Transcripts - I'm Curious Podcast

Transcript: Artie Gonz on Love - I'm Curious Podcast

 

Ashley Asti: 

Hey, everyone! I’m Ashley Asti and this is I’m Curious podcast. My guest today is Artie Gonz and, oh, how I loved this conversation, a conversation on the energy of love. I’m going to give you a formal introduction to Artie—his story, his work—and then a little informal one about him and what got me so excited about this episode. 

Ashley Asti: 

Artie Gonz is the creative who almost never was. A juvenile-tried-as-an-adult at the age of 16, he spent 21-years of a Life sentence in the California prison system, eight of which included housing within Pelican Bay’s notorious super-max Solitary Confinement unit. It was here that he evolved past the brutality of his surroundings, as well as the highly political stature he held as a gang leader, committing himself to rehabilitation and non-violence.

Ashley Asti: 

Released as a model prisoner by the Board of Parole Hearings in 2015, he then dedicated himself to building a new life. Applying the same acumen and intelligence that helped him survive the inhumane conditions of the prison system, he has become a leader in his community, an advocate for legislative reforms, and a member of several social justice organizations.

Ashley Asti: 

After graduating from a Hollywood-oriented workforce development program, ManifestWorks (of which he is a current member of the Board of Directors), he rose through the ranks from production assistant to television Location Scout to Producer. He currently works in the Television world.

Ashley Asti: 

His ultimate goal is full-time, high-level producing. He and his writing partners at Spirit Medicine Productions are currently shopping several ready-to-pitch projects, including a TV Prison Drama, “Lemon Grove,” and raunchy Comedy Feature, “Tres Papas.” 

Ashley Asti: 

Additionally, he is the Creator and Executive Producer of the developing series, “Lessons From A Lifer” (uh, it’s so good!), which seeks to bridge the culture between the system-impacted and society by highlighting universal wisdoms and commonality. He is writing a book of the same name, a collection of lessons in essay form.

Ashley Asti: 

He has said: “When the door to high-level producing opens for me, I will seek to use this platform to challenge preconceived notions about what it means to be ‘System-Impacted,’ and create a fresh narrative as a new voice for this generation of bold storytellers. My entire brand combines my passion and purpose: my passion for filmmaking and my purpose, which is to inspire social justice reform and human empowerment, especially for those seeking diversity, equality and inclusion.” 

Ashley Asti: 

All right. So, now, my informal introduction. What I love about Artie is the way he leads his life with love. It was apparent and felt from the moment we first connected. He exudes a sense of trust and openness, which feels both rare and refreshing. And, I must say, I’ve been—and I don’t know why I keep using this phrase, but—riding high since this conversation. The energy of love, which Artie exudes and speaks of, is powerful and vast and I believe you’ll feel it, too. 

Ashley Asti: 

We’re going to dive into the conversation in just a moment. But, first, a little plug: after the interview, stay tuned all the way through for a little story about synchronicity that happened after Artie and I recorded this episode. All right. Here we go.

Ashley Asti:

So should we, should we jump right in?

Artie Gonz:

Sure.

Ashley Asti:

You ready? Let's do it, let's spread some love. All right. So Artie, as I was telling you before, I've been really excited to have this conversation with you. In fact, I was talking to other people all week about you. I'd be texting friends and be like, there's this guy and I'm going to get to talk to him and he just embodies love. And that's so refreshing that you lead with love. So, like I said, I've been very excited the way you just unite intelligence and compassion and heart. So I'm grateful that you're joining me.

Artie Gonz:

I'm very, very happy to be here and glad that we are finally able to make this happen and definitely ready to have the conversation. And thank you. That's, that's very kind. I really I love what you're doing. I love the direction that you're coming from. I think it's refreshing and am very proud and happy and honored to be here, to contribute to that for sure.

Ashley Asti:

Oh, well, it's mutual, so thanks. Today we're going to talk about love or the energy of love. And so I wanted to open this by beginning to understand your foundation for love. Growing up, what was your understanding of love?

Artie Gonz:

That's a great question. I did not always have the best experience with love. I would say that my journey with discovering what love is or defining it for myself has certainly been, it's been a long journey and it's had ups and downs as most do. But early on, I would say that my version of love was sort of a mixed bag. I grew up, for those listeners who don't know my story, I'm a juvenile lifer. I spent 21 years incarcerated for a crime I committed at the age of 16. I was given a life sentence and tried as an adult. I spent eight of those 21 years in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay fighting for my sanity. And thankfully I came out sane and whole, if not, definitely some work to do with all the trauma that I've experienced in my lifetime and still working on that to this day, for sure.

Artie Gonz:

I mean, it's a lifelong process, you know, of healing and work, but that's my backstory. I started out with a very traumatic childhood and I endured a lot of abuse, a lot of physical abuse. I witnessed a lot of things that children at that age probably should not be witnessing. You know, I watched my mother be physically assaulted by various boyfriends and toxic relationships. I saw rampant drug use and sexual stuff, you know, probably that I should not have seen at that age. And all of that sort of gave me this version of love and this version of the world that was bleak, certainly darker in tone, darker in nature. But when it's the only thing you've ever been exposed to, you know, I don't, I don't know how the human mind could not perceive that as well,

Artie Gonz:

this must be reality. And this must be the way that it really genuinely is. This is what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life, you know? But being too young to actually explore those themes or to take a stance in your own individuality and say, Hey, this doesn't have to be the case for me. You know, I was too young for that, that didn't come until much later. And I always talk about my grandmother. She was a very bright spot in my life, a positive influence. For her, I did everything. I got straight A's in school. I was into acting at a very young age. So she put me in the, in she put me in musicals. So I did some theater work as a kid. Yeah. And I mean, working in Hollywood has been a lifelong dream of mine since I was very small.

Artie Gonz:

I literally was one of those children who was born and knew this is what I'm going to do when I grow up. Yeah. So some of us just know, right? And although I had the traumatic childhood that I had, that passion still burned in me, my calling, so to speak. And she was there to nurture that. And she definitely did. Unfortunately, my grandmother died when I was 13 and she died of cancer. It took her pretty quickly. And at that point I, everything went away for me. I mean, I really didn't have any other bright spot that, at least to my mind, I saw that was available for me. I just, I gave up on school. I gave up on life and I just went to a very hopeless, helpless place. A very sad place. Love had no seat at the table at that point in time, I guess is the way I would say it, or if it did, it was warped and twisted.

Artie Gonz:

So, with that attitude in mind, I took my act out on the road. I went to the streets and joined a gang and made them my new family. And they showed me a different version of love. They showed me a version of love where you could feel this sense of family and this sense of potential. Like I could actually rise up in this gang and be a leader one day, you know, and, and all I have to do to earn this love is I just, I have to commit certain acts or live a certain lifestyle and be okay with it. But based on the childhood that I had, it was not that difficult for me to conform and to basically evolve into that individual. So once again, I jumped into a version of love that was very warped.

Artie Gonz:

And so my understanding of it was that, and then that led me to I was 16 years old, I committed my crim, and then, like I said, I went away for a long time. I didn't come home until I was 37 years old. By the time I came home, I had a much different version of love. So although your listeners are going to listen to this and be like, geez, this is kind of heavy. I promise you that it has a very happy, full circle ending. But I, just to jump in with you at the start, I would say that my initial understanding of love was very tainted and very warped is the only way I could really describe that.

Ashley Asti:

Yeah, it's interesting. Because right before we had started talking, I had actually started reading a book by bell hooks called all about love, it just happened to capture my attention. It came across something I was reading, I was like, Oh, I want to get that book. And she says in there, "Abuse and neglect negate love. Care and affirmation, the opposite of abuse and humiliation, are the foundation of love." But that sometimes, essentially, like you said, they can be warped, or there's a sense of confusion where we could say, Oh, that person loves me. Or I know they care about me, even though they're treating me in a way that's not in alignment, they're not treating me with love. Is that sort of what you're describing growing up, this sort of confused or inverted sense of love?

Artie Gonz:

Definitely. I mean, if you are being taught that you—because you mentioned how like caring or maybe someone giving you a hug or an attaboy, a pat on the back, these are all affirmations, they're all gestures of love. Right? So if that's happening in the context of I'm doing something negative, but I'm getting the same pat on the back, it's like I could go and I could spend my day and I could feed the homeless at a shelter. Right? And I'd get that pat on the back. Or if I'm a gang member, I can go out to the streets and I can, you know, steal a bike and then take it back to everybody and get a pat on the back. It's the same sense of love and appreciation deep down, I would say. And I don't know if it's neurological or you know, what the science is behind that, but whatever it is, it's the same amount of emotions. It's the same amount of chemicals going on in your brain, into your heart. And so, yeah, it definitely is that. Like, you could take a concept like that and you can just totally apply it to something that's negative. And that is how negatives are positively reinforced and they become habitual.

Ashley Asti:

I'm so glad you expressed that because you're still getting that sense of connection and that sense of belonging, it's just coming for different actions. Which makes sense. So we're going to jump ahead. You said at 16 you're incarcerated. Eventually, I think around 23 is when you're put in solitary confinement. Is that true?

Artie Gonz:

Yes. It was around that time. Yeah.

Ashley Asti:

And at this point, you know, you've lost, you've lost your grandmother, you've lost your connection to your dreams and who you thought you were, your longings, your senseof self. You don't yet have a genuine understanding of love. And you're put in this space where, I mean, I'm going to use the word dark for so many reasons, but, one, there's no end date, right? Like you have no idea, no one says like, you're going to come out in this amount of time. Or, you know, this is when this torture is going to end. So it's just perpetual. And then you're experiencing this complete deprivation of human contact. No sunlight on your skin, I think you've said, or no touch. Can you describe what that does to you or what that was like?

Artie Gonz:

If anything will reinforce in your mind that you are not worthy of love or even the version of it that you understand is the correct version, even if it's a negative one, it is being in solitary confinement. I was placed in Pelican Bay supermax facility. It was somewhere around 23. I wasn't, I know I was in my, like early to mid twenties and I ended up being there for a total of about almost eight years. We are talking about 22 and a half hours a day on lockdown in the cell. You have access to a very small yard that is adjacent to your pod that you live in, which is only eight cells. Every single cell is one person. You will never touch another human being unless there's an accident. You will never feel direct sunlight on your skin. It's a very quiet place and this yard, this little yard, is built—

Artie Gonz:

it's adjacent to your pod. You literally walk from your pod, through a door, out into a yard that has 25 to 30 foot high concrete walls. And at the top of that is a mesh wire gate kind of thing on top of this square cage you're in and you get to see a patch of sky. Unfortunately, based on the location of that facility, you will never actually see the sun because it will not pass over that portion of your patch of sky throughout the day. So I didn't see the sun for many years. And if there's anything that will tell you, like you're not worthy of love, or this is what love is, it's that, you know? So I lived in that for a long time and all it did was reinforced negative views or ideas I had about love, and at this time I was very much entrenched in gang politics. I had done what I set out to do, I had worked my way up and had power and authority.

Ashley Asti:

And you had this power and authority, this happens inside prison, right? You could still—

Artie Gonz:

Yes.

Ashley Asti:

Okay.

