A selfie criminal autopsy

Sweat, John Robert



A Selfie Criminal Autopsy The only way to move this toward the future is to retrace my past, I give an analytical unbiased exploration of the anatomy of a crime; causation, catalysts, effects, and a look into the soul that crawled out of the ashes of destruction and carried on with what I could of life. I have over thirty years of incarceration and from that do I offer what insights I can on various subjects. * * * I am a fifty year old white male, I came to prison right after turning nineteen. I have three consecutive life sentences for the taking of a life. I have a release eligibility date of 2060, started out 2075 minus 15 years for earned good time. I have what’s considered class X felony life sentences, they are now archaic and were so when I received my time and came to prison. My crime occurred in the most corrupt county in the state of Tennessee, according to recent polls, the county ranked first in the stats and in top ten in the country. This isn’t an accusation, just a factor. I come from a "good ol' boy" county, one full of who you are and who you know. I was over sentenced and yet, what can I really say, I took a life and my life could have been forfeited in return. At the very same time my crime was committed, a boy out on a joy ride, committing mischief, ran over a man’s mailbox and got stuck. The owner of the mailbox ran, got his gun and emptied it in the boy, killing him. The man was charged with the same murder charge I had, he was given 3 years house arrest when he went to court, I was given 3 life sentences. Ha was an ex-county deputy. Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for law enforcement officers, I can only imagine where our society would be without those brave souls that protect and serve. My sentence structure is murder, armed robbery, and kidnapping, a consecutive life sentence for each. There was no kidnapping involved, my lawyers put that to the D.A., it was a technicality to avoid harsher sentencing (death penalty). Two of my charges no longer carry a life sentence under Tennessee law, they carry up to twenty years each. A few years ago a teenager, a couple of years younger than I when I committed my crime, walked into my old high school, pulled a gun and fatally shot a principal, and wounded two more staff members. The county I am from gave him about forty years. He's already out living his life again, while I quietly sit here and watch, giving my life for the life I have taken. It is who you are, how influencial your family is... that is the kind of county I am from. Background I was brought up in a middle classed, two parent family, single income (working father - merchant mariner, housewife mother), the youngest of six children, I was the last to leave the nest. I married at eighteen, had a child within a year and right after the birth of my daughter, I plunged into the abyss that is my life and never came back. It wasn’t a single event that pushed me ever the edge, it was a culmination of several ingredients that made a deadly cocktail of my life. It started with a rivalry within my family, a bitter parental divorce. I know that a lot of times a divorce can wreak havoc on a child, but the one my parents went through would surpass any soap opera. It involved my parents and an affair between my mother and the county Chief Detective, all now deceased. (Hence, my finally talking about this ordeal) This had been going on for a few years prior to my marriage, while I was still living at home. I was young and emotionally immature, I possessed no coping skills, no one ever taught or explained life’s situations to me. I just went on - askew, doing my best to deal with the circumstances of my life. I fell in love, married, moved away when I could. Later in my wife's pregnancy we moved back to my hometown. The situation between my parents came to a head and there was full disclosure between all parties. This kicked off a war, in which I ended up right in the middle, it brought about a spiral descent in my life which plunged me inwardly into darkness. I was being threatened by our county’s lead detective and my mother, threatening my safety and that of my wife for siding with my father. With the confrontations, accusations, threats and all that was transpiring, I became very depressed and unbalanced. I found it very easy to crawl inside a bottle, and taking drugs to avoid the pain I felt, I was torn inside and I just kept unraveling. I was using drugs and alcohol to bury the problem, but it only made them worse. The drinking and drug use pushed my wife and newly born child away, that behavior had no business being around my child. Drugs and alcohol only twisted matters, because now I was out on a limb and had no one to turn to for help or understanding. There were no counselors, no doctors, no clergy, no friends, nor family, just a volatile young man with a torn heart and mind, with enough on his shoulders to break a horse's back. I was drinking liquor, smoking marijuana, using pain pills, was actually on L.S.D. early in the day when my crime