Friday, August 30, 2013

Thoughts on Education Part 1

He who opens a school door closes a prison - Victor Hugo

“Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird 

Villanova University Gives Back: A Free Education for Inmates
By Mwandishi Mitchell
Every individual has inherit worth and dignity - Graterford Mural Arts Program 

On June 13, 2013, I had the honor and privilege to attend a lecture given by Thomas M. Arvanities of Villanova University. He is the current director of Villanova studies here at Graterford. His lecture was devoted to Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow.

The lecture was held for Villanova alumni who participated in the free Bachelor of Arts degree here at Graterford. Because my success as a writer has gotten around the institution, I was invited to attend as a guest.

The institution here at Graterford is thirty-one miles west of Philadelphia, in Graterford, Pennsylvania. It opened officially in 1929 and to date is the largest maximum-security prison in the state.

Just thirty years ago, Pennsylvania prisons housed about 5,000 inmates in seven prisons across the state. Things have changed since 1983, as the bloated prisons have ballooned to four times as many with twenty-nine. The prison population is ten times as many as more than 50,000 inmates are held in state facilities. Talk about mass incarceration!

Despite these statistics, though, in 1972 a remarkable thing happened. James J. McKenna, a former sociology professor and Villanova's undergraduate director, started allotting degrees for prisoners at Graterford. Within the past eight years, sixteen professors, adjuncts, graduate students, and undergraduate students have volunteered their services to help inmates get degrees.

I can assume my fellow comrades who have received degrees from Villanova feel empowered despite the fact that many of them have Life sentences. Proud too, at knowing that even though society has caste them into a lot of demonization, they have done something productive with their lives. Even now, in my mind, I can see the proud smiling faces of family members as a peer of mine walks up to the director donned in Villanova graduation apparel to receive his degree. Such a marvelous sight indeed!

However, the program here at the prison was once on the verge of termination. Under President Clinton, in the early '90's, Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners was done away with. Without this funding, many other colleges and universities that offered degrees to inmates pulled out. Villanova kept their promise to inmates; they did not pull out.

Professor McKenna was succeeded by Stanly Jacobs, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. “Villanova made a vow, and we plan to honor our commitment,” Jacobs reiterated when asked why Villanova chose to stay at Graterford without Federal funding. Villanova is the only university to offer a degree program at Graterford for all qualified prisoners.

Two courses are funded and taught by Villanova each semester, and volunteers teach additional courses. I had the honor of attending a Creative Writing Workshop, a small class of about ten to twelve students, which was taught by Villanova English professor, Dr. Lisa Sewell. Being in a classroom atmosphere again had me reminiscing about my community college days, long before I was imprisoned. I was grateful for the opportunity to be able to show my talent to Dr. Sewell, and learn how to make my writing better. It was such a wonderful experience that I'm going to try to enroll in this coming fall semester. The only thing that worries me is the part of the pre-application that asks: Number of Class l misconducts (within the last four years?) I wonder if eight is too many? Well, at least in five of the eight I was found not guilty and the charges were dismissed.

Because the program is offered from Villanova's part-time studies, it normally takes ten to twelve years to earn a degree in Bachelor of Arts. Grades are allotted the same way that they are at the main campus of the university: GPAs are based on a 4.0 scale. Professors and volunteers don't look at Graterford as a penitentiary when they come to teach inmates. They look at Graterford as an off campus satellite of the main campus in suburban Philadelphia. The inmates love the interaction with professors and students. Besides that, they're happy. Inmates enrolled in the Villanova program show better behavior, and educate other prisoners who are not enrolled.

The Villanova program here at Graterford is a godsend. Education is the key to making it out of poverty and out of the filled ghettos. By acquiring knowledge, a person is able to live productively without falling into the lure of street hustling, a drug game in which two things are certain to befall them: prison and death. By getting an education people on the outside will see the best in them, and realize that yes, they do matter.

The program has fifty active students currently, which is forty less than in 2010, when ninety students were enrolled. No one is quite sure of why enrollment has dropped as low as it has. I pray by that statistic there is no writing on the wall to read. When the time comes, I hope they accept me into the Villanova Bachelor of Arts program. I want the chance to make the best out of a bad situation.

Mwandishi (in brown) with his cousin

Mwandishi Mitchell GB6474
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0426

By Christi Buchanan

In 2011 I received a scholarship from Doris Buffet and the Sunshine Lady Foundation. Mrs. Buffet gives her money away to inmates all over the country so they can get an Associates Degree.  She believes an education goes a very long way toward helping us turn our lives around.  Piedmont Virginia Community College, in Charlottesville, teamed up with Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and Sunshine to offer classes to the scholarship recipients.

The college program first came to Fluvanna in 2009 when Ms. Buffet chose us along with one of the men’s facilities to bestow her generosity upon.  Since then it has grown into a successful and much sought after experience.  The waiting list, virtually non-existent in 2009, has hundreds of names in it now.  This past May, Fluvanna held its first program graduation.  All 19 original scholarship recipients graduated – with honors, I’m proud to say – in front of friends and family, program faculty and administrators, prison staff and Department of Corrections officials, the MEDH and Ms. Buffet.  That day was powerful and humbling for me as I watched my friends cross the stage.  I was only two semesters away from my own graduation.