Artie Gonz:

And I mean, to me, it was like the only thing I knew about love at that point was I have love for the cause that I'm fighting for, and this cause loves me. It was made for people like me, right? They will literally take your young mind and they will deconstruct it and give you this. It's very cultish and they will rewire your brain. And then, so your thinking about love is like, this is love. I am destined to be like a cause fighter, a freedom fighter for the rest of my life. And you actually think that all the,while being physically isolated in a single cell with no material items, no possessions, no actual freedom, and being thankful for the process. That's how warped it became. Thankfully I eventually got out of that. But as you described, I did spend many years in that hole and in that hole, I started to have a lot of different realizations and insights that I'm glad and happy that we're going to start talking about.

Ashley Asti:

Oh, yeah. Just follow up on one more thing, though. So I was talking to a friend recently who was on death row and still is, and I was asking him just—at night, I have very vivid dreams. So I asked him, Do you dream at night? And he talked about his dreams. And he said, he dreams about different women. He dreams about just being able to hold a woman's hand, about touch, about love in all sorts of ways that he'll never get to experience again. And you were going into this as a lifer at 16. How does that not just make you angry. Or how—you're talking about, you started essentially rekindling a sense of connection to yourself, a connection to love, to not this cause in the gang world, but something deeper. How do you make that movement from that place of hopelessness and despair to this connection, to aliveness?

Artie Gonz:

You know, one of the things that has come out of late, I'd say in the last 10 years, there's been a lot of reforms in the social and criminal justice movements and, in that space, one of those is the understanding that juvenile brains are just wired differently than adult brains. And it affects our judgment and affects decision-making. It's impulsive, you know, the juvenile brain and the science has now started to catch up with legislation and judicial decision making. And I definitely benefited from that, but I am also an example of it as well, because by the time I started getting to about my mid twenties, about 25, 26, this is when my brain just naturally started to mature. And I started to come out of it enough to be like, Hey, there's some cracks in the facade here of what I'm being told.

Artie Gonz:

You know, you're telling me that I'm fighting for this and yet your actions are that. And that's counter to, you know,—and I could give you specific examples around that, but I don't really need to, it's, it's just, I was seeing the contradictions and what I was being told and what was being shown to me. And so I started to question those things at that age, as my brain started to mature. And thankfully the answers that I was receiving to these questions were not sufficient, that I was not satisfied with them at all. I saw them for the BS that they were. And so once I started to have those thoughts, I started to realize, well, I've been so wrong about this. This lifestyle I have been living is based on a lie. It is a very genius construct that has been developed by men to control other men for the purposes of financial gain and power.

Artie Gonz:

Essentially I realized that I was a pawn on a chess board. That's what I like to tell people. It's like the pawn becoming aware that, Holy crap, I'm a pawn, right? And that's, that's basically what happened to me. And I was like, No, man, I was born to be a King. I'm not going to be a pawn.

Ashley Asti:

Oh, I love that. Yes!

Artie Gonz:

Yeah. I was born to be a King on this board, man, in my own way, whatever that should mean. I was destined for greater things. I was not actually meant to be here. And so when I realized I was wrong about that, I started to ask myself, what else am I wrong about? And before I could explore that, I decided, you know what, I'm going to walk away from this entire lifestyle. I'm going to put my life in danger and I'm going to walk away. And I did. I told my mother I was leaving. I walked away from it all. And that is when my journey of self exploration and inner work really started to begin, really began. That is when I started to have these transformational levels of, like, human evolution taking place inside of me to become the person that is talking to you now.

Ashley Asti:

So I want to ask you about one of those transformational moments. You'd actually described it on It's Needed podcast, which is great. Those, both of those episodes—

Artie Gonz:

Oh, yeah. Shout out Ryan Tillman, man. And AJ. Billy.

Ashley Asti:

I love their mission. Amazing.

Artie Gonz:

Yeah.

Ashley Asti:

So everyone should check that out. But you were talking about it on there and you said that through the help of a mentor, you had this moment where, up until this moment, you kept thinking that your victim would have hated you, would have wanted you to suffer, only wanted retribution. And then you had someone say something to you to imagine it in a different way. Can you describe that?

Artie Gonz:

Absolutely. first things first: shout out to the It's Needed podcast, Ryan Tillman, AJ, Billy. If you guys get a chance, please go and listen to their podcasts, follow them, subscribe to their YouTube. These guys are true bridges between the community and law enforcement. They're trying to make changes. They're all about reform. Love these guys, they're my brothers.

Ashley Asti:

They're law enforcement and they had you on the show just to clarify, right?

Artie Gonz:

Yeah, because I also am functioning as a bridge, you know. In this day and age, I really feel it's important that we all take an individual stand and refuse to be pulled into extremes. Progress is found in the middle. It's not found on the ends. So this is what they represent. So I'm always happy to support them. I love these guys. But I did mention that, you're right. I went through this phase of, as I started to like transform and change myself and work on myself, I realized what I had done. I finally had the moment of realization of the harm that my actions had caused to my victim and to other victims that came after that, or even before that. And when I finally had this sense of the harm that I had caused, it had a profound effect on me.

Artie Gonz:

I mean, it was, it was immense levels of shame and guilt and remorse, hard to explain on a podcast, you know? But it was, it was so profound for me that, one, I realized I can never, ever harm another human being again. That cannot happen again. Two, I realized I owe an immense debt to my victims and to society at large. I'm not sure how I'm going to do that, but I'll figure it out. So that's where I started. I started doing 12 step work. I got a sponsor and my sponsor, rest in peace to Verne Critz, amazing man. He took me through the process and as I started to make amends to victims, I realized a very sad truth: I was not going to be able to make amends to my victim because my victim was no longer alive.

Artie Gonz:

My victim was not going to be around. And then the example I always like to use is if I steal $50 from Ashley, I can give it back to you later with an apology and I can never steal again. Right? I can truly make amends and repent for what I've done. I cannot restore life and because I cannot restore life, it is impossible for me to make full 100% amends for what I've done. And so this mental trap that I had put myself in—and this revolves around love big time because it reinforced like even more like I just, not only am I undeserving of love, but I think it's actually part of my punishment to be disconnected from and unable to attain it. So what I did was I decided, I realized the true punishment for my crime was not the bars.

Artie Gonz:

It wasn't the class, it wasn't the systemic oppression. It wasn't the abuse by guards, all the violence and trauma that I had sustained all those years, that was actually surface level punishment. My true punishment was I had to attempt to make amends or atone for what I had done fully conscious of the fact that I was going to fail every time, but I had to do it nonetheless, right? In this way, I honor my victim by giving myself my just punishment. And then to fast forward, eventually my sponsor, growing tired of that, trying to get me out of it, he's like, dude, you have to find a way to get past this, man. Like, you know, he finally pointed out to me, he said, you know, we always look at our victims from the standpoint of the part of them that hates us, the part of them that we hurt.

Artie Gonz:

And so that side of my victim that wanted me to suffer, that was mad at me for what I've done, the anger that his family must feel towards me. Like I was doing everything in my power to honor that, but in doing so, I'm revictimizing him because I'm completely ignoring the other half of him, the son that his mother loved, the love that he carried in his heart, the compassionate, empathetic individual that he must have been. Right? So if I'm really going to repay my debt, I need to honor that side of him as well. And he pointed out to me: that side of him loves youd espite what you've done, would not want you to suffer. So if you truly want to honor your victim, honor 100% of him, not just half of him, cause you're doing him a disservice as well as yourself.

Artie Gonz:

And so once that happened, then I was able to finally achieve some level of self-forgiveness. And I started to realize, Oh, love is the answer here. Love is the answer because it was such a gateway with my dealing with what I had done to my victim, that I started to understand I've been so wrong about love. And actually if I start to live my life according to what I feel love—how love is defined, I may actually see much more transformational effects in my life. And I may actually be the cause of a lot more healing in the world. And so that's where we get into this part of that journey.

Ashley Asti:

Yeah. That feels revelatory to me because I think, I mean, you're giving an extreme example, but so many of us in the world don't always see from the side of love. Seeing—I think it's so hard to see ourselves as beings of love and also to see other people as beings of love, especially people we might have felt like we've wronged and that when you start embodying that it creates that ripple effect. And I think that's why I was so excited to speak with you because just by you leading with love in your life, as who you are now and I think who you always have been, who we all are at our core, it influenced me and I wanted to spread that. And I think that's part of the power. And I think—we were speaking the other day and I think this connects with vulnerability because you have the courage to be vulnerable, to show your vulnerabilities.

Ashley Asti:

And we were talking on the phone and you were sitting outside of a Starbucks and you were telling me a story, and I love it because in the middle of it, you were touched by it, and so you start crying and you're almost laughing about it afterwards because you're like, you're outside of a Starbucks in front of other people. It's the first time you and I were talking, and you start crying. But you said that there was a moment where the first time you allowed yourself to cry fully in front of a group of men, that that was liberating and clarifying. So can you take us back to that moment and then discuss how that was liberating?

Artie Gonz:

You know, I want to say that love—and we'll get more further into what love is as far as like my definition of it. But I want to say that love is expressive in so many ways, including tear shed and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Love is courageous. It's so courageous. And to have the courage to actually expose yourself to a room full of people, to sit outside of a Starbucks, surrounded by strangers and to allow yourself to cry because the emotion moves you is truly in alignment with love because you're being guided by the courage of that love, of that energy. But I didn't start out that way. Of course not. But I, you know, I do, I remember the first time I cried in front of a group of men which, from my background, was like an unthinkable thing, you know, more part of the warped way of being raised and brought up. Men don't cry, right?

Artie Gonz:

We don't have such weaknesses. Or we're, you know, for some reason, we were born with tear ducks, but I don't know why they don't work. [Laugher] And what I was doing in this group was I was recounting. I was recounting the story of my grandmother who ended up bedridden towards the end of her struggle with cancer. She died at home. And so we had a nurse who would come in every day and she was bedridden. And towards the end, she was on a, on a lot of drugs, you know, for pain, kind of in and out of consciousness. And I came home from school and I don't know why, but I went into her room and I think something, just something about the environment or something about the way I was feeling in that moment told me she was close. So I couldn't tell if she could hear me or anything like that. She looked completely out of it, you know, and I told her, you know, everything, I love you. I'm going to miss you. I'm sorry...[crying]

Ashley Asti:

No, you don't need to apologize for it. And please take your time.

Artie Gonz:

I have never been able to tell this story without crying, not a single time. And I was talking about how I was saying goodbye to her and Oh, she heard me,

Artie Gonz:

She heard me.

Artie Gonz:

She told me that that she loved me too. I don't know how on all the drugs and you know, but she heard me. She gave me a real gift in that moment, the gift of goodbye. We don't all get that.

Ashley Asti:

Yeah.

Artie Gonz:

So I was telling that story to the group of men and I just broke down, kind of like right now, but much more. The first time much more. And you know, like I was telling you, it was like full on like sobbing and snot, and, you know, I need Kleenex and all these things. It wasn't a bad story, it's a beautiful one. It's just I guess I didn't realize how much I was carrying since that moment. And so we might even been talking about love. I don't remember what the actual subject was in that group that day or the topic, because it was a process group, but I was the facilitator of it. Like I was, you know, leading the group. So it wasn't like, it was great because it really gave them a clear example, too, of that expression. And so I just let it go.

