In July 2016, I stood behind a podium in a San Diego banquet hall and wept in front of a room full of reporters. I’d just been named the city’s journalist of the year for my work on a series that helped unseat a school board president and led to a criminal conviction.
I had reached a peak: I had a meaningful job in a postcard-perfect beach city. A wife I loved, a gorgeous baby girl and another on the way. Most everywhere I went, people told me I had a beautiful family, and I knew it was true.
That night in San Diego, I believed I’d finally left behind my past – one defined by alcoholism and the time I’d spent in jail because of it. Until that point, most of my adult life had consisted of rises and falls brought on by alcohol and erratic behavior: I’d find a job, work well for a while, start drinking booze, start smoking crack, lose the job or the girlfriend, sometimes go to jail, then start the cycle over.
“The local reporter who toppled a school board president is an ex-convict who nearly missed getting an education in his craft,” read the lede of a local news story after I received the award.
It would have made for a cinematic ending, had the tape stopped that night. But mine is not a redemption story – the kind where the underdog overcomes the odds, defeats the demons, and moves in a clean line toward a life of fulfillment.
A few months after that night in the banquet hall, a familiar voice returned, one that told me my fortune had changed and I could now have it all: the family, the career and the booze. It was another lie, a decision that quickly upturned everything I’d accomplished in the six years since I’d left jail. And this time it nearly cost my life.
I’m still here, and I’m still writing. Today, I’m a reporter for Guardian US, and I’m about to embark on a year-long investigative project in my native Wisconsin.
Over the years, as I’ve written about communities of color pushing back against the forces that oppress them, I’ve come to understand that addiction is like the criminal justice system – it imprints on you and calls you back, even when you think you’re free. As America wrestles with questions on policing, incarceration and who, exactly, is deserving of second chances, I’ve seen how the past can cling to us, like a ghost. Change is possible, I’ve learned, but also messy. And success is far from guaranteed.
Time for school
The morning of 5 January 2010, I heard the jangle of the jailer’s keys before he reached the door to the cell. “Koran!” he yelled. “Time for school.”
I slid off my bunk, shuffled past a dozen men sleeping in orange jumpsuits, and stepped into a Wisconsin winter as still as a meat locker. For a moment, I stood alone, stunned by the silence and sunlight.
I was 28 and it was day 103 of my sentence in a rural Wisconsin jail, where I was serving time for a burglary conviction after I got caught breaking into a hometown bar and making off with a bottle of vodka.
I’d been walking past the empty bar, intoxicated, when I kicked open its door, sat on a barstool, and poured myself a beer. On my way out, I grabbed a bottle, then nearly bumped into a passing cop on patrol. I thought about fleeing – dashing between houses, hiding in someone’s garage – but I was injured and wearing a walking cast; weeks earlier I’d broken my leg slipping on an icy street in Denver. I was drunk then, too.
“I stopped the defendant to see what he was carrying,” the arresting officer wrote in a police report, referring to the bottle of Vox Vodka I’d stashed in my coat. “I asked the subject where he got the bottle and he stared at the ground and told me he screwed up.”
I was booked into jail and later released on bond on the condition that I didn’t drink, not one drop. If I broke this rule, I’d go back to jail – which is exactly what happened, again and again, each time carrying a new charge of bail jumping.
I’d had minor scrapes with Wisconsin law enforcement before – a DUI, underage drinking – but hadn’t before faced felony charges. When I went before the judge for sentencing, he made clear he was sick of seeing my face in his courtroom.
“Go and do the time that, sadly, your behavior has brought upon you so that nobody has to put up with this abysmal behavior, this waste of a human life that you are presenting,” he said before pounding his gavel, according to the court transcripts.
Including the four months I’d already served, I’d spend just shy of a full year behind bars with seven years on probation. But the judge also gave me an opening that turned out to be pivotal: if I found a job, or enrolled in college, I’d be released from jail to work or go to class, so long as I returned for nights and weekends.
At first, I took a janitorial job, only because it let me leave jail. But on my first day of work, as I picked up a Rolling Stone magazine to clean a coffee table, a flyer for Rolling Stone’s 35th annual college journalism contest slid out and landed on the floor.
