Becoming the Change You Wish to See
Arthur J. Hamilton

“All my good years, I spent incarcerated,” says Arthur J. Hamilton, who
lived 37 years behind bars.
From ages 24 to 61, he spent time in Comstock, Attica, and the like. As
one would imagine, these were highly controlled environments: creativity and
entrepreneurship were often perceived as threats to prison administration, and
violence within was prevalent. Every person fought to establish identity, their
place amidst complex group dynamics.
But Arthur – who goes by the nickname AJ – did not despair in such an
environment. Instead, he imagined how it could be improved. He poured his
energy into activities that would maintain harmony, such as baseball games. AJ
volunteered extensively with the prison recreation department, fundraising for
events and organizing sports games. He approached the administration about
putting together a talent show for inmates. His idea was met with cynicism, but
he pressed on. With persistence and planning, he brought the first talent show to
his prison, where a series of performers showcased songs, raps, dance, and
other talents on stage.
AJ is the type that observes people scrambling in the dark and
recommends turning on a light. His wisdom is discerning yet parsed simply, in
ways that make listeners sit back and go, “Why didn’t I think of that before?”
This may seem a surprising description for someone who spent his youth
attempting to etch out his “fake reputation” (as he puts it) as a neighborhood
agitator. It was cool to be “bad” and even cooler that he eluded punishment and
consequence the farther and farther he pushed.
“I ended up killing somebody,” he recounts. It didn’t have to happen, he
says, but he had built a mindset that led him to that point.
In prison, he would have to recalibrate that mindset. Eventually, he would
ensure his long sentence would not turn into wasted years.
At Comstock, AJ met Jerome Wright and joined in the planning stages of
the Mentoring and Nurturing Program. AJ recalls those days in the early 90s
when the concept was blooming into a full-blown curriculum.
“The funny part is, the first outline of the program was written on toilet
paper,” AJ tells, explaining how the ideas were passed around by Jerome and
another man in SHU.
In 1995 they held their first M.A.N. Program meeting with a group of men
ages 18-26 years old who voluntarily signed up. The group was composed of
people from different prison gangs, which was extraordinary: individuals who
normally never interacted, except in altercations, came together under a
character-building curriculum intended to reduce violence and prepare individuals
for better futures outside of prison.
The prison administration was not keen on the meetings and initially
accused Jerome, AJ, and the other founders of “starting one big gang.” In
response, Jerome was transferred to another prison. But in usual fashion, AJ
persisted, and he held the program from collapse in Jerome’s absence.
The program uplifted many in the confines of Comstock, including AJ. He
explains how implementing the M.A.N. Program forced him to practice
introspection and empathy. “We had to connect with ourselves first before we did
it with anybody else. I started looking at myself and saying where did I go wrong,
and what did I do, or what do I need to do in order to correct myself and make
myself a better individual so that I can relate to others.”
For AJ, it seems change occurred from the outside in. He found himself
through lifting others. “At the same time I’m working for you…I’m helping myself.
Because it’s making me a better person and showing me…you can be good at
this if you stick with it.”
There is a theme in AJ’s story that continuously echoes back from his
troubled youth, from facing a potential life sentence to days fighting for a better
life even behind bars, and eventually through his release…
Without purpose, it would have been difficult to endure five parole denials
and still maintain a positive outlook. Each review cited the nature of his original
crime as a reason for denial. By his sixth and final time in front of the parole
board, AJ had served twelve extra years with his minimum sentence.
“I used to ask them sometimes, ‘The nature of the crime is never going to
change. It’s the individual that changes,” says AJ.
Finally, in 2013, approval came. With a few strokes of a pen, AJ was free.
Coming Home’s the Easy Part
Imagine you have passed thirty seven years in confinement. You haven’t
known the outside world in nearly four decades; you’ve missed the onslaught of
the internet and Information Age. Communication is faster. Gender dynamics
have changed. Your family is grown, perhaps moved away.
AJ was overwhelmed by the choices when shopping for food. For years,
his meals had been prepared for him. Now he walks through the supermarket,
feeling the fruit for ripeness, checking the meats for freshness, planning his
meals carefully so that the bananas he buys today won’t be overripe in two days.
There’s a similar process with clothes shopping. “That was an adjustment,
too: learn how to dress again,” he explains. Because infinite choices didn’t exist
in prison.
Still, AJ says that coming home was “easy.” For one, he had a support
system in place. His sister and nieces invited him to live with her in Buffalo. He
enrolled in the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) for job training. He
joined the Mayor’s Impact Team, which cleaned up properties around the city.
Through this, he managed to save up his money and create a budget so that he
wouldn’t have to rely on anyone’s assistance.
“I just kept remembering where I came from and how it was in there, as
opposed being out here and having a little more freedom.”
AJ’s success might also, in part, point back to his M.A.N. Program days:
he began working toward reentry while he was in prison, not after.
“When you’re in prison, and you’re not doing anything positive to improve
yourself, you’re going to do the same things when you are in that you were doing
in the street. So it’s time to go back in the street, your mindset is the same way it
was before you left. So when you’re back out there, you’re not looking to improve
your position in life.”
AJ was not about to fall back into old patterns. As luck would have it, he
was intended to continue his upward trajectory.
He ran into Jerome by chance. The two discussed how Jerome, who was
released a couple years earlier, was implementing the M.A.N. Program
curriculum in the community. AJ was eager to join up. Now, he works as a lead
coordinator for the program out of a high school in Rochester. He sets up
meetings, oversees the work of six other employees, and coordinates activities.
“I’m not gonna sit here and sugarcoat anything,” he says to his students.
“I’m not gonna lie to you, and I won’t respect you if you lie to me. Because if you
come to me with a problem but you’re lying to me about the problem, how can I
help you solve the problem?”
His goal is to connect with the high school students who sign up for the
program and teach them all the things he wishes he could have learned sooner.
“I come from the same place that [they’re] trying to go,” he explains. He is candid
with them about his regrets and the realities of prison life.
Sometimes the people AJ tries to help don’t follow his advice, but that
doesn’t deter him from trying. He is teaching them the lessons he learned the
hard way.