Artie Gonz:

And, after that, I was never afraid to cry in front of people ever again. And I find that it's very healing. And like I said, I find that it's expressive, but I also think it's like a gesture of love because I think tears come from love. If it didn't then why would you be moved to have such a physical reaction? Only if it's grounded in love. Sometimes we cry because someone cheats on us or someone harms us in some way, or we're resentful, you know, but what people don't understand is that underneath all of that is you've been touched by love. And that's why it is affecting you the way that it is. Even if it's just your best friend who like, you know, started talking to your boyfriend after you guys broke up. Like you love your best friend. So that's why it hurts the way that it does because hurt, although it's pure, can be diminished and treated bad—you know, mistreated by us throughout the human experience. So I learned a lot of lessons that day, but one of them was to be creative and not be afraid to express myself in any form of love, because I'm a loving being.

Ashley Asti:

Oh, that was beautiful. And thank you for your courage in continuing to share and show that. I was listening to a podcast the other day, and the writer Glennon Doyle was speaking, and she was saying something like, We always say, follow your bliss, follow your happiness, but she said, what about follow your heartbreak? And it sort of connecting to that—because beneath that heartbreak is that energy of love or that energy of longing, or there's something that will connect you in that heartbreak, like the way that the world might break your heart in certain ways. If you start to go out into that, you'll find the other people who it also breaks their heart in that way too, and who are perhaps working to create that change or that transformation. And so you just sort of crystallized it for me when you said that.

Ashley Asti:

You do this, you know, you have your own show now, Lessons from a Lifer. And I'm curious: if you were to, I guess, talk to young men today and talk to them about love, of these lessons that you've gotten, what would you say to them? Because I think the other thing that surprised me about you, pleasantly, is that, like I said, when you lead with love or the way you post on social media, you text, you use loving emojis, use hearts, which men are taught to like, Oh God, like love? You don't say anything kind or warm to people. And you just seem to do that across the board. So what would you say to them?

Artie Gonz:

You know, I really think that from the male experience, from the masculine side of things, I think that it's time for a redefinition in society. I feel like we're moving towards that anyway. But I think that there's been a lot of stereotypes and a lot of cultural, you know, gender based misunderstandings, you know, that have taken place over many, many years. This is how men are supposed to act. This is how they're not supposed to act. This is. And I feel like when we start to try to box in the male experience, what we're doing is we're actually compartmentalizing what it is to have a full range of human emotions and human experience. You know, I would say that we only get to live once—some would argue with that, right? I mean, that's cool, you know what I mean.

Artie Gonz:

But if we do only get to live once, then why wouldn't you want to experience the full gamut of the human experience? Like, why wouldn't you want the whole tone and range, and colors of that experience. Right? And I think that from the time that I was born and raised, I was taught that men act and our responses are a certain way. It was manly for me to respond violently to stimuli. You know, I wasn't permitted by my circumstances to cry because a kid tried to, you know, take my lunch box at school, you know? And then go tell the teacher, like he tried take my lunch box. Right? I wasn't permitted to do that because my experiences were, No, you have to put somebody down for that. That's what men do. They have such a respect for themselves.

Artie Gonz:

And I feel like over time as I started to mature, I realized I'm just diminishing and minimizing. I'm degrading myself really, but I'm minimizing myself to a single aspect of what it means to be male. And by the way, anyone is capable of violence or, if necessary—you ever heard of a mama bear, you know? I mean, that's part of the full gamut of experiences for the female side of the experience, right? So I think that we have sort of been roped in here and I, what I would tell people, especially youngsters is it's okay for you to show emotion. It's okay to say I'm hurt by A, B and C. It's okay to say, I still have healing I need to do. It's okay to ask for help. It's okay to say, I don't know how. It's okay to say I'm sad today.

Artie Gonz:

And the reason why is because I have learned that by being openly expressive about that, actually I feel like I'm much more in my masculine. I truly am. Because if you think about it, if I am to shelter myself and to prevent myself from doing those things, to express myself in that way, what is that? Other than I'm just a coward.

Ashley Asti:

Yes!

Artie Gonz:

A coward, and I'm like hiding myself and shielding myself because I don't want anyone to see my vulnerability. I don't want anyone to see that I'm scared or that I'm hurt, right? So if by your definition, if this is what a man is, what are you doing right now? Because a man should never hide from their feelings, right? So I would just tell him, Hey, just be open. And at the same time, I know that if there's anyone who listens to this, who's just not there yet,

Artie Gonz:

it's cool. Like these lessons didn't come to me right away. This is something that has happened later in life. Like you said, I'm creating this series called Lessons from a Lifer. This series is meant to impart a wisdom that many, many lifers have that I have, I've known in prison. I'm not unique. I know so many lifers like myself right now who are incarcerated right now, who mentored me and taught me the things that I know or helped me to get there. They guided me, right? There's a lot of wisdom in prison. And I feel like if I can somehow communicate that to the non-formerly incarcerated space, then what I can do is I can function as a bridge between myself and you. And we can start to see commonalities in the experience. If we can see commonalities in the experience, we realize we have more in common than we do differences.

Artie Gonz:

And therefore, maybe I'm not as scary as you thought I was. Maybe I'm hurting just like you're hurting, but we're just hurting in different ways. But, however, we are both hurting. So can we help to heal each other? Is there a, is there a middle ground here? This is not to say that my series is advocating for no accountability. No, I certainly committed a crime. I did my time. You know, I'm the first to say that. What I would say though is that did I need to have the full range of 21 years of traumatic prison experience? No, what I needed was love. What I needed was compassion. I needed somebody to actually start me on that process of deep, inner work years before I got to that point. And that wasn't available. It's not very available in this society. Lessons from a Lifer's hoping to change that.

Artie Gonz:

I want kids who are 12, 11 to start to understand what it means to do deeper inner work, to start to be connected to themselves and to the universe, to feel that connectivity with people around them. It's kind of hard for you to victimize someone if you see their humanity and you can sense it when you're around them. So I want to be that bridge. I'm also writing a book right now. That's also called Lessons from a Lifer and every chapter will impart a story from my life. And then some wisdom, like there's a chapter on self0forgiveness. There's a chapter on insight. I might do a chapter on love, right?

Ashley Asti:

Mmmm.

Artie Gonz:

And then at the end of each chapter will be sort of like a call to action to individuals who are not formerly incarcerated. Like my example might be an extreme one. Here's how you can apply it in your life. You know? So that way in, and again, this is all meant to be a bridge, right? And then for your listeners who don't know, I also work in the film industry. I did end up realizing my goals and my dreams. I work in the film industry. I am producing, I'm location scouting. I get to work on a lot of the biggest TV shows that you guys are watching right now. And so I have that whole side of my world and all of this was possible by just tapping into love and tapping into the connectivity and that transformational space that's available to all of us if we just have the courage to pursue it.

Ashley Asti:

Yeah. I'm just going to underscore what you said with the courage, because I think, like you said, we almost try to insulate ourselves from the full range of experience, because that means you have to experience the lows, you have to experience the highs. You have to experience the void, the darkness, the uncertainty, the ecstasy, all of those things together, but that can be terrifying as much as it is thrilling. And so it takes a real man or a real woman or whatever you want to identify as to step into that and face it all. And allow yourself to not just be fine or just go through it or numb yourself out to both ends of that.

Ashley Asti:

The other thing—you used the word, like you're a bridge. And so I guess, a little bit from my experience—that's why I'm having this conversation now. What led me here is because five or six years ago, I read a book about incarceration. I had never thought about it my whole life because that's how I grew up. I didn't know anyone who was incarcerated. It was like a foreign thing, you just see it on CSI or whatever on TV. And I thought—I read that book and I was like, Oh my God, I need to like get involved in some way. And so I started writing letters and I found this woman who was about my age in her early twenties. And she was incarcerated in Texas. And I wrote a letter and it started by me saying, you know, I had no idea what I was doing. I was like, I want you to know that I see you and you're not alone. Like I was sort of, I wanted her to know these things about—and what surprised me was the way that she saw me, too. The way she—you know and now I'm like, of course that's not a surprise, that any relationship is mutual and that when you see someone, they rise back up and see you as well. And so it was this give and take. And what I've discovered along the way is how much wisdom there is, like you said, amongst people who are incarcerated. That they're having these conversations, they're philosophizing, they're discussing these things. So speaking of the bridge, which is what you're doing now, do you have any particular lessons in terms of love with this current moment in our nation? It's just like a reckoning with what feels like disparate parts in so many ways. Do you have any message about love in this moment?

Artie Gonz:

Yes. I feel like society in general could benefit from tapping into it a little bit more. A lot a bit more.

Artie Gonz:

We have become a nation of extremes. We really have. It's either/or. There's just, there's no space for middle ground. You know, we see it in Congress. We see it in politics. We see it out here in the streets with—in all versions of protests, right? We see like, you know—and everyone has this real sense of, I know that I'm right, you know? And I'm not knocking anyone feeling that way. But what I am saying is that when that is the case, then you're not even leaving room for being wrong. You're not leaving room for growth or exploration, or, you know, that is actually anti love. Love is open. Love calls you forward to growth. Love doesn't, is not closed off. You know, what I try to say to people, and I've said it in the past, is that I think that we call it love because that's the only way that our human minds can define it.

Artie Gonz:

But I think that what love really is is an unseen force. It permeates the universe, it connects all things. We are all made up of the same substance, the same universal material, right? And I think that when we feel a sense of love towards someone or something, it is my vibration matching with yours because of the substance that makes you and makes me. Something about us together, it feels attuned. And what we experienced as that attunement is what we call love. And with others, with some—it could be stronger than with others, right? There's just something about that person or that thing. I also feel that love is pure. It is not tainted by racism or politics or systemic oppression or abuse. It's not tainted by bias or bigotry. None of those things, prejudice. Love is pure. It's the human experience that takes love and does what with it, what it will, right?

Artie Gonz:

So the call to action for us is don't taint love. Don't attempt to taint it, you know, leave yourselves open to it, because if you do, you might find yourself to be more in tune with what you're claiming to hate if you just actually gave yourself the opportunity to open up to it. And remember that love is not closed. It doesn't close off. If it permeates the universe and it's in all things. It's impossible to close. So it's only like a shallow mind or a closed mind that actually would do this to itself. And for many years, that's what I did. I closed myself off from the world and I sat in this cell, but I was right. Oh, it was so nice to be right. Yeah, I was right. But how much did I suffer for being right? You know, it wasn't until I admitted, I might be wrong here or I may have room for change and growth, that love was let back in to the conversation.

Artie Gonz:

And then what happened was, as I changed, I ended up getting moved to a different part of the prison, state prison system, where then I was exposed to like, Oh, suddenly I'm in this cell with someone who was once my enemy. And I, and I get to befriend this person, get to know about their families. And wow, this person is actually amazing. And two years ago, like we would have been at each other's throats. And now, like, I can't wait to come back from my work assignment so we can make this food together and listen to some music and laugh and, you know, that would not have been possible if I was closed off to love. You know? So my message for society is just that we need more of it. Love is not extreme in the sense of it's not pushing you to extremes. Love pushes us towards compromise.

Artie Gonz:

Love pushes us towards empathy, actually putting yourself in the shoes of somebody else who's suffering and trying to understand them through their experience, not the judgment that you carry about it from your own. So that's probably my message. And that's the only reason why I could, like, I could sit with Ryan Tillman, who's a law enforcement officer, and I could sit with him and, you know, I call this man my brother, like he's a friend, you know, he's a real friend. I love him. And I'm okay to say that, you know. I know what he does for a living, but I also know who he is. And so knowing him is impossible for me to say, Oh, to heck with all law enforcement. I can't, I can't say him—to love him is to, is to not be able to say that because that would just come from a different, a different place. That actually comes from hate, you know? And and honestly, I've started to give hate a lot more thought lately as we've been experiencing these things today. And one thing that I have seen about hate is that it is probably the biggest projection of self. Basically I hate the things that I hate because I hate those parts of myself.

