Thursday, July 30, 2020

Delusion of Reprieve

By Z.A. Smith

Since the first day of the Missouri 2020 Legislative Session, offenders have been spreading a rumor about a law being passed for life without offenders called “The Hard Thirty,” saying Missouri Governor Mike Parson is planning to reduce all life without parole sentences to thirty years, via executive order.

In Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl, Frankl discussed a psychological phenomenon known as “delusion of reprieve.” Immediately before his execution the condemned man is overcome by the illusion that he might be reprieved at the last minute. Has it happened before? Yes. Can it happen again? Sure. Will Governor Parson exercise his executive power to commute all life without parole sentences? Who knows? 

I chased down the circulating rumors and caught each one by its tail. There is a bill in the Missouri Senate, SB 2034. It was originally House Bill 352. It is for offenders serving life without parole for a minimum of fifty years or more and who were sentenced under section 565.008, for offenses committed prior to October 1, 1984. The offender must be sixty-five or older, have no felony convictions for dangerous felonies as defined under section 556.061 prior to the conviction for which he or she is currently incarcerated, and not be a convicted sex offender. If the offender meets these criteria, and has served thirty years or more, he or she will receive a parole hearing. Update:  this bill was passed by the Missouri Senate on May 15, 2020, along with several get tougher on crime bills included in SB 600.

Offenders serving life without parole or 85% of their long sentences do not have any incentive to attend rehabilitative programs to rehabilitate themselves. Instead, many offenders, both short and long term, engage in illegal and nonproductive activities to distract themselves from the reality of being in prison. And since most offenders do not have paying jobs, they resort to “prison hustles” (gambling, stealing, extortion, drugs etc.), or they rely on the generosity of family and friends for financial support, which only perpetuates co-dependency and antisocial behavior, practically guaranteeing recidivism. Missouri offenders receive $7.50 (without a GED) or $8.50 (with a GED) once a month from the Missouri Department of Corrections (MODOC). The average premium paying job is $10.00 a month and there aren’t enough of them to go around. 

When these offenders are released, the antisocial behavior and mental health issues remain. They are not rehabilitated but likely learned how to become better criminals (especially the short timers). They return to society bitter and broke, and will more than likely seek out opportunities to release the years of pent-up anger and frustration by committing more crimes, violent and nonviolent. 

It appears however, that twenty-five years is the magic number for punishment and rehabilitation (that is unless Governor Parson just wanted to limit the number of clemency applications being filed). After Governor Parson’s office was bombarded with questions from the media about the 3,500 or more clemency applications awaiting his decision, Kelly Jones, Parson’s spokeswoman, told the St. Louis public radio that Parson’s office was working on a system for handling clemency requests. On January 1, 2020 Parson exercised his executive power and amended the clemency process in Missouri, changing the eligibility criteria for requesting clemency. The new procedure states, any individual confined in the Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) has the right to petition the governor of Executive Clemency if they meet the following eligibility requirements:

  1. Claims innocence; or
  2. Served 25+ years; or
  3. Is age 70+ and has served 12+ years and
  4. All judicial remedies (appeals, etc.) have been exhausted

The applicant cannot have been denied an executive clemency within the past five years. The five year time frame begins on the date the governor has denied Executive Clemency. 

The only reference to life without parole is on the clemency form itself, which states under the partial commutation box option: A partial commutation may remove restrictions attached to a sentence or can reduce the sentence to a lower level, which could still involve an obligation to the state (for example, the governor could commute a life sentence without the possibility of parole to a life sentence with the possibility of parole). 

No factual information has been forthcoming stating that Governor Parson has any intention of commuting life without parole sentences; the form merely uses it as an example. Out of more than 3,500 clemency requests Parson has acted on just one case. In September of 2019, Parson denied offender Russell Bucklew clemency and he was executed. 

Society, or should I say politicians, do not favor the practice of executive clemency. Just recently when Kentucky’s former Republican Governor Matt Bevin exercised his executive power to pardon and commute hundreds of offenders’ sentences before leaving office. the FBI was asked to open an investigation and lawmakers are now calling for a proposed constitutional amendment to limited future governor’s ability to issue end of term pardons and commutations (see

On January 15, 2020 Governor Parson gave his “State of the State” speech and called on Missouri lawmakers to increase mental health resources, to toughen violent crime laws and to ramp up witness protection to address violence in Missouri’s biggest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City. (On January 28, 2020 Kansas City had its fifteenth homicide of the new year; only six of them were solved according to Fox 4 News).

Passing tougher violent crime laws hasn’t made society safer; it has led to mass incarceration. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the get tough on violent crime rhetoric resulted in the passing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, signed into law by then President Bill Clinton. The act known as the Crime Bill, created a Violent Offender and Truth in Sentencing Incentive Grant Program. To participate and receive money from the $3 billion federal fund, states were expected to build new prisons or expand the capacity of the old ones, and pass laws that required violent offenders to serve 85% of their sentences. From 1996-2001 every state partook in the program. Some states even ended their parole systems and enacted laws mandating offenders to serve 100% of their sentences. 

Polls show that the majority of Americans favor rehabilitation over incarceration. In a November 2017 survey conducted for the ACLU’s campaign for smart justice, 71% of Americans agreed that incarceration for long periods of offender’s lives is counterproductive to public safety due to the lack of effective rehabilitation programs in prisons. ( In a November 2018 poll conducted for the Justice Action Network (JAN) 85% of poll participants agreed that rehabilitation should be the goal of the criminal justice system instead of punishment. (Ibid.) 

The prison system however is not setup to rehabilitate offenders; its setup to punish them. Its programs do not address offender’s antisocial behavior or their underlying mental health issues that pervade daily prison life, choking many offenders’ attempts at self-rehabilitation. The long-term effects of the negative prison environment not only impact offenders but also effect the department of corrections employee turnover rate, resulting in a shortage of staff, making prisons more and more dangerous. 

Lawmakers throughout the United States need to propose bills that will help heal the broken and downtrodden offenders and get the process started of turning them into law abiding productive members of society. In order to do that, the 85% laws MUST be eliminated. This is common sense criminal justice reform. Releasing offenders after serving 85% and not supervising them for longer periods is not working. By repealing the 85% law more offenders will be encouraged to attend programs and rehabilitate themselves before being seen by the parole board. Offenders who are required to serve 85% do not need to do either, and some will be released regardless, only more bitter and still suffering from mental illnesses and antisocial behavioral problems. With offenders having an opportunity to be released after 50% of their sentences, they will be less likely to engage in violent behavior while incarcerated, making prisons safer and easier to manage and control, despite the nationwide shortage of staff problems. 

Eliminating the 85% laws will not affect my sentence nor many others, but since being in prison for twenty-five years, I have objectively observed the behavior of offenders and know that passing laws that give long-term offenders hope of a second chance to make a life for themselves is a move in the right direction. 