It has not been easy, though.  Taking classes of any kind in prison presents challenges both familiar and unbelievable.  A prison runs on a very tight schedule and from a security standpoint, nothing is more important than count.  If count takes longer to clear than usual, everything else, the rest of the day’s schedule, is thrown off track. This makes getting to class on time difficult.  If chow runs late, or there’s no officer on post, or your name’s not on the master pass, getting to class can be nearly impossible.

That said, getting to class is also an unexpected thrill.  Walking across the yard to the school to participate in college classes – in prison – is the best feeling I’ve had in decades.  With every step, little pieces of the damage done over my years of hell fall off.  With every assignment, every paper and test – with every class – little pieces of myself come back to me.

I am finding myself.  I am expected to carry the load, do the work, participate and put forth effort I am expected to reach the goals.  I bet my teachers even expect me to enjoy these experiences.  Amazingly enough, I do.  Sure, it’s great to know that when it’s all said and done, I’ll have a college degree; I will have achieved something special considering my address.  But what this is doing for my self-esteem, and sense of self-worth goes far beyond the benefits of a diploma.

This is emphasized in every class by our teachers.  The faculty at PVCC, and the administrators too, are the best in the world.  Not only do they teach us all sorts of things, they motivate and encourage us.  Not only do they treat us like real people, they see us as such.  The consistency of this across the board has been stunning.  Every teacher I’ve had has been awesome, and my friends all say the same about their teachers.  These are folks who have never experienced prison in any way, and now have to get searched while their stuff gets ruffled through.  They are also at the mercy of our very rigid schedule, and corrections officers, and yet they want to be here teaching us.  They’ve all said they love coming out here and that they’re proud of us.  The first time I heard that, I was blown away.  It made me all the more determined to do my best.

I will never be able to repay Ms. Buffet and The Sunshine Ladies. She does this – gives it all away – I think, because she believes in a basic goodness inside us that can be cultivated given the right tools. She believes that we can change the direct course of our lives if given a chance. I’ve seen first-hand the effect this opportunity has on people – how it’s completely altered the quality of their lives by giving them purpose and worth. It has certainly done so for me. I’m often asked how I plan to give back – or pay it forward. I think the answer to that is more complicated than a few short sentences, but I will say it starts with sharing what I’ve learned about myself. It starts with shedding light –sunshine- on what’s inside and perhaps reminding someone that they are more than just seven digits.

Christi Buchanan 1003054
Fluvanna Corrections Center 1A
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974

Forging a True Community
By Jeff Conner

The real community of man, in the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community, is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent they desire to know. [...] They have a true community that is exemplary for all other communities. --Allan Bloom, "The Student and the University" (in "The Closing of the American Mind")

Prison is by default a wallow in waste. To avoid depression and stagnation, I participate in the University Beyond Bars, a cash-strapped non-profit program that provides college classes to prisoners. I take classes (whether they're for credit or not) to develop my intellectual capacities and to improve my chance of success upon getting out of prison.

Before the University Beyond Bars existed, I had taken correspondence courses for many years, paying for them through my G.I. Bill money. Each time, I had to pay extension fees, since I didn't have sufficient self-discipline to meet the initial deadlines in the courses. Although I found I could be successful, the experience was dissatisfying: it was difficult to study in a vacuum, without the salutary peer pressure to complete and compete and in the absence of any opportunity to be guided by faculty.

By contrast, the University Beyond Bars (UBB) feels like a momentary respite from prison. When I enter the classroom for English 3230 (American Literature: 1918 to Present), I receive something that studying alone could never give me, courtesy of Gillian Harkins, an award-winning professor who is director of Undergraduate Programs in English at the University of Washington and the chair of UBB's Education Advisory Committee--and a charismatic intellectual with a style all her own, who loves Walter Benjamin, Henry James, and Zoolander with apparently equal verve, to boot. She teaches us historicized close reading as an ethical practice: a means of care and attention that makes of literature both the most necessary and searching criticism of society and self. The qualities of precision, insight, and sensitivity that such teaching communicates cannot be gleaned merely from dusty pages in whatever poor excuse of a prison library is available. Thinking about and defending ideas in a seminar or a paper is, for me, an essential component of genuine liberal learning, and the UBB makes it possible.

None of the UBB teachers are paid. Instead, they give unstintingly of their time, expertise, books, and, often enough, their money to keep the program running. Most students cannot afford to pay some distant university to grade a test and prove that they've learned the material. No wonder the UBB classes remain filled with students keen for what it offers.

UBB offerings comprise what we call our College Pathway courses (this semester features Pre-Calculus II, American Lit, Spanish I & II, and English Composition II) and our Certificate courses. The Certificate courses are often enough as rigorous as the College Pathway courses, with texts, homework, and tests; but unfortunately there's no corresponding university accreditation. This semester we offer Understanding Family Violence, Ethics and Decision Making, Biology of Drug Use, Music History, Japanese II, Intro to Curriculum & Teaching I, Studio Art: Gouache Painting, and a Creative Writing workshop. In addition to these classes, we teach College Prep Math and College Prep English, where I'm happy to be a writing coach, helping basic writers develop their ability to read, think, and write to prepare them for the college work ahead.

