FYI, Family: Prison hasn't been about rehabilitation since 1982 when then President Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs farce and began the systematic rise of a profit-oriented prison industry that has resulted in a more than quadrupling the then prison population of around 300,000 nationwide to over two million nationwide only a couple of decades later. This is an exponential growth spurt never before seen in the history of the world. (Check out Professor Michelle Alexander's enlightening book The New Jim Crow for a complete chronicling and documentation of the diabolical agenda.)
Today's profit and punishment-driven prison industry is designed to make you suffer, and to turn another dollar for the shrewd sick capitalists who invest in the failing of the nation's young. With the dissolution of Pell Grants, which enabled indigent offenders to obtain a college education while incarcerated, and the curtailing of most other opportunities for prisoners to acquire a higher education, the chief educators in prisons today are career criminals. If one is foolish enough to pay any attention to them, you can learn how to be a smarter criminal and escape the long arm of the law for a year or two instead of the few months, which is the norm. Recidivism is at an all-time high of 85% for the mostly non-violent repeat-offenders who are more sick (chemically-dependent) than criminal.
If one stays conscious and is very careful, instead of self-medicating on Jerry Springer, he may not become desensitized to the violence and perversion that permeates the place. If one isn't careful, he can easily fall victim to one of the predators who abound; some with scowls of intimidation, others with welcoming smiles and generosity that mask their ill intentions and perverted desires. Even in this new PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) era, it is simply hazardous to fully trust anyone. Positive role models are as scarce in prison as they are in the poverty-stricken uneducated environments that most of us prisoners descend from. Yet, it was in prison, in "the hole" that I found that elusive positive role model who changed my life from the inside out...
I met the older African brother who would become like a surrogate father, mentor, and brother to me, while I was serving my second year in administrative segregation on the Michaels Unit. He was a member of the Xhosa tribe, from the village of Mvenzo, in South Africa. He was born a continent away, to a struggle I had only a rudimentary knowledge of. But he possessed the two key components for the making of a role model: I respected him and the life he lived, and I could relate to him. He was a great orator, and through his words made me not only feel his struggle, but realize that even in my ignorance I was a part of it.
You must understand, administration segregation on most units is hell on earth. For 24 hours a day you are confined in the tiniest of cells (mine didn't even have a window) with only your lamentations, pains, failures, traumatizations, and dashed dreams. Four thick concrete walls leave you no escape. There are no televisions, church services, contact visits, telephones, or other distractions to give you even a temporary escape or relief from your reality. Suicides are the norm. If you aren't mentally ill when you're thrown into the hole, you probably will be once you are released. Even the strong don't always survive, not with their sanity anyway.
You are, when officers feel like doing their jobs, permitted a shower and an hour of recreation in a slightly larger cage every day. But, some sadistic officers find cruel ways to make sure that you don't take advantage of the excursions. Like making sure that the shower water is freezing cold in the winter and scalding hot in the summer. Or, you may return to your cell to find it trashed out, with some of your already limited property broken or missing. By far, the four years that I spent in the Michaels Unit hole were the worst of my entire life. But, I not only survived—I thrived!
I thrived because I did find an escape. I thrived because I did find that elusive positive role model who I could relate to. I thrived because he'd been exactly where I was, for longer than I could imagine being there, and he'd thrived. He’d come out of the hole stronger and wiser to accomplish some absolutely amazing feats. If he could, then I knew I could too. Him, his life, became my inspiration, my hope.
You see, Family, I found my solace in writing. Spilling my pains on paper. Realizing my dreams and fantasies through the literature I produced and, unknowingly fulfilling parts of my potential while discovering my passion. As writing became my solace, reading became my escape. Through them, I departed from the dungeon. Books became my get out of jail card. I could travel anywhere in the world and meet anyone I wanted to. And, wanting to be anywhere but where I was, I did exactly that. Opened a book. Travelled to new worlds. Met new people. Learned and was inspired by them.
It was on one of these sojourns that I met one of the greatest civil rights champions of our times. In all honesty I knew nothing of political activism, and my moral compass had been suspended if not broken by the realities of a world where survival was a full tine job and nothing was as respected as violence. But through this amazing brother, who explained to me that his tribe's guiding philosophy of "Ubuntu" was the belief in morality and passion, through this courageous soldier who was prepared to die for the love of his people, through the examples he set, I began to drag myself up out of the pit of depression and despair that poverty, miseducation, bad influences, and bad decisions that had deposited me.
I learned about real oppression and degradation, through the evils of Apartheid. A brutal system of government based on the Jim Crow laws of the American south. But more importantly, I learned that there were no excuses to be made, for my role model had made none. I learned about the fight for justice, freedom, and equality. But more importantly, I learned about the responsibility that came with the winning of them. The most important lesson of all that I learned from him was...forgiveness.
I had many demons that I had to face in that tiny hellhole, but I bravely faced and conquered them all. His guidance, his life, paved the way--Nelson Mandela was the unwavering light that showed me how to become the man of respect and integrity that I am today. He showed me by example how to live a purpose-driven life. So as the world mourn a lion of a man, I merely want to say in this essay what I'll never get to say in person: "Thank you, Madiba!"
As we all pay tribute to The Great Madiba who through his life, selfless sacrifice, and accomplishments imparted to us the wisdom, strength, and faith to make this world a better place, I encourage you all to honor his legacy by opposing evil wherever it rears its ugly head, standing up against injustice, racism, and oppression wherever it is found, and seeking out ways to affect positive change within yourselves, your family, and your community.
THE FIVE GREATEST LIFE LESSONS
THAT I LEARNED FROM NELSON MANDELA
(l) The most selfish thing that you can do is forgive. Being spiritual, I understand that even this incarceration was part of God's plan for me. I hold no malice or ill will towards anyone. I will step into freedom with nothing but love in my heart and a burning desire to help others. Just like my hero, Madiba.
(2) Live life for a purpose; knowing your convictions, and standing firm upon them. My purpose in life is to educate, elevate, and empower the next generation to survive and succeed.
(3) Don't allow fear to paralyze you from pushing forward through or over a bad situation. One of the hardest decisions that I ever made was "honorably" hanging up my flag and stepping away from the gang. Those brothers truly were my brothers, some of which have stood faithfully by my side since I was in diapers; and I honestly felt that most only needed to be educated to utilize that unity for positive works to excel in life. I choose to try to affect that positive change for all gang members by leading by example.
(4) Everyone makes mistakes. Don't allow yours to define or destroy you. Mandela never lost his dignity and even as a convicted felon continued to believe in himself. Mandela was guilty of nothing and should have never been in prison. I relate to him fully. I emulate him fully. I will survive and succeed!
(5) No one can take away your respect and dignity. I often tell these officers: "It's not a uniform, officer's nor offender's, that makes a man any more or any less respectable. Respect is something that you earn by how you carry and conduct yourself." I carry myself at all times, and in all ways, as a man of respect. I will take my last breath doing nothing less. Just like the Great Madiba! May he rest in peace.
Santonio D. Murff 00773394
French M. Robertson Unit
12071 FM 3522
Abilene, TX 79601