Zachary A. Smith, #521163/4D-270
Crossroads Correctional Center
1115 E. Pence Road
Cameron, Missouri 64429


Zachary A. Smith was born on August 8, 1975, and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. He is currently married to the State of Missouri til death do them part (divorce pending). He has studied and practiced law for over twenty years, and has earned a paralegal degree, with distinction, from Blackstone Career Institute. He is not a convict, just a man who lost his way and got caught up in the system nor a criminal but committed crimes in his youth. In his leisure, he enjoys reading books, walking outside, and corresponding with family and friends. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Finding Solace In Separation

By Terry Daniel McDonald

Solitude means being aloof from the influence of society. It may be practiced alone or in company, just as emotional dependency can be practiced alone or in company. One who is physically alone yet still under the influence of other people is not solitary. One who abandons the world in favor of isolation is still not solitary either, because the world is still a companion by virtue of ongoing relation, even though that relation be one of rejection.
         -- Thomas Cleary

For over a month now, I've followed the spread of covid-19--from those early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, to the worldwide pandemic it became. That it continues to be. Fear of sickness and death brought Nations to their knees. As a result, social distancing has become the norm, requiring each individual to reorient their lives--to, at times, make hard choices.
All the while my life has remained largely the same. My current housing in administrative segregation means that I am in a cell by myself, protected by a steel door with a plexiglass shield affixed to it. But I'm acclimated to this environment after 10 years, so the current lockdown and meager meals are only a minor discomfort. Even so, it is while here, as I've listened to news reports, or read various articles on how people are being affected by the coronavirus around the world, that I've spent time considering the influences and conditioning which contributed to my growth and ability to adapt in this reality. 

Because I have been separated from society for so long, I recognize that my situation may be a singular one. There is no doubt that being housed in administrative segregation is atypical by even prison standards. So perhaps my overall perceptions are tainted by the restrictions I have had to endure. And yet, isn't that the crux off the matter to some degree? Restrictions are devised with the goal to alter behavior regardless if an individual has a desire to change. The conflict arises because we are social, habit-forming creatures.

Social distancing then, or any separation from normal life patterns can have myriad effects, mentally and physically. Leading to situations on par with the Archer's paradox: You can't hit a target by aiming straight at it because the shaft gets in the way. Similarly, it is our desire to remain attached to what we will lose through separation that inhibits our ability to adapt to the situation. 


A friend of mine, Jose Moreno, went through many different types of separation throughout his life. Beginning when he was abandoned by his birth parents, thus separated from the chance to know them--to have their love and support. Fortunately he was adopted by a loving couple in San Antonio, Texas.

The man Jose would, without hesitation, call his father worked several jobs to provide for the family. Jose's adopted mother was often home, and it was with her that he forged deeper bonds.
Which were shattered into a quagmire of grief when she died. Jose was no older than 15, and even though his keen intelligence was already opening doors to higher education with his acceptance (and scholarship) to a private academy, the rest of his life deteriorated due to the separation from his mother's love. Her tenderness. To whom could you share the grief and rage over such a loss?
Surely he deserved a different life-arc with the assistance of a mentor to find order in life. Instead Jose roamed the streets, finding a diluted sense of identity and worth through erratic behavior.
Jose suffered from an unspeakable anger--a frustration that permeated his being to the point of eluding rational thought. To find freedom from what existed in his mind and soul, he turned to drugs and alcohol. Perhaps it wasn't the same for the others he shared those intoxicants with, but Jose sought a separation from the past, hoping to blur or even erase what swirled in his mind regarding his mother. The natural consequence was that he locked himself into a dismal reality without any consideration of the past or thoughts of the future. His perspective deteriorated, narrowing into defeatist fanaticism which impaired his true inner character.
From his mother, Jose was taught compassion and goodness, from his father, to value a solid work ethic, but a lack of life experience shattered Jose's awareness of what it meant to be alive. The immediacy of his mother's death lifted the veil of innocence and, sadly, served as the catalyst towards his zest and urgency to live recklessly. With wild abandon he raced motorcycles on back streets, chased women, and tried every illegal narcotic that was available.
Jose shared his stories with an understanding that he had likely formulated some sort of subconscious death wish. In such a state, his intelligence worked against him. A new conditioning based on identifying as a victim made justifying aberrant behavior normal. He had separated himself from the world once associated with his mother. Thus he detached himself from reasonably being able to discern the ripple effects of his actions. 
In 1986-87, Jose was convicted of capital murder. An elaborate scheme was thought up by the group he ran with to kidnap and ransom a guy with a known trust fund. The kidnapping was successful, but the subsequent negotiations over payment led to the man's death. Which is how, at 17 going on 18 years of age, Jose became forcibly separated from society and placed into the isolated confinement cells where those on Death Row were housed. 
Did he understand his wrongdoing? In those early days, to some extent, yes. But he wasn't ready to admit the problems that existed within. Even when thrown in a cage, away from the distractions that had helped him evade that reality, the conditioned instinct to cloak his suffering with rage and self-destructive behavior was too great.
"When I was in county jail I joined a gang because they told me they ran things in prison," Jose once told me. "Being in that gang made it easy to get drugs or anything else I wanted. But I was out of control. I can't tell you how much money I wasted on drugs or alcohol. And I stopped counting how many disciplinary cases I ended up with for fighting the guards, or other behavior that required them to use force to subdue me."
For over 20 years Jose was on Death Row, in a cell alone. Eventually he came to realize that the gang truly wasn't for him, so he separated himself. He also turned away from alcohol and drugs. Slowly he began to value others again, developing meaningful relationships with neighbors and those outside of prison. Feeling powerless over his station in life transformed into an appreciative desire to fight to live.
Jose also returned to the realm of academia, honing his mind relevant to his interest in psychology, physics, mathematics and architecture. In doing so, he rekindled the youthful passion he once had for learning with an eye towards finding purpose and meaning each day. 

"I don't know how much good it will do to learn every possible thing about physics," he shared with me, "but at least it may motivate me to move on to what I can only call true unity."
The fight for Jose's life took a lot of sacrifice and dedication. Jose's father used his life savings on the attorney whose work became the technical fulcrum to alter Jose's sentence. But the specter of death shadowed Jose into 2008.
We discussed how he felt while waiting to be executed. "I was at the point of feeling so distanced, so alone in the world," he said. "While on the phone talking to my dad I couldn't stop crying. Then they came and told me to get off the phone. I wanted to argue. Surely it wasn't time yet? But the guard told me I'd received a stay of execution. It didn't take them long to transfer me back to the Polunsky Unit." 

Leaving his friends behind, getting into a van with armed guards, and being transferred to deathwatch on the Walls Unit was harrowing for Jose. The stay of execution was certainly a relief, and seeing his friends again was a pleasure, but the acute tension and anxiety over the underlying terror of having to endure that process again remained. 
In imagining the process, echoes of other truths have been revealed: 
How the State dispassionately approaches executions; How, considering Jose was barely a young man when convicted, no thought was ever given towards who he became.