I knew nothing about journalism. But I was abruptly filled with a profound certainty that I’d just glimpsed the path I needed to follow. That day, I started making plans to enroll in school, take a journalism class and write that story. And that’s how I found myself outside the jail on a brutal January morning, on my way to a nearby university.
My return to school felt at once familiar and foreign, like I’d escaped from jail and was on the lam as an imposter student. I wasn’t yet entirely sure what it meant to be a felon, but I knew for certain it was shameful and gross. As if one false move could trigger an alarm, alerting muscled cops who’d come running to haul me back to jail.
Still, I kept going. And, over time, I felt slowly more at home in the outside world.
One day before school, a classmate pulled me aside. She had an ability to see ghosts, she said, and wanted me to know I had one attached to me. Not all my classmates knew I was coming to class from jail, but she did. And this ghost, she explained, was responsible for my problems.
It shook me. I’m agnostic about the afterlife, but I’ve obsessed over ghosts my whole life. When I was a child, the thought kept me awake until the sun rose. Even as an adult, I ask most everyone I meet whether they’ve ever seen one. For a moment, I mulled over the possibility of an attached spirit before eventually deciding her assessment was garbage. Besides, who was she to suggest I had problems?
The truth is, the consequences I’d like to blame on a passenger ghost are really the result of plain old alcoholism – which, when combined with just the right amount of anxiety and depression, looks more like active psychosis.
I’ve said dark, mortifying things and made appalling messes, behavior I can’t square with the person I understand myself to be. It wasn’t me! It was the alcohol! I’d love to claim, but the argument is complicated by the inconvenient fact that it was me, regardless of whether I can account for what I was thinking.
If someone asked why I’d ever touch alcohol in face of such consequences, I wouldn’t have an answer, other than to say that the havoc alcohol wreaked on my life was directly proportional to my desire to drink it.
Invariably, once enough time had passed since the last crisis – whether days or years – I’d forget the humiliation of the last bender and convince myself that alcohol was the key to the missing piece of me and the only logical choice was to drink it. This time, the outcome will be different, I’d sincerely swear. But it never was.
My drinking career – most but not all of which happened before the year I spent in jail – was framed by job changes and visits to psychiatric hospitals. Much of that time I remember only in morbid snapshots. Here are some of the hazy mental polaroids I carry with me:
Pounding on a window in a south Florida psychiatric hospital, where I was being involuntarily committed, to ask the counselor: was he aware the walls of the waiting room were covered with feces and also that it was super cold in there and I needed a blanket?
Waking up in a drunk tank in Madison, Wisconsin, and asking the counselor why the back of my head hurt so badly. The night before, he said, I’d been standing, talking to him, when mid-sentence I lost consciousness, rocked back on my heels and landed squarely on the crown of my head. “It sounded wet, like a watermelon hitting the pavement,” he told me. “Honestly, the sound made me want to vomit. I thought you were dead.”
Night-time hours spent foraging on the carpet, stash depleted, searching in a bug-eyed frenzy for a piece of crack I thought I dropped, then stuffing it into a pipe and lighting it. I’ve smoked various items that turned out not to be crack. Common mistakes include drywall, spackle, flecks of dried cheese, and, in one unfortunate instance, a flake of human skin. I recommend smoking none of them.
So much happened so fast that some nights I lie awake and wonder how much of it had actually happened and how much I dreamed. Why I’m still alive, and what I’m supposed to do now, are questions I’ve learned to leave until morning.
Once you’re in the system ...
When I arrived at Aaron Hicks’ apartment in Madison, I found him huddled in his room with the shades drawn. Hicks had spent 12 years in prison. After his release, the state required him to wear a monitor around his ankle so his probation agent would know his whereabouts at all times.
But that morning, the device wouldn’t stop beeping – a sign, he knew from experience, that the cops were on their way to arrest him and take him to jail.
