About John Espinosa Nelson and Where Excuses Go to Die…

As a former offender turned award-winning author and speaker, John Espinosa Nelson has a stake in changing the way we’ve been trained to rely more on entertaining custody tropes than on personal interpretations of incarceration. He knows prison isn’t just for “those people,” and he knows the limits of a rape, riots, and rotten food mentality. In fact, he learned first hand that there’s a lot more to prison – and a lot more we can all do to keep people from reoffending – than what’s seen on TV. But unless we work harder to reverse misperceptions and defy stereotypes, we won’t get far.

John is determined to douse our burgeoning shift in social consciousness with propellant. Using his sarcasm like a farm tractor to pull audiences through dirt and grime, he offers a rare, insider look focused on the humor, heart, and humanity that also exist behind our nation’s electric fences. And by exposing his own personal growth by way of example, John speaks compellingly about rehabilitation, recidivism, and the tremendous importance of caring, qualified front-line custody personnel in an offender’s quest to “get character or become one.”

John’s triple award-winning memoir, Where Excuses Go to Die, is as much a celebration of these “first responders of rehabilitation” – civilian educators, volunteers, and custody staff – as it is a poignant, hilarious tale of the value excuses have when one is surrounded by nothing but. Whether read, seen, or heard, John Nelson’s unforgettable message will leave audiences laughing out loud and wanting to know more.

John’s journey as a writer began with a prison essay competition and continued after his release, from work with the U.S. Veterans Initiative (U.S. VETS), to DreamWorks and Maverick Records, to writing contracts with Mattel Toys. He has been published in Esquire, Details, Players, the LA Weekly, and with multiple web assets. John has appeared on numerous radio and TV programs, including ABC’s 20/20. He regularly blogs about excuses and the need to “get character or become one.” 

John is engaging, informative, and articulate about recidivism, prison overcrowding, reentry issues, and surviving the penal system with humor intact. He speaks regularly to adults and  pre-adults alike, offering credible ways for everyday folks to be part of the solution to our nation’s incarceration crisis.

Want a little more on the book? 

I was seven the first time my father laid  down in our driveway behind the rear wheels of my mother’s car to prevent her from leaving.

I’d like to say I was a bit older, because these days it’s hard to fathom a seven-year-old watching his mother’s car shake as she guns its big V8, his dad screaming, “Yeah-yeah! C’mon! I dare ya!”

With exhaust whooshing into the man’s face, the neighbors would hear, “Go ahead! You think I’m moving? I’m not moving!”

Could I have been that young? Or am I confusing the first time with the fifth? I vaguely remember that we were already rolling our eyes by then. As he dared the woman to kill him, it looked like he was making a snow angel, but it doesn’t snow in LA.

These days, we laugh about it, my family. We all love to make my dad squirm with retellings like this. That is, ‘til we go around the dinner table pulling skeletons from each other’s closets and someone starts dancing on yours.

One thing we joke about is the four years I spent in California state prisons for armed robbery, though it wasn’t really “armed” robbery ‘cause the gun was a movie prop. And maybe “joke” is the wrong word too, since our laughter’s somewhat nervous and the subject gets changed relatively quickly.

In truth, I’m the product of a fine home with good parents who never divorced and who got dressed for work every day, hangover or no. Despite this, I wound up so ethically spoiled by the time I was 23, I thought I had all the answers and none of the rules applied to me. In terms of the choices I made, I wasn’t much different than a dog, duty-bound to bark at every passing car. I wanted what I wanted, when I wanted it.

I see that in young people and adults today, and I feel compelled to explain where it got me.

A prison sentence is the first thing I ever started and finished. I’m not proud of the crimes I committed, but the consequences were not only justified, they were life saving. Following my release, I hung lights on movie sets while pitching stories to magazines. I’ve since written for sitting governors, a senator, the second person to walk on the moon, Esquire magazine, Details magazine, the LA Weekly, and the final issues of Players, “the black Playboy.” (Damn pound of that.) I got hired to write box copy for software companies back when software was packaged, and I was even given a job at Mattel, writing what the dolls say when you pull their string. There’s more, and like these stops along the way, it zig-zags crazily.

I committed 40+ cashier counter robberies, mostly of chain bookstores. My reasoning was no less loony than inhaling a face full of car exhaust in front of the neighbors. LAPD detectives connected me to 14 of those robberies, and the FBI got a hold of me after bank number five. Right about then, as alone and as isolated as I’d ever been, I was made to realize I wasn’t the only person in the world: that my actions affected those around me. Starting, of course, with my family.

Where Excuses Go to Die is the story of “who the hell robs bookstores?” and much, much more. But it contains little of what readers have been trained by the media to expect or recognize as life behind bars. I wrote it to fill a void, to represent a different voice and vision of incarceration and the incarcerated. Explaining this in detail to audiences large and small is my primary passion.

For me, a wake-up call as drastic as prison was necessary to shut my mouth and get me listening. Prison is where I began to actually learn and to pay attention to others. And I discovered that when you’re surrounded by excuses, your own are worth exactly nothing.

Where Excuses Go to Die is also about the people I got to know and the choices they made. It’s about the prison educators who saw potential in me before I could see it in myself and got me to act on it. It’s an argument for increasing inmate access to educational opportunities and for more milestone-based rehabilitation – making inmates work harder for their privileges and their freedom. As in, “You want a television in your cell? Enroll in our High School Equivalency Program, get your GED, and we’ll talk.”

Finally, Where Excuses Go to Die is about my home state of California. We’ve built only one university since 1980 and 29 prisons. Here and across America, we’re still trying to incarcerate our way out of crime, with the only result being one glaring statistic after another, especially when factoring in race and sentencing disparities.

But Excuses isn’t a stern tirade or “numbery” sermon: it just won’t go where you expect it to. For instance:

• Have you ever considered what a man in a prison cell might collect over 17 years in the same box?

• Cat infestations behind bars: whose solutions are worse, inmates or administrators?

• What really goes on in a prison shower? (Yeah, REALLY)

• Why do white power dudes tan themselves Acapulco brown?

• How will hardened inmates who know nothing of solar phenomena react to a total eclipse over a prison Yard?

• What kind of man greedily accepts lavish perks secretively offered by snitch recruiters?

• How does one carry the contents of a care package just sent from home through gauntlets of predators, beggars, and guards, without being looked at twice?

I was compelled to write Where Excuses Go To Die to fulfill a promise, and to tell the stories of California inmates the world would never have known existed otherwise. You’ll know them when you meet them and when you do you’ll have a new understanding of what these very human beings  –good, bad and ugly–  look like.

In the years following my release, I became an accidental connoisseur of prison literature, always on the hunt something to which I can relate. There was just nothing out there like my own journal pages. To this day, there still isn’t.

Where Excuses Go to Die is a story for readers who wouldn’t imagine turning the pages to the prison memoir.