was committed. I had a friend that suggested a robbery and I didn’t care anymore, I was ready to throw my life away, so I agreed. He was my charge partner, in the county jail he hung himself - pretrial, adding to the wake of destruction and yet another domino to fall. Instead of imploding and harming myself, I exploded, the pain and wounds turned to anger and projected outwardly. All that had built inside of me found an outlet, a soul scarring outlet. The life of an innocent was lost and I had to crawl through the ashes of destruction. I turned nineteen in November 1984, my child was born in December, in January... my downfall, and the start of my incarceration. It has been one unbroken trek, I have done one life sentence and I am half way through my second. Pretrial, I stayed in the county jail a year and a half, my lawyers told me that I was held until election year, so that people would get re-elected. When I got my time in 1986, I was sent to prison and signed a waiver that put me into the new 1986 Tennessee law offering sentence credits, good time - making my life sentences twenty some year life sentences, this started the trek of my incarceration. Of Education I didn’t finish high school, I made it to my senior year and had a difference of opinion with a principal, school wasn't high on my list of priorities at that time. Going to prison after the dust settled, I was placed in school, I wasn’t that far from leaving high school, so school knowledge was still fresh in my mind. I took the first G.E.D. test offered me and passed. The teachers were impressed with the fact I easily earned my G.E.D. and made me a teacher’s aide. When the opportunity presented itself, I continued my education. The state offered college courses, I learned a great deal and almost had enough credit to earn an associates degree. When politicians heard that prisoners were getting college educations, our Pell grants were cut off, so ended my scholastic endeavors. Anything else was me picking up a book and educating myself out of desire. Programs... This is where I found something of interest to my mind. I came for the cake and cookies, when I grasped the material, I thrived! I took several classes called Alternative to Violence Program (A.V.P.). Oddly enough, the class originated out of the New York prison system. I started at beginner level, went to the intermediate, and then advanced to the training of trainers. The class spoke to me, I understood its origins and the material, because I had lived it. I found myself in my element and I used it to the best of my ability. It was teaching people to be stronger than their emotions, how to basically overcome their "selves". As a teacher you can not reach everyone in a classroom, but there are a few that the effect will be profound. Not everyone wants help, not everyone wants to be rehabilitated, some see that there's no problem in their lives other than being caught... yet there they sit, in prison, next to me! It’s the few souls you do reach that matter, those souls that can go back into the world and live their lives, building a future for themselves, to live, to love, to work, building a foundation. Our A.V.P. classes were shut down, the state took it and let it die, due to the lack of state volunteers to back us. The program lost its ability to reach inmates that have lived this material and can make sense of it. Inmates that have been victims in their lives, or learning to recognize they were victimizing others through physical and non-physical violence. Inmates that were even a victim of themselves, realizing that because they didn’t have the proper mental tools, they destroyed their lives and the lives of those around them! The knowledge learned from these classes wasn’t lost, they are part of me now and I fully utilize them, the lessons are part of my life’s tool box, my arsenal. I know that education is important, I know that it can cause an evolution in some. It's tough in this world without a criminal record, I can only imagine how hard it is to get by as an ex-con. Every step up is a monumental achievement, a helping hand to a soul trying to make their way in this world. Of Occupation I will not go into the myriad menial labor jobs I have had in the years of my incarceration. I do want to talk about one that has actually made a difference in my life. In various prisons throughout the state, there is a division known as TRICOR industries. I have been in the system longer than this enterprise, I have seen it evolve into being, change and grow throughout the years. It’s not that they have no direction, it’s that they have the spark of understanding that in order to grow, they must learn and adapt, evolve as you go. Trial and error to learn. This non-profit company is an entity within the Tennessee Dept. of Correction (T.D.O.C.), it started out C.E.T. (Correctional Enterprises of Tennessee). It was changed years ago to TRICOR (Tennessee Rehabilitative Initiative for Corrections). This company offers different facets of prison employment and opportunities, training, and post release aid. They have a