The State did not care about Jose. Only that he was condemned to die. Such concepts as atonement or redemption were irrelevant. Compassion … mercy? Ridiculous! Jose absolutely cared, though, and he worked diligently with his attorney to secure a plea agreement. In short, Jose agreed to accept several life sentences in lieu of being resentenced to death. Additionally, he agreed to never accept parole. And all of the years he had been incarcerated were waived, so he did not receive any time credit. 
In 2008 Jose was given a chance to appreciate being truly alive, with the idea that every sunrise was his to view, every sunset was his to enjoy. But there was a cost for such a change. He was forcibly separated from decade’s worth of relationships and memories and sent to Michael Unit. Every person that crossed his path became an event, a memory, good or bad, filling in the hours with experience instead of tedium. And he was blessed to retain several pen-pals who continued to write and support him even after he transitioned.
By the time I met Jose in 2011-12, he was kind and gentle and content. In a cell alone, his life was very ordered, managed so obsessively that he would suffer anxiety attacks when his routine was disrupted. Coming out of the cell was something he avoided, but he associated with others well enough. He could have gone on living that way indefinitely, I'm sure, but the winds of change had other plans.
In 2016, the administration of Michael Unit began taking steps to transform the majority of 12-building into the Mental Health Therapeutic Diversion Program. To do so, over four hundred men in administrative segregation needed to be shipped to other units.
Jose followed all the rumors because he did not want to leave. "You're right about the anxiety," he wrote in a kite to me, "I may have a heart attack long before I get transferred. The Michael Unit has gotten rather nice over the years. I just can't imagine many other places where it could be better." He also understood his limitations. "It’s no wonder I have anxiety as that is the most common symptom of prolonged exposure to solitary like confinement," he shared. "I would say that I'm doing exceptionally well considering that I'm going on 30 years in seg. But relocating does stress the fuck out of me. It is a mental thing." 
It came down to the end for him; he got close to avoiding the transfer. But when they came and collected his property, he knew his fate. He also knew that he would again be separated from a place of comfort where he had made friends.
"I can't believe you're still here," he wrote. "I wonder why they're saving you for the last too? I really hope that you are on the chain for Monday morning because there is a chance we could go to the same destination. Otherwise this will truly be my last kite and then we won't ever be able to have any long talks anymore."
On Monday morning I stayed behind. And unfortunately for Jose, he ended up going to the place he had hoped to avoid: Eastham Unit.
They call it "The House of Pain," which became an understatement for Jose. There was no comfort in the tiny cell with bad air. The guards were rude, the shakedowns demoralizing, and ohh was it hot! 
Jose once told me: "Even though I separated from my gang, I have no intention of going to the G.R.A.D. program." He couldn't stand the thought of having to share a cell and walk everywhere. After 30 years he had conditioned himself to live a certain way alone. 
Well "The House of Pain" caused Jose such intense suffering--most of it mental--that he finally broke down and signed up for the Gang Renunciation and Disassociation Program. A year later he was there.
Ellis Unit was another older unit and surely as hot, but Jose was simply ecstatic to have escaped what, to him, was a horror. Besides, he was originally incarcerated on Ellis up until 1998-99. Then an escape attempt took place and Death Row was transferred to Polunsky Unit. Jose lamented that fact because, he told me, "On Ellis we had more freedom. More art supplies. There were TVs, and other things that made doing time much better." Once on Polansky it was pure lockdown status, minus the one hour each day for recreation.
Each instance of separation, social distancing, and reintegration caused significant changes in Jose's life, requiring him to alter his conceptual views of how he was going to manage his time. The G.R.A.D. program put him through phases, where he attended classes with others and was slowly reintegrated into living in a cell with someone else. The end result was Jose's graduation to population, to the need to walk everywhere for everything! 
In essence, Jose endured over 30 years of social distancing, and then was thrust back into the more typical prison society where sacrificing time and space was necessary. Something he deeply resented. Adapting was a grueling process for him because he was mentally locked into craving a return to the past.

When he started looking beyond himself, he developed a more wholesome purpose. On March 28, 2020, he wrote his friend Ines Aubert: "I wish I could say that helping others is a joke I'm telling. But that's the direction my life is going. I didn't pick this for myself. If you could see my daily life you would agree. Think about this: My three daily associates that I met on this wing have all gotten beat up by their cellies. These guys have problems adjusting to prison and it's obvious. When I see these guys--and I see a lot of them--I immediately recognize them and I try to help them by giving them all the valuable information I have acquired over the years. I helped them get good jobs, make commissary more promptly, and basically stay out of trouble. It doesn't even cost me anything monetarily."

After years of urging and encouraging him to embrace change and find ways to use his experience he finally found the inner strength to become a mentor to others. The mentor he never had.

Then four weeks later, on April 23, 2020, Jose died.


My personal journey with different forms of separation, including the intense social distancing I endure now, have led to profound changes. Some of them I am aware of, others I am only beginning to understand.
Our biological responses to the outside world are quite strong. "Hormones associated with … social connections can light up our nervous system and give us a health boost," Jeffrey Rediger, M.D. explained in his article: Love Medicine: How human connection--or a lack of it--affects our hearts and hormones. "The results run deep in the body, down to the very rhythm of our hearts." 

Feelings of connection cause our brain to release a cocktail of hormones and chemicals--"some combination of dopamine, testosterone, estrogen, vasopressin and oxytocin," Dr. Rediger shared. All release through the vagus nerve: the most powerful neural network in the body. "It regulates heartbeat, lung function, and digestive flow, among other vital systems. Our hearts, guts and stomachs are hotbeds of neuroreceptors.“

Experiencing a connection with others sets the vagus nerve ablaze with positive signaling. Even small moments of positive interaction with the people around us improves the neural pathways. Or as Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill would suggest, a sort of "falling in love." To her it's a series of "micro moments of positive resonance" experienced repeatedly. And those moments are very important, because it amounts to bonding, or working out the vagus nerve.

 "The same way I work out my leg and heart muscles when I go for a run," Dr. Rediger explained.
Social mindfulness is a profound concept, and perhaps an undervalued part of our daily lives. I mean, how often do we work on cultivating feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill towards ourselves and others? How much of our ability to be socially mindful is stripped away when we face forms of separation? Through the use of practices such as loving-kindness meditation, or LKM, it is possible to increase positive emotions. Being more positive leads to an increase in social interactions. But the opposite is also true: when we neglect to interact with others, negativity and despondency are natural results.
“[L]oneliness, social isolation or both were associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart attack and a 32 percent greater risk of stroke," Dr. Rediger stressed. Fewer social interactions leads to "disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, higher inflammation and greatly increased levels of stress hormones." 
 Even gene expression is affected.

The problem with being alone is that a greater tendency exists to see the world as a threat. Dr. Rediger made it clear that "loneliness is contagious and heritable," affecting "1 in 4 people … and increases your risk of an early death by 20 percent."