Ashley Asti:

Yes!

Artie Gonz:

You know, I'm so insecure that I find power in hatred. It gives me a sense of belonging. It gives me the false sense of love to actually hate. I've done much, a lot of time with white supremacists who have told me, I don't hate black people. I just love white people. Right? Not understanding what they're actually saying. You know, that's that warped version of love that I'm talking about. And at these same people have told me like, Oh, I could never live around homosexuals or Jewish people. You know, they have these extreme views towards these individuals, right? And then when I ended up in a facility where people were mixed together, a lot of those former white supremacist gang members were now actually coming out openly as homosexual and now had African-American cellmates. And you're just looking at it.

Artie Gonz:

You're not judging. You're not laughing. Or, you know, there's no snide remarks or anything, but it's just, it really made me understand, like you hated for so long because that was a part of yourself. And you were afraid to be honest about who you really were. You were afraid to love yourself enough. You didn't have the courage to love yourself enough to be open about who you really were. And so you hid behind this mask, but really it was a huge projection. And that's what's happening in America right now on a macro scale. It's a huge projection.

Ashley Asti:

Yeah. It's so clarifying. It's like displaced, that insecurity or that lack of self-love onto something else.

Artie Gonz:

Exactly. It's not to say—I mean, systemic racism in this country is a real thing. Very much was founded on those principles. And that is a real thing. The solution though, is going to require all of us to come together and it's going to require an education. It's going to require us to stop projecting self hate and actually tap into love because you won't be able to understand or accept that systemic racism is a thing until you love someone enough to live in their experience and be like, Oh, I could see how that's possible. I could also see how I would be closed-minded to it because it hasn't been my experience. So love is what opens us up.

Ashley Asti:

That's brilliant. Oh, I love that, speaking of love: love is open. And I also think, in order to get to know your neighbor, in order to love your neighbor, you have to get closer to them. That's what you were saying: now that you know Ryan, you know, you can't say all law enforcement is bad because you know the human being and you love him.

Ashley Asti:

I'm going to ask you your definition of love. We will get there. And I actually have a few lightning round questions I want to get to, but I have one last thing that I had wanted to ask you. Switching gears slightly, still pn love though, I was listening to a podcast the other day with the fame therapist Esther Perel. And she was talking about passion and this erotic intelligence, but we've limited our notion of what the erotic is to just think it's inside, something that happens inside couples. But she's saying this passion is really connected to aliveness. So it's something that happens in our work and in our friendships. It can happen, she said—people who are in revolutionary movements have this passion, right? There's an aliveness feeling. And so essentially it's the antidote to loneliness, to isolation, to this sense of nothingness. And it's another type of love, a passionate type of love, a sense of calling or soul awakening. And so you're nodding your head. Do you, do you know that feeling? Do you feel that feeling?

Artie Gonz:

Absolutely! Like I was talking to you about vibration and attunement with someone else. That's really what that is. It's like on a cellular level, you're dancing, right? Because you feel that connectedness and you feel the attunement. That's passion and that is what is, I think, she's describing. That's what I would say. It's beautiful. And I'm glad that she brought that up. And that she's aware of it. I think more people need to be aware of that, but that's really what that is. It's like, if you, if you have—if you're ever been around like a small infant or a baby and you put music on, the baby will naturally start to dance to it, but you see, it's not that the baby understands what the music is. It's the attunement, it's the vibration there. It's the love that's coursing through the baby on a very, very minute micro level.

Artie Gonz:

And it cannot help but move because everything within it is moving, right? Babies aren't tainted, they're pure. So they only, they function purely off of vibration. So that;s what you're experiencing and what happens later in life, as we kind of numb that out through the human experience and through trauma and all of these things. I'm trying to tell people, get back to that attunement. It's okay to feel that vibration again. Like dance like a baby. Start to love the music again. You know what I mean? So I'm glad she brought that up. That's dope.

Ashley Asti:

And that's the best description I've ever heard of a baby dancing to music before. The poet in me wants to borrow that description—it's like our cells are dancing! That sense of attunement. And I think that's why, when you stepped into this love and you've aligned with yourself, it's not like you've gone outside to find something. You've come into attunement, into alignment with who you are. I think that's why you're attracting the work that you're doing in your life. You're attracting the people that you're doing, because you've tapped into that aliveness feeling, into who you are. And that's, that's all love. Yeah.

Artie Gonz:

Absolutely.

Ashley Asti:

Alright, I've got some lightning round questions for you. You ready?

Artie Gonz:

Okay.

Ashley Asti:

We're going to start, I guess this is sort of a big one: Yes or no, do you believe in fate?

Artie Gonz:

Yes. With the exception that I believe that we have a choice and power over sort of guiding it.

Ashley Asti:

Yeah.

Artie Gonz:

You know, I think that, in other words, I think that it can be affected by free will.

Ashley Asti:

I understand that. All right. I like that answer. This is where I was going to ask you to finish the sentence. Love is...

Artie Gonz:

I want to say that love is God.

Ashley Asti:

Mmmm.

Artie Gonz:

What people would call God.

Ashley Asti:

Mmm, yeah. When something happens that—and it triggers you and you notice that you want to close down or close off rather than open to love or see the love in someone else, what's the first thing that you do in that moment when you catch yourself closing instead of opening?

Artie Gonz:

I'm not always able to, you know, it's the human experience. I struggle sometimes, but the self-talk, the one that I like to use for myself is I will say, I always tell people, take a moment. Even if it's just a second to be like, I might be wrong here, you know? But the answer is always this: empathy. Just try to empathize, like, just tell yourself, Empathize. So it's what I strive to do every single time, because it's only through empathy that I'm really going to be able to relate to someone I don't know, or understand an experience I've not lived. So that's the answer for sure.

Ashley Asti:

Mmm, okay. These are just for fun. So the last TV show that you binged and loved?

Artie Gonz:

The last TV show that I binged and loved was Queen's Gambit.

Ashley Asti:

Oh, I've heard great things. I haven't seen it yet.

Artie Gonz:

Oh my goodness. It's brilliant. It's so good. Yeah. I played a lot of chess, obviously, right? As a person formerly incarcerated, I played a lot of chess. I used to play chess on postcards with people around the country.

Ashley Asti:

Wow.

Artie Gonz:

Yeah.

Ashley Asti:

Fascinating.

Artie Gonz:

So this series was amazing. And it's funny because I play the Queen's gambit when I play,

Ashley Asti:

See, look at that. Look at the things we learn about you! We talked about this before: you have your own show, Lessons from a Lifer. Who's your dream guest on the show?

Artie Gonz:

If I could have anyone on Lessons from a Lifer, Oh, I'd have to go with Barack Obama. I would love, I would love to sit with Barack Obama and just—I mean, he's such a wise, wise man, you know? Just to hear his ideas and thoughts and how we connect somewhere in the middle. Like, I mean, it would just be epic for me.

Ashley Asti:

I definitely want to see that. So we're putting that out there into the universe to have that happen.

Artie Gonz:

Yeah, we're putting that out there. We need Obama. A very close, like tied for first, would probably be Oprah.

Ashley Asti:

Oh, another—come on! And also, I feel like, given what you do and the way you ask questions, that would, she'd be a great one, you know?

Artie Gonz:

Yeah.

Ashley Asti:

This is along a similar vein, so I'm going to ask you to pick someone other than the two you just said. But if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

Artie Gonz:

Actually, if I could have dinner with anyone dead, it would probably be it would probably be Nipsey Hussle or Tupac. If I could have dinner with anyone alive, I've always said, oh, I would love to sit down and have a meal with Jay Z and just pick his brain. Oh my goodness. He's a boss. He's doing it. Beyoncé, too, you know, but I just, I've always been a Jay Z fan from like, you know, his music got me through so much, you know what I mean? So,

Ashley Asti:

All right. So I'll sit down with Beyoncé. You can sit down with Jay Z. [Laughter] The last one: Your greatest wish is...

Artie Gonz:

My greatest wish. I think my greatest wish is collective healing. It would really be amazing if we could heal as a culture, and as a community and society, to get back to a point where it's like, Oh, I just love these people because they're human, you know? Or they're life forms. You know, I love animals because they're life forms. I love humans because they're life forms. I love plants because they're life forms. It would be great if we could heal to such a point as that and not be so convoluted with circumstances that we don't get to take with us when we die. We're so preoccupied with all those things, but the truth is you don't get to take it with you when you're gone. At the end of the day, the saying is we all cry for our mamas at the end. And that is love.

Ashley Asti:

I'm going to give you the last word here. Is there anything else you want to say about love? Anything that you feel like we haven't touched on that you need to get out?

Artie Gonz:

I, well, I, yeah. So the definition, I already gave you that, which was, I feel like it's like this—it's this thing that permeates the universe, it's been there forever. We call it love, but it's just that, that energy, right? It's what makes everything, sort of like the fabric of the universe even itself, you know? But what I would also say about love is that if you and I were to stand face to face less than a foot apart, I mean just gazing into each other's eyes and that's all we did,

Artie Gonz:

I would want to see that I'm looking at a mirror of myself. That's love, right? It's like some people get to be born with twins, but what if we were all twins? What if we already are? Right? So if I could stare at you and I could be like, I'm looking at a mirror of myself, it's beyond humanity. It's like, I'm looking at your substance. You know? So I, I would say that that additional part about love is like, it's beyond connectivity. It's like there's no, there's no me without you. You know, that's really what love is at the end of the day, you know? So

Ashley Asti:

Yeah, as you said before, love is God. It's we're all connected. I have to say, this has been like a masterclass. I want to take more of your classes, essentially. That was transformative and revelatory for me. And that's why I started this podcast, to have these conversations and you were bringing it! So I'm so grateful that I got to just listen to you today. Really, honestly. Thank you.

Artie Gonz:

Thank you. I really feel like, I mean, the whole part of my platform is like, and I always say this, I'm not unique. There's a bunch of people like me right now. So open up your hearts and minds, like there's a lot of phenomenal people who are incarcerated right now or are formerly incarcerated. It's okay to start to see the humanity of people and the potential of people. You know, I did—certainly didn't start this way, but I am proof that anything is possible. If we just do the work, anything's possible. I'm really glad that you had me here. There were so many times I wanted to go off on tangents and talk about forgiveness and what resentments are. And like, you know, I wanted to go off into these—and maybe we'll have to do this again.

Ashley Asti:

I was just going to say, You definitely have to come back and we can explore all of those things.

Artie Gonz:

You know, just very happy to have this opportunity. I hope that something I said today will touch someone, make them think a little differently about their approach or, you know, maybe it just gave them a smile inside today. You know, I would, that would be great. I really would like for, if you can you guys can, follow me on Instagram @artiegonz. I have some videos on there. You could DM me. I'm open, I can send you some stuff to read if you want. I'm definitely producing this series. If you know anyone who's interested and wants to get behind something like this, definitely hit me up. If you guys have guest ideas, connections, people you think about,

Ashley Asti:

Barack!