forced savings that is a boon for those starting a new life on the outside. The company makes the uniforms for officers and inmates clothing as well. State wide they supply their own mattresses, sheets, blankets, pants, t-shirts, underwear, socks, our prison uniform shirts, the entire officer’s uniforms, printing of signs, paper printing of forms, just an entire field of products that provide the opportunity for gainful employment of inmates, while learning job skills necessary for survival. Each prison has its own plant and products. I have worked in the garment industry for the last twenty some odd years. I started working for this company in 1991, I went through a sewing vocation class that was a stepping stone for TRICOR workers, they would hire right out of the class. Not all prisons have the sewing vocational class, but the prison in which I was housed did. I began as a sewing machine operator, basic grunt work. I worked, collected my paychecks, and went on with life. I fell into a groove, I began to learn and grow within this environment. I began to improve to the point of multiple machine use. My bosses noticed this and promoted me to the position of utility man. I learned every job on the line and got to the point that if someone was shipped, locked up, or went home, I could swoop into position and carry the load until another person could be trained and get up to speed. From there I was promoted to Quality Assurance (Q.A.), I could take a garment from the cutting table to the box and all points in between. Be it a piece or the entire garment, I knew garments. When I was shipped to a different camp, the new place had the same company and they took me right in and the same processed opened up again. I learned my job, then everyone else's. I became a functional utilitarian, I was the first one called in to work and the last one to leave when the work trickled to its end. My boss moved me to a cutting table when the position was vacated, our floor boss was highly peeved to loss me, but it was necessary for my evolution. I learned the process of each job to make it as efficient and productive as possible. I discovered ways to save money and the most efficient methods of cutting the products. I did that for about five years, then one day my boss noticed me repairing our cutting knife, I took it apart and used pieces from an old one to repair our damaged one. A maintenance position opened and I was offered the job, I was out of my element, but my boss took a chance with me. Nervously, I began my training. It was slow going at first, tag along repairs, then getting my feet wet. I started picking up on what I was doing, the next thing I knew I was breathing life into antiques that were becoming derelict, they began to run again, rejoining the work fleet. I now keep a whole section of the plant up and running, oiled, and well maintenanced. I still learn, each type of machine I study until I know it's intricacies, it is a passion that I have. I was given the opportunity to... become. I grew, I still learn, machine by machine. In all this time, the good, the bad, the ugly of prison life, I can say that I have had vast growth and experience through these opportunities. I was given an environment that allowed me to evolve, to grow and learn of things other than prison life, to understand and reach beyond my known potential. I developed, and literally grew up within this environment, I guess you could say I am a TRICOR product. I am grateful to these people, even though the corporate heads have changed several times over the years, it wasn’t in vain. It mattered to me and still does. I can’t express my gratitude to the C.E.O. and higher staff, I don’t think it’s appropriate, but I don’t know how I would have turned out without the needed structure and the opportunity for growth. When I heard the call of my life "I should be building profession", I had the opportunity and now I know practically any garment like the back of my hand, as well as the machines that sew them! TRICOR continues to evolve as well, they are implementing classes and lectures geared toward rehabilitation and self development that I recognize, they can’t reach everyone, but it will matter to some. Knowledge builds and it becomes life tools. The lessons are sound, it’s learning to put the past behind you and to look toward your future. They’ve covered getting your mind out of developed ruts and learning new things. Helping others reach their potential and seeing potential within themselves they never knew they possessed. It’s in its infancy right now, but I like it, I recognize the material and they are using a great format. It’s a hands on approach to what was once just a place of warehoused prisoner employment. Thera is hope that they are taking the opportunity to touch lives, the souls that buy in can actually learn to think in new directions. Of Family I have witnessed the repercussions of my past actions throughout the realm of my family and the souls that care about me. Like the ripples of a stone cast upon still waters, I have watched the damage I have wrought