We hear about environmental and social activists making waves in our society but what about the stories from our previously incarcerated? The humans who succumbed to the stereotypes and still found a way to make a slash for equality. Marlon Peterson is not only a man, but a survivor turned prison reform activist. An activist who turned his past into not only an inspiration for those in the system, but a lesson for those who don’t understand how the system works.
In 1999, when Marlon was 19 years old, he was arrested and charged with first degree murder, several counts of attempted murder, attempted robbery, and several counts of criminal use of a weapon. Marlon was convicted of first-degree assault and third-degree weapons possession and was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2002.
As a prisoner in the New York State Department of Correctional Services, he became Identification Number (DIN) 02A3172. The point of this new “name” was to force the incarcerated man to shed any negativity associated with his name prior to his incarceration and afford him a new beginning. In theory, Marlon believed this was a good idea for a fresh start away from his past. But in prison, he said he spent a lot of time watching people become prisoners. The new name and the new routine, in the end, rob you of your uniqueness and history that is associated with your real name.
Marlon said he had a choice: You can either ignore the possibility of healthy beginning, which is what incarceration does to most men and women, or you can start a new set of footprints.
Marlon Peterson chose the latter.
Instead of letting his circumstance control his destination, Marlon set out to create change. Change for those with similar stories of poverty, incarceration and reentering society. He not only changed his life around but also his mindset. Marlon was insistent upon not letting his criminal record define who he was as a human being.
During Marlon’s time in prison he earned an Associate Degree in Criminal Justice with Honors. He spent the last five years of his incarceration as the head of the Transitional Services Center where he created programming and curricula for men nearing release from incarceration. He also created and designed an experiential workshop for incarcerated men and college students from Vassar College called, “Vassar & Otisville–Two Communities Bridging the Gap.”
While incarcerated, Marlon collaborated with friend, author, and founding principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, Dr. Nadia Lopez, to create a letter correspondence mentorship program with middle school students. This program set the foundation for the creation of H.O.L.L.A. (How Our Lives Link Altogether), featured in the Netflix documentary, The 13th.
Marlon’s letter to, Author and friend, Nadia while in prison:
“As the youngest of three children, I grew up with the need to always fit in with others. I was the valedictorian of my elementary school in the sixth grade. I also wrote for the Fort Greene News at the age of 11 in a program sponsored by Spike Lee and Nike. As a matter of fact, I had just finished the seventh grade when I wrote for that newspaper. I also wrote for my junior high school newspaper. At fifteen, I was granted an internship at the NYC Opera while also taking journalism classes at my high school, Martin Luther King Jr.
I barely graduated from high school, then went on to NYC Technical College right there on Jay St. and dropped only one year later. After that, I went to Apex Technical School. Twelve days before my twentieth birthday, in October of 1999, I made international news in connection with an attempted robbery and double murder in Manhattan.
Six years later, you’re hearing from me from behind bars.
As I sat on that filthy floor in central booking smelling mixtures of human waste and vomit, I tearfully asked myself, “How did this happen?” I never saw it coming—or did I? In the weeks thereafter, my father almost died, my mother and sister were walking zombies, my brother was delirious, and my 11-year old nephew was without his best friend/uncle/big brother.
How did a nerdy little kid dressing up in suits and ties, knocking on doors preaching “Watchtower and Awake!” end up on trial for attempted murder?
I have a cousin that was a Crip and a friend that was Blood. When I was home I would try to do what I could to steer them in the right direction and discourage their reckless lifestyles. The weird thing is that they never served more than a couple months in jail. While not wishing they would ever be caught in my situation, I couldn’t help but wonder how it is that I’m mentoring these young brothers to stay away from the nonsense in the ‘hood and here I am sharing a shower with brothers I don’t even know in a prison bathroom.
Initially, I was able to find an answer to those questions, at least partially. This part of the answer can be summed up in two quotes: “Do not be misled, bad associations spoil useful habits.”-1 Corinthians 15:33, and, “He that is walking with wise persons will become wise, be he that is having dealings with stupid persons will fare badly.” –Proverbs 13:20 NWT
The second part of the answer took me a couple of years to realize. In life you do not get to choose your consequences, only your actions. Prison life requires that I constantly reiterate things like this to myself since insanity is always one step away. And insanity is slick. It creeps up you. You are usually too far gone to even you realize it you’ve been swallowed by it.
I want to leave you a poem. It is untitled, but maybe you all can give it a title for me. Until next time…
…That gentle, exquisite, beautiful bird sings to
release that frustration.
It sings in defiance with the words:
No matter what you think of me,
no matter how you treat me,
no matter how or what you feed me,
no matter what you do to me;
I may be a caged bird,
but I will always be beautiful.
Love and guidance.
Life After Prison: Writer, Youth Development Expert and Youth Advocate
After prison, Marlon was honored by Ebony Magazine as one of America’s 100 most influential and inspiring leaders in the Black community. He is also an Aspen Ideas Festival Scholar and Fall 2016 TED Resident. He is the host of the Decarcerated podcast, which highlights the journeys of success of people who have spent time in prison. Marlon is also the founder and chief re-imaginator of The Precedential Group, a social justice consulting firm.
During his time in prison he earned an Associates Degree in Criminal Justice with Honors. Marlon spent the last five years of his incarceration as the head of the Transitional Services Center where he created programming and curricula for men nearing release from incarceration. He also spearheaded and designed an experiential workshop for incarcerated men and college students from Vassar College called, “Vassar & Otisville–Two Communities Bridging the Gap.”
Since his release from prison in December 2009, Marlon has held several nonprofit positions. He is the former Director of Community Relations at The Fortune Society, and previously served as the Associate Director of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, founding coordinator of Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets, and co-founder of How Our Lives Link Altogether (H.O.L.L.A!). Marlon earned a BS in Organizational Behavior from New York University five years after his release from prison.
Marlon also serves as board chair of Families For Freedom and board member of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.
His writings have appeared in The Nation, Ebony, Gawker, The Crime Report, Black Press USA, Huff Post, and other online publications. He believes people who have experiences similar to his have the opportunity to inspire and share new precedents for what justice looks like. He considers all the work he does people work.
Marlon currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, and frequents the home of his parents, Trinidad & Tobago.
Marlon’s thoughts on inner city police interaction and what we can do to fix the gap between the black and blue word:
Marlon’s story is not only an inspiration for those who are in the system but also a guide to rising above adversity. His story is a reminder to every single person alive that your circumstance does not define your future. That any attempt to discourage growth can be conquered. Most importantly that you have the freedom to create, dream, love, act and grow because the time is now.