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Opinion: Returning to Portland From Prison With a Commitment to Make Amends

After more than 17 years in prison for killing two people in a drunk-driving crash, the author will be returning to Portland. Certified as a substance abuse counselor, he hopes to help others avoid making the same mistake he did. Dave Killen / Staff The Oregonian

By Guest Columnist | The Oregonian 

Martin Lockett

Lockett is serving the final month of a 17 ½ year sentence at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution. He was born in Portland and plans to return upon his release.

Imagine emerging from a cave deep within the belly of the earth after 17 ½ years to find the world vastly different from the one you left. Everything from technology to how people dress and speak are much different than how you remembered. Transportation has fundamentally changed and those you loved are no longer alive. How would you proceed to navigate this new world? What would you prioritize?

These are things I am contemplating as I inch ever closer to my release in June after serving 17 ½ years for drunk driving and manslaughter.

I was 24 years old at the time and had to face the fact I had taken two innocent people from their families forever, severely injured another  and would also be away from my family for a very long time. Upon reading an article in the Oregonian that humanized my victims and their struggles they’d overcome, I felt compelled to dedicate my life, in their honor, to helping those who battle addiction. I wanted to prevent others from making the same irreversible mistake I did.

I will emerge from prison with a graduate degree, two published books and state certification as a substance abuse counselor. I am eager to delve into this field, counseling those who hail from backgrounds like my own. As a Black man who grew up in a tough Northeast Portland neighborhood in the 80s and 90s amid gang activity, I know what it’s like to not have the same economic and educational opportunities that many other Portlanders do. I am excited to continue to speak at drunk-driving victim impact panels in Portland (and throughout Oregon should I be given the opportunity) just as I did for over three years at the Oregon State Correctional Institution. I look forward to doing as much good as I can in my community because I believe it is my calling, but also because it is central to my process of making amends. I have caused immeasurable irrevocable pain to my Portland community, and this will give me the opportunity to begin to heal some of it — hopefully.

I would be remiss if I did not highlight the many things that also keep me up at night as my release date draws nearer. I am now a 42-year-old man who is re-entering a work force more technological than it’s ever been, and I barely know how to use Microsoft Word. Thankfully, two good-hearted counselors created a training program to help longtimers like me learn popular software applications.

It appears there is a new iPhone or Android phone coming out every year. Commercials promoting these elaborate devices with new features intimidate me. I ask my friends and family what the differences between them are. Their answers about gigs, data plans, and hot spots sound like gibberish and leaves me more confused. I know I am an intelligent man, but what I am about to encounter in the realm of technology will make me feel anything but.

When I was last free, George W. Bush was in his first term, the U.S. had invaded Iraq just months earlier, MySpace was the dominant social media outlet, and cell phones did not commonly have cameras. Baggy pants are now skinny jeans, cars park themselves, and internet movies have supplanted Blockbuster rental stores. It truly seems as though the world has turned over many times without me, and now I will be forced to catch up, learn the pace and customs of this new world – socially, politically, and culturally – and do so in a manner that does not scream to anyone paying attention that I have been tucked away in a cavernous dwelling in the belly of the earth for nearly two decades.

As much as I eagerly anticipate returning to the house I grew up in to join my twin brother and his wife, my heart still hurts at the thought that my parents will not be there to greet me, nor will my sister or many other family members I have lost along the way. I also struggle with the fact I will be reunited with my siblings while my victims’ families will never reunite with them.

I will forever cherish breathing free air and having the ability to govern my own body. No longer will I take for granted these simple luxuries of life. This lengthy term has indelibly changed me as I have grown from an alcohol-addicted, lost 24-year-old man seeking others’ approval to a self-assured, enlightened, mature 42-year-old man with a purpose and direction.

Portlanders, I look forward to joining you and all the changes you have made to enhance the city I love and left. Please be patient with me and supportive as I do my best to quickly adapt and contribute to its greatness. I promise to give you my very best everyday going forward.

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