reverberate throughout the lives that surround me. The most predominantly effected of all is the life of my daughter. She was born a month before I committed my crime, she was a tiny handful I was too scared to hold. While I was still in the county jail my wife divorced me and I heard nothing of my child and ex-wife for eleven years. When my ex-wife initiated contact and brought my daughter back into my life, my child was a chest high eleven year old who looked exactly like her dad. She had just found out that the man she thought was her dad wasn't, and was told of me. I did my best to tread lightly with all the people involved, after some time I was able to tear out the old rotted bridges between my ex-wife and I, building new ones. I had to learn how to overcome my anger, jealousy, abandonment issues, and the pettiness that wanted to creep into my soul. I stood to lose everything if I allowed those feelings to rule. Coming to terms with the situation allowed closure and healing for my ex-wife and I, where once there were just neglected, gaping wounds in two lives we’ve built the best friendship we’ve ever had. I took the opportunity to work with my in-laws as well, wherever there was injury, I did my best to heal the wounds, to ask for or give forgiveness where needed. I watched my child grow, forging a relationship was complicated. I watched a growing resentment develop within my daughter. She began to realize how unfair and hurtful it was to finally have a loving father and that he was never going to be any more present in her life than where I am. Slowly the issues crept in. She is in her thirties now, there is a great love between us, but there is distance because the scar lurks. I've addressed the situation to the best of my ability, making sure that she understood my life. She blamed herself for a while, thinking that her birth was a factor in my demise. The only thing I could do was walk her through the ugly truth, that she know she wasn’t my undoing, she forgave me and through that... growth. Being a parent, even in this diminished capacity, has been the greatest catalyst for growth I have known. Parenthood taught me to think beyond self and understand unconditional love, it is such a blessing. Of my parents, they both have passed away, brokenhearted because of the condition of my existence. They would have done anything passible to help me. Their love towards me was always unfailing, in the past they were caught up in the emotions of a divorce and didn’t understand what was going on in their child's head. Over the years, the best I could do was to achieve, to become someone of which they would be proud - even in this capacity. My siblings... one of my sisters tried to take her life when I was in the county jail. The parental divorce followed by my disaster was more than she could handle. Each of us had our breaking points, thank goodness the attempt was unsuccessful and in time she balanced. I see the scars, I know how it wounds them to walk away from me after spending a day together in visitation. I’ve watched the kids in my family become adults, get married, choose professions, have kids and lives of their own and now I am getting to know their children. I can only imagine what the children are told when they are coming to visit me in this place, probably that it has to do with my job. My family became my foundation, without them I would have lost hope and sight of my goals long ago. My family is a source of solace and comfort like no other. Our bonds are strong, and now my generation are the elders of our family. It is up to us to teach and guide our youth, to prepare our family for the life ahead of them. In learning from the mistakes of the past, we take this task seriously. Of Faith The state of Tennessee has no classification for my faith, I am, for lack of better terms, a shamanic christian. Now imagine that in the buckle of the bible belt! I put in a request for the allowance of shamanic spiritual items over two years ago and our Committee for Religious Activities hasn’t responded. What’s odd is that all the items I’ve requested are already within the T.D.O.C. in various religions, I’ve asked for a few shaman’s tools and a natural fiber prayer rug instead of synthetics. They don’t know what to make of me and I have been notified a year ago the committee is still researching. I’ve bumped heads in the past thirty years, with staff and inmates (spiritual intolerance). Neither knowing what my true faith was, just assuming that it was evil and needed to be destroyed. Indifference and tolerance can be in short supply at times. We have had spiritual books denied, cards steamrolled, and general hostilities from all sides. An off and on battle for the very things already signed into T.D.O.C. policy. You can win a battle, but you lose the war down the road. I don’t want to make this an indictment, it’s individuals not the system. It is a matter of who holds the governing position after post rotations, it makes for an off and on struggle over the last thirty plus years. It's hasn't been constant abuse, we've had very