Yeshua David's adaptation

Yeshua David doesn’t have a criminal record in the United States, but his incarceration in Japan and everything that led up to it shape how he lives every day.

By Brittany Hailer

(Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Forever I have been climbing walls and over fences. Nothing in my life has ever come the easy way.
-Yeshua David


Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.

Meet the people behind this project July 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Alloy 26 in Pittsburgh. We will have food, refreshments and a jail cake. Register here!

Explore another voice in this series:

Sarah Womack: A song within a storm

Jason Sauer: Trying as best he can

Luna: Seeking compassion for those cast aside

Cedric Rudolph: One of the Mirrors

Emily and Liza Geissinger: Sisters through addiction, jail time and new endeavors

Robin Tomczak: How a scholarship athlete ended up in ‘the hole’

Yeshua David was convicted of attempted homicide in 2008 and sentenced to eight years of forced labor in a Japanese prison. He was a U.S. sailor stationed in Tokyo, Japan. He served six years and four months and was released on parole in 2013.

Now 29 years old, he is a photographer and musician living in Pittsburgh. He moved here after he was discharged from the Navy. He had plans to go to California, but another sailor convinced him to give Pittsburgh a try. In 2014, he bought a one-way bus ticket to Pittsburgh in a snow storm. He’s been making art and photographing people in Pittsburgh since.

The name he goes by now is not the name he was given at birth.

Listen to Yeshua's story on 90.5 WESA


Yeshua is born in Binghamton, New York. His mother dies from cancer when he is 3, which lands him in the foster care system until he is 5. After his father regains custody of Yeshua, the abuse starts.

I grew up in a very Baptist household. My black side of the family's life is in the church. I have two uncles that [lead] churches in my city. My grandfather is a minister. ... I went to church three or four days a week. ... My God, I read the Bible many times. My dad used to make me recite things and read it and write things. He also used to beat me up before I went to church and then after I went to church.
My dad secluded me. My friends would come over and knock on my door. He would just yell at them and send them off. Nobody came around my house.
Time passed like counting sand and by the time I was 15, I was running away from home so often, house-hopping and living on the street, that I ended up in a juvenile detention center, ironically for trying to escape violence.

Text in italics are Yeshua's words.

All I know is that the devil wants to end me. He's been hunting for my soul since a young boy.
-Photos and words by Yeshua David

Upon serving time in the Haskins Non-Secure Detention Center in Upstate New York, Yeshua is labeled as a “gang banger” by one of his uncles. It poisons the rest of his family against him.

They refuse to give him shelter from his abusive father. Desperate to get away, he calls a former foster parent, who immediately takes him in. He moves to rural New York, where he remembers hearing coyotes at night. However, he has also transitioned to an area where racial tensions are high.

I was the only black person in a town that was historically a KKK meeting ground, opening my eyes to bold racism. I did my best to adapt but I felt isolated again, in another way. In those last three years of high school, my resentment towards abuse of authority or power and ignorance developed into a stubborn, sure-footed cockiness. Always feeling like I had no family or group to connect with that understood me, I took to being my own island and guarded it. … After I slid through making it to graduation, I decided to enter the military on a whim.
I didn’t have reason other than I just wanted to leave where I was ... and maybe it was also the idea of ‘belonging’ to a unified group.

When Yeshua David first moved to Pittsburgh, he lived in Larimer. It is there that he stumbled upon this graffiti; it resonated with him. Two years later, he lives in a different neighborhood, but often revisits this site. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

When Yeshua David first moved to Pittsburgh, he lived in Larimer. It is there that he stumbled upon this graffiti; it resonated with him. Two years later, he lives in a different neighborhood, but often revisits this site. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

A Glass of Water

After Yeshua graduates high school, he enlists in the Navy. When he is 19, he is shipped to Tokyo, Japan, where the pressures of military life, authority and internalized trauma drive him to drinking and violence. He questions the War on Terror, questions why he is enlisted. He describes himself as “easily triggered,” getting into altercations with officers and chiefs.

Later, when he is on trial for attempted murder, Yeshua will compare this stress to a full glass of water:

I remember making an analogy that a cup of water being how much stress you can take and one drop is all you need to go over. That incident was the drop that sent me over.

Yeshua stabs two Japanese women, one of whom is a girlfriend. He describes walking in on her having an affair with two other American men and a Japanese woman.

The men ran out as they didn’t know what was going on and knew me from base. She and I dove into an argument that led to me snapping and grabbing a kitchen knife that was nearby and stabbing her and then her friend who tried to attack me with a knife.
I picked up the same knife and held it to my stomach hoping I had the strength to kill myself.
This all happened in seconds and that was all it took to change my life entirely.

Yeshua David is not the name given to him at birth. He changed it after his incarceration in Japan. "They both are names that in history were attributed to people with power to overcome and discipline to lead," he said. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

While awaiting trial, Yeshua is sent to a jail and left in solitary for nearly a year:

They didn’t know what to do with me.

He is American. He is military. He is also a teenager. He is removed from the general population while the Japanese government decides whether he will be tried as an adult.