Aside from the regular classes, the UBB also sponsors an eclectic Arts & Lecture series with Saturday night presentations that have ranged from a discussion of the physics of sound that featured a performance of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BMV 1007, to topics such as opinion polling, evolution, mathematical modeling of the progress of epidemics, African-American history, and oceanography. Jake Cooper, a brilliant young biologist who has taught Astronomy for the UBB and is currently completing doctoral research on the mating habits of yeast, has given riveting accounts in various Arts & Lecture seminars on everything from modern game theory to the factitious quality of the color magenta. (The fact that still amazes me is that we don't see the periphery in color: our brains just guess what the color might be; experiment with this for yourself.)

Without internet access there are few ways to get a college education through distance learning. Ohio University (OU) is one of the few remaining colleges that offer non-internet based correspondence courses and Course Credit by Examinations (CCEs). The cheapest option, CCE, costs about $310 for OU to grade one two- or three-hour test. It's double that for the correspondence courses that, at best, come with a few marginalia comments on the submitted lessons. The UBB, however, is staffed with volunteer teachers who give weekly class time, grade papers and tests, and frequently give additional guidance in an effort to deliver to prisoners the same quality of education that their on-campus college students get. So, whether or not students are able to pay for accreditation or not, in a UBB class, they actually learn the material.

Although I am a writer and love the humanities (or, as my best friend, Atif says, easy classes without the rigors or beauty of mathematics) the UBB offers classes for everyone. To me, taking calculus classes in here would be like being in a prison within a prison, unlike the humanities, which inspire me with the accomplished examples of human perfection, a source of inspiration for my own craft, and a permanent ideal for which to aspire. My friend and fellow TA would argue that mathematics is the purest form of intellectual discipline, the basis of much of modern science, and perhaps even the sole incontrovertible truth to which human beings may have access. It accustoms the mind to proof, enables understanding of the complex social and economic phenomena that underlie modern society, and provides insight into the most fundamental questions of logic, reference, and meaning. Thankfully, my personal aversion to the arduous means of achieving these goals doesn't interfere with my appreciation of them; nor does it obstruct the pleasure to be had in gaining these benefits for other students--as a TA, I simply refer all math questions to those who can understand them.

The UBB community embodies something absent in most of ordinary life, and certainly all of prison life: the sense of a shared pursuit of a goal that is intrinsically valuable and in which each of us has a contribution to make as well as much to receive. As the vast majority of prisoners waste their life on televised entertainment, day-room games, insulting each other, genuflecting before altars, and relieving their glory days, not of wine and roses, but of drugs and pimping, we in the UBB forge new, hopeful lives grounded in our common pursuit of educational excellence, service to society, and the cultivation of individual sensibility.

If you would like to learn more about the UBB, please click here. UBB is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that would gladly appreciate any support you can offer. Also, for a more detailed and personal account of the UBB, please read "Time to Learn."

Jeff Conner 757788 D-1-22
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272

By Arnold Prieto

One of my life long dreams has finally come true! As of May 9th 2013, I, yes, Arnold Prieto Jr., officially became a High School Graduate!! WOOHOO!!!

I don’t think I’d be more excited if Polunsky Unit actually turned on the A.C. during these hot summer days than I am right now!!

But as my face splits with a very huge smile, I do not know how to feel, because it’s just so surreal.  I am holding my hard earned High School Diploma in my hands!!  A feeling of celebration and accomplishment – WHOOHOO - washes over me again and again.

It took 24 years for me to become an actual high school graduate.  It’s definitely better to finish school at 40 than not at all!  So for anyone who is considering a G.E.D. or High School Diploma, it’s NEVER TOO LATE to get one!  My friend, the Swedish Stranger, summed it up perfectly when she wrote: “…one can never stop learning!”  How very true here statement is! So to her, I say “Thank you for your encouragement.”

So be it at the age of 40 like myself, or 20 years old or 80, 100 years old, it is never too late to finish what you began as a youth!  I am a living example of this and from solitary confinement, no less.  If you’re thinking about going back to finish a degree, do so!  Because thinking about it is not going to get you anywhere.  Nothing to it, but to do it is what I say!

My High School Diploma (I still smile after saying that! J) was issued in May, but I was not allowed to receive it until recently!  That was because there was a small financial matter that kept me from receiving it on time.

Thanks to my best friend, Sister D, who rolled up her sleeves and ironed the minor glitch out, with a simple phone call to the school!  You’re the Best, Sister D! 

Continental Academy has a very good program, and I am glad I chose it.  The curriculum for the high school program is well grounded and was written by good educators with excellent credentials.  It has been my experiences that nothing in this life is ever easy and the program was challenging but this was exactly what I wanted, for it helped me fire up old circuitry that hadn’t seen any kind of current in many years!  So I thank all the teachers of that fine establishment for such a motivating curriculum.

In conclusion, I wish to thank my family and friends for their encouragement, patience and for their support.

I dedicate my most prized accomplishment to my dearest mom and to my best friend Dina, whose faith in me was unshakable!  I may not be able to point my mother or Dina from the stage of graduation, but I can tell the world about it!! -WOOHOO!!!-

Arnold Prieto 999149
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Friday, August 23, 2013

Tolerance…to a Point Part 2

By Santonio Murff

Part 1 can be read here

I woke under attack!

