Paul Pommells is the author of Dear Citizens and Representatives (XLibris 2006), Redemption Story (Createspace 2013), Redemption Story: Small Group Edition (Createspace 2015), and several published articles. Here's one of them.
Hello, and thank you for your interest in these issues, this conversation, and this book, Redemption Story. I am its author, Paul Pommells.
I bet you're wondering if it's autobiographical and how much of it is true.
I get those questions a lot.
The key elements are autobiographical, but that just sort of happened after I decided why I wanted to write. My desire to write was stirred up by everything I was seeing in the world. The hungry nature of the prison system, the flood of young confused men coming to prison, and my realization of the pain their mothers were enduring on their behalf disturbed me. I started writing this book as a tribute to them. Many of them urban church woman like my mom, who undoubtedly pray daily for their errant sons to turn their lives around.
I realized that what they needed to strengthen their souls was a vision of what that turnaround would look like, to counteract their fears that the turnaround wouldn't happen. And for the men themselves, my vision of a turnaround could be their guidebook, written in the form of entertainment so it would be easy to digest.
I took details from my life, what I'd learned about universal themes, and my familiarity with the elements common to every turnaround, to write this story. Although I focus primarily on those themes, you still end up reading a lot about my life.
My story is a lot like Joseph's. Just like Joseph, when I was growing up, I was one of the boys everyone assumed would do alright.
My story started in 1973 when I was born into a Belizean family that lived in the Jefferson Park community. When I was ten months old, they baptized me at the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic church, located on Jefferson and Gramercy.
At age 5 they enrolled me in the parish school. School let out at 2:30. After school I walked or rode the bus up Jefferson to my grandma's house where I'd do homework, play outside, and then wait for my mom to come get me.
Around the 5th grade I started playing sports such as flag football and basketball for the school. For a while I took guitar lessons at a music school on Crenshaw near 55th, but I felt too self-conscious about riding the city bus with a large musical instrument, so I quit.
At age 13, I started playing little league football for the Culver City Lancers.
At age 14, I graduated from Holy Name of Jesus Elementary and applied for entrance into three LA-area Catholic high schools: St. Bernard's, Serra, and Loyola. I got accepted into all three. The school I favored was Serra because it was the popular choice of all my male classmates. The school my mom favored was the prestigious "St. Ignatius of Loyola College Preparatory School," known for its tough academics and high honor code. At that time its student body was still all boys. Guess where I enrolled!
To get there everyday, I woke up around six and rode the city bus from the corner of MLK and Crenshaw, east to Normandie. Then I rode the Normandie bus north to Venice, where I got off and walked the rest of the way to school on foot.
During my 9th and 10th grade years at Loyola, I earned a 2.78 GPA while playing football and running track. I adjusted to the tough academic requirements and got a long socially, but faced a tougher problem with my identity, I didn't feel like I belonged. I identified more with the poor public school kids I saw on the bus each morning, than with privileged mostly-white kids who came from surrounding suburbs to attend Loyola. Unfortunately I didn't have any insightful adult males in my life at the time to sense my teen crisis or counsel me through it.
After two years, those feelings would push me to leave Loyola and enroll in a public school.
I chose the King/Drew Medical Magnet High School in Watts, on 119th Street. There I had more of the high school experience that I felt like I had been missing. In short, I met lots of girls.
I did well academically and socially. I stayed there for a year and a half, until an argument with a teacher made me want to leave. That's when I enrolled in my local high school, back in the Crenshaw District.
While at Crenshaw High, I ran track and did well academically, but my focus was on what I could do socially. The scene there was exciting. I flirted with a lot of temptation, but fortunately the experience was short-lived. I graduated from Crenshaw High in May of 1991.
My graduation present was a summer vacation in Belize. For three months I stayed with different family members in my ancestral homeland. That was a time when I should have focused on doing some necessary critical thinking. I was 18 years old, straight out of high school, and I should have had the awareness to carefully plan my next steps.
When I got back to LA, an instinct told me to get back out. I sensed a danger I couldn't put into words. Basically, I knew I identified with the inner-city male stereotype and I knew that their statistics weren't good.
Instead of confronting my self-esteem and identity crisis (I did not have the tools or skills to do that), what I did was enlist in the Marines. *sigh.*
Running from one's issues is never the answer. I reported for boot camp at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. After graduating from boot camp I returned to Camp Pendleton for additional training. Halfway through that second level of training I started having problems. I had unrealistic expectations of the world, I was immature and needed to grow up. I thought everything should have been easier than it was. I had a difficult time learning how to deal with a bureaucracy. Instead of developing genuine mental toughness and inner strength that would have seen me through, I took the (youthful) easy way out. I quit.
After my discharge from military service, I returned to LA and enrolled at West LA Community College. I attended there for two semesters. Once again I did well academically and should have kept my focus on that, because I had a bright future ahead of me, but as youth often do, I took that future for granted.
The materialistic and fast-paced partying atmosphere of West LA attracted me. In order to keep up with it, I started selling marijuana to other college kids and occasionally loaned drugs to their drug dealers. For me, selling drugs was not a lifetime decision or a full-time vocation. I also held a part-time job, right up until one month before my arrest, working for the Pizza Hut on Leimert Blvd. and 11th Ave.
I was a college kid dabbling in crime, naively believing that I had the situation under control. I thought that selling a so-called "soft drug" like marijuana, instead of hard drugs like crack cocaine, would limiting my risk of getting caught up in that life.
I was wrong.
I learned the hard way that when you are engaged in an illegal activity, it opens the door for everything to go bad. It is incredibly easy for events to slip out of control, especially if you have a weapon and any of the people involved are acting under the influence of drugs. At that point, your intentions no longer matter. I did not want to hurt anybody, but it happened nonetheless. I got arrested for two attempted murders and for a murder I did not commit.