Artie Gonz:

If you know Barack, please hit me up. Let him know he has to come on this series with me. But you guys can hit me up and follow me on Instagram. And really it's like, it's not just elevating the platform because egotistically, that's what I want to do for myself. We live in a world where you sort of have to in order to play ball and to make that change, like there are a certain set of rules. And so any help that you guys can give me on that is very much appreciated and it comes from love. So,

Ashley Asti:

Yeah, I think if anyone got a taste of that today, they'll know that that's where it's coming from and it's totally worth it. So please. Yeah, definitely follow Artie.

Ashley Asti:

Oh, wasn’t that so good? Love is powerful. 

Definitely follow Artie: @artiegonz. I’ve got links to his social media in the show notes. 

But, as promised, a brief story about synchronicity: 

Artie and I have been texting since we recorded this conversation and one of the things he said to me is that he doesn’t feel like he’s saying anything new; he told me: “I am simply a messenger delivering an ancient message to a new generation disconnected from the wisdom of Time.” 

So, basically, we all can access universal truth, the truth of love—it’s ancient and eternal. Artie has simply tapped into it and is offering it up to a new generation who may not realize yet that they can tap into it, too. 

And I think one of the reasons I felt so good after talking with Artie is because his frequency tapped me back into this universal energy, this universal truth, and so synchronicities were showing up in my life everywhere—like little messages or signs of who I am, validating the path I’m on. It’s been, honestly, thrilling and like a remembering of what was always there but I had forgotten. Because our connection to universal truth, to love, to each other never disappears; we simply forget about it, sometimes. 

So there were all these confirmations and validations popping up in my own life since I spoke with Artie, which maybe we can talk about at another time. But I also kept seeing Artie’s wisdom everywhere: his truth suddenly popping up wherever I looked because now I was tuned in to that frequency.

A few days after we recorded, it was nighttime here in New York. I was reading a book called The Dharma of the Princess Bride: What the Coolest Fairy Tale of Our Time Can Teach Us About Buddhism and Relationships. It’s by Ethan Nichtern. And, I must say, it’s an odd book for me to choose because I’ve never seen The Princess Bride, but something drew me to it.

I had been thinking about what Artie said in the episode about hate, how it’s a projection. So, there I am, reading and I flip to a page in the book that says this: “Our ideas of good and evil are nothing but a projection of our own consciousnesses.” And I’m like, “Oh my god, Artie!” It goes on, “Enemies…are merely reflections of those things we don’t like about ourselves…” and then it encourages people to “look within.” It says, “The world is not coming toward you. It is coming from you.”

I immediately think of Artie and decide to text him a photo of this page in the book because, there he is, in the book while not being in the book. He texts back, “Omg! Woooow. That just gave me chills!” 

Okay. Cool, right? I’m seeing his wisdom everywhere, a reminder that he really is a messenger tapping into a universal truth. But that’s it. I put down my phone and keep reading.

Now, just as a reminder, right after Artie spoke on the episode about hate as a projection, he quickly added something like, “But systemic oppression is real.” So I flip to the next page of the book, and it says almost exactly that: “Our world is full of oppression,” it says, and it explains how we can’t just tell someone who is oppressed to look within without holding the oppressors accountable. 

Again, exactly what Artie was saying. 

I, of course, texted Artie a photo of that, too, and he said, “This is amazing! Universal Truth. It’s woven into the ages.” 

Then he texted the word I’ve never seen anyone else text before but that I use and text all the time: “Mmmmm.” That’s what he texted, all those M’s.

And, then, my favorite moment, he said: “When you do your voiceover for the podcast, you should mention this awesome affirmation from the Universe that we are on the right path!” 

(Laughter) So, here I am, sharing a little nudge and validation from the Universe: the ancient truth of love is real. We’re tapping into a sacred message and a sacred frequency. 

Thanks for joining me today. I hope this episode made you smile. Until next time, stay curious. 

 

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Transcript: College in Prison with Stacy Burnett

Ashley: Hey, everyone! I’m Ashley Asti and this is I’m Curious podcast. My guest today is Stacy Lyn Burnett, who got her college degree in her forties while she was in prison. Stacy was part of the groundbreaking program BPI, or Bard Prison Initiative, which enrolls hundreds of incarcerated students full-time in college programs. And when these students graduate, they cross that stage with a real degree from Bard College in their hands. 
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Transcript - Overdose Isn't Murder: Morgan Godvin on America's Failing Drug Policies

Ashley Asti (00:00):

Hey, everyone. I'm Ashley Asti and welcome to I'm Curious podcast. This episode today is a powerful one. I often overuse that word, but I mean it, it's powerful. It's compelling. My guest is Morgan Godvin. Morgan currently studies public health at the Portland State University School of Public Health. She is a decarceration and drug policy reform advocate. She spent five years addicted to heroin and four years incarcerated as a direct result of that addiction. One of her best friends, Justin, died from an overdose of drugs she had given to him. And she was incarcerated for that, essentially considered his murderer. He was her victim rather than her friend. And so she went to prison, not only dealing with her own detoxification, but from the grief of losing one of her best friends, of facing a potentially 20 year sentence, and after coming off the death of her mom, which she'll speak about in the episode too.

Ashley Asti (01:15):

So in the episode we unpack all of that. Morgan is incredibly intelligent. She offers scathing critiques of current drug policy, drug education, and the prison system. And her critiques are grounded, they're level, they're rooted in research and, unfortunately, her own lived experience. She has lived the consequences of failing policies. I want to thank her now for being so vulnerable in her willingness to share it—not just to share her story with me and each of us listening today—but this is what she does broadly across her life as an advocate. Her willingness to share courageously and truthfully. So let's get to it. Here's my conversation with Morgan.

Ashley Asti (02:03):

I am so grateful to have you here, Morgan. I got to read your, I guess your prison blog or your plog, I think you call it, on your website. And not only do you have a keen intellect, you're such a talented writer. I've heard other people, so many people try to capture whether it's the inconsistencies or the confusion of jail and prison. And no one else I've seen it captured in language in the way you do. So yeah, I'm excited to dive in more and I think, I think you might be working on a book or that might be coming out at some point. So I'm definitely eager for when that arrives.

Morgan Godvin (02:38):

Yeah. Those you know, I wrote a lot of emails from prison and then saved them. My aunt saved them to a jump drive for me. And then I got out and was able to read them again. And I posted a few on my website there.

Ashley Asti (02:53):

I'm grateful to your aunt, too, then

Morgan Godvin (02:56):

Me, too.

Ashley Asti (02:56):

for capturing and memorializing those.

Ashley Asti (02:56):

So what I often like to do at the beginning of these podcasts is go back to childhood a little bit. And I was reading on your website and you have an introduction and you write, "My name is Morgan Godvin. I grew up in outer Southeast Portland, and while my childhood was not conventional ,it was not remarkable." And so you kind of summed up that whole childhood part for me a little neatly. You're like it's unremarkable. It sounds like you were a smart kid though. I think we're probably almost exactly the same age. So I think you grew up in the D.A.R.E. Generation, that education program in school that was just like, don't do it ever, just say no, whatever that non-functioning slogan was. So I'm curious, to jump in, how did you go from this unremarkable childhood to sort of start playing around with—not playing around with, that's not the right word, but using drugs, recreationally? Was it just something fun?

Morgan Godvin (03:47):

Yeah, you know, I had lesbian parents before that was a thing. And so I got bullied. I've been depressed for a long time since I was a kid, since I was about 11, is when I remember really feeling depression. And I grew up hearing about how, you know, that one ecstasy pill is definitely going to kill you if you take it. And I believed in all that, because you know, my mom was in the military and I was terrified of drugs. And I was just like the smart kid in the corner doing my homework, socially, awkward, all that. And then by the time I was in high school, I was having some family issues at home. My parents had separated and my mom had a gambling addiction and ended up getting fired from her job as a professional for embezzlement.

Morgan Godvin (04:40):

And so I went from like a very normal middle-class life to not having enough money to buy food about overnight. And I was 16 at that time. So my life was spinning out of control, but I was still a minor and I couldn't do anything about it. And I was just, you know, a passenger and I started getting into drugs as a way to reclaim independence and control over my own life. And you know, the first time I saw people take ecstasy, I really thought someone was going to die because that's what I was told. And so I didn't take it. I was just watching other people, but then like twenty 17-year-olds took ecstasy and not one of them died. It didn't make sense. How is this statistically possible? I thought one ecstasy pill's definitely going to kill you.

Morgan Godvin (05:31):

And so with that sort of planted the seed, Oh my God, everything I was ever told is a lie. They were lying my whole education about the danger of drugs. So that must also mean that I should just try everything since they were lying. I have to figure this out for myself. I have to think for myself. And so it was fun. The subculture, the people who use drugs, that subculture was very accepting. I wasn't bullied, I wasn't excluded. So I felt a sense of belonging. I felt control over my own life and drugs helped with my depression. So that convergence of factors right around the time I was 16, 17 pushed me onto that trajectory.

Ashley Asti (06:18):

I think it's important that you couch it in that history of trying to regain control. And also I think we're all just seeking belonging. And so many of us have been—feel like we've been—pushed out or not accepted. And so that makes sense to me. And I guess eventually this recreational drug use just escalated for you?

Morgan Godvin (06:38):

Yeah. With the help of the government. (Laughter)

Morgan Godvin (06:43):

So the first time, it was one of the first times I ever did heroin. This was back when I was just using recreationally. My boyfriend and I, we were very hopeful about our future. We'd both just gotten new jobs. We were making a good amount of money. We had our own apartment you know, two years prior, I didn't have enough money for food. I had to drop out of high school to go work at McDonald's. So this was really a step up, a progress for us. But, you know, we didn't really know better. So we were recreationally using hard drugs. And one of the first times I did heroin, we were just smoking it and I overdosed. And he called 911 to save my life, which he did. The paramedics revived me with Naloxone and the police took him to jail and charged him with felony possession of heroin. And we were immediately evicted and made homeless. And he was given a felony conviction and terminated from his job. So overnight we went from super hopeful about our future to being homeless and him having a lifetime felony conviction. And after that, we got a case of the eff-its because a felony is for life. There's nothing you can do about that. And within a year of that, we were both addicted to heroin.

Ashley Asti (07:59):

That's heartbreaking. We'll talk about this later, but that feels like the absolute wrong response from the government. Like it took—you had this sense of hope and when you take it away, it's like, that's a lethal removing, like when you remove that hope and send people out into the streets, what do you expect? So, you know, we'll get into that.

Morgan Godvin (08:17):

I agree.

Ashley Asti (08:20):

Yeah, I figured. So, I mean, one of the first times you try it, you overdose. Are you, when you take heroin, is this something you're thinking, are you thinking about consequences, are you thinking about overdosing, are you thinking about criminal consequences, or you're just looking for some sort of relief or outlet?

Morgan Godvin (08:37):

No, first off, we were young. And so, you know, infamously feeling invincible, like these negative consequences that we'd heard about vaguely would never happen to us, would never befall us, and heroin is not as scary or as dangerous as it is often portrayed in the media when you're not injecting it. So when you're just smoking it off of tin foil, it was very similar to smoking an 80 milligram Oxycontin off of tinfoi, and the Oxycontin—okay, maybe it wasn't prescribed to us, but it was prescribed to someone. It was, you know, a doctor. And then you realize that pharmacologically, it's almost the exact same compound. And especially when you're smoking it, no, you don't know the milligrams. You don't know the dosage, it's not as exact, but the high is the same. And so it wasn't as scary. No, and especially—so knowing my drug education was not practical. It was not, "Do not mix benzodiazepines with opioids because you will overdose." No one told me benzodiazepines have a very long half-life. If you took a Xanax that morning, it is still in your system that night when you smoke heroin. No one told me these things and I was 18 years old.