The ungodly odor was a putrid bland of sweat, onions, and something fruity and rotten.  An overall sickening stench that hit hard and brought tears to one’s eyes.  I came awake with a scowl of wrinkled nose displeasure.  “What the------“

“Hi, Cellie.  I’m John,” the better than six feet, Grizzly Adams Jr. looked down on me with a lopsided grin.

I had to shake away the fog as I took in his three inches of facial whiskers, towering linebacker physique, and accepted the fact that the odor was coming from him.  “Man! You just came up?”

“Yeah, and I am so tired,” he lifted a leg to the three feet high table and sprung up into the top bunk with an agility that belied his bunk.  I heard him collapse back with an exhausted sigh.

I gave up the fight to grasp an unpolluted breath.  There was not one left in the suddenly suffocating room.  In mere seconds, his odor had overpowered the vent and permeated the place.  And, he had the audacity to try to go to sleep.  “They’ll let you take a shower since you’re just coming in,” I shot desperately.  The pod had been placed on 23 hour rack down in our rooms due to a couple of disrespectful youngsters and I knew I wouldn’t survive it unless John got introduced to some soap and water real fast.

“Yep,” was the only weak reply he gave.

I sat in an uncomfortable funk of silence, with the blanket row covering my nose, starring daggers up at the steel gray belly of the top bunk.  I don’t imagine John could have smelt worse dead and decaying.  “Cellie, they gave you a hygiene pack downstairs?” I nudged tactfully. 

“Uh-uh,” I heard him roll into the wall, trying to escape his destiny with that shower.

“You want me to hit the button and tell them you need one…and to take a shower?” I was having none of it.

“Thanks, but I’m alright now.”

I dropped the blanket, and swung up from the bunk. “Bro, there is nothing alright about how you smell!”  I said, a bit too loud.

He rolled over to face me with that lopsided grin of embarrassment.  Before the conversation could progress, one way or the other, officer Williams who was working the pod came by doing a check to be sure that all was copacetic and that the big youngster, John was only 22, was settled in without any problems. (It was a characteristic of the new compassionate County; unlike the old system of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, which threw you in with the wolves with officers often placing bets on who would and wouldn’t make it.  Some hedging their wagers with a well place whisper in the right ear or/and slick bribe to a brute.)

“Everything alright?” Officer Williams looked directly into my scowl.  I looked back at him, standing at the now cracked door.  Old habits die hard.  One of the first things you learn in prison is that you don’t take your problems to the administration.  Mine were dead though.

“Pop your head in her for a second,” I gave my cellie up.  It was him or me.  And, my poor lungs couldn’t take much more.

Officer Williams opened the door wider and matched my scowl with a scrunched up face and cry of “Oh Man!”  He stepped back, swinging the door wide with repugnance.  “What is that?”

John raised up to wave at him with that lopsided grin.  “That’s probably me.”

“Ain’t no probably to that one, bro!” I left him no choice but to man up and own up to all that smell.  I shrugged an apology when he turned hurt brown puppy dog eyes on me.  It show’ll ain’t me.”

“Sir, you have to take showers up here.” Officer Williams admonished him from outside the door way as I edged closer.

“But I don’t have any soap or anything to ---“

“Here you go!” I interrupted his whinny protest, giving him a bar of soap and partial deodorant that I quickly snatched from the head of my bunk.  John looked at me like I’d utterly betrayed him.  “Can he go to the shower now?”  John frowned at me but I could take no chances on him not putting that bar of soap to immediate use.

Officer Williams waved him down and ushered him out of the cell.  “I’ll leave this door open for you.”  He said sympathetically, halting my escape.

“Thanks.” I said it and meant it as he headed away.

A very short, too short time later, John returned offering me back the remaining soap and deodorant.  Outside of its wetness you couldn’t tell that the soap had been used.  “No, those are yours, Bro. You can use them daily until you get a hygiene pack.  They should’ve given you one downstairs.”  A hygiene pack consisting of a thin black comb, a small tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, and a slender bar of motel soap that could possibly last a small child the first couple of minutes of a shower were supposed to be distributed to all inmates upon their reception to the County Jail.

“Thanks, man.  That odor was just these.”  I nearly leaned back through the back wall, trying to get away from the putrid socks he swung up.

“Man! Why didn’t you wash them while you was in the shower?” 

“I didn’t want to use up all your soap,” he wrapped the fetid socks in his wet towel. 

I sighed, “I got plenty of soap, Bro. Those socks got to be washed or buried, maybe both.” I chuckled to his lopsided grin to take away the sting of my words.  Before he could protest, I grabbed a box of the Surf detergent and shook it before him.  “You can just use this to soap them in one of the wash bins in the dayroom.”

He took it, relieved he didn’t have to return to the shower.

He lumbered out the cell as if I was really putting him out and came back with dramatic exhaustion.  “I’ma lett’em soak until I wake up. I feel like I could sleep for days.”

“I hope that’s long enough for them,” I mumbled as he sprung back to the top bunk.

“Being homeless out there ain’t no joke, dude,” he said with a heaviness and humbleness that stopped my thoughts cold and sent them in another direction.

Homeless?  He was just a kid.  A healthy baby faced white kid, who beneath his bulk and whiskers, obviously had a gentle disposition.  How could he be homeless? In America?