John Cacioppo, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago, explained in a 2016 interview with The Guardian that he would add the instructions, "do not house in isolation," if a zoo was built for humans.  

It's suffering that helps us look beyond ourselves, to find common ground with others--and appreciate the joys we otherwise take for granted.
                --Dalai Lama

A path with a new turn can cause disorientation. As time passes and the path continues in its new direction, there's a tendency to believe it will remain that way forever. Then the truth presents itself: A path once bent is always susceptible to change, especially when it's caused by manipulation from an outside source.

Losing control, the ability to choose--free Will--is difficult because we live, each of us, according to our morals, our principles. But we are also asked to live in a way that serves the interests of the communities we are a part of. Or, at least, we should.
If we cannot understand the joys and pains of those around us, if we cannot share in a greater community, then where shall a life purpose be found? Connecting with others requires empathy. It is sharing in the joint pain, laughter and tears that so fully reflect a passion for friendship, even love. Thus empathy leads to purpose; purpose leads to satisfaction; satisfaction leads to contentment; contentment leads to joy.
Is empathy how we can reduce the suffering instances of separation or social distancing causes? Perhaps. Archers for hundreds of years came to understand the paradox of their profession and learned to compensate. The stiffness and weight of the arrow matters. The fletching. So does the bow set up and finger release. Conditioning through practice helped those archers develop a consistent, instinctual aim. 
How we condition ourselves truly matters. 

Just like awareness matters: of our personal limitations, and how we affect others, directly or indirectly; of our perceptions--the tendency to judge or ridicule, to be positive or negative; of our personal needs, the sustenance to live; of the world as it is, to accept that reality; and of our ability to understand the impermanent nature of things. 

Ultimately, I think, a basic need lives within the majority of us for some sort of control, ownership, or at least stewardship. To find our place in a world that can be confusing, overwhelming. But seeking order in a little corner of this big, at times uncontrollable world is complicated. Because peace is not a place, nor is it found in things. The irony of material acquisition is that it inherently works against any hope of true serenity. 

Solace can be found, though--in the kingdom of the heart and soul, defended by the security of honest love and friendship and the warmth of memories. Live with the hope that the future will be better, and work to make it so. Once you've developed a clear sense of where you wish to be emotionally, the effort you put into being positive and more socially active will provide a deep sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and joy.

Jose was a part of my life for nearly eight years, but we were only around each other infrequently. Because of my High-Security status (due to an escape attempt in 2010), I was rotated each week. Sometimes I landed in a cell near Jose. A few times I was his direct neighbor. Or I simply landed in one of the eighty-four cells on the pod he was located on. No amount of separation kept us from taking advantage of the opportunities to open our minds to each other. We wrote kites. I would coordinate with the guards to go to Jose's day room. Or we asked the guards to place us outside together. Then there were the instances of hooking up the mic-system, talking late into the night when we were close enough to do so. After he was transferred in 2016, we continue to stay in touch because it was important to us. 

I'd love to say that I came to know him, but is that true? Perhaps his patterns of behavior simply matched my expectations: what I felt were indicators that a person had changed and grown, bettering themselves. I did not live in Jose's mind, though, so my perspective could be interpreted as an arrogant presumption if I were to demand it was true.

Ultimately, appreciating Jose's perceptions toward the experiences he lived through is key. I can only relate that I believe he shared the truth with me as he knew it. My surface reasoning does not have to compete with his inner complexity, or challenge how he might have changed. I felt that he did. His words resonated. More than anything, I feel blessed to have been included in his life journey.

Much like I will forever be grateful to him for introducing me to Ines. She helped Jose and I stay connected, but her and I also became close friends. On May 2, 2020, she notified me that he passed away. 

"I'm crying," she wrote. "Jose died on April 23rd. They won't tell me anything more though. I'm so sad ..."

Just two lines of text, as if she were holding a phone stumbling over words as the tears fell. My shock quickly turned to sadness. I had been living with the hope that Jose was striding purposefully, beginning to find value in change, so it was inexplicable to me that he was … gone. At 53 years of age.

For over a week I contemplated the time we spent together. Our conversations. I even pulled out old letters.

I was reminded of his humor: "Now let me exalt the many wonderful qualities of Heritage Laundry Detergent: 1) purposely made laundry detergent contains chemicals to loosen soil/feces in your dirty underwear and other chemicals to produce the illusion that the fabric is...whiter than what it actually is." 

He could be self-deprecating: "For someone that never leaves his cell and only has one ear, I sure do come up on a lot of info, don't I?"

Anything related to science or technology drew him like a moth to a flame. And he was fantastic at chess. We played numerous games over the years (most of which I lost!) the two games we were playing through correspondence will forever remain unfinished.

Losing one of my few precious friends is a wound to ponder, because the grief I suffer is a natural reflection of how I feel enriched by having known him. And I can find solace in this new instance of separation because I believe we are still connected by the wheel of life.
In a letter to Ines, I suggested that I wanted to write a longer eulogy to honor Jose. Maybe that is what this is. But as I consider all I've written, it's likely that I already shared everything meaningful with her: 
“His mind was a galaxy of Passions. He could equally comment on quasars or the price of concrete. The details mattered to him. Perhaps it was a quest of perfection. I knew him to always be ordered, tentative, respectful. He once told me that our path to friendship became possible because I didn't ask for anything from him. I didn't expect anything from him, but I couldn't resist his wit, insight, deep intellect.
"In his study of physics, I think he came to believe in Masters who could visit us, guide us. I want to believe that he found his own mastery. Surely he lived long enough to develop a greater sense of appreciation of life as a whole. Some might seek to simply judge him by the death he contributed to. Others will likely say that it was impossible for him to atone for. Such hawkish nonsense could never understand the gentle man he became.
"He was my friend. I will miss him."
I called him "Lord One Ear," he signed his letters with, "You Know Who."

Now I lay the King gently on its side. Rest in peace Jose.

Terry Daniel McDonald 1497519
Michael Unit
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75886

Thursday, July 16, 2020

A Little More Gray

By Isaac Sweet

A few years back, I was affirmed by my peers at the Washington State Reformatory to serve as a mentor in the prison's pilot mentoring program, Men Facilitating Change (MFC). We are a group of like-minded, mature prisoners willing to engage with youthful and less experienced ones. Our mission is positive change, whatever that is and whatever it takes. This experience has been educational, inspirational, and gratifying.

The structure of the MFC program is interactive. We have our own self-help manual compiled from a number of different sources. We meet twice a month as a group, once with mentees and once without. All other meetings are mentor/mentee one-on-ones. Our group meetings with our mentees are unique and productive. During these meetings all individuals, mentors, mentees, and staff are encouraged to share their stories and experiences. We'll periodically discuss materials and questions from our manual, and essentially plant and cultivate seeds of change. In the mentors-only meetings we discuss topics for upcoming meetings and potential improvements to the program. The one-on-one mentor/mentee meetings are where I feel I'm most effective. They give me an opportunity to get to know my mentees, and to get a feel for their viewpoints, which helps me tailor my message individually.

