff members gave me a manual that explained what I should be concerned with when returning to Jamaica. Part of it is broken down into do’s and don’ts.
The do’s include advice like “try to be Jamaican” and “use local accents and dialect to avoid attracting negative attention.” Given that I haven’t as much as visited Jamaica for 35 years, I don’t see how I can do these things.
Some of the don’ts are equally frustrating—and repetitive: There’s “don’t sound like a foreigner;” and “don’t go off to strange areas;” and “don’t accept assistance from a stranger.” But to me, everyone is a stranger in Jamaica.
My father passed away. My grandparents passed away. I don’t have any relatives left. Besides overwhelming me, not having any family there may make it physically impossible for me to leave the facility where I will go for processing after I get off the plane. I’ve heard that someone with a Jamaican address has to sign the individual out, so I could be stuck there.
I’m also worried about my physical safety. If no one takes me in, I may end up on the streets of Kingston, which is not so nice. Organized crime pretty much runs the place. For a hint just Google “Dudus” or Shower Posse. That first day I’m out of state custody, I have no idea what I’m going to do for a meal, and I don’t know where I’m going to sleep.
Then there’s the stigma of being a “deportee.” Being called a “deportee” in Jamaica is like being referred to as a “felon” in the United States. The community sees deportees as individuals who had an opportunity to come to the U.S. and squandered it. They’re not accepted as law-abiding citizens or individuals who deserve a second chance. This damages your employment opportunities.
My family is also suffering. My mother is elderly, and she was anticipating me coming home to take care of her. She’s been taking care of me my entire life, and now it’s supposed to be my turn.
My daughter feels like she’s being punished a second time. First, she had to grow up with me being in prison. Now she feels like she’s losing me again. She often cries when I call home, and sometimes she doesn’t want to speak because it bothers her so much.
I have two grandchildren. One is an infant that I haven’t yet met due to distance, and the other is a 7-year-old who I talk to on a daily basis. She has also been crying ever since she found out that I’m not coming home.
I fear for my son the most. He hasn’t been the same since my other son, Kino, was killed at age 17 in his presence. While I was inside counseling other individuals and children, I wasn’t able to protect my sons.
My sons were close, and since the murder, the one who survived has been making a lot of irrational decisions that place him in contact with the criminal justice system. He’s facing five years. If I was there physically, I would be able to help him deal with his situation. But I’m not.
My brother, nephew and sister-in-law who have supported me throughout my entire incarceration, are upset because there is nothing they can do.
I know some people think I deserve to be sent back to Jamaica because of what I did. But during the 25 years I was incarcerated, I took responsibility for what I did. I helped other individuals, got educated and gave back to the community that I harmed and left behind. A lot of time and energy has been invested in me becoming the person I am today. Deporting me to a foreign land will be like extracting a valuable asset out of this society only to throw it away.
Colin Absolam, 46, was granted parole on June 10, 2019, after serving 25 years in New York State prisons for second-degree murder. Facing felony deportation to Jamaica, he filed an application for an unconditional executive pardon with Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Nov. 21. Absolam is currently being held at Buffalo Federal Detention Center.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when the author filed his clemency petition. He filed it on Nov. 21