Long after he was asleep, I contemplated John, his homelessness, and them socks.

John didn’t arise again until breakfast time.  He couldn’t compete with The Babbler.  No one could compete with The Babbler!  But he could talk. I mostly listened, because it seemed to do him good to verbalize those inner pains and traumatizations he’d been through in life that you’d never guess at by that goofy, but friendly, lopsided grin.

It has always tripped me out how people in jail will confide their deepest darkest secrets to someone they’ve only known for a short time, simply because they are housed with them.  I think most are looking for a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. It’s sad that they have to come to prison to find one.  John’s woeful tale had me thinking of what a great inspirational movie of the week or book it would make if he could get on his feet, and turn his struggle into a success story.

In short, John and Jeffrey Stone were twins born to hard-working Baptist parents in Arlington, Texas.  His father was a Navy man who absolutely loved the sea.  “It used to tear me up that I never got to sit a single boat with him,” John sounded teared up then.

I lay on the bottom bunk listening.  After breakfast we still had 12 hours of rack down left so I’d asked the question that had been on my mind since his homeless statement.  “How do a young white man end up homeless in America?”  I’d thought it would be a short enlightening tale before I got me some shuteye.  John ended up talking a third of the 12 hours away.

“Yep! My dad was big boned like me.  A strapping lad as my half-Irish grandpa used to say.”  You could tell he was smiling.  “He just chose the wrong bar to celebrate in on the night of our birth.”  I knew he wasn’t gonna say what I thought. “A bar fight he had nothing to do with, just tried to break up, ended up with him being stabbed to death hours after seeing his twins.”

“Damn…” he said it, and I couldn’t help the exclamation.  That was too deep.

“Yep.  It seems like that’s exactly what my family was: Damned.  Damned with his death; or our birth, according to how you looked at it.”

I wanted to tell him that he couldn’t possibly blame their birth for that misfortune, but he was going too deep for my words so I kept quiet and listened.

“My mom always liked a drink here and there, but she turned into a full fledge alcoholic after his death.  My grandpa, who was her daddy, says she lost a piece of her mind.  I hate when people say I can’t blame myself!”  He exploded.  “The look in my mother’s eyes, her every other word after she’d swam in the bottle reminded us that we’d killed our daddy, her husband.  If we wouldn’t have been born, he wouldn’t have been in that bar.  He’d be alive today.”

I was glad I’d held my tongue.  Continued to do so.  That reasoning was beyond faulty, but he needed a help I wasn’t equipped to give.

“What kind of mother would say it if it wasn’t true, right?” He shot out the rhetorical question with a groan.  “My little brother by 3 minutes, Jeff, hates our dad even though he never even knew him! ‘I guess you’d rather we weren’t born than he die, huh?’ he yelled at mom in frustration.”

“She looked at him like that was the stupidest question in the world.”  ‘I can always have more children…’ ‘You dumb drunken B!’ he didn’t even let her finish.”

His breathing changed.  “She drove her car into the lake and drowned when we were 10.  They said it was a drunken accident.  The family knew better.  It was more than likely drunken suicide.  I can’t remember ever seeing her smile.  Never.”  The cell was silent for a good minute.

“I’m sorry.”

“I appreciate it,” he said simply. “And then my life took a turn for the worse.” He let out a long bellowing laugh and leaned over the top bunk to look down on me with a lopsided grin.  “You aren’t crying, are you, Cellie?”

“Damn near,” I smiled back.

“Give me a minute,” he went on. “Moved in with our grandpa, her father.  Our father’s family never had much use for us. Maybe they blamed us too. I excelled in sports, Jeff excelled in F’n up!  My grandpa up and died on us at -----“ he sighed hard.  “Jeff got him a new family: The Aryan Brotherhood.  “Told an old auntie who’d grudgingly took us in, where she could shove her sympathy, dropped out of school, and started his criminal career.”

“I stayed with her, and after a while she began to take to me.  Coach Scott at Hutchinson Jr. High used to keep me in the gym and out of trouble.  He said I had a real promising career. A natural athlete.  And I know I did because scouts were already talking to me at 16!”

Again his voice took on that mournful tone.  “16.  My auntie died. Jeff, who’d always been trying to get me to join AB, got drunk and shot me in my right knee.”

“Man, you gotta be joking.”  I did sit up then.  Looked up into his wet eyes, and laid back down.  “That’s messed up.”

“He always hated my potential, but that’s my little brother.  He hates everybody and everything that won’t hate with him.  The first person I saw when I woke up in the hospital was him, crying like a baby.  I just gave him a hug.”

“I didn’t tell on him.  He stays so high on drugs and alcohol, he don’t even realize what he’s doing most of the time.  Trying to escape the curse, I guess.  So ended my promising career.”

He gave a chuckle that held no joy and no peace.  “You won’t believe this one.  The coach died right before my 17 birthday!”  He swung his legs over the edge of the bunk and started to hop down, thought better of it, and fell back against the wall with his legs dangling.  “Bro, I took to the streets then.  I’d killed everybody who tried to love me or help me.  Been out there since 2010, making it anyway I can without hurting anybody else.”

I was scared to ask, but I did.  “Jeff?”