My first mentee in the program was an 18-year-old named Garrett. I noticed him in the gym on his first or second day here. He stuck out like a sore thumb. He was clearly new and looked lost. I pointed him out to my friend and fellow mentor, Jacob, who marched us right over and facilitated an introduction. We mentioned the program and encouraged him to participate. Initially, he looked a little skeptical, but after learning more about it in orientation, he filled out an application, and requested me as a mentor.

Garrett was a real challenge. A big, fresh-faced kid, he still viewed the world through the lens of youth. He had the look of one of those actors in cologne commercials, and a strong personality. He craved attention. He was a magnet for mischief, and not the insignificant kind either. My experience helped him navigate several potentially difficult situations, and frustrated the guys trying to have some fun at his expense. It was stressful. Everyday there was new drama and he managed to step in just about every metaphorical pile of horseshit he could find. He really put me through it. I credit him for turning my beard gray.

I learned a lot about being a mentor on the fly. I made my first mistake early on when Garrett asked, "What's your take on gambling?" Our relationship was in the beginning stages. I was afraid that if I was too rigidly opposed, he might disregard future guidance, and possibly view me as a "power-lame." I responded that, as long as it was a small group of friends absent the card-sharks, and it was low-stakes, it probably wouldn't be too bad. A few short trips to the card table later, Garrett was in debt to some guys who wouldn't have been opposed to rearranging his face to collect. I should've known better, and actually, I did. It was poor judgement, I explained to him, and apologized. Then, I coached him through the process of negotiating a debt reduction and payment plan. I also took the liberty of introducing myself to the fellas who took advantage of the young newcomer and congratulated them. That was my way of letting them know I had an interest in the boy, and his wellbeing. This experience is just one of many stressful endeavors which contributed to my graying beard.

Another was when Garrett had a negative experience with his cellmate. The guy was my age and about 280lbs. He was covered in tattoos and looked every bit a convict. Things started out okay between the two, but Garrett's youth quickly wore through the guy's patience. In a few short weeks their relationship soured. Garrett wasn't afraid despite nearly insurmountable odds, but climbing into a tiny cage with an enormous, antagonistic man who is potentially itching for a fight takes some nerve. Especially, when the man's track record includes multiple instances of institutional violence. I still don't know how much was courage, and how much was youthful ignorance, but Garrett climbed in that cage every day unsure whether he would emerge the next. Coaching him through this led to more gray in my beard.

There were other situations too, like the shower incident.  As previously mentioned, he's a pretty good-looking kid and somebody noticed that in the shower. Fortunately, the peeping Tom scurried off before Garrett could explode. This occurred immediately prior to lockup on the night before my first one-on-one meeting with Garrett. He was angry, traumatized, and convinced he should beat the guy up for being a creep. I am adamantly opposed to violence and was steadfast in my commitment as such (however, had there been some physical contact, I may have had a lapse in judgement.) Nonetheless, I was clear about my position, and that Garrett maintain a nonviolent response. After this, when Garrett found himself in a pickle, I'd ask if he wanted me to get involved. But this particular time, I didn't give him that option. It didn't happen again.

Garrett has an incessant need to have something to do. One of the greatest obstacles I encountered with him was finding productive activities for him. I was convinced he needed a job. I needed him to have a job. His predilection for mischief was wearing me out. During our mentors-only meetings, I lobbied administrators to allow Garrett (and preferably all mentees) to join the prison's workforce. Our program was new, and administrators were slow to deviate from standard protocols. Their steady resistance served to galvanize my resolve and embolden me. I think they generally agreed that everyone in here would benefit from utilizing their time constructively, but it still took about six months. Eventually, they tired of my requests and budged. I had lobbied my old maintenance supervisors to give Garrett a chance in the event the administration authorized him to work. Things worked out poetically, and Garrett spent the last four months of his prison term employed in the prison's mechanical maintenance shop. 

Working in the maintenance shop did more than just keep Garrett out of mischief. It opened his eyes to a whole new world. The world of tools and machines, and ultimately construction. Before this work experience, he had only been introduced to a few handtools by his older brother. He hadn't spent much time in the garage watching or helping his dad because his dad wasn't there. He was inspired by the prospect of using his hands and accrued knowledge to gain meaningful employment. Four months in the prison's maintenance department (ambitiously terrorizing his supervisors and coworkers) changed his life.

I've been incarcerated since I was eighteen. I don't have biological children, but before Garrett was released, I told him if I ever had a son I'd want him to be like him. He shot back that he'd always wanted a dad. We just kind of sat in that moment. Then, after nearly an entire year of daily interactions and coaching, Garrett went home.

My former mentee-turned-adopted-kid, Garrett, overcame some typical obstacles to employment upon release. He landed a job at a machine shop in his hometown of Wenatchee. He learned to operate a couple different models of CNC machines that punched out airline parts. He's a smart, ambitious kid so he excelled right away. But standing around waiting for a machine to finish its task became difficult. There simply wasn't that much floor to sweep, and Garrett has traditionally struggled to stand still. The solution? He began operating a second machine simultaneously. Management didn't mind, but his compensation didn't reflect much appreciation, and... there was a girl in Seattle.

Everybody knows what happened next. The boy packed up his country values, his modern-day Atari, and everything else he could stuff in a pillowcase, and lit out for the big city. Her name is Sierra.

Garrett has been free for nearly two years now, and we've stayed in regular contact. Every time I receive a message from him or hear his voice on the phone, I feel a sense of relief. Actually, it’s more than that. I can't explain it, but it feels good, like I need it. Speaking of which... A while back I saw on the news there was a shooting a few blocks away from where he lives. I was locked in my cage, but I started sending emails immediately. Sierra had the presence of mind to text me back that they were both okay. All Garrett did was laugh at me and said, "With all the people in Seattle, what makes you think I'm going to be the one to get shot?" This coming from the kid who turned my beard gray! And he wonders why I worry?


Garrett works as an apprentice carpenter, and his job site for the next several months is nearly walking distance from his little apartment in downtown. He's had some ups and downs but he's doing pretty well. He was pretty excited when he got his orange work vest. It meant he was official, permanently employed. He's also taking college classes, though he is a little frustrated about school. His aspirations of becoming a lawyer seem further away now. Apparently, there are law school graduates working as paralegals due to a lack of demand. I encouraged him to relax and think through his next moves, but finishing school is a step in the right direction.

