When I talk to my friend Daniel Sanchez about books and life and his college classes, I lean in, elbows on his cell bars. Sometimes it gets deep. “I would sell crack to my friend’s mom — that was regular shit,” he told me. “But in my ethics class I learn things like ethical subjectivism and cultural relativism, which made me question the choices I made.”

Daniel Sanchez, or Danny, has always had a high aptitude and lots of ambition. In 2004, when Danny was 16 years old, he drove to Vermont from New York to sell crack cocaine and heroin. Scouting a gas station, he found his first customer and used the man’s trailer to set up shop. Twelve days later, he drove back to Yonkers with $60,000 in a Ziplock bag. It is unclear whether or not he realized how much natural ability he had. What is for certain is that the people who sent him there did.

I met Danny in 2019 when he landed here with me in Sullivan Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in the Catskill Mountains of New York, with four natural life sentences. We have both been lucky to be in a state where privately-funded college-in-prison programs are widely available, but our journeys have been disparate. My experience with college in prison has been relatively smooth. When I landed in Sullivan in 2015, they were beginning a college program. I enrolled, got decent grades, and when my family came to the graduation ceremony in the facility gym, they were proud of me. I was proud of me.

Danny’s journey was not like mine. It took almost nine years and nine different prisons — violence, solitary, violence, solitary — before he would enroll in a college program. He wished that he hadn’t been so violent, he wished he could have gotten in a college program earlier in his bid. With Danny’s story, it appeared a hard life on the outside spilled over to a hard life on the inside. When I think of Danny, and all his potential, and his hunger to learn and his life without parole sentence, I wonder where he gets his drive. It also makes me think more about redemption.

I wonder about comeback stories. Danny’s might be one.

Danny is Black and I am white, and we had very different early educations. I went to Horace Mann, a private school in New York, and I was expected to succeed. Danny, on the other hand, dropped out of school at 14 and later earned his GED in prison. 

Seeing his extraordinary talent first-hand makes me feel guilty. My intelligence was groomed and nurtured, his was innate. When I look at Danny, I become frustrated because I see so much ability and greatness in him. I don’t know if he can overcome the choices he made that put him here, and seeing all of his wasted talent forces me to look inward and ask myself: “Is it too late for both of us?”

Danny grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the Gowanus housing project, with his mom. He has three siblings. He started experimenting selling drugs at 10 years old, and by 14 he moved to heroin. He had been kicked out of his house and was living on the streets and in abandoned crack spots. At 16, Danny was running his own crew, and they strong-armed a crew of older guys, forcing them to abandon their territory. He did so by paying a drug addict to ring the doorbell, in order to gain access. He snatched one of the dealers and dragged him outside of the building he wanted and beat the guy in front of residents and customers. “It was prime real estate,” he told me.

Danny moved to the Bronx, then Yonkers with his mom. Old time gangsters saw he was quick, in every way, including pulling a trigger. They manipulated him to do their bidding. He went to prison. In 2010, when he got out, he started doing his own thing. The older guys who’d put him on in the drug game felt violated and sent some shooters at Danny. They missed. 

Weeks later, Danny ran up in their drug stash spot and shot up the place. Two people died, one was paralyzed, another three were shot but lived. Danny made a statement to the police, identifying his two accomplices. He violated the street code, and that’s part of what has made his life harder in prison. But it’s not like him making a statement helped him any. He was sentenced to life without parole.

In 2012, Danny was in Attica and wrote to his counselor to apply for college classes. They never even responded to his letter. So, Danny did what he knew best, started selling drugs in prison and ended up cutting someone who gave him a fake Western Union receipt.

Four years later, Danny was in the box once again. He had slashed someone over porn magazines. He had gotten a “kite,” or prison note, from his friend explaining that a guy on their tier had robbed him. “They stole the hos, bro!” he wrote Danny, and Danny took care of it.

In solitary, Danny became what is known as a box monster. He became primal. When a fellow prisoner on the housing unit was denied food one evening, Danny rallied the guys on the company to “stick it up” — meaning they refused to give back the plastic trays that their dinner was served on. This act of solidarity forced the officers to act. Danny was sprayed with pepper spray, extracted from his cell, and beaten by the officers while handcuffed. Then he was placed on what is known as deprivation — his water was turned off, except for five minutes a day during meals, and all of his property was taken, even his clothes.

When he returned to his regular solitary cell, the windows had been jammed open. In nothing but his boxers, and mattress on a slab, he was left to freeze. He used his teeth to rip open the bare mattress and cocooned himself inside to stay warm. When the officers came the next morning, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

“Bro, you pulled a Revenant,” I told him, referring to the movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio slept inside a carcass to prevent himself from freezing to death.

Danny told me that he had gotten the idea from the book by the same name in which a frontiersman survived the winter elements by sleeping inside a dead horse.

In 2017, Danny landed in Five Points Correctional Facility, a supermax in New York State. It was one of the prisons built with the “truth in sentencing” funds from the 1994 Clinton crime bill, which quashed Pell Grants for prisoners. When his bunkie started bringing back books from the college courses he was taking, Danny read them all. He loved three in particular. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, A Nanking Winter by Marjorie Chan, and poems by Robert Frost. It inspired him to fill out an application, hoping to enroll in the next available semester. The response he received was less than encouraging. He was told that he had too much time left on his sentence and was ineligible.

When Danny landed in yet another facility in 2018, he had beef with the Bloods, because the co-defendant he mentioned in that statement was a member. One day, he was walking down the stairwell and he felt a razor slide down the back of his head. It’s a scene I’m reminded of every time I walk behind him and see the scar from the top of his Bic-bald head straight down to his neck.

He was transferred to Sullivan in 2019. Our first encounter was when I was trying to put together my flag football team. We had never really spoken much, but I knew he was flash fast and could do 100 pushups straight. I had my running back. As the season progressed Danny and I became friends. He told me that he’d just enrolled in college and it had changed him. It taught him emotional intelligence, helped him identify his feelings and made him question the street code.

Danny and I lived together in the same housing unit and spent much of our time together. We ate at the same table, played sports on the same teams, and sought out one another for meaningful conversation, which is in short supply inside. One evening, when I saw him after a class, he was animated, applying theories from ethics class to hypothetical dilemmas. “If you promised your daughter that you would be on time to her play,” he said, “but you saw a woman being mugged — would you break your promise to your daughter to help this woman?”

I recently asked Danny, now 36, how he felt about selling crack to his friend’s mom all those years ago. He told me he felt like shit, but that it was all he knew at the time. When I asked him how college had changed him, he replied that it completely reinvented his way of thinking, his ethics. “I’m choosing a different fork in the road,” he said, “one I haven’t traveled before.”

Nicholas Brooks was born in London and grew up in Los Angeles and New York City. He is currently incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York State and will see his first parole board in 2035. This is his first published piece.