It was 2012. By that point, I was working as an intern at an investigative news organization, Wisconsin Watch, while I studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin. For months, I’d been trying to verify claims from Hicks and a dozen others that the GPS devices the state ordered them to wear routinely malfunctioned, landing them in jail when they’d done nothing wrong. Records showed Hicks’ device had put him in jail a dozen times, for a total of 74 days. That day in his apartment, I watched it happen.
“It’s almost like taking on a new normal,” Hicks told me before turning himself in that day. “If you’re trying to move on with your life, and you’ve got these barriers, you just want to give up.”
Hicks, who is Black, grew up on Milwaukee’s east side. His mother had multiple sclerosis and he never knew his father. As a Latino, I’m also overrepresented in prison numbers, but by comparison, I came from privilege. I was raised in a two-parent household and went to school in a community where the only gunshots I heard were the distant sounds of hunting rifles. Still, when it came to the department of corrections, Hicks and I were similarly hosed.
Like Hicks, I was on probation, answerable to an agent who made sure I was following a byzantine list of rules, some of which can be invasive and absurd.
Hicks, for example, couldn’t stay at home with his wife and daughter, even though his crimes related to neither. He’d fallen into debt while facing monthly fees for the ankle monitor, even as his malfunctioning device made it harder for him to find regular work. At one point, as a photographer and I documented his story, Hicks’ agent forbade him from speaking to us.
Failing to live by probation rules can land you back behind bars, which is partly why nearly half all people admitted to state prisons are there for a violation of probation or parole.
Probation agents have a lot of discretion over your freedom – a more lenient agent will offer second chances if you break rules; a hardliner is more likely to lock you up. Hicks had the latter kind (I’ve had both).
Wisconsin Watch eventually published a story with enough evidence that it caught the attention of state lawmakers, who read aloud portions of the story during a legislative meeting before calling for a program audit.
The story didn’t solve the problem, but Hicks told me the device malfunctioned less often and he spent less time in jail after the story ran. He eventually made it off probation, but due to a quirk in state law, he will have to wear the ankle monitor for the rest of his life – “a modern-day ball and chain”, he told me for this story.
I didn’t have it as bad as Hicks, but I also know what it feels like to wear an ankle monitor – the way it chafes your skin; the way it bulges from your pants leg, signaling to the world: I am a dangerous person. How it breaks a household budget, as you’re trying to raise children, because your probation agent says you have to pay hundreds a month for the device and the “privilege” to live in the community.
I’ve also learned not to talk about these things – not so much because I worry I’ll be seen as sketchy but as a whiner: it’s hard to feel sympathy for someone if you see their woes as self-inflicted.
Several years ago, I made it off probation, too. But I now understand how a felony conviction shadows you until the end.
This year I wrote a story about why I chose to live in what’s essentially a college dorm for grown-ups when I moved to the Bay Area for my job at the Guardian. What I didn’t say in that piece, however, was perhaps the biggest reason I chose to live there: it was one of the few places I found that would accept me as a tenant.
Most housing applications require a background check, which is how I found myself in the strange position of having a job and plenty of money for an apartment, yet unable to find a landlord who would rent to me.
It was a real problem; even Airbnb banned me from their platform, citing my criminal record. For a moment, I wondered whether I’d have to commute to my job from a homeless shelter.
In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander describes the ways in which criminal records result in a permanent loss of rights and legalized discrimination, one that disproportionately disenfranchises Black and Latino communities. “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” she writes.
Individually, these forces can keep people stuck. Collectively, they devastate communities.
A 2013 study found that roughly half of all Black men in their 30s and 40s living in Milwaukee county had spent time behind bars. There, researchers found the highest incarceration rate for Black men in the nation – creating a generation of children who grow up without their fathers.
The past 10 years have taught me it’s possible to break destructive cycles. But whether it’s addiction or incarceration, it takes intentional effort to reverse momentum.
At the individual level, that means doing what it takes, every day, to turn away from the choices that destroy you. At a broader level, it might mean revisiting the policies that perpetuate barriers to opportunity – or even simply doing what we can to help the person next to us.
Of course, we can choose to do none of these things. But if so, we have to live with the results, which will inevitably be more of the same.