He and Sierra hit a rough patch. They were splitting the rent, but a few months ago she moved out, which left him reeling emotionally and financially. Since then, they've continued to bicker electronically each day, then meet up nearly every night at one of their apartments. I've continued to talk to both of them either on the phone or electronically, and I've tried (halfheartedly, because they are both awesome kids, and together, they are a power couple) not to influence their relationship, but there was once when Sierra sent me a pretty sad message. I responded by calling her while she was on the freeway. (Incidentally, she was en route to pick up Garrett and take him to her place.) I told her to stop trying to make him conform to her idea of the perfect boyfriend. He's not. He's an idiot sometimes, but she's been training him for a while now, and all relationships are complicated. I didn't say that because I think she deserves to be miserable putting up with his crap all the time, but because she's even more miserable without him.

I followed that up a couple days later with a brief text that said, "It just dawned on me that without him you're miserable all the time, but with him you only have to be miserable when he's awake!" I explained my intention was to put a smile on her face. It worked.

Garrett and Sierra
Garrett sure loves that girl. No other girl on the planet can ruin his life the way she does! He tries so hard to be big and strong, and he is. He's much bigger and more muscular since he left here, and since he started working construction, but all that's on the outside. Internally, she can turn him into a bowl of sloppy pudding. Believe me, I know. How many twenty-one-year-olds do you know that are still "sloppy pudding" in love with the same girl since their teenaged experience? Even when he thought she was gone, he fought the other girls off. Sure, eventually he broke weak and took another girl out, but just long enough to realize that whoever she was... she couldn't compare.

I don't know how many times I've called Garrett at the right time. That is mostly to listen and let him vent, but also to talk some sense into him (as if that were possible!). I spent several years in prison not having anyone trustworthy to turn too, at least, not for a worthwhile response. Maybe it seems worse to me than it really is nowadays with the internet and all, but I really appreciate the opportunity to be there for him. What a privilege!

A few weeks ago, I called him after dinner. It was perfect timing. He was bummed out, frustrated, and discouraged. But this time it wasn't about her. He was led to believe he would be receiving a substantial raise after his next ninety-day evaluation period but instead he got fifty cents. He was clearly disappointed. He considered confronting his boss at an upcoming company party, which I advised against unless he had another job. We talked about that too. He really wanted to stay away from anything in production. I explained there could be some value in spending a few years in production. That's why I'm a good welder. I worked in production for about four and a half years welding parts by the thousand. Repetition is where my talent emerged. I still draw from that learned experience every day. He was more amenable to some repetition afterwards, but his impetuousness subsided, and he chose to stick it out a while longer.

I called him again the other day. He answered the phone with, "What's up, Sweet Daddy!" He was at the store, but on his way to my friend Victor's downtown apartment. Garrett rambled on about some seemingly teenaged drama. He is still so young and interested in anything reminiscent of mischief. It reminded me of when he was here..

I talked to him again last night, but this time he was distracted by a video game. Apparently, these games are a big deal. He was teamed up with some guy in another state, and they were on some sort of mission in real time. He asked if I could call back. "Not tonight," I replied. We were on lockdown, and that was my only opportunity to use the phone for the day. I followed up with, "I can try again tomorrow." He said, "Hang on, I want to talk. I can multitask." He did, but it cost him three lives, whatever that means. He was happy though. Everything was in balance in the universe. I could hear the smile on his face when he said, "Sierra is back in the picture!" 

Garrett and Sierra
I called back again tonight. Sierra was there. I talked to them both, but only for a few minutes. They had more important things to do. It’s funny, the boy can multitask between a video game and talking to the "Old Man," but with the girl it’s another story. I don't blame him. I'm surprised he answered the phone at all. I was unable to conceal my excitement that the kids were back together. Garrett was puffing his chest out, strutting his stuff and being cocky, and she was doing her best to pretend like she didn't notice. Oh, these kids are adorable. Everybody loves them as a couple, well, except for her relations. As far as they're concerned no one will ever be good enough for her, especially not the likes of him. Apparently, he can ruin her life sometimes too, and they're the ones who hear about it! Yeah, these kids are adorable.

Some of the guys all around me don't understand why I spend so much time and energy engaging others. Sometimes, I can't understand why they spend theirs sitting in front of their TV or playing games. We all burn about the same amount of calories each day. The only difference is how we burn them. I didn't love my life when I spent most of it just focused on survival. Then, I started helping others. Now, as I sit in my prison cage and flip pages on the twenty-fifth calendar since I've been incarcerated, I can honestly say I love my life. I don't love that I hurt people to get where I'm at, but I love the progress I've made. I love that I get to positively impact others. And I love that in some cases, as in young Garrett's, I get to continue to be connected after he's moved on.

No matter who you are or what you've done, you can always plant a seed, nurture it, and watch it grow. If it turns your beard gray, well, it’s an amazing thing. to be a little more gray.

Isaac Sweet 752399
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Thursday, July 9, 2020

A Clash of Values

By Timothy Pauley

I came to prison in a different era. Everyone was screwed at the first place I was sent. Not literally, of course, but screwed in that none of us had any consideration coming from the prison administration any time soon and we would all remain there until they decreed otherwise.
This dynamic lent itself to the creation of a different set of values, values one was expected to adopt immediately or risk serious consequences. Some of them were actually helpful: mind your own business, keep your eyes on your own path, pay your bills on time, and clean up after yourself were among the values that seemed likely to make a better community no matter where one lived. 
Some of the other values might not make as much sense to those who have never experienced incarceration. “Don’t tell,” was one such value. Once one chose to run afoul of the law, it was expected they would handle their own affairs and never seek intervention by the guards. That was considered of paramount importance. Many people have been assaulted or even killed in prison for violating this principle. 
In that particular environment, child molesters were unheard of. While I’m sure there were many incarcerated somewhere, they were not sent to the penitentiary, or at least, not the part of the penitentiary where I was. Molesting a child was considered the worst crime a person could commit and if one had showed up, bad things undoubtedly would have happened to him.
Towards the end of the 1980’s the Department of Corrections instituted an objective classification system to determine facility placement. Almost immediately, most of us became eligible to transfer to other, less screwed, places. I was one of the first to bail.
When I went to my new medium security facility, I was somewhat surprised by what I found. The first time I went to the yard, I kept encountering people who’d left the penitentiary under dishonorable circumstances by checking into protective custody. Nearly all of them had told on someone I knew. Some of them had told on people I considered my friends. It was a different world. 

But that wasn’t the extend of the differences. There were also groups of somewhat strange looking guys walking around. They were obviously not penitentiary material. Most acted as if they didn’t belong to our subculture. I soon learned these were the sex offenders. 
In spite of the values I had to internalize to survive at the penitentiary, I really did not consider it my responsibility to police the yard. If putting up with rats and child molesters was the cost for living in a better prison, it was a small price to pay. I certainly did not try to befriend them, but I didn’t do anything to torment them either. I was glad they were there. It meant my family was a little safer. 
As the years passed, I ended up visiting several medium security prisons. Some of the old cons would always lament that the world was going to hell when a child molester or a rat could walk the mainline (a common term for general population). Yet very few of them were any more likely to do anything about it than I was. It was the new normal.
The old cons grumbling about the good old days had an impact on the younger generation. While it was easy for these men to ignore the negatives of the old system. The youngsters they bragged to did not have the ability to process the information they were hearing properly. Many of them tried to emulate the impossible instructions issued by these malcontents. 