“No.” He knew what I was thinking.  “He’s still breathing, barely.  He’s doing five years at Coffield with his knucklehead Bros.  Aggravated robbery,” he explained.

I could find no appropriate words, so be both lapsed into silence like cellies do and a short while later I heard the even breaths of slumber.  Again, I was left wide-awake.  And, I’d thought, brothers had a monopoly on hard upbringings.  I’ve heard and witnessed a many trying teenage stories, but I had to put John’s up there at the top of the list.

Later that day, it was like the story had never been told.  I was amazed at how he could have gone through so much and still smiled.  I kind of accepted him like a young brother; his heart was good, even if his luck was horrible.  Two things about John that made me long for solitude was that he did like to talk himself to sleep and all his stories were tragic…and then there was those socks.

I had started buying and extra bar of Surf every week just for him and those socks.  No matter how long he soaked them, how much he washed them, within 24 hours those socks came back stronger than ever.  John acted immune to their odor.  Daily that funk would hit me and I’d have to shake that detergent box before his scowling mug.  “But I just washed ’em,” he’d protest.

“And, they’re baaack…” I’d drawl out.

He’d hop down, put out as usual, and drag out to do battle with them.   I offered to buy him a pair of white socks from commissary.  “No, man.  These were my grandpa’s, and they are blue silk.  Real silk,” he assured me.

I thought of a half dozen one liners, but I saw they clearly had sentimental value to him so I held my tongue.  He’d always come back in fanning the socks, “Good as new, Cellie!”

“But for how long?” I’d groan.

John had a good personality that made you want to help him out.  So I did.  When I got my Dunkin Sticks, I bought him his favorite oatmeal.  When the scarce County servings weren’t adequate, which was most of the time, I’d chunk an extra soup into whatever I was eating so we could both have a bowl.  I did manage to get him to stop viewing the shower as an enemy.  We could do nothing about his daily shedding of hair.

“It’s a white thing, I guess,” he hunched his shoulders with that lopsided grin as he swept up.

“Yeah, that afro around your chin don’t have anything to do with it.”

He gave that bellowing laugh and actually smacked his thigh.  “Everybody say I look like Grizzly Adams; ya know from---“

“I know.”

“I be thinking about going to the mountains sometimes.  Just being away by myself---“ he looked to the floor in musing.

I could imagine him doing exactly that.

John’s only crime was attempting to walk out of Walmart with some food he hadn’t purchased.  So when he was called to Court, the Judge gave him time served.  “They had a dozen people in there for Walmart cases,” he told me.  We had six on the Pod that I knew of.  I didn’t get what was so alluring about Walmart.  “It’s easy,” he said.

“And how many people were in Court?”

He laughed.  “I guess you’re right?”

John had a present for me before he left.  “This is for all your help and hospitality.  I really appreciate it, Bro.”

I eyed the brown grocery sack with nervousness.  “Now, I’m cool Cellie,” I knew it had to be a trick.

“Please dude! It’s a pride thing---“

I shrugged, took the sack, and unrolled it to look in the bottom of the bag.  I screamed in pure horror!

There at the very bottom, already making their presence felt (smelt) were those blue silk socks.

John cracked himself up with big belly laughs that shook him to the toes.  “They’re real silk, dude!”

I quickly rolled the bag back down and firmly pressed it in his stomach as I propelled him with his belongings to the door.  “You a heartless man, John Stone!”

He laughed all the way down the stairs, slapping his thigh for emphasis.  And, just like that, another cellie was gone. 

“You’re gonna make it out of here, dude.  I can feel it.  You’re good people,” he told me.  I only prayed he’d taken heed to all that I’d told him about churches and organizations that would help him.

“You don’t have to live on the streets, Bro.”

He’d snorted.  “I know, Cellie.  I just don’t want to have no one else die trying to help me.  I couldn’t take it.”

John Paul Stone was too deep for me.

**********                **********                **********                

I woke up the next morning with a satisfied smile.  No cellie! The officer called my name for one of the one-hour law library sessions you could sign up for twice a week, and I hit the hallway with a bounce in my step.  I still was in awe of this new County that allowed inmates to move around freely, unescorted, off the pod when scheduled for the law library or medical treatment.  You were even permitted to take the elevators, with an inmate trustee transporting you to whatever floor you requested, though a camera monitored your progress.

I was through the electronic gate, awaiting the elevators with a half dozen other inmates, headed to the law library, and one officer who was going elsewhere, when I heard his voice.  No, it couldn’t be?  I spun around so fast my notebook flew out my hands.

“I don’t need any stinkin’ medicine! You need the medicine.  You’re sick.  This system is sick.  The whole world maybe sick, but The Babbler is just fine!  Healthy as a horse!”  He pounded on his chest and flexed a muscle.

The nurse he was giving an earful could only smile.  They were trapped behind the gate we’d just passed through and he hadn’t seen me yet.  No soon I had the thought, he spied me and screamed: “Crusher!”

I smile and shook my head.

“You’re not gonna believe this!  Because, I, The Babbler am high on life, they want to tranquilize me!  Put me down like a horse.  Thorzine your cellie till he’s like a zombie!  Hyperactive? Ain’t that a crock?  I knew you’d agree, because you got sense.  Sense and a good heart.”

