This is William A. Noguera. I’m from calling from San Quentin State Prison, Death Row. And my piece is entitled “Five Minute Memoir.”
I didn’t come to write naturally. It took five decades of life for it to find me. At age two, I picked up one of my mother’s pencils and began to draw. I had no idea what I was doing.
Maybe I was mimicking what I watched her do since I was born, or maybe it was something else, something I was born to do. It’s hard to pinpoint when it happened, but by age seven, I was painting portraits, landscapes, and anything my young mind could imagine.
No one knew it at the time, but art was my escape route from what I was running from, my refuge from the bullies, racial discrimination, and from the hurt and pain I suffered at home from an abusive mother and alcoholic father. Art was not a luxury. It was a necessity.
At age 15, my home life was destroyed. The violence between my parents reached such a high level, I feared the worst. Instead, they divorced and I rebeled.
By the age of 18, I was considered by law enforcement one of Southern California’s most sought-after high-end car thieves. Little did I know that those would be my last days of freedom. Within months, I was arrested, tried, and convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Throughout all of this, my refuge became art. Somehow I found my way back to the place where I started and felt safe.
Then in 2011, after three decades in prison and numerous exhibits around the world, another curious thing happened. I went outside the yard where more blood has spilled that anyone could imagine when two convicts armed with prison-made shanks attacked each other. Blood poured from wounds, each inflicted, but they continued to try to put one another in an early grave.
The gunner, who was in his power, saw what was happening and leveled his M16 at the combatants and ordered everyone down. “Down, down, everyone down,” he yelled. Most of the yard did as instructed, including me, but the two men continued to war, ignoring the warnings.
The first shot rang out like thunder across a darkened sky. It seemed to echo deep within me. I covered my head in fear of a ricocheted bullet hitting me. We were in a cement box with 15-foot walls on three sides, and when shots were fired, everyone knew the chances of being hit were high. The second shot was fired, and I looked up.
Suddenly while watching these men and locked in battle, an idea was born, an idea that changed my life. I returned to my four by nine cell that day bursting with a new voice trying to get out. I sat down on my overturned buckets and began to write. It poured from me as though flood gates had opened, it hasn’t stopped since.
More importantly, I’ve come to understand my experiences can help others, from my tiny cell I lecture to MBA programs on ethics, professional conduct, as well as prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation. I am co-host of Death Row Diaries: True Crime Podcast and a commentator on Prison Radio.
All in all, my life has seen the worst, but if given a chance, life, like a good book, will surprise you with a bit of an escape and an ending no one expected. I am William A. Noguera, and my book Escape Artist: Memoir of a Visionary Artist can be found wherever books are sold. Have a good day.
These commentaries are recorded by Prison Radio.