Ashley Asti (09:50):

So do you want to speak to—I'd mentioned at the beginning the D.A.R.E Program. Are they just essentially teaching abstinence, just like, "Don't do it"? I assume you think that that's not effective?

Morgan Godvin (10:01):

Yeah. So what they do is it's a fear-mongering, it's fear-based education to try to scare you into not trying drugs the first time. That might work for a subset of people. But for people like me, who then have a visual, tangible example of someone using drugs and not dying, it makes us think everything we were told was a lie. And so just—because it's this incredible feeling, like you will, I remember, cause you know, I was what? In like seventh grade, right around the boom of raves and raver culture. So I remember all those PSA's against ecstasy and that my whole drug education was, you know, "Just say, no, this is your brain on drugs". And then my mom, my non-biological mom, I found her bong one time under the kitchen counter. I cried so hard because my mom was a drug addict and was probably going to burn in hell and was definitely frying her brain.

Morgan Godvin (10:57):

And, you know, these are just the things I remember looking back on my life where I'm like, wow, if I just, if I would've had an education somewhat based in reality with some factual evidence instead of fear-mongering. Cause my pendulum swung too far to the other side, right? I had been terrified of drugs, but then I realized they were lying to me. And so my pendulum swung so far to the other side that I had no fear of drugs and thought that all the bad stuff they told me about drugs was a lie. When reality always is somewhere in the middle. Shades of gray, complexity and nuance.

Ashley Asti (11:32):

Yeah. And I feel like that also creates a level of stigma and shame. Like when you found your mom's bong, it's like, Oh my gosh, she's doing something terrible. And I think that's not helping any of us heal or helping the situation at all. Eventually, again, we'll go back to that. I'm sort of jumping around. So, in 2014, you eventually go to jail and prison. We'll talk about that. But I believe before that you had been convicted of felony possession, is that true? Like of a small amount of heroin?

Morgan Godvin (12:01):

Yeah. Twice, once for a gram and once for residue amount swapped with cotton off of a piece of plastic found in my car.

Ashley Asti (12:12):

Wow.

Morgan Godvin (12:14):

Yeah. So I had two possession of heroines. One time I was cooking a shot for my friend in my car and a police officer saw me, caught me red-handed doing that. And I went to jail for that. And then the next time it was a very illegal search that I did not consent to. Even though they wrote in the police report that I did. When I asked for the dash cam footage, they said they didn't have any because they don't have dash cams. Very convenient. Thing is how they were lying in an official police report. And they gave me a felony for a quantity of heroin that could not be measured on the scale at the laboratory because it was residue and put me in jail for that.

Ashley Asti (12:56):

So...Again, this is sort of mind boggling. I know these things happen, but it's, none of it really makes a lot of sense. And also we were talking about this with the hope. So what does that do to you now? Because now you have a felony conviction that's following you for life. You know, you're kind of tied to it. You're tied to it now, a sense of stigma or shame to that. What did that do to your dreams for your life?

Morgan Godvin (13:16):

So, yeah, destroyed me because through my addiction, thanks to social and cultural capital and racial privilege, I was able to maintain some semblance of a normal life, especially going to community college. And while I was addicted to heroin, I got my EMT license and I was getting into paramedic school because I'd reversed overdoses and realized I was good at medical emergencies. I kept my cool when other people did not. And I thought, Hey, maybe I could do this for a living. And so that's what I went to school for. And shortly after I got my EMT license is when I got that first arrest. They offered me drug court. They said, you know, you won't get the felony if you do drug court. And I really believed, I thought that getting a felony conviction was the line I would not cross because it is forever.

Morgan Godvin (14:07):

I did not understand the nature of my addiction in that point and cycling in and out of jail and treatment and detox. A few months later, I finally realized I was doomed. And then—I had gone back to treatment and it was the next day after I released from treatment that I was driving and got pulled over by that officer who found that month's old scrap of plastic under my seat and gave me another felony. And I gave up. My future was over. Because I thought I was supposed to go to paramedic school. There's no way that's happening. I'm never working as an EMT, even though I just invested all that time and energy getting my license. Definitely never going to medical school, years down the line once I figured my life out, because...my arrests, these convictions, they are forever. And so I give up, I said, fine, have it your way. And I will just die in my addiction because, well, there's not very many better options for me, is there?

Ashley Asti (15:10):

In a short span of time, I feel like you were carrying so much, beginning when you were 16 to, to this period that you're talking about in your life. And I know I think in 2013, your mom passes away from an overdose of opioids that were prescribed by a doctor. One, were you shocked by this? And, two, how did you carry this grief? Like how did you, what did you do with all of that?

Morgan Godvin (15:34):

Yeah. I was incredibly shocked that my mom died of an overdose. You know, when I found her unconscious, even if I would've had Naloxone for myself, cause I was an injection drug user, I don't think I would have thought to give it to her because I never would have thought that's what—she had health problems. I would have thought that she had a stroke or a heart attack, even when I found her unconscious and was doing CPR. It never occurred to me it was a drug overdose. But she was already gone. I was fortunate that the police that responded to her death didn't arrest me that night because there was—my syringes were out and I was on probation for that felony. So they very easily could have arrested me the night my mom died and they did me the great courtesy of not arresting me. How generous of them.

Morgan Godvin (16:25):

I didn't exactly deal with the grief. Because I'd already wanted to die at that point. Remember, just months before I'd gotten all these felony convictions and completely given up hope on any type of future in recovery, because there was no point. Beuse I would never be able to surmount the felonies I'd been given. And after my mom died, I just really, really wanted to die. And in this moment, I think I was fortunate that I was on heroin because it was just a little bit more convenient than suicide and it numbed the pain to some degree or at least it knocked me out. So I wasn't conscious and didn't feel it because I was so actively suicidal. And so I think for a few months after my mom died, the heroin almost acted as a protective insulation against suicide.

Ashley Asti (17:21):

You had a compounding of again, this trauma or this loss. Because then a few months later, your longtime friend, Justin, passes away. And I know he had asked you for some heroin one night, I think, and you gave it to him and then he overdoses. So how did you, first of all, how did you find out about his death?

Morgan Godvin (17:47):

He texted me for the heroin, and the next day he texted me again for another gram. He wanted me to deliver it, but no, I was like super addicted to heroin. I haven't showered in weeks. I don't leave my house. I stink. I'm not going anywhere. Like, all I do is sit. So I was like, no, you need to come get it. And he never came, but I was so out of it that I didn't even really pay attention. And then that night, late that night, I'm sitting on my living room couch and the door flies open and in comes the SWAT team pointing guns at me. And they put me in handcuffs at first. I don't understand what's happening. I'm not a drug dealer by any means. So I assume they're there for my roommate who's like a low, small time dealer. That was my assumption. But then they put me in handcuffs and the warrant was in my name. And they said that I was being arrested for the overdose death of Justin. And as they tighten the handcuffs on behind my back, that's how I knew my best friend had died.

Ashley Asti (18:51):

And so I guess in the eyes of the U.S. Government, he's your victim rather than your friend?

Morgan Godvin (18:56):

Yes. All through my paperwork, he's listed as my victim. At my sentencing, his mom was asked how much restitution she wanted from me. I would have been completely liable for all of his funeral and burial costs. She opted out of that arrangement because she does not agree with the government's interpretation that he is my victim.

Ashley Asti (19:20):

I think I have in your prison blog in September, 2016, you had written, "Decades of terrible police policy that arrested people who called for help during a friend's overdose has created the current situation where people are terrified of calling for help. When someone overdoses." You said, "This is how people die. Someone goes unconscious and everyone runs for fear of arrest or being held responsible for the death." And I know you weren't there for this happening to Justin, but can you speak to that, how that policy is failing?

Morgan Godvin (19:50):

Yeah. So now I am a research associate at the health and justice action lab. And they're right now doing research, looking at what happens in areas that create these delivery resulting in death laws and then have media stories about them. It increases the risk of overdose. And I, you know, a microcosm example is me and my friends. You know, everybody knew me and Justin. The heroin scene in outer East Portland is fairly small. Okay. There's not that many of us. And so this had just sent shock waves through us because there is no Oregon law about this. This was the feds coming in, charging us for what would have been a state crime, but there is no—since there is no law, you know, we didn't cross state lines. There was nothing that should have triggered this to be a federal offense.

Morgan Godvin (20:41):

We were in Portland and yet they came in and charged us with this. And all of a sudden people are terrified: "Am I next?" Because even from the time my boyfriend, that first arrest, Oregon passed a law, the good Samaritan law, protecting people who called 911, insulating them from arrest for drug possession. It Does not apply for a federal homicide charge. And so people become terrified because you are being charged with, depending on the state or the area, what usually equates to second degree murder. Murder. And I wish I would have been there that night to call for Justin. But you know, he was so stigmatized that he holed up in his bedroom alone to use. And I just think that's terribly unfair because he called 911 to save my life months before that, when he was on probation and he had to call 911 and then sneak out the back door to not get arrested.

Ashley Asti (21:47):

I think it's important what you're--I mean, all of what you're saying here, but let's say this policy is in place to get drugs off the street, like pull you off the street cause you are a big, bad drug dealer. But you were friends. This was not, this didn't make anyone safer. This didn't get drugs off the street. And I feel like even if you were dealing drugs, I imagine you'd be replaceable because if people want the drugs, there's a demand for it, I imagine someone else could take your spot.

Morgan Godvin (22:13):

Yeah, that's exactly right. So, you know, when they advertise these laws, they say they're used for kingpins and that's a lie. We did an analysis all across the country, more than 50% of the people prosecuted from this law were the friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, brother, or sister of the victim. So that's a lie. So what happens is people are very upset with the overdose crisis and they are going to their politicians and they're saying, "Do something." And so politicians are doing something. That something is this. But doing something and doing something effective are completely different things. And in my case, they were able to move up the chain and get my roommate who was a small time dealer and his dealer and people above him. So there was five of us that were arrested. Did the heroin scene in Portland dry up overnight?

Morgan Godvin (23:09):

No, no one went a day without heroin. We were all replaceable because where there is voracious demand, there will be ample supply. And yet the American government still doesn't get that. We've tried supply side interdiction at the cost of billions of dollars annually to try to reduce supply. But they just send more. Cause as long as our demand is this high, there will be supply because people are desperate. There's wealth inequality in the world, right? So there's always going to be someone to step in and fill those shoes.

Ashley Asti (23:46):

I'm thinking about Justin's mom. She just lost her son. And it sounds like, though, she waived restitution. So I'm guessing rather than being angry and thinking you should be prosecuted. She thought that was the wrong move, too, even as his mother.

Morgan Godvin (24:01):

Yeah, that's right. I'm very fortunate in that way. A lot of people seek—they want someone to blame and the person who's dead from an overdose is dead. So you can't blame them. So they go to the next best thing, which is whoever gave them the drugs. But Justin's mom knew me. I was fairly close with their family for several years because he was one of my best friends. And she knew. She understood her son's addiction. She'd watch him struggle with it for years and years cycling in and out of jail and prison. And so she did not do what is so natural for some parents is just to seek vengeance and blame. She was able to rise above that and she saw me with compassion and she said, no one killed her son. In fact, he didn't even die of an overdose. He died of a broken heart.