The first time I saw Spike, he had just run up the stairs to the second tier, vaulted the rail, and jumped down to the bottom tier on a dare. He must have practiced this move, because he managed to pull it off without even falling over. Spike would have been right at home in an episode of Jackass. 
He was about nineteen years old and wanted to be one of the fellas. When I saw him sit at the table with Smitty and Buck, I knew no good would come of this. Smitty and Buck had bother been kicking around the system as long as I had. They pinned for the good old days and spent most of their time telling war stories from the penitentiary of old. 
Spike was in awe. He drank it all in day after day. Before long I could see him trying to act like Smitty and Buck wanted. When he would target a particular sex offender for verbal abuse, I could see Smitty and Buck sitting across the room laughing it up. Afterwards they’d congratulate Spike and pump him up for more such ignorance. 
The interesting part of all this was whom Spike chose to victimize. While there were several groups of sex offenders sitting around the dayroom, Spike never chose the known rats.  The guys who would immediately report him to the guards were invisible to him. He had nothing to say to them, and rarely even looked at them. My suspicion was that Smitty and Buck helped Spike identify the least likely to tell.
Then came Byron. One day Spike’s cellmate was sent to camp. The next week, Byron arrived and was assigned to Spike’s cell. Byron obviously did not fit in. I pegged him as a child molester immediately. I’m sure Smitty and Buck did too.
That evening, I watched as Spike sat with Smitty and Buck, asking for advice on how to handle his misfortune. He was obviously distraught. Living with a child molester would hurt his reputation. Yet he didn’t know quite what to do about it. 
Smitty and Buck were playing for free. No matter how this played out, they would not be held accountable for the outcome. Their only stake was amusement. They gave poor Spike all kinds of terrible advice. The worst of it was that Spike should make Byron refuse to return to his cell for count. 
The guards knew Spike didn’t like sex offenders. They knew Byron was a sex offender when they assigned him to Spike’s cell. They were just waiting to see what he’d do about it. It seemed they, too, were in this for purely amusement. 
At first Spike spent evenings after lockup raw jawing poor Byron. He would call him names, make fun of him, and even threaten him. Each morning Byron would emerge from the cell looking a bit more stressed than the day before. It began to look like he might kill himself at some point in the not too distant future. 
After a week, he’d finally had enough. When it was time for nine-o-clock count, Byron refused to return to his cell. He was promptly taken to the hole. The next morning, Smitty and Buck gave big props to Spike. They lauded him as of some kind of hero. It was pathetic.
Three days later, Byron walked back into the unit. He approached the desk to get his cell assignment. The guards put him back in the same cell. At nine-o-clock count, Byron refused to return to his cell and was sent back to the hole. Now Spike was really proud. He was starting to build a reputation. A reputation based on victimizing the weak. 
Then days later, Byron returned to the unit. Mercifully, the guards put him in another cell, one where he would be left alone. Problem solved. But Spike didn’t see it that way. 
The following day I was sitting in the dayroom. I saw Byron emerge from his cell and walk towards the bathroom. He didn’t get five steps and Spike raced across the dayroom to confront him. He followed poor Byron, taking shit to him the whole way. He continued all the way until Byron ducked back into his cell. Even then, Spike stood in front of the window in Byron’s door, making lewd gestures. 
I saw this same thing happen three times that day. While this was happening, there were three tables of sex offenders sitting in the day room watching. All of them would undoubtedly have summoned the guards immediately, had Spike done this to them. But he didn’t, so everyone just watched. 
That evening I encountered Byron at the gym. He was alone and dejected, standing against the wall, probably dreading the moment he had to return to the unit for another round of abuse. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t let it go on.
“Hey man, why is that guy picking on you like that?” I asked
“Because he thinks I’m a child molester,” came Byron’s reply.
“Are you?”
“Not really.”
“What does that mean?”
“I was eighteen. My boyfriend was fifteen. His parents didn’t even know he was gay until they caught us having sex. I got a year and a day for indecent liberties.”
Not the answer I had expected. I pondered this information briefly, then began questioning him on his trips to the hole. I quickly learned that the guards had made several attempts to get Byron to tell on Spike. They promised him they’d take Spike to the hole and keep people from picking on him. 

When I asked Byron why he refused to tell, his answer was another surprise. He told me that the cops had ruined his life and sent him to prison for the consensual relationship. He did not trust them to all of a sudden change up and start protecting him now. 
The thought that he kept nagging at me was the old values. Byron had been a stand-up guy. He’d gone to the hole twice yet refused to tell on Spike. He was a shining example that one didn’t have to be a tough guy to take responsibility for themselves. He’d refused to allow the guards to manipulate him into screwing over Spike. The is type of mindset actually made our world better and Spike was trying to punish him for it. 
Finally, I told Byron to come get me next time Spike picked on him. At first, he was suspicious. I could sense he thought I too might be playing him. So, I broke it down for him.

“Look that guy’s not picking on you because you’re a child molester.”
“Then why’s he picking on me?”

“He’s picking on you, because he knows you won’t tell on him. He’s picking on you because you’re not a rat. That’s unacceptable. I want to help you fix this.”

For the first time since his arrival at the facility, Byron smiled. We left the gym with an understanding. I could tell he was still skeptical, but I could also see that he was allowing himself to ponder the possibility of no longer being a perpetual victim. He was ready to try that on for size.
When I returned to the unit, Spike was sitting with Smitty and Buck. I approached and asked to have a word with him. We went to a table a short distance away, where Smitty and Buck could see us but not hear the conversation. 

Spike was shocked when I told him the purpose of our conversation. Smitty, Buck and I went way back. We’d all been at the penitentiary together. Undoubtedly, they’d told Spike was a good convict. The only problem was, Spike didn’t know exactly what a good convict was. In all likelihood, I was one of the people he had been trying to impress. 

Initially he was resistant to the concept of leaving Byron alone. He couldn’t comprehend why I would be telling him this. Sensing his resistance, I challenged him. I told him that as long as he picked on all the sex offenders, he would pick on Byron too. If he didn’t want to pick on the ones who would tell on him, then he had to leave Byron alone. Or he could just pick on me instead.
When Spike returned to tell Smitty and Buck about our conversation, I couldn’t help but watch. They had a very animated conversation for several minutes. Then it abruptly stopped. That had to be the moment Spike told them I’d invited him to pick on me instead. They didn’t seem to have much advice on that one. 
In the days that followed, I caught a number of sideways glances from Smitty and Buck. After all, I’d ruined their entertainment. But to my knowledge, Spike never bothered Byron again. 

