Turning to love, learning to live

Peter Martel spent 10 years in solitary confinement following armed robbery charges when he was 20 years old. His life changed during those years as the love of his family and human compassion helped him find a spark within himself. Today, as program associate with AFSC’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program and an aspiring lawyer, he’s leading others to find that spark in themselves.

Personal transformation is not easy when the system is structured to keep people in prison rather than make a life on the outside. Michigan incarcerates 43,000 people, at a cost of $1.9 billion annually—most of which goes to personnel costs, with just minimal funding for services and programming for people in prison.

Peter in 2012

Peter was lucky. His family didn’t give up on him. They sent him books to read, wrote to him, and visited him throughout his incarceration. Once he was released from solitary confinement, they paid for the college correspondence courses he was allowed to complete in prison.

Telling his own story to people who are where he once was, he now helps prisoners (and their loved ones) see the steps they can take while in prison to help them get out and stay out, while using their experiences to push the system to change.

Stealing time

My friends and I had been stealing things for a while. We started off stealing car stereo equipment, then progressed to stealing cars and breaking into homes. Eventually we began committing armed robberies. We intended to rob banks.

Before we got to that point, we were arrested. We had just robbed a convenience store, and a police officer ran across us as we were fleeing the scene. When he turned on his lights to pull us over, I started shooting at the cruiser. The chase continued with more police and more shots. In the end, we were arrested, and no one was injured.

I was sent to prison, tried and failed to escape, and was then sent to Michigan’s super-max prison, where I would begin serving a 10-year stretch in “administrative segregation,” i.e., solitary confinement.

I knew I had dug a very deep hole because of my poor decisions, which I traced back, at least in part, to high school: I graduated with a 1.05 GPA and knew that I had not learned much of what I was supposed to have learned. When I thought about going to college, I feared the unlearned lessons and unattended days from high school would prevent me from being able to succeed.

What love can do

So, early on in my incarceration and in segregation, I decided to start reading all of the books I was supposed to have read in high school. I started with “The Brothers Karamazov” and then spent years reading literature and philosophy. As I read, I began to think about my relationships with others and the world, and how my decisions and actions might have affected others in my past. I realized how I had harmed others by stealing from them or shooting at them, or by disappointing those who loved me.

I realized how fortunate I was to still have people in my life who had not given up on me.

Love and support of those people, and the lessons I continue to learn from writers, have done more than anything else to help me get myself straightened around. 

Love, support, and knowledge are more effective in creating a better world than punitive, retributive actions will ever be. 

Being able to provide a little bit of that love, support, and knowledge back to all of those who are still inside our prisons is my work for AFSC and my blessing.

Ready for life after prison

Peter talks with AFSC's Jon Krieg about the parole readiness workshops that he and Natalie Holbrook, program director, conduct with prisoners in Michigan.