My first year they didn't let me write letters. They didn't let me receive letters. I was basically isolated from every kind of communication. They didn't let me communicate with other inmates at all. I was literally by myself.
They didn’t let me go outside. They didn’t let me breathe air outside. Even when I left the jail during my trial they would form a tarp barricade from the door of the jail to the bus and I would walk through that. And then the bus had black windows and they did it again when we got to the court.
So I never saw sky for my first year.

I ask Yeshua a simple question: So, what did you do?

I wrote songs in my head. My memory got really, really good. When I did get paper, I was able to write down everything that I had in my head. At least a full notebook.
I had to. It’s adaptation.
I definitely learned a lot about human nature... When you're under any kind of duress and you need a solution, your mind will figure out how to make it happen. I needed to survive by creating environments in my head that were stable.

After a year of awaiting trial, Yeshua is sentenced to eight years in prison.

Just 3 years ago, I was in a place so cold. Like, 'How could I let this be?' All cause I lost control. All I ever been was a lost love. Got hit, just shrugged. Still I don't need the drugs.
-Photos and words by Yeshua David


Yeshua describes the first time he sees the prison he will live in for the next six and a half years.

It was completely gray, everything was stone and cement. I saw all these Japanese people marching with their heads shaved bald. It looked like a concentration camp. There were wires on top of 15-foot cement walls. It was in a peninsula surrounded by ocean. That’s when it really hit me: I am in f***ing prison. I was still 19.

After his conviction, Yeshua starts receiving letters from home. Classmates from high school tell him about their daily life, and Yeshua tells them funny stories and draws comics about life in prison.

Yeshua receives a letter from his father. He says the first letter he wrote to his dad was 25 pages long.

I had a seven-page limit on letters, so I had to send it in four different envelopes. And I just said everything he ever did to me.
And I even analyzed why he did the things he did. That's where I came to forgive him.
Yeshua’s father responds to his 25-page letter, but does not address the abuse Yeshua asks him to acknowledge. He quotes Bible scripture instead.
In response: I put an empty page in an envelope and sent it to him basically saying, ‘I have nothing to say to you.’
He wrote me another letter like a month later basically apologizing to me. So that's when we started talking again.

Relating to others

Someone sent me Japanese for Dummies…

Yeshua uses it to learn rudimentary Japanese. Then, after constantly asking a guard to borrow his dictionary, the guard eventually gave it to him.

Yeshua’s eyes light up and he laughs.

I focused on that 100 percent. I just read that book.
When I got to go outside to talk to inmates, I forced myself to only speak in Japanese.

Among 200 to 300 Japanese prisoners, there were only about a dozen or so other Americans imprisoned at any given time; they would always be military, like him. Within eight months, Yeshua is almost fluent in Japanese.

And then that's when the Japanese started to really respect me. I was the only American that took the initiative to do that. And I didn't do it for any other defined reason than I was bored.

"This represents most of my life up until I was in prison almost perfectly. Cold and bleak. Was I lost or abandoned? A bit of both," Yeshua David wrote. "But I sit there now, like looking back on it like a highlight reel. Ready for the next. Somewhat content with my fate." (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Yeshua starts to understand the population around him. He begins to immerse himself into the Japanese language and way of thinking. Years pass and Yeshua is promoted to the prison’s highest rank. The prison ranks its inmates based on behavior. Higher ranked inmates receive benefits or better jobs. Yeshua eventually becomes the head of the kitchen. He learns to cook and appreciate organic food. He becomes a mediator between American and Japanese inmates. He tells me he stops other inmates from being sent to solitary confinement because he explains to the guards what the inmates are trying to say.

Yeshua seems nostalgic when talking about his friends in prison, or the kitchen, or reading textbooks and science fiction novels. He is vibrant and enthusiastic when he explains how he developed spiritually. But he begins to gloss over the years. He talks about routine and focusing on the self. He gets philosophical with me. He talks about health. He says he was more in tune with himself when in prison, says his diet and exercise routine were better. It is when he talks about adjusting to society again that words like “isolation,” “stress” and “prison” come up.

In a sense, I was way better off in prison. I got free meals. I worked out. I meditated a lot. I had so much control over my body and my mind.

Yeshua describes this connection and peace of mind as euphoric. He says that coming back into society severed that connection.

Then I started drinking and then I started breathing this f***ing polluted air. And then it was, I have to pay the bills! I’m in this city where I don’t know anybody. I gotta live; I gotta find a job.

Yeshua tells me about his art and how he wants to connect with people. He wants to be a mentor for young men in juvenile detention. He wants other young people to hear his music and change their path.

Look at what I've been through and look how I manage myself now. There’s kids and people that have gone through what I went through, and they can look at somebody and be like, ‘Look at what he did.’ I am in a lot of people's lives here. Even younger guys that are going through stuff in their house. I let them come here and record. Some of these kids are really troubled. I tell them my story.
When I was in prison, I just wanted to come out and have a purposeful life.
I guess the challenge is producing something from that experience. The only way I know how to express myself is through talking to people, creating imagery and creating music of what I went through and seeing if it relates to anyone else.
But everything I create is for myself. I can’t force it to relate to you.

All I ever had was a notepad. One pen, one mind. Four walls, pure time. Sky so black made evil cry.
-Photos and words by Yeshua David

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at

PublicSource is collaborating with 90.5 WESA to produce audio stories for Voices Unlocked. Follow along! A new story will run biweekly for five months.