Today, Hicks works with other formerly incarcerated men, supporting them and sharing his own experience – learning to harness the force of his own story as he empowers others to do the same.
“I refuse to let someone else tell my narrative,” Hicks said. “Despite what I’ve been through, I’m still here.”
The meaning of redemption
The insidious part of addiction is that it damages the part of your brain that’s able to recognize your own bullshit. That is, the booze-addled part will tell you every day that you can now safely manage a drink, maybe three. Over time, if you’re not careful, you’re bound to listen to it.
And so it was that a few months after that night in a San Diego banquet hall, I picked up a drink and casually set fire to the life I’d built with five years’ sobriety.
My marriage quickly careened toward divorce – a fallout framed by the hurt and broken trust known uniquely to those who have watched addiction turn family members into people they don’t recognize.
Outside of questions of blame and culpability, the loss of my family as I knew it was catastrophic. Even after everything else, this was the Dark Time, a period marked by bouts of round-the-clock drinking that only ended with a sense of defeat and the knowledge alcohol no longer numbed like it used to.
When the pain of drinking finally outweighed the fear of stopping, and I limped into rehab, the counselor looked up from the notes she’d jotted as I talked and told me frankly: “You’re going to die if you keep on the way you’re going, Mario. And I don’t say that to everyone.”
Looking back, it’s not what she said that troubles me. It’s the fact that I didn’t care. Such is the selfishness that addiction encourages: so profound that it blinds you from seeing how even in death you’d be leaving a mess for others to deal with.
But just as remarkable as addiction’s ability to destroy is a person’s ability to heal when the drugs and drinks are removed. For me, that started slowly, bit by bit, as an image of the person I was before the booze shifted into focus.
I’ve spent most of the past year away from my children, who have lived with their mom in Wisconsin. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t partly relieved that while I had time to focus on writing and recovery, their mom has shouldered the heavy burden of caring for our kids during pandemic-triggered school closures.
But this is an admission I have to make so that you’ll believe me when I say what’s every bit as true – that I’ve missed and worried about my children and spent every day away from them feeling like I had a knot in my throat and a hole where the best and most important piece of me should live.
And yet, if addiction cost me time with my daughters, writing has helped me find a way back to them. I recently landed a fellowship, an unexpected stroke of fortune, that will bring me back to report on the city where they live and the schools they attend.
For me, writing is like that. Even as an inmate scratching out his first piece of journalism from the library of a rural Wisconsin jail, it’s always carried me through. I did write that story for Rolling Stone magazine, by the way. I never heard back – not so much as a confirmation email – but it doesn’t matter. Somewhere in the effort, I found a purpose.
Today, life is trending upward. But I no longer believe in redemption. At least not the kind that happens all at once, with an act so selfless that it absolves all sins. I think redemption is something a person earns little by little and has nothing to do with prestige, money or accomplishments.
Deliverance looks different for everyone. But for me, the only redemption that counts is making good on the commitment I make each day to never let my daughters say their daddy could have been a part of their lives but chose not to.
Slowly, too, I’m coming to terms with the idea of happiness – which I no longer believe comes down to the sum total of joy over tragedy. Instead, I think happiness consists of the satisfaction we wrest from life with wide-eyed awareness of the people we’ve lost or the things we’d do differently. And I’m convinced that the older we get, and the more people we say goodbye to, the truer that becomes.
I once had a sponsor, someone who guided me through the 12 steps of a recovery program, who said his goal in life was to find such zenlike faith in God that he would be able to stare into a shitstorm with a smile on his face – an expression, I could tell by the tone in his voice, that he meant literally.
I’m not much for religion or talk of God, but I recently bought a used bike, a beat-up piece of junk I’m fixing as I go. I take long rides along the craggy shoreline of the San Francisco Bay, looking past Alcatraz Island and toward the ocean of empty blue behind it.
There, I’ve discovered, if I pedal hard enough for long enough, my legs scream so loud they drown out every other voice in my head. And in that quiet clarity I find a new and sudden sense of gratitude to be alive right there, in that very moment, no matter what has happened or what comes next.