A prayer was answered.  The elevator binged its intentions of opening before The Babbler’s restraining door did.  The Babbler screamed anew, “Wait Killer! I have to tell you about the 85-year old narc that chased me down.  It’s a cold world out there, Bro.  A white man does not stand a chance!”

Everybody cracked up at that.  The officer shrug with a smile, he didn’t mind if I caught the next elevator.  I looked at The Babbler, whose mouth was vibrating with the need to tell me all, and felt an overwhelming urgency to get to the law library expeditiously.

“This officer tripping, bro! He say I got to get on this elevator,” I made haste to squeeze in before the door shut.

“Those pictures and 20 spot in the mail, cellie! The Babbler has changed his ways---“ I heard before the door closed and we’d begun our descent.

The officer was looking upside my head with a smirk.  I just shrugged.

“You don’t have to explain,” he laughed.  “Everyone knows The Babbler.”

**********                **********                **********                

The County had lost its luster to me.  My fiancé, “Tender” was the only one who’d kept up the phone account.  Talking to her twice a day before she went to work and before she went to bed were the highlights of my life, but the security tech rip-off phone system was becoming unbearable.  With their “plan” we were already paying over $3 for a 15 minute call, but every few calls the phone mysteriously hung up after a minute or two of conversation, and secure-tech refused to reimburse us for those calls even though the phone tech had to come out several times to fix their phones.  Everyone had very little faith in the County’s mail system, which took an average of 10 – 14 days to deliver a letter, so we reduced our calls to once a day in protest.

I’d long since become disillusioned with the dayroom and its constant drama, and left it to the callous incompetent officers who felt it their right to abuse their authority, (racking up the entire pod daily for the misbehavior of a few) because we “chose” to come to jail, and the unruly youngsters who they rotated in and out as soon as I developed a respectful calming rapport with them.  So now spending upwards of 18 hours a day in my room meditating, reading and writing with the occasional workout---my cellie became the most important fixture in my life.

The constant presence of Ol’ School, the racket of Loco, the babbling of The Babbler, and the ungodly odor of John’s socks had pushed my tolerance level to the breaking point.  Juicy snapped it like a petite twig…

I’d been back from the Law Library for less than an hour when the door opened.  I leaped up from my bunk so fast that I cracked my head so hard against the top bunk that the entering inmate gasped an, “Oh, my God!  Are you alright?”

In a micro-second, I digested the soft compassionate voice.  I took in the smooth peanut butter complexion.  The long, obviously woven raven head of hair that hung to his shoulders like strands of silk.  And, the too tight form-fitting green jumper.  “STOP!” I threw up a halting palm that froze him, causing his eyes to dart to the officers’ station below nervously.

“Whaat?” He whined in a feminine whisper that told the tale.

“You’re NOT coming in here,” I gave him my no nonsense look.

“I ain’t gonna mess with you if you don’t mess with me,” he frowned, but didn’t move.  “I’m Juicy, and I’ma be a good cellie,” he promised, looking to my eyes fleetingly then back to the floor.

I am not a homophobic.  I could care less what two consenting adults do.  Live and let live, and let God be the judge, or as my grandpa say, “If they like it, I love it.”  But there are some things that I just don’t do.  In 18 plus years of incarceration I’ve never allowed myself to be housed with a homosexual.

Why?  Because wherever you find a homosexual in prison, trouble is not far behind.  It’s like they come with an assortment of troubles and drama.  Snitching for the administration, sneaking other inmates into their rooms, inmates fighting over them; on Ferguson 1998, I was caught unaware as two gangs set off a riot over one – so as a rule, I keep my distance.  Spacious as it was, a 12 by 7 room just did not afford me enough space to do that.

I took an aggressive step forward.  “I repeat, you ain’t coming in here.”

Juicy took a step back, folded his arms around the bag of property hugged into his bosom and choked out a barely audible, “Why?”

Give me the biggest, toughest hombre you can come up with and I can handle him.  Give me the young ignorant ones and I’ll calm and educate them.  But you put a six feet man with more muscle than I have before me, who’s doing his very best to look speak and act like a woman, and put real tears in his eyes – and you can call it what you want to, but I don’t know what the hell to do.

“I’m a good person, but everybody act like that.  And, if I don’t come in then they will put me back in Solitary by myself,” Juicy’s bottom lip actually quivered with the sob for acceptance.  Of course, he could snitch on me to the officer for not allowing him in the room, then it would be I going to Solitary and 23 hours of daily lock down.  To his credit, he didn’t voice that option.

Still, I maybe would’ve stuck to my guns, but Juicy unleashed his secret weapon.  A lone tear slid from his right eye to slide over a high cheekbone and linger before his top lip.

I fell back on my bunk with a sigh.  Juicy looked at me beseechingly, but didn’t move.  We were on a precipice of tolerance that very likely could’ve made me a better person, but then Juicy sent out a fluid pink tongue to roll up and around, unsavorly capturing the long tear.  For the second time, I cracked my head, springing up.  I’d made my decision.

Juicy leapt back like I was about to attack.

“Naaw, come on in, Juicy!”  I waved him on in.

I pulled my mattress cover off my mat with a jerk as he gave an excited clap and bounce in towards me.

