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For Years, I Didn’t Have An Outlet For Self-Growth In Prison. Now That I Do, I Can Address The Harm I’ve Caused.

Truitt Watts, who is serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole at Oregon State Correctional Institution, describes the programs that helped him recover from addiction and address his past.

Illustration by Cameron Wray.

“Left Behind,” a collaboration between The Appeal and Oregon Justice Resource Center, presents firsthand accounts of growing up in prison from individuals sentenced as children to 25 years-to-life. Inspired by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits the imposition of a mandatory sentence of death in prison for children, this series reveals the humanity of those given life sentences by asking: What obligations do we have as a community of not leaving them behind? Each of the primary authors is incarcerated in the Oregon state correctional system.

My crime was about family. When I committed it, I thought I was doing it to protect my parents. I was delusional and psychotic from using drugs daily, but, in my mind, I was keeping them safe. I convinced myself that my victim Randy was dangerous, and that it was on me to do something about him. He hung around our home, where drugs were easy to come by and my parents didn’t care much for rules. As I struggled to slow down the growing addiction I had slipped into, I thought I saw an imminent threat in Randy’s habit of always returning to our house, despite my best efforts to deter him. I attacked him with a knife, feeling like I had no other choice. Tragically, the wound was fatal.

Afterward, I waited for the police to arrive, and I admitted what had happened. It was July 12, 2003, and that was the last time I would see my childhood home. The officers took me into custody, and the next day I woke up in a county jail. At first, I couldn’t remember why I was there. I was 17, naked, and afraid. I had no idea what was going on; the guard had to tell me I was being charged with murder.

Within a day or two, I was taken to the psych doctor to be evaluated. The doctors asked me straight whether I wanted uppers or downers. I was an addict. I wasn’t going to say no to free drugs. I didn’t understand that this was part of how the system works. They call it “chemical suppression,” and I was well on my way to the mental numbness the system inflicts to control large numbers of incarcerated people.

I failed the first test of my mental competence to stand trial but still ended up shipped back to county jail for a second try. The night before that second psych evaluation, the psych doctor prepped me by telling me what to say. But I still didn’t have a clue why a man kept knocking on the door to my cell, or how I was supposed to answer his questions. I didn’t understand what was going on. I needed to detox, sleep, and eat. Most of all, I needed a hug. 

A few months later, the district attorney offered me a plea deal: plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter and serve a little over six years in prison. My public defenders advised me to refuse. They claimed it was “too much time” and that I “shouldn’t serve more than two or three years for what happened.” In their view, if the DA wouldn’t offer a plea of negligent homicide, then we should take our chances at trial. I didn’t understand how serious my position was or how badly things could go if I lost. Plus, I was reassured by my attorney’s confidence and my faith in their professional expertise. That was a terrible mistake. At the end of a weeklong trial, I was convicted of murder and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after a 25-year minimum. I nearly threw up right there in court. I thought my life was over. No one wanted to hear my side of the story, as I had naively believed. They only wanted to bury me in prison and forget about me—another “super-predator” gone.

When I arrived at prison, the counselor told me my sentence meant there were no programs available to me. The prison’s administration, he said, reserves the limited cognitive behavioral therapy and other treatment classes available for people who will be leaving prison soon; it doesn’t “waste” them on people like me. I was advised to “get comfortable and try to stay out of trouble.”

There I was—alone and lost in a crowded, unfamiliar, and hostile environment. I was young and susceptible to the influences around me. I quickly learned that there are two sets of rules inside: the administration’s and the “convict code.” It seemed better to follow the latter, which would help my reputation and boost my chances of being accepted. As the days blurred together, I heard men on the yard ranting about how twisted the system is. I watched as bored people sought entertainment by creating drama out of nothing as we walked endless circles. 

At night, I had nothing to distract me from how badly I had fucked up. I sat in a five-foot-by-seven-and-a-half-foot cell with another man, trying to forget the chaos and destruction we had left behind us. We lie silent in our suffering with nothing to think about but our torments, our problems, and our deep loneliness. I grew to hate myself and used it as my armor. I began getting into trouble for fighting; my first fight landed me in “the hole” for six months, which turned into years of bad decisions spent in and out of solitary, not caring about anyone, including myself.

When I reached my mid-20s, a shift finally happened. I began to detach from prison politics and the people I’d been hanging around with who weren’t good for my growth. I had nothing to do except run on the hamster wheel. I was still excluded from programs I needed to make a transformation.

Around this time, I decided to get off the pills. Most of the time, I was just selling them and abusing my prescription anyway. A friend persuaded me to give Narcotics Anonymous a try. Despite my skepticism, I agreed to tag along. That first meeting was one of the most powerful moments in my short life. I found out I wasn’t alone in my suffering, experience, or desire to change. I got a sponsor and started working the steps into recovery. 

A guy from NA offered me a job as a plumber. I jumped at the chance to learn trade skills. I rose to becoming lead plumber of the prison I was in for nearly five years before I was transferred. Now I had something to be proud of, something I could write home about. By this point, my parents had separated and had gotten clean themselves. One day, a few months into my sobriety, my dad sent a postcard telling me he was proud of me and that I should keep up the good work. I’m not sure if I’d ever heard that from him before, and it meant a lot. It helped me realize that working to improve myself was one of the best things I could do for my family and community.

The day after I received the postcard, I was summoned to the captain’s office. I figured it must be a plumbing job because I knew I hadn’t gotten into any trouble. I was mistaken. They coldly told me my dad had died. It seemed like a cruel joke, but they let me make a phone call, and I learned that my dad had had a massive heart attack and died at just 57 years old. My brother told me it felt like the day I was locked up: now two of his close family members were gone. I was crushed by the loss of my dad, and that loss was compounded by when I realized how much pain I had caused through my incarceration. 

While my fledgling sobriety was shaken by my dad’s death, his words of encouragement inspired me to keep going. I could see now how my selfishness and addiction had destroyed so much beyond myself. Through the twelve steps, I began to see many of my character flaws clearly. I also became committed to making amends and addressing my mistakes. 

After that, I really began to push to get into any program I could find. I got in touch with my counselor and explained what I needed, but I heard the same as before: state programs are reserved for those who will be leaving prison. This time, I wasn’t going to accept their rejection. I bypassed my counselor and started going to religious services programs such as grief recovery and anger management. I took a few classes about self-awareness and self-management, I attended anything I could get into. 

I was transferred to a different prison a few years ago, where I have found a lot more classes available, thanks to volunteers. I dove in headfirst. While the pandemic has interrupted some of our activities, I have been participating in a class on restorative justice. Although I have been in prison for years, I had never been asked what led me to commit my crime and how I could work on restoration until I began this class.

For a long time, I felt like I was the victim of an unjust system, and I regarded Randy as my only victim. Now I understand how far the harm of crime can spread. This understanding has made me really think about all the consequences of my actions. I had victimized not just Randy, but also his family, my family, and our community. I discovered how people in the community blamed my parents for what I senselessly did, and I learned about the drama my little cousins dealt with at school over my actions. Buried in the system as I was, I had no idea what I had put them all through.

How I think about myself, what I did, and the situation I’m in has shifted over the years. I’ve had a lot of struggles with changing my life, but I can look back now and see the progress I’ve made. I hope that I will get a second chance one day to rejoin my family and the community outside these walls—where I can prove what kind of man I have grown to be. If I do, I know my labor to heal the harm I have caused will then truly begin.

Truitt Watts is serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. He resides at Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem. This column was edited by Alice Lundell, director of communication for the Oregon Justice Resource Center.