Joshua Barnes was formerly incarcerated in various New York prisons for 20 years. He was found guilty of murder in the second degree in 1989 at age 19.
The prisons he served time in were Downstate, Elmira Correctional Facility, and Sing Sing. He also served time in juvenile hall at age 15, when he went to Spofford, a juvenile detention center in the Bronx. He spent two months there.
About his experience at Spofford, he said, “It was 1985. There were so many young people that were incarcerated. I had no idea until I got there. That’s when I realized this was like a warehouse for a lot of young minorities.”
While incarcerated, over two decades, he gave his life up to God, and he credits that with helping him to make it through his time with no problems. He lives and works in New York today.
This is his in-depth interview on his experience with the prison system, what could most be improved, and the greatest lessons he learned.
Q: What year did you first go to prison and in which facilities did you serve?
Barnes: First I went to Spofford, when I was 15. It was 1985. There were so many young people that were incarcerated. I had no idea until I got there. That’s when I realized this was like a warehouse for a lot of young minorities.
Then I sort of graduated. Because they made it so comfortable for us, I don’t think I took it seriously.
I ended up committing different crimes -- selling drugs. That was a new thing in 1986. And that’s what I was released to. The crack epidemic. Young people buying big cars.
So I was so tempted that I got involved.
I always said I would never hurt anyone, but I didn’t know how bad the addiction to money and the lifestyle of having nice things was. And I ended up feeling I needed to protect that image, that standard. I ended up in protecting myself from someone I thought was trying to harm me, I ended up taking a life. I was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison for murder in the second degree as a 19 year-old.
I went to Downstate for classification and I was classified to go to Elmira Correctional Facility.
I saw some things that were traumatizing, like the riots. I saw riots so big, it seemed like the whole jail was fighting. And the suicides at holiday time; with men going through different emotions you see suicides around that time.
But I managed to stay out of trouble. Because in my mind, I was married and had two children at the time and all I could think of was trying to make it out. Doing all that I could to make it out.
Q: What did you look forward to day-to-day and what got you through each day?
Barnes: Fortunately for me, I hung around with the right kind of crowd [in prison]. I disavowed my old neighborhood homeboys and gangs. And I went to religion; I went to Christianity. And I re-dedicated my life to my faith while I was in there. And I also dedicated my life to education. I found a good group of guys that were going to the college program. And I stayed in those circles.
For me, it was a spiritual journey first. Then it was educational.
For me, I wanted to know that there was a reason for me being there. For me, that was the spiritual element. I had to believe there was a reason for me being there. And that I needed to learn some things. And I needed to settle down and just be there. That was my journey. I had to grow up spiritually.
I was a boy, trying to reach maturity.
My prison incarceration turned out to be my place where I was going to learn what my purpose was in life.
Q: Did you leave family behind?
Barnes: A wife and two children.
My mom died of cancer at 46. My grandmother died two months before her. My wife’s mother died. Both my grandmothers died. So in a five month period of time I lost 4 women.
I also lost my wife. She couldn’t do the time anymore and found another man while we were still married. She had a child by the man. That was tormenting to know. All the time, I was still married to this woman. That was traumatizing. Probably the most, if anything. Because it affected deep down in my soul. So there was a lot of pain and a lot of agony. Sometimes I took a break from school and church and I just stayed in the block and got a little porter job and cleaned ceilings and waxed floors, just to be alone. For four or five months.
I eventually got my strength back and returned to what I thought was my purpose and kept pressing on.
Day after day, year after year, it was tough. But I wanted to get something [from my time]. And it was spiritual. And it definitely was educational. Because eventually I came out with a Masters degree in Theology. And that helped me a lot to make it through. And I made it out on my first parole board.
Most men get what we call a “hit” -- and that hit is usually two or three years [a hit refers to being denied parole and having to stay in prison.] Sometimes there can be two or three hits for someone with a murder charge.
Q: Your first day at Elmira? Remember it?
Barnes: I went to Elmira at 22.
I do remember the first day. We were locked down for 22 hours.
It were horrible missing everyone. Not knowing what was coming. It just reminded me so much of when I look at slavery movies.
The first day I was sent upstate, I said it was over. I was not going to be the same person, I came in there as. I wasn’t going to get with my old homeboys and running around. I lived upright the best that I could. I didn’t get involved in any of it -- the prison pitfalls, the homosexuality, messing around with some of the female correctional officers, stealing, gambling. I didn’t get involved in all of that stuff -- to me it reminded me of street life. So I immediately disavowed it.
Q: What is your relationship with your daughters like now? And while you were away?
Barnes: Once my children found out my wife was with a another man. My children rebelled at a young age. Playing hooky. They started to cut out. I had to have a talk with them.
There was a lot of pain. My daughters were so hurt, that letters didn’t do. My oldest daughter kept a lot bottled up inside.
I had two daughters before I went. And one [a third child] was a result of a conjugal visit.
[My oldest] the 28-year-old - she’s married, has two jobs, car. But the communication is not there though. A lot has been missed.
The 25 year-old is a little closer to me. And she has a child. She is back in school and working.
The 19-year-old feels she doesn’t really know me. When she contacts me, it is only about money. She goes to college, she has a job. With her, it’s kind of like “you owe me whatever I ask for.”
I have to wrestle through these these relationships. And we’re still wrestling in our relationships to this day.
Q: What could most be improved about the U.S. prison system?
Barnes: Rehabilitation can be fixed. They focus too much on penalization. And not on rehabilitation. It’s like you have to do the rehabilitation part on your own. And men are hard-pressed to find ways to show that they have changed.
Q: Biggest lesson you learned?
Barnes: I found in prison I had to be more forgiving than anything. I had to let people go and let things go. In order to free myself to move forward.
You have to take responsibility and then move forward.