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After 28 years in prison, I want to make my mistakes my message

To: Those struggling in silence

From: William Keller (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To those who are struggling in silence, 

Every day, for 28 years, I wore a green uniform: a green shirt, green pants, even our winter coats were green. I could not go to the store or watch certain TV shows. Showers closed at 10:00 pm and opened at 6:00 am. While I saw my family, rarely could I get a moment alone with the people I loved. 

For 28 years, I lived within the confines of barbed wires in a New York State prison. However, I am writing to let you know that as tough as prison was, my silence proved to be a far longer and harsher sentence. 

My life started off very happy. Regularly, I went to my grandparents’ house. I was active in school and sports and played with my friends. But my whole life changed when I was about 11 years old. That’s when two people began sexually abusing me. The abuse went on for about a year-and-a-half. 

Right away, I became isolated and difficult. My grades suffered and I failed eighth grade. I wanted to tell my parents about the abuse, but I was scared. One of my abusers kept telling me that no one would believe me. So instead, I continued to struggle in silence. 

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After the abuse ended, my personality changed. I had low self-esteem. I couldn’t trust people or form relationships, especially with boys. 

William as a senior in high school

I started going camping, where I began to set campfires. The fires became a way to release my frustrations and my pain. Also, my interest in fires effectively got my father’s attention since he was a volunteer firefighter.  

With my pain brewing inside of me, I moved on from campfires and set two sheds and one garage on fire. One night, when I was 22 years old, I got into an argument at a local bar. It set me off. Shortly after midnight, on September 8, 1984, thinking no one was home, I lit a couch in the hallway on fire in a house down the street from mine. 

First, I ran back downtown. Then I called my dad and told him there was a fire. He picked me up. I was at the scene for a few minutes before going home. We had a scanner in our house and my mother told me they called for an ambulance. That’s how I learned that there were three people inside. Immediately, I went upstairs and cried.  

Unbeknownst to me, a couple of people saw me running from the home that night. The next morning the police came to my house with a search warrant. They found the clothes and jacket I wore and took me in for questioning, where I confessed and learned that everyone in the house died from smoke inhalation. Immediately, I felt remorseful. 

I served 28 years in prison for the murder of three people. 

While I was in prison, more than 20 years ago, I started taking a program called the Victim’s Awareness Program. They asked us to think about what in our lives affected us where we felt we had to do whatever we did that landed us in prison. That’s when I started to write down a lot of my memories and feelings, but I could never talk to anyone about what happened. In prison, especially in the ’80s and ’90s, you didn’t want to ever open up too much. If you did, people would take that as a weakness and use that against you. 

After being denied parole five times, I was released in 2012. I was so happy to come home, but I began having flashbacks and nightmares after a few years. I still never told anyone what happened. To numb the pain, I started drinking and I ended up getting a DUI, which landed me back in prison for 24 months. 

The night of my DUI, I finally told someone about the abuse I endured as a child. I started out in the Niagara County County Jail, where I went to therapy. When I went back up to the state corrections, I met with the prison chaplain and talked to her about what happened. She suggested that I write a letter to the people that abused me. We never sent the letters, but I was able to express my feelings. 

Five months ago, I returned home once again. This time, I feel so different. 

My self-esteem is much better. I am comfortable in my own skin. After sharing my story, more people treat me with respect. And above all else, I don’t feel like I am hiding anymore. 

I now know that it’s Ok to be a victim. I don’t need to be ashamed of what happened. 

Right now, I am receiving treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am getting help while trying to do more with the life I have left to live. It’s time to take the mask off and be who I really am. 

For work, I am an assistant manager at a Tim Horton store. I am back in church full time. Next month, I will finish my last two classes for a master’s degree in criminal justice. I want to do public speaking and share my thoughts on the importance of programs for offenders that address healing and mental health. 

Often, I think of the three victims of the fire. I especially think of the then two-year-old girl who had to grow up without her father. I wish I could take back that night, but I know that’s not possible. However, I know that I can do good in this world and be a successful civilian. I believe that is the best way I can honor them. 

I know that I can do good in this world and be a successful civilian.

My perspective and my experiences are rare but can be used to convey an important message. And that message is if you are out there struggling in silence, speak up. Tell someone you trust. Together, find a healthy and appropriate solution. 

When you open up, it will be emotional. But once you start peeling those layers and knocking down those walls, you will begin to care more about yourself, which will allow you to care more about others. 

It’s never too late to share your story and change your life.  

While in prison, I read a book called “The Present” by Spencer Johnson. It’s a story about this child who asks his elderly neighbor how he is so happy. 

The neighbor says, “I have a present. Would you like a present?”

For years, he kept telling this child about this present. The bottom line is the present that’s offered to everyone is living in the moment. But until you share your past, you will always be imprisoned by it. 

So regardless of whether or not you, like me, spent time in state custody, I hope my story allows you to understand that breaking our silence is the only way for any of us to live free. 

William Keller
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