Ashley Asti (24:58):

I'm glad you brought up that word compassion because I feel like we could use more of that. So you're eventually sent to jail and you have to detox in jail. What was that feeling like? Did the jail provide you any resources in this detox journey?

Morgan Godvin (25:17):

No, of course not. So that was my fourth time in jail in a year. But what had happened in between the last time I was in jail and that time is my mom had died and left me with money. And so my use had gone from a half gram a day to upwards of six grams a day, which sounds physiologically impossible, but there's actually no ceiling for opioid tolerance in human beings. We can just become more and more and more tolerant. And so I assumed that I was going to have the worst withdrawals of my entire life, but I didn't. It was terrible. It was uncomfortable. And the jail intentionally tortures you because they have buprenorphine and they have Suboxone to ease the suffering of withdrawal. They just choose not to give it to you, which is punishment for the sake of punishment. But what was much worse than withdrawal was those were the first moments I was sober since the death of my mom and Justin. So I was sober, in jail, being told I was facing a 20 year mandatory minimum sentence for the overdose death of one of my best friends and detoxing from heroin. So that conjunction was much more difficult than the physical effects alone.

Ashley Asti (26:33):

I feel like that's almost an unnatural level of grief and loss to deal with in any circumstance and even to try to deal with it in a healthy way outside of a jail. But when you're in jail, you must have—I don't know what your situation was like. Were you in a cell with other people? Were you in dorms? Like you probably get no privacy to even feel what you're feeling and what's coming up for the first time.

Morgan Godvin (26:55):

Yeah, it was an open dorm. So 78, well not 78 bunk beds, but 78 beds in one giant room. And that is where you detox. You can just vomit into a trash can while everyone watches. And when you cry, when you're grieving the loss of your mom or your impending 20 year sentence or the death of your best friend, you're crying in full view of everyone around you. And that was my life.

Ashley Asti (27:27):

You're mentioning a 20 year sentence and that's what you thought you were facing. I assume you pled out? Is that why it got reduced?

Morgan Godvin (27:35):

Yeah, I was sentenced under the prior Attorney General, Eric Holder, before the Sessions memo. If I were to be sentenced today, I would have probably been sentenced to 20 years until the next administration takes charge and appoints a new Attorney General. So I was told that I was going to do 20 years, but because it was that administration, I was able to plead down to a lesser charge of conspiracy to distribute heroin. And for that, I was sentenced to five years, but this is wide prosecutorial discretion. I was able to come and say, look, I have my EMT license. I wasn't a total, you know, worthless piece of crap. Okay? I Joined the air force. You know, I'm technically a veteran, even though I was declared medically unfit for service in basic training, you know? So I had these things going for me that really do stem from racial and class privilege when you break them down on a historical analysis. But that's not what the courts do. It's a meritocracy in the courtroom. So they just looked at me and, Oh, you got these points and you've done this? And so the prosecutor offered me this very low plea deal. If I was a person of color, I would still be in prison today. If I was sentenced under the Sessions memo, I would be in prison for the next 10 years.

Morgan Godvin (28:59):

Anyway, that's not justice. So wide discretion is not justice, but it benefited me. And that's how I'm able to be here talking to you today.

Ashley Asti (29:11):

Right. Yeah. After jail, you're moved to federal prison. Are these the cushy camps we see on TV shows? Or what was your experience in a federal prison?

Morgan Godvin (29:25):

Yeah, I always have to clarify, not a camp, not like the TV shows you've seen. I was sent to a higher security level. Technically it's low, but that's just because all women's facilities are called low because, you know, we don't stab each other like men's facilities. And so I had a cell. And I had a cell that was built for one person that all of a sudden housed three. There was no floor space. It was all occupied by either the single bed, the bunk bed or the lockers. There was your toilet to do your business about 12 inches from the head of your roommates. And there was nowhere to sit, nowhere to write. There was no desk, there was no surface, it was just beds and a toilet and a sink. And when we did count, you had to stagger yourselves because you couldn't all fit standing shoulder to shoulder. When the guards walked by, there wasn't enough space in the cell. It does not meet the square footage minimum requirements as set by the Bureau of Prisons, but there's no oversight body for the Bureau of Prisons. So no one cares.

Ashley Asti (30:34):

Hmm. Wow. I can't imagine.

Morgan Godvin (30:38):

Imagine during COVID lockdown when you're locked in that cell 24/7?

Ashley Asti (30:44):

Because I imagine we're still facing overcrowding in a lot of these places?

Morgan Godvin (30:48):

Oh yes. Terribly.

Ashley Asti (30:50):

Yeah. What about the COs? What was your interaction with them or treatment by them? 

Morgan Godvin (30:58):

Yes. terrible. Shockingly terrible. So again, military brat joined the military. I have this certain naive conception of what the American government is and, ou know, people that are represented. People that are the face of the government. So then I got to federal prison where they have the American flag on their shoulders because it's a federal prison uniform. And then they screamed and cussed at me, called me bitch, "Shut the fuck up." And I'm just shocked. I'm like, what? Wait, no, no, I'm an American citizen. You cannot talk to me like this. Oh, but they can. And you just get used to it over time. You get used to being called inmate or being shouted at, or just really arbitrary rule enforcement that they do just for fun because they're bored and have really low job satisfaction. Of course there are good ones too, right?

Morgan Godvin (31:54):

There are people there, there are exceptions. And I wouldn't say the heinous evil ones are the rule. They're also the exception. The vast majority of people are just disinterested, disaffected, maybe a little bit negligent. Again, they have low job satisfaction. They don't do much, but they also don't interfere with your daily life. But then you have people on either ends of the spectrum, people that are unusually good and want to help you and want to see you have a better life. And then you do have a disproportionately large, when compared to average society, segment of people who are evil, who inflict cruelty for the sake of it.

Ashley Asti (32:34):

I feel like that's the last place that you need someone who's disinterested, when many people who end up in jail or prison need some sort of support, need some sort of education, love, whatever it might be. That's when it harms the most. And that's why when we talk about your life, we'll talk about your life now and what you're doing. And I want to be clear that you're sort of an exception, like prison is not what rehabilitated you, and I'm putting that in air quotes. You're an anomaly in the system. I think I'd read somewhere that you, because you had this money from your mom that she left, you were able to pay for emails, which are expensive, and phone calls and commissary. Can you talk about the cost of those things and why that's an exception and why it's important?

Morgan Godvin (33:18):

Well, Noma County jail, a 15 minute phone call cost $6 and 25 cents. And if I so felt like it, I could make five a day. And I would often because I was bored and lonely and told I was facing 20 years in prison and grieving the death of two people that I loved, including my own mother. So if I wanted to make five phone calls a day, I would, I didn't care. Also money didn't hold much value for me anymore because I felt like my life was over. And so I just burned through my savings. Making $6, 15 minute phone calls. I could call my friends to ask what they had for lunch and the woman next to me couldn't call her kid on the first day of school. And that was the system. I was always able to buy commissary. I always had snacks. I could have myself whatever books I wanted. My aunt would order for me and send to me, you know, from Amazon. And so I lived comfortably on the scale of relativity within prison. And yet I still suffered greatly because of the scarcity inherent to prison. And I did that while spending $400 or $500 a month from prison.

Ashley Asti (34:30):

And I feel like isolation—especially you're in a federal prison, so you're not even close to home. So people have family members that are far away that don't have the money to come visit. They can't see their kids. They can't afford phone calls. Isolation does not heal anyone. I think we all know that community is what nourishes us and brings us together. And so that's another reason why the system is unjust, unfair, and money in this situation matters. Again, not to lessen your pain or your suffering or not to be like, "That was a great experience," but it does matter. And it's sad that this is the situation.

Morgan Godvin (35:02):

Yeah, it's absolutely true. It's the worst. It's the deepest injustice I saw because most women in prison are mothers. And to sever their communication with their children involuntarily, to just to separate our community ties to such a horrible degree. Federal prison, it has many Native American women because federal crimes committed on reservations send you to federal prison. So there were women from reservations all over the country from Arizona to North and South Dakot. There is no way their family can afford to visit them. There's just no way. And they have a video visit software like a Zoom, but it's $6, again. And that might sound marginable. But look at who you're putting in prison. We are putting the poorest of the poor in prison and then expecting their family to pay exorbitant rates for communication that would otherwise be free. There is no—in prison, a 15 minute phone call was $3 and 25 cents. That's not real. It doesn't actually cost that much. There are corporations that are profiting off of our suffering and they're doing it legally. This is written into American law. All these things they're doing are completely legal. Does that make them right? No, God, no. It's evil, but it's legal. And yet what I did was illegal and the government declared it wrong and put me in prison. Isn't that a conundrum?

Ashley Asti (36:32):

Mmm. A lot of these women, once they're released—beause a lot of them do return to their families and their communities—they're essentially sent out. They don't have money. They probably didn't get the resources or training or education that they needed inside. Basically they're like, Go out on the streets. And if you had an issue or struggle with addiction before, they tell you, Just don't use drugs. Isn't that bound to fail? Like when you're left with, again, without the supports?

Morgan Godvin (37:01):

Yeah. And so not only do you not have the supports, you are given more barriers. So people who need more help. Okay. So they've been absent from society. They have a four or five-year work gap on their resume. They might have a low reading and writing level or a learning disability and a history of addiction. These are the people who need more help. And what do we give them? More barriers. Call this phone number every day, pee in this cup, you can't work here. You can't go here. You need written permission to do this. Any job you apply for, they're doing a criminal background check. You're not getting hired depending on what state you live in. You might not even be eligible for food stamps because you have a drug conviction. There's no rent assistance. There's no welfare. You have $0 and you have no clothes to wear. When you get out, you're getting out with literally nothing and starting from scratch. You don't even have clothes to wear to go to an interview. The exact population that needs wraparound services, that needs more support, gets barriers instead.

Ashley Asti (38:04):

Let's talk about how you ended up in college. Because, again, you sort of were the exception. You had to work around the system, essentially work around the disinterest, the whatever it is. I feel like I'd read that you applied to get into Portland State University through the help of a friend over the phone or something in prison. Is that true?

Morgan Godvin (38:26):

My friend Ian was a student at the time. And so I made one of those $3 and 15 cents phone calls and he got on his laptop. Cause of course we don't have the internet. And I would just try to tell him what to do. And he would read to me what he was seeing on the screen. And then I would tell him what to fill out. And that's how I applied and was accepted into Portland State University, with him fraudulently pretending to be me while I placed a prison payphone phone call.

Ashley Asti (38:51):

And I'm laughing cause it's the absurdity of it. But it's not funny. Like you shouldn't have to go through that many hoops in order to get out and get an education and successfully move on with your life and not let that punishment follow you. Even though it's going to keep trying to come back at you. And like you say, you're kind of tied to it.

Morgan Godvin (39:09):

I had to fill out my FAFSA on paper. I had to have a friend of mine send my paper FAFSA to me and then me fill it out and send it to some address in Kentucky months in advance. 20, 30 years ago, it wasn't as drastic the difference between people in prison and people not in prison. Tthere was still an infrastructure to do things on paper and through the U.S. Mail. That has dissolved because everything is now done online, everything is digital, but yet people in prison have no access to the internet. So this digital divide is incredibly drastic. So people in prison, again, need more help and are getting so much more barriers because they are just being locked out of so many opportunities because they don't have the internet.

