James Morgan’s life of trauma, incarceration brought empathy

July 14, 2018

In James Morgan’s tiny office hangs an oil painting of what he calls a “mindscape,” one of a series titled, “Where I was last night,” which he completed in January.

Art, he said, is part of his healing, an ongoing process after spending 24½ years — nearly half his life — in prison. “It gives me an opportunity to put everything away. To relax. To find that solace,” he said.

He draws from his decades incarcerated to provide peer support to those re-entering the community from jail or prison.

Morgan, 59, was born in Saginaw, Michigan, and mostly raised there, although family instability led to continuous relocations.

His father, a pimp, abused his mother, once heating hangers on a stove and beating her and then pouring rubbing alcohol on her, and left the home when Morgan was 9 years old. His mother eventually left, too, but later became stable and cared for him and four siblings. In the meantime, grandparents cared for the children.

“There was a lot of trauma, a lot of abandonment, a lot of abuse,” he said.

In his early teens, he became close to an uncle who was a drug dealer and learned to shoot a gun and carry weapons.

In 1974, at age 15, Morgan watched a man draw a .38-caliber gun and shoot a close friend in the head. “We stood there looking in shock and watched his lifeless body hit the ground,” he said. “I didn’t have the capacity to deal with that. I didn’t know the trauma I would be carrying. That’s a call for a lot of retaliation. It can turn into generational acts of violence.”

There was more. A cousin he had grown close to, high on alcohol and Valium after seeing his girlfriend dancing with another man, used a .38-caliber gun to commit suicide.

Largely on his own, Morgan lived in Saginaw, Detroit, Florida, Texas and California, where he became homeless for the first time at age 17, hanging out outside a McDonald’s in a suburb of Los Angeles and getting food from garbage cans.

In 1981, when he was 22, Morgan moved to Dane County, hoping to get away and change his life. The next year, he asked a woman to marry him but she refused, saying she wasn’t ready. He saw the rejection as a judgment of his self worth.

One night, drunk and high, he left a bar with a woman and raped her in her apartment. He was convicted of first-degree sexual assault and, in January 1983, sentenced to 55 years in prison. Released on parole in 2007, he had a couple of subsequent revocations and last left incarceration in 2015, with an ankle bracelet.

Since then, he says, he’s sought a different path.

“I did something horrible to another human being,” he said. “Encouraged, advised and assisted, I chose to pursue every educational opportunity available — treatment programs, faith-based offerings and a course of independent learning that allowed me to expand my world view in many areas.

“The most important (piece) was the journey of self-discovery, and it proved to be the most difficult as well,” Morgan said. “It took finding the courage to face those pains and traumas of early childhood, teen and adult life in a way that would allow me to see myself as a human.”

Morgan, hired as a peer support specialist by Madison-area Urban Ministry this year, draws on his own mistakes and transformation to help others.

“In the process of discovering I had similar experiences, it became important to offer whatever support I could,” he said.

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