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I set a date with him for the following week, so that I had time to mentally prepare for it. My biggest challenge would be sharing a room with three other men. There was only one two-man room at Bachelor Flats, and the chance of landing there was slim to none. It was a privilege, offered to the employed resident with the longest stay, once the room became vacant. On average, a resident might be in the program for up to nine months before getting a shot at it.

That following week, on October 6, 2008, I took a day off work to move back into Bachelor Flats. Once again, the program was filled with newcomers who were not focused. Guys were getting kicked out for dirty drug tests on a regular basis. The other big problem was females. Guys would meet a girl and go AWOL to spend the night with her. Some would even discharge from the program with their savings and move in with a girl, but then the girl would kick them out once the money was spent.

The unemployment rate was also high when I returned, and because of that, there was an opening in the two-man room. The other guys who had been in the program before me were content where they were, so I was offered a spot in the upper bunk in that two-man room. I was elated. Until I made it upstairs.

The door to the room was open, and my new roommate had his back to me. His shirt was off, so the first thing I saw was the “White Power” tattoo proudly displayed on his back. I was used to seeing these tattoos in prison, but not in the same room with me. Being roommates with a member of the Aryan Brotherhood was more than I could fathom. My thoughts started to scramble but were abruptly cut short when he spun around without warning and looked at me straight on.

To my surprise, he broke out with a smile and reached out to shake hands. “Benny,” he introduced himself, as he waved me in. He headed toward the closet.

“You can use this side to hang your clothes.” He took inventory of my bags. “I’ve been here about four months,” he said, “and have saved roughly $2800 so far. I’m working at the shipyard. I leave at six, get back about three, shower, watch a li’l TV, and talk on the phone with my girlfriend. You can watch the tube whenever you want. And, oh, yeah; here’s the coffee pot. Let me show you how to use it.” He showed me where he kept the coffee and offered it whenever I wanted.

Benny was cool. He didn’t have the typical appearance of most white-power prison-gang members. Most of those guys had long hair or bald heads. Their entire bodies were saturated with race-related ink.

In contrast, Benny was clean-cut. He had only a couple of tattoos and a barber haircut. With a shirt on, he looked like your average white guy. Most drug dealers might even suspect him of being an undercover police officer. I would.

Benny and I talked every day after work and then we did our own thing, him on the phone with his girlfriend, and me reading or writing. Neither of us ever talked about prison. It was what it was. As long as we got along now, that’s all that mattered.

I came into the program on a Tuesday. That next Friday, when I returned from work, Benny was ecstatic. He told me that he’d landed a job making $25 an hour. It was some type of skilled construction that he was experienced with, and he was happy as a lark.

Benny was scheduled to start on Monday, so I took off on Sunday morning to spend the day out. I wanted to let him collect his thoughts and get ready for his big day in peace. However, when I returned to sign in before the 8:00 p.m. curfew, a staff worker at the front desk stopped me.

“What room are you in?” he asked.

I could sense that something was wrong. “Room 12,” I said.

“Okay, so, you’re Benny’s roommate, right?”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“The medical examiner just took your roommate out. He was found deceased up there a few hours ago. I need for you to go upstairs and pack his property for his family. They should be here soon. We don’t know what is yours or his, so we were waiting for you.”

Benny had overdosed and died right there on the floor. I guess it was his last hurrah before starting work, which to me was even more reason not to use. I was very upset and disappointed. I was disappointed with Benny, but I was also disturbed by the fact that other guys in the house were in on the drugs with him when the accident happened. Maybe they chose not to get help because it would have implicated them?

I also don’t believe that Benny was a regular user at the time. He may have been in the past, but his system was not accustomed to it at the time. That’s why it was so easy for him to overdose. He probably died quickly.

Later that night, I received a call from the program director, Ms. Turner. She asked me if I wanted to relocate, but I was afraid that I might lose my two-man room status, so I stayed. I had taken Benny’s television and radio downstairs, and after the mandatory lights-out rule at 10:00, I spent the night alone in a dark and quiet room. I slept in the top bunk, and after Benny’s death, I remained there, leaving his bed empty for three days before I moved down to the lower bunk. I exchanged mattresses, as well.

Most residents thought that I was weird for staying in the room, but I was thinking the same thing about them for not moving in. I wondered why hardcore convicted felons and gang members would have a problem with staying in a room that someone died in, but not have a conscience about all the people they have hurt or killed in their pasts.

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Comments

Hiyellared Nov. 7, 2012 @ 7:23 p.m.

Curtis is someone I knew of back in the day. As well as Kenny Davis and Alvin Smith "Capone", used to see them around the way and some of same people that he named.

Curtis although you been through the things (All on your accord/admittance) that you have. Glad to see that you have changed your life for the better, sometimes it takes some longer than others, but NO MATTER the length of time you did it/made it through.

Every day is a struggle, but without them you can't Move Forward. Keep your head up and keep pushing Forward.

Carolynn

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Jay Allen Sanford Nov. 7, 2012 @ 9:13 p.m.

Powerful and riveting story -- could be the Reader's best cover feature this year --

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jenjen Nov. 7, 2012 @ 10:42 p.m.

Should be required reading for high school kids. No glamor here.

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LosPlumasHombre Nov. 8, 2012 @ 9:39 a.m.

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

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SurfPuppy619 Nov. 8, 2012 @ 10:12 a.m.

Author has a story to tell, a good story, and tell it he did.

Should make this into a book, it would work.

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Elizabeth Salaam Nov. 8, 2012 @ 1:36 p.m.

Wow, Curtis. What an amazing transformation. I'm inspired by your fortitude. I know it can't be easy out there. And your candid, self-reflective storytelling makes for a seriously compelling read. Nice work.

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Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Nov. 8, 2012 @ 1:57 p.m.

Excellent job, Curtis. Congratulations for taking control of your life and responsibility for your actions.

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maria52 Nov. 19, 2012 @ 11:13 a.m.

Curtis: glad you showed mainstream just exactly what phenomenol odds you were up against... and you made it! Wow! This story gripped me and did not let go...I even cried. I've seen many, many in your situation, and most don't make it. You told this story beautifully: sweet poingnancy coupled with pierciing reality. You should write a book. You've got talent up the ying-yang!

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curtis Nov. 30, 2012 @ 9 p.m.

Hi Maria, it's me Curtis! Glad you read the article with an open mind. I appreciate your review. I have in fact written four(4) books. I received great news the other day from someone who is willing to sponsor me on having my latest book self-published! It's called "Cellmates & Cellouts". It's basically an extended version of the article with many more episodes, trials, and tribulations. If you enjoyed the article, you will love the book. I'll sign it for you when it's done. Thanks again! Curtis howard

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SurfPuppy619 Dec. 1, 2012 @ 3:57 p.m.

I received great news the other day from someone who is willing to sponsor me on having my latest book self-published! It's called "Cellmates & Cellouts". It's basically an extended version of the article with many more episodes, trials, and tribulations. If you enjoyed the article, you will love the book. I'll sign it for you when it's done. Thanks again! Curtis howard

That's weird, I was thinking the exact same thing, expand the article into a book by adding in some more stories from the hood and/or the Joint. Great minds think alike.

I'll buy a copy too. As long as you don't jam me for more than a C-note.........

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MsSunshine Aug. 23, 2013 @ 10:59 a.m.

Hello Mr. Howard your story had me in tears to hear the struggle you went through to get to where you are today. I hope things has gotten even better for you. I have a 63 year old uncle who is going through similar situations out there in San Diego as your were in the beginning. I'm praying he surrenders and gives it all up. I am looking forward to reading the book. Blessing and Peace to You!

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