“Ooh, Thank you!” He stopped short of giving me an appreciative hug as I turned an evilly arched brow on him.  I kept it on him till he bagged away.  “Well, thank you anyway,” he smacked his lips.  “You gonna see, you’re gonna love me.”

“Naaw,” I drawled my resolved thickened.  “You ain’t gonna have to worry about me, Juicy-Juice.”  I quickly swiped all my property into the mattress cover.  “You aint’ gonna have to worry about me at all,” I slung the mattress cover over my shoulder and headed for the door.

I stepped out and heard Juicy suck his teeth with attitude at my back, “Whatever.” That’s penitentiary appreciation for you.  It don’t last very long.

The large sack of belongings on my shoulder needed no explanation.  All eyes in the dayroom were on me as I trudged to the steps.  They’d been waiting to see how the situation would play out.  The officer was already laughing with a beet-red face full of humor when I reached the top of the stairway.  “I know you’re not afraid of a lil ‘ol girl!”  He hollered up.

“No sir! I’m afraid of a big ol’ man who thinks he’s a lil ol’ girl!”  The dayroom of inmates cracked up at that with him laughing the hardest.

I looked back at him with a sardonic grin and a grim shake of my head.  “I just can’t risk it!”  Everyone laughed harder as I descended the steps.

“Don’t knock it, till you’ve tried it, Sweetie!”  Juicy gushed, turning the sashay back into the room and slam the door behind him.

The officer was still rocking with laughter when I paused in front of the security desk.  “Dude, do you really want to go to solitary for refusing housing?”  he asked.

“No, I’m hoping the Corporal will have some kind of understanding.”

He gave me a look like I had to be kidding and called in a code that had the corporal and three other officers over to the pod in short order.  I was optimistic as I rallied off my credentials of being incarcerated 18 plus years, merely being back on bench warrant for my appeal, and only wanting to do my time peacefully and stress free.  The corporal nodded understandingly until I said I’d rather be in solitary than housed with a grown man named Juicy.

“You’re sure about that,” he laughed.


“Take him away, boys! Solitary it is!”

“Corporal?”  It came out as more of a plea than I intended.  “They have a dozen single cells on this pod alone.”

“And everyone wants one,” he interjected.

“But I---“

He halted my words with an up-thrust palm.  “The choice is yours.  You can go back up them stairs or---“

I started walking, “Take me away, boys!”  The officers laughed as they put the cuffs on me.  I shook my head at the Corporal with cool acceptance.  “We’re done here.”

They took me away.

**********                **********                **********                

I fell back on my deflated lumpy mat, in my freshly scrubbed cell, and blew out a contented breath of relief.  My luxury accommodations had been shrunk by more than half.  My long, wide, mahogany desk was now a steel circle that jutted from the wall, providing enough space for little more than a legal tablet.  The mahogany door was now a steel plate of metal that would no longer be swung to and fro upon my request.

“Home sweet home,” I mused aloud.  I’d been housed in worse, much worse.

True, I’d only be permitted out of the cell for one hour a day; but on the bright side, I didn’t have to worry about anyone else coming in.  There are no cellies in solitary.  I smiled as I soaked in the silence of solitude, basked in the serenity.  The Corporal had said, if I chose to, I could move back to an open pod in 30 days, but if it wasn’t a one-man cell I’d be staying up.

The dead but breathing body.  That snoring.  That incessant chattering. THOSE SOCKS!...and of course, Juicy!   Yep! I’d be staying put in my home sweet home.  I just couldn’t risk it.

Life is funny sometimes.  Just when you’ve written someone off, they surprise you and show up in an amazing way that keeps you smiling for days.  April 20th, 10 days before my birthday, I received a card from C. D. Backsydes.  The crazy name had me scowling in thought.  I knew of no one named C.D.

I opened up the card and was surprised to find a receipt for a $20 money order sent to me by C.D.  It was the photo though that sent my smile into full blossom and had me showing all my pearly whites.  I’d once confided to The Babbler that I had a big girl fetish.  Deluxe Dolls, I’d called them. He’d obviously remembered the conversation and my birthday.

The photo had two beautiful Deluxe Dolls standing together with their backs to the camera and their bubbulous rear ends poked out seductively.  They each wore huge smiles, and right below their waists, squeezed in between their hips, with derrieres on both sides of his cheeks, smiling in all his gold-tooth, Afroed glory was The Babbler!  I doubled over with laughter.

The card explained it all:
“You get it Cellie?  See the backsides!!
HA! I, The Babbler, have made The Crusher laugh out loud!!! Happy Birthday, Killa.  The Babbler likes them big too.  And, I am NOT a liar to my friends!”

I was still laughing when I put the card away.  Maybe I would risk it.  Cellies weren’t so bad.  You never knew when one would turn into a friend.  Like The Babbler had.

**********                **********                **********                
The End.

Santonio Murff #00773394
Robertson Unit
12071 FM 3522
Abilene, TX 79601

Santonio D. Murff is a seven-time PEN Prison Writing Contest winner, award-winning novelist and essayist who is searching the planet for the right agent/publishing house for his anthology of rehabilitated prisoners’ memoirs and essays, Apologies From Within. He’s become the go-to author for dealing with prisoners’ rehabilitation and prison reform.

Santonio and his family THANK YOU for your support!!!