My arrest, trial, and conviction in 1993 took a huge toll on my family. My mother was crushed. This was something most of the people in my church and community would never predict. No one saw it coming.
I was in shock too. I had never even been to jail before, much less prison. Facing three life sentences, I lost my mind. I thought my whole life was over.
But in the winter of 2000 after almost seven years in prison, I woke up, God started speaking to me. I realized that if I was to have any hope, I needed to go back to being me: not the promising but naive college student, not the Marine recruit with potential, certainly not the faux-gangsta drug dealer, but the person God intended me to become. Someone genuine, open, humble, willing to learn and longing to grow according to His patterns, not anybody else's. That was the beginning of my path of healing and spiritual discovery.
Along this path I have faced many challenges, but at each step, a power greater than myself has assisted me. I have met remarkable people and been given remarkable books, all of which continually enrich me.
I am still in prison, but I am at a stage in my life where transformation is happening and I want to share it with everybody. I have a vision and my method of sharing it is through writing books that show other prodigal sons like myself how to reach for possibilities. The books I have written so far are just the beginning. I aim to make a difference in society.
Please help me get my message heard. My book will be available to the public soon. Please support it through word of mouth and social media.
Thank you and God Bless!
You can write to me directly at:
Paul Pommells, CDCR# J34848
California Men’s Colony State Prison
PO Box 8101
San Luis Obispo, CA 93409-8101
Please do not mail any packages, just a card or a letter would be great. Any enclosed items probably won't reach me, so don't send anything except your own words and any photocopied articles or studies that you want me to read.
Or you can interact with me publicly by joining the discussion on my blog. Yes, it's a slower blog than some; I write my blog posts with pen and paper and mail them to my webmaster, who posts them for me and sends me your comments once a week by mail. As mail can take 5 to 7 days to reach me, and another 4 or 5 days to get from me to my webmaster, please allow a couple of weeks for my reply to your comments... more than that if my reply requires a lot of thought or research. But if you are patient, I love tough questions. Those are the best ones to ask, and the ones most worth striving for an answer.
Let's strive to answer these tough issues together.
Poems and spoken-word pieces about life in prison and/or lives touched by incarceration. Feel free to contribute if you like, but only if it's yours or the author sends me permission to reprint it. You'll find more "penitentiary poetry" here...
I grew up with rap and there was a time when I'd listen to it,
feel the beat, nod my head and agree with the rapper's rage.
I identified with them
from the way they dressed in sneakers and t-shirts
to the life they talked about.
I didn't live the whole life they rapped, but it was all around me.
See I grew up in South Central, right off of Crenshaw.
They were rapping about my world,
or what they saw when they walked through it.
But they didn't see everything
and I sure didn't.
None of them ever rapped about what happened after the shootouts.
Cube only made one rap about having a homeboy in a wheelchair
No one yet has rapped about the misery of having a momma or little sister on crack
And how many gangster rappers ever rapped about
what it's really like to get a life sentence
of being in prison, year after year, as members of our family
stop accepting your collect calls and start forgetting about us,
of realizing that momma is the only one who's gonna stay
in our corner till the end,
of watching her suffer as she tries to hold onto hope for us,
of realizing the indignities she goes through when she comes to visit,
of watching her go broke as she keeps accepting our phone calls
and scrapping money to visit us
and of the loneliness we experience when we go one or two years
without getting a visit.
You'll never find the sobering truth in gangsta rap.
All they see and all they rap about is their selfish and tainted picture of the neighborhood.
About Redemption Story
Redemption Story is a work of fiction. If my characters and situations resemble persons and events in real life, it is purely coincidental. But it is no surprise either. Redemption Story is loosely based on my own life, but it is not my story alone. It is a composite of the lives of many incarcerated men: their pasts, their presents, and possibly their futures.
Young men and women growing up in tough urban neighborhoods will identify with, or at least recognize, the backstories of many of my inmate characters. Most urban families have at least one relative or family friend who is incarcerated, often for very good reason. But sometimes that relative or friend's incarceration is an overreaction, a punishment that does not fit the crime if the situation were better understood... and sometimes that incarceration is a simple mistake. A mistake as simple as the ethnocentrism and prejudice that leads a victim to confidently identify someone as the perpetrator when that someone and the actual perpetrator only share the most general racial phenotype. When the real perp and the convicted person can be placed side by side, it is sometimes difficult to imagine how such a mistake could have happened. This is only one of many ways that prisons fill with minorities who either ought to be somewhere else, or who ought not be there at all.
But those mistakes are in the past. The present plight of prisoners in the State of California (which is the limit of my personal experience-- feel free to send me information about prison conditions and prisoners' stories from other states and nations) faces us in the present. Redemption Story shows how you can find and help those inmates who are ready to grow.
And Redemption Story looks to their futures as well. Sadly, the time horizon of many inmates, and also of many individuals and organizations who reach out to help them, is pitifully limited. Their futures are imaged clearly only as far as the next specific milestone: earning a GED, earning an AA degree, learning a trade, preparing for a parole hearing. After that, the vision for their future either becomes glowingly rosy and fuzzy and difficult to believe (especially for the inmate), or it simply... ceases. Vanishes. As if we cannot imagine a tangible and productive future for an inmate, whether they are released or remain in prison indefinitely. Redemption Story focuses its future-vision on just one character, but it does so in a way that will stretch and clarify the vision and fuel the hope of all who read it, inmates and their friends, families, and advocates alike.
Paul Pommells is also the author of Dear Citizens and Representatives (XLibris 2006), and several published articles – here's one.