understanding and helpful staff at times. What's sad is that if the people involved in the abuse truly understood my faith, they'd realize that my path encompasses their's and beyond. With understanding, and in cases were it was permissible, I could teach them spiritual truths within their own faith. My faith is simple, my spiritual path is my physical life. I believe in the Spiritual Divine and have learned to recognize it in all things... although man is very adept at hiding it. I look at what is going on in this world today and cringe. I know that I am a part of the whole, a spiritual being that walks a physical life. I'm not walking my path alone, I am part of creation, one small part of the whole, a connectedness that instills a sense of wholeness, belonging, and awe. I do not live a normal life, I live the life of the incarcerated, this shall be my existence until the end of my days. Faith did not become a crutch for me, a way to cope or limp by, it became my strength. I am not forgotten in this place, I understand the presence of the Spiritual Divine and unto my Creator do I lay my life down. I can only do my best to be the soul that my Creator intended me to be. My teaching is that we overcome our "selves", to lay down our own will - which tends to be greedy, selfish, and immoral if left unchecked, and to don a spiritual mantis - to choose a spiritual way of life. It is hard to overcome impulse, to think faster than your emotions, but when you do, worldly things matter less as you learn to seek Divine will. Those choices get easier in time, they become first nature. I have walked through the fires of destruction, I have suffered loss and wounds. I don't point fingers or assign blame elsewhere, I have travelled a road full of folly and have had to walk through the repercussions of my choices. In my faith I am what you would call a wounded healer. I have been through a meat grinder emotionally, I have had to crawl from the ashes, scarred from the experiences. I know what it takes to heal emotionally from wounds and massive traumas, to heal and release the self inflicted scars of life. I can’t teach or help everyone in prison, most people don’t want help. The majority of the youth I see are only here for a short time, their lives are on hold, until they can return to the same lifestyles that lead to prison. I have literally met a young man when I first came into the system and over the span of twenty some years I watched him make parole, come back, flatten a sentence, come back, make parole, come back, make parole, and then he was killed trying to force his way into a house. He never learned a skill, he never tried to do anything but get back into the world to rob and steal to support his habits. Time after time he was given opportunity and all he accomplished was driving up recidivism statistics. His life was an institutional revolving door until someone ended it for him in order to protect self and loved ones. What I would have done with one of his chances! Every now and then a person comes within my path who I can teach, one who is not so hard headed and will listen to reason. It’s rare to find a soul who will learn the lessons of consequences of actions, mention accountability to most in here and eyes roll. It is the few who will listen, the few who want more in this world than my existence who matter to me. They have to willingly seek these changes themselves in order to grow, otherwise, they are just enduring the lessons until they can toss them away and mindlessly go back to their lifes. I walk in faith, I don’t want followers, that’s dangerous in here. I want to see people live full lives of their own, with direction and purpose. My spiritual life is between my Creator and me, I do not parade it, it’s not a flag to wave. When people see the positive path of my life, it isn’t for my exaltation, I hope they see and understand the presence of the Spiritual Divine within my life working through me. I own my past, I walk in the present, I am geared for my future and the future of those around me. My spiritual life is more than a coping mechanism, it allows me to walk through my existence. I know the harm I’ve caused in this world; my victim’s loss of life, the pain and suffering I launched into the lives of the victim's family, I've watched the ripples spread across the surface of my family's lives. It is major disfunction I’ll never be able to retract. I’ve done my best to bring peace where I may, to be part of my family and this world, while instilling the security of love. In prison I quietly give my life for the life that was taken, I am resolved to become the soul I was meant to be. When I get to the end of my road, I will lay my life down, hoping that it was more than the sum of my mistakes. I give my life to this, I give my life unto the Spiritual Divine. I know what it means to walk in faith, and silently shall I walk the path before me. John R. Sweat

Author: Sweat, John Robert

Author Location: Tennessee

Date: October 23, 2016

Genre: Essay

Extent: 15 pages

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