I may never know what this did to my reputation. I’m sure the Smittys of the world would not view my intervention too kindly. But that matters little. Living to impress the Smittys of the world is not a good game plan. My life continued much as it has been. My hope is that when a guy makes a decision to not cry to the guards about every little thing, they will be rewarded, and will be the lasting legacy from this whole episode. 

Timothy Pauley 273053
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Voice of the Unheard

By Terrell Carter

For centuries, we, the descendants of kidnapped and enslaved Africans, have existed in a simmering cauldron of poverty, inequality, and discrimination. Whether it be housing, education, loans, health care, nutrition, employment or criminal justice, not one of us have been left unscarred. Some of us have been swimming against a tide of systemic and institutionalized racism for so long that our limbs have finally become fatigued, our strokes against the tide have finally faltered, causing us to breathe in waters of Inferiority, that drown us in the service of white supremacy. 

We are born into a world where our bodies are not our own, it is a place where on a whim they can be caged and stripped of animation. We've been brutalized and lynched, our helplessness, our shame, has been televised, sensationalized, and broadcast to the world like a reality T.V. show. But when George Floyd cried out for his momma before his last breath was viciously taken from him there was this visceral anguish, a collective pain felt all around the world causing that simmering cauldron to explode, engulfing cities across the country in a conflagration of pain, righteous anger and frustration. 

During that first night of the uprisings my vision was being funneled through this narrowly defined tunnel of anger, trapping me in a blind rage limiting how I interpreted what I was seeing to: ( here they go again putting out to the world that someone else has to tell us that we should be enraged, that it is someone else instigating our reactions, that it is someone else causing divisions amongst the American people. That the systemic oppression and murder of people of color in and of itself is not enough for us to see, to feel, the weight of oppression. Someone, maybe the Russians, are pointing these things out to us.) I felt insulted that people would dismiss our righteous rage as outside instigated as if we weren't sophisticated enough to understand that we were being brutalized.

On top of that there were these contextless images projected to the world on that first day of out-of-control black people stealing everything that wasn't nailed down. Although I knew better, because my life was the context, I still felt myself being influenced by what I saw, making those tunnels walls sticky with shame and judgements.

It wasn't until the next day after talking to my sister and then a real good friend of mine that I was able to realize that there are several things that can be true at the same time. 1: There are outside agitators, agent provocateurs, who have opposing agendas that show up at peaceful demonstrations to disrupt, and cause chaos. 2: There are people who are righteously enraged and want to strike out violently. 3: There are people who, as they see it, will take advantage of opportunities to make their lives better. 4: There are people who organize peaceful protest to demand from those in power an end to racial oppression.

The existence of one does not eliminate the others. For me this realization was important because it gave me a more holistic view that ultimately provided me with a bit more clarity. So as I sat in a penitentiary cell, with my view of the world as small as the 19 inch T.V. screen that I saw it through, I was able to provide myself some context which I would definitely need as events transpired before me. I watched with a morbid fascination at a city ablaze in fury, desperation frustration and flames. Because of my newly found clarity I was able to deconstruct the tunnel that my vision was being funneled through, which allowed me suspend the judgements that I could feel threatening to overwhelm me. 

I continued to watch as my emotions swirled in a collage of confusion from this nostalgic kind of sadness to an unbridled fury as chaos reign in a West Philadelphia neighborhood. Why though, why such a varied range of emotions? Well, it was more than likely because, I'm from West Philly, 52nd Street to be exact, that was my neighborhood full of smoke and the burning shells of police cars. The same streets I roamed in a codeine induced haze almost thirty years ago are the same streets that were littered with discarded clothes and sneakers dropped by panicked teenagers and young adults who scurried out of ransacked stores, with arm loads full of self-esteem. For me it was personal. It was almost like watching a younger version of myself, there's no doubt in my mind that had the exact same circumstances that had cities across the country on fire, existed when I was young, I would have been doing the same thing. 

I could relate, for I possessed an intimate knowledge of what it meant to be a boy-man, broke, and not feeling good about who you are, I know what it feels like to be called a nigger, to become lost down the black hole of the barrel end of a gun because I was born suspect. I know what it feels like to live in a world that determines your worth by the materials you own. I know what it feels like to not have the means to acquire the materials and how that in turn leaves you trapped in this desperate world of consumption where the most important thing in life becomes the pursuit of the "feel good". I know what it feels like to be invisible and everything you need to be seen is on the other side of a plate glass window and then, a brick flies, glass shatters, and the window, the barrier, is gone.

I watched my young brothers and sisters, the products of an inequitable distribution of wealth resources take the things that they felt would give their lives some worth. Young people whose future considerations only stretched to the next moment of the " feel good", who lacked the capacity to understand that their actions would be used against them without context, that what they did in the moment would be used to separate them from the communities they come from, so that when they are swallowed whole by a steel and concrete beast no one will hear their cries as they are eaten alive. 

Conditions of poverty and racism can determine reactions and all those responses will differ. There is no such thing as a monolithic response to oppression, not everyone who struggles to breathe under the weight of white supremacy will protest peacefully. Some of us will react violently to that oppression, some of us will simply react not understanding what it is we are reacting to, causing harm to ourselves and the people who are close to us. But, what we can never lose sight of is the fact that, they are reactions to a racist system of oppression, they are symptoms of a sickness that this country has been afflicted by since its inception, and not the disease.

"Riots are the voice of the unheard," has been an often-used quote by Dr. King especially as of late. But what did Dr. King mean by this quote? Was he referring to the marching, the slogan shouting, the songs, the verbal confrontations, the kneeling of peaceful protesters where the police in some instances knelt with, prayed with, and hugged protesters, creating this false perception of everything's gonna be alright. Or was Dr. King referring to the sounds of plate glass windows shattering, the roar of gunfire discharges, police gas tanks and tear gas cannisters exploding. Was he referring to the crackling of the blazing infernos that fed off the combustion of our rage or the acrid odor of black smoke filling the skylines of American cities, or was Dr. King describing the worn down rubber soles of $200.00 Air Jordans pounding on city streets weighed down by stolen salvation. Or did he mean that the voice of the unheard is all these things in combination, an expression of pain from the marginalized and oppressed that echo off the memories of broken black bodies buried in graveyards all over the country. It is imperative that those of us who are aware do not become caught up in our seemingly desperate need to be inclusive, apologetic, nonthreatening, and non-offensive, that we do not turn blind eyes and deaf ears towards those of us that in their struggle to just be, give voice to their existence. For if we don't listen, if we continue to ignore that voice, to shun it, be embarrassed by it, then we will be turning our backs on those of us who are lost and stuck in those spaces of chasing fool’s gold leaving them trapped in a chase to catch what can't be caught, and without all of us together pushing forward to dismantle the yoke of oppression that has us all trapped, our potential to be all that we can be, will never be, dooming us to a failed future that keeps repeating itself. 

The End

SMART Communications
Terrell Carter BZ5409
SCI Phoenix
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733