Ashley Asti (40:02):

And you mentioned the digital divide. If you don't have the digital literacy skills or I know this is my privilege, but when I was 18 and I was applying to college, my dad filled out my FAFSA and he's an accountant. I was like, "Here." I didn't even have to try to understand the paperwork. And, again, if you're coming from a perspective of not even having the literacy or the skills, or like, I can't—I don't even have words cause I can't imagine it.

Morgan Godvin (40:29):

So much of my time at the halfway house--so I lived at the halfway house as a "BOP inmate" for six months. It was spent teaching men who had gottem out after 10, 15 or 20 year sentences how to use a phone or how to compose an email, how to download an application on their phone. They were just hamstringed because if you haven't had that exposure for 15 years, you get out and it is a critical, critical skill for survival in modern society. Even when you learn it, it's just a superficial grasp. You can do the bare minimum. You will never be, you know, savvy. You'll never be technologically savvy if you got your first cell phone in 2019.

Ashley Asti (41:13):

Mmm. Yeah. I want to look a little bit at the policy stuff that you're studying and advocating for. I believe that you essentially advocate that drug decriminalization is the only way to end drug use. Can you explain that?

Morgan Godvin (41:31):

Yeah. So criminalization is du jour stigmatization. Okay? So stigma is criminalization by another name and it is the stigma that is killing us. Stigma itself is far more dangerous than the drugs. It's what causes us to use alone so there's no one to administer Naloxone. It's what makes us lie to everyone around you. Because if I told you the truth, if I admitted that I was using heroin, you would exclude me from that space. And so it creates this culture where you are forced to lie and hide. Access the black market. We don't know the purity of the drugs. We don't know if it's contaminated with fentanyl. If I get robbed or raped while trying to buy drugs, could I call 911? No. So it's creating this whole segmented, separate part of society that is pushed into the shadows. So even the best public health messaging does not reach people we have pushed into the shadows.

Morgan Godvin (42:33):

And until we clean up these dynamics, make people be able to ask for help and then receive the help they want and need the moment they want and need it. So if someone wakes up today and says, I don't want to use heroin today. They can walk to the corner and either dose on Suboxone or methadone, their preference. But have it be just as easy to get medications for opioid use disorder as it is to buy street heroin. And right now it's much easier to get heroin than it is to get medication. Why is that? Well, that is the FDA. These are federal government regulations that have created this mostly because it's so heavily stigmatized by society. And why is it so stigmatized? Because it's so highly criminalized. And then the stigma and the criminalization becomes self perpetuating and work in tandem.

Ashley Asti (43:31):

When it comes to finding solutions, I don't think we have to reinvent the wheel. I believe that there are other countries that are already coming up with more health oriented solutions rather than criminal solutions. Do you, can you talk about any other country that might be leading the way on this?

Morgan Godvin (43:48):

Yes. I mean, even in Canada, there are pilot programs to have self-supply, where you put your hand up and it scans your hand biometric and doses you hydromorphone, which is Dilaudid little tablets, which you can either ingest or inject at will. But that means you know the exact dosage of your drugs, you are not going to a drug dealer. You're not committing a crime to feed your habit. Your needs are met. So then you can focus on, you know, everything else that composes life, like, what else do you need to survive? Getting a job, finding housing, relationships, satisfaction, joy. We can't think of any of those things until our basic daily needs are met. Portugal decriminalized drugs a long time ago, brought it out of the criminal sphere and into the public health sphere. Saw drug use rates plummet, saw infection, hepatitis C, HIV rates plummet.

Morgan Godvin (44:46):

It's not reinventing the wheel. There are so many jurisdictions internationally that have experimented with decriminalization and/or safe supply with huge success. Data do not lie. You know, it's all right there for the taking, but we're so fear-based. And then the United States, we have such profound fear mongering ingrained in us and I get it, okay? We had to believe that the war on drugs was the answer because it was the only way to justify spending billions of dollars and destroying millions of lives. So we really bought this lie that we were sold that, you know, incarceration was the answer. Obviously it's not because we've been doing these punitive policies for decades now. And year after year, we're shattering overdose records. More than a hundred thousand people have died from overdose in 2020. Thanks to the social isolation of COVID. Social isolation is the opposite of what people need when they're, when they're suffering from addiction.

Morgan Godvin (45:51):

And yet it's been our primary response. We've been putting people in jail, in prison, which is social isolation. And now we have this little laboratory example of 2020. What happens when you put people in social isolation? Oh, well, overdoses skyrocket. But we've already known that, but finally, you know, policy wonks are having to take notice. You can no longer say that incarceration and criminalization is the way because we're dying at record rates. And if we just let our moralistic garbage go for a second and just look at outcomes-based policy, follow the data, we have solutions. We really do. And they are at our fingertips. They're cheap, they're affordable, they're accessible. They save lives. So let's do that because my friends are dying.

Ashley Asti (46:41):

And like you said, it works. You know, it's not even like we have to guess, does it work? We've seen other people, other countries and it's working. The data shows that we could prevent people, like you said, your friends from dying. So it seems like an obvious solution to me. One of the last things I want to talk to you about is in my work, I'm a writer and storyteller and someone who is interested in that aspect. As you know, you've gone on many different podcasts shows, you advocate, you're in the newspaper. You're kind of all over doing what you're doing publicly, and you're sharing your story. And I feel like for so long, there's probably been a stigma attached to that. Do you find that in getting to share it now and sort of a little bit more on your own terms and as a student who's studying this, does it help to start to peel away the shame? Does it help to tell your story?

Morgan Godvin (47:30):

You know, I don't have the luxury of feeling shame anymore. I had to shit in front of my roommates for years. Like you said, I think that really contributed to it because I lost all embarrassment or shame. My mugshot was broadcast in all the local papers for many different possession arrests. Then I was arrested and tossed in jail. And then you get strip searched constantly all the time, spread your cheeks and cough. Then you're having to, you know, defecate in front of strangers. I was no longer susceptible to the shame laid on me by society. I had nothing left to lose, nothing at all. And so I got out and I, it wasn't even a conscious thought. I just, I had no shame left. And so I will just talk about these horrible things that I saw over and over and over. And then I realized that this system is created in such a way that it makes most people like me not ever talk about their experiences because they're stigmatized, because it's shameful. Yeah. I reject that outright. I have got no shame left to give and me talking about these things that are not often talked about has created good in society. I can share these, these horrible tragedies that either happened to me or that I witnessed. And they surprise people because people don't know that this is happening because it's not often talked about. And so I'm glad. I'm glad that I suffered such shameful circumstances for so long that I just had to abandon any concept of privacy.

Ashley Asti (49:10):

Yeah. I think I said this is the last thing, but I, as usual, always have more. But this is the last thing. Do you want to speak to this moment? Like you touched on it before: we're in this pandemic. People have had to isolate and feel disconnected in ways that they perhaps might not have before. In particular, I'm thinking about people who might be in recovery. I imagine the draw to go back to something that can give you relief is strong. Do you want to speak to that in any way?

Morgan Godvin (49:36):

Yes. So these times are hard. I am a person in recovery, but I don't, that's not the first piece of my identity that I lead with. I'm a student. I'm formerly incarcerated. I am gay. I'm all these other things first. And recovery usually tails that. And I don't know why. It's very personal. You know, people's struggles are different. But in quarantine during this pandemic, my recovery has been, has bubbled up to the forefront because for the first time ever, I thought about using heroin. So for years and years, I didn't, it didn't even occur to me. My life is great and wonderful. Why would I want to be unconscious? But now I have, I'm lonely. There's uncertainty. I don't know what the future, my life is meaningless. I don't go anywhere. And, and then, so I get these old thoughts,

Morgan Godvin (50:34):

patterns from years ago, bubbling back up in my brain. Well, maybe you should just do heroin? Whoa, I haven't heard that thought in years. And I assume, I don't know, but that this is what's happening to a lot of people in recovery because we're seeing a lot of people relapse and die. As you know, right after a relapse, you have no tolerance. You're at a very high risk for overdose. And that is a substantial portion of the overdoses, are new relapses, which is tragic. But I don't really, I don't have a good answer for this. I'm struggling with it, too. I see a psychologist through the VA to get treatment. I've considered going on antidepressants, but I didn't do it. You know, it's just redefining what our purpose is, even if it's just for that day. Like, I'll just make my little to-do list. Here are the four things I need to do today.

Morgan Godvin (51:30):

And if I'm able to cross these things off, you know, my day was meaningful. I fulfilled my life's purpose for that day. So really zooming in and looking at very small bites and trying to redefine meaning in my life. But it's very, very hard. And I sometimes feel like I'm in jail or prison. Again, I am out of control and I feel lonely and there's uncertainty and I don't feel safe. My physical safety is in danger. Am I getting a virus? And so it's touching on my PTSD from living unsafe in the drug, heroin subculture, and then unsafe in jail and prison. And now I'm unsafe because of a virus. And so it's just triggering all these past things in me. And it's so hard, but I have a lot of amazing friends and a great psychologist and I try to eat right. My diet is really important to make me not feel like garbage. And exercise, which I could be doing so much more than I am, but I'm confined to this little office and I can barely even go outside.

Ashley Asti (52:44):

I'm glad you're here. I'm glad that you're sharing. So, honestly, I think for someone like me who has—I've not experienced jail or prison, I've never taken a drug. I barely even take like, you know, a Tylenol. For me, I feel like I can tiptoe around this. I'm afraid I'm asking the wrong questions. Or like, Oh my God, you know. And you're making it safe for me to learn. And I hope other people ,too. Because I know curiosity is what draws us a little bit closer. Because then maybe I'm going to finally listen to you and learn something and be surprised. And maybe that will move me to help create change that we need. So I appreciate you allowing me to ask my questions and learn. And like I said, not just with me, but for continuing to share your story and doing the work that you're doing in school and in your life. So thank you.

Morgan Godvin (53:30):

Yeah, of course. This is my, you know, my only advice: if you know anyone in recovery, no matter how long they've been in recovery, reach out and ask them how they're doing. But a component of criminalization is when we're struggling, we are reluctant to admit it. No one wants to say, "I'm thinking about committing a felony." "I'm thinking about going to get some heroin." Nobody's going to say that because that is the landscape we've created under this regime of criminalization and punitive drug policy. But pick up the phone, call them, you know, FaceTime your friends. Hey, what's up? How are you doing? Cause it's what we need. It's this social isolation that is killing us.

Ashley Asti (54:14):

I'm going to leave it right there because I think that message is the exact right one: to pick up the phone and let people know that you love them. You're thinking about them. Thank you, Morgan.

Morgan Godvin (54:24):

Of course.

Ashley Asti (54:24):

I'm really grateful I got to have this conversation with Morgan and meet her, well, virtually in the age of this pandemic. When I had originally reached out to her asking if she'd be a guest on my show, she was game right away, willing to share her story with me, a perfect stranger at the time, I definitely encourage you to check out more of Morgan's work, her advocacy, her writing, her on other podcasts. You can visit her website, morgangodvin.com and follow her on Twitter @MorganGodvin. Thanks for joining in and I will catch you next time on I'm Curious podcast.

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