Not too overly ambitious, I have a burning desire to go to Utah to see the Arches National Park. To witness the breathtaking view of fifty miles from the south rim of the park. After hiking over petrified sand dunes for two hours I’d come to a cliff that overlooks the Colorado River and a 5,000 foot drop, and it’s bound to be amazing. The dry, clean air that has swept and carved those rock formations for a billion years would enhance the water in a canteen to taste sweet. Eye candy is that way, too. It makes the whole day taste sweet. Dark absurdities and blessings disguised as disappointments vanish to make way for the naked beauty of the landscape to comfort me.
A few hours before my Sunday visit to prison, I learned about Kobe Bryant’s death. As I was consuming the never-ending news cycle that day, I learned that he had written a poem titled “Dear Basketball” the year he retired. I decided to alter my plans for class and bring in the poem to share. I figured it would be on everyone’s minds and would give them a chance to talk and write about it. When reading the poem, I was also a little shocked at how much it felt like a goodbye to the world, not just to basketball. Sometimes when I’m journaling or writing something nostalgic or premonitory, I wonder- will my kids read this someday when I’m dead? I wondered when reading the poem if that had occurred to Kobe Bryant when writing his poem as well. I’m sure the end of such a career, that spanned all of his adult life and that he was working toward for most of his childhood, probably felt a little like a death. The poem is nostalgic, with imagery from childhood, and one could imagine him writing a letter to life in much the same tone, given his larger than life status and stature.
After reading his poem, we did a prompt in his honor, where we wrote Dear Basketball, or Dear Kobe, or Dear sport of their choice. I am sharing brief excerpts below of what each of us wrote. I was impressed with how many different elements the same prompt could bring out for people. Humor, pride, gratitude, longing-it is amazing the variety of emotions a sport and/or a hero can bring forth.
I’m sorry I never really got to know you. I remember when we met in grade school when I wanted to try out for the track meet. I could sure throw that shot put but I didn’t feel comfortable getting a physical. Who knows what I could have achieved in sports?
I thought you were one of the greatest even though I wasn’t into basketball. I loved football because it’s rough and you have to be tough to handle the pain. Kobe, you were one of the toughest in your game. Rest in peace.
This won’t be a love letter. My basketball career was over before it began. Somehow the jump shots and free throws I sank into the plastic goal over my bedroom door didn’t translate to the sticky synthetic wood floors of my junior high gym. I thought the high-top Jordan’s would carry me down the court gracefully. Instead I bounced dribbles off the shiny toes and only scored one point the entire season, during a free throw. At least everyone was watching. It was a moment in time.
From the time we met
it was the perfect fit
From the popularity
and smiles from cheerleaders
Two practices a day
turned me into a leader.
Thank you for being inspirational to me. I started loving the game from the first time I saw you play.
From your jump shots to your dunks to your killer instincts.
After hitting the game winner, you would ball your fist and pump your arm.
You were never afraid to lead or carry the weight on your shoulders.
I remember multiple arguments about who was the greatest player.
You were always the greatest in my eyes.
Here is an excerpt from the poem that inspired us:
From the moment
I started rolling my dad’s tube socks
And shooting imaginary
I fell in love with you.
You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I’ll always love you for it.
But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.
I’m ready to let you go.
I want you to know now…
We have given each other
All that we have.
…I’ll always be that kid
With the rolled up socks
Garbage can in the corner
:05 seconds on the clock
Ball in my hands.
Love you always,
The analogy of the menacing and the majestic is a common theme throughout the observation of nature – be it human or animal kingdom. A convicted felon is labeled as a “menace to society,” but a butterfly can also be a prisoner, when trapped inside a caterpillar.
The allegory of a cell being a cocoon of evolution can easily get overlooked – especially when popular thought is to keep a shiv sharp…or get shiv’d by a shiver of sharks. A room full of incarcerated men were asked if they’d rather be a shark or a butterfly. These hardened criminals reacted in a mini uproar of tangible sighs, razzberries, and dismissive hand waves with disdain and disbelief that they were even asked such a preposterous question.
Their collective mind fixated on the thin fin cutting thru the water – and that extra row of teeth revealing itself when they’re about to sink into the flesh of their prey. It was unanimous that the guys saw themselves as sharks. It was then explained that those big fish go stir crazy after they’ve been in confinement, and they can’t even swim straight upon release.
Butterflies on the other hand…they are better for their confinement. They went into it as crawling caterpillars and came out with wings and flying colors. The activity within a chrysalis is a programmed mix of destruction and growth. Some cells die, and body parts atrophy. The same is true for a cellhouse in the penitentiary.
“Nevertheless, there are certain cells in this majestic creature in the making -as well as the rare diamond in the rough residing in a cell – that have been in place since birth, ready to rapidly expand.
The butterfly reveals itself as completely transformed, with the ability to fly over the limitations of its past. Setting its own standard for newfound freedom.
(1) Born Legend – Name written in Heaven
(1) Accidental on purpose birth
(1) Great Grandma with (1) rocking chair, (1) record player, and (1) navy blue metal can with cookies in muffin wrappers
(1) Nana who drinks Miller High Life, smokes Winston’s that give you asthma, and makes cuss words a part of your everyday vocabulary by age five
(1) OG who takes you to the library during the summer because ya’ll don’t have any air conditioning – and you think that every kid loves books like you do
(1) Older brother with (1) Say Anything boom box that plays all the golden era of hip-hop cassette tapes
(1) Moth-smelling basement with (1) pool table, (1) washer/dryer set, (1) twin-sized bed, (1) record player, (1) wooden incense holder, (1) milk crate full of long play albums, (1) ash tray full of joint roaches
(1) Sweet lick that ended sour with the death of one of your best friends
(1) Trip to the land of orange scrubs in Marion County Jail
(1) Trial where you’re labeled as a “monster”
(49) Years you are sentenced to the state penitentiary
(1) Night to scrape a toothbrush against a wall until it’s a sharp object
(1) Observation of a real stabbing that lets you know that little shank wouldn’t do shit!
(100) Nights wishing that they’d slain you instead of your brother
(99) Mornings where you wished you never woke up
(1) Sunrise to realize that the breath in you is still swelling your lungs for a reason
(6) Grams of marijuana that was supposed to be (7) shorted by (1) your own cousin so you can smoke your last sack of weed in the joint, and not fail anymore piss tests…or have any fear when you see a big Ziploc bag full of clear plastic cups
(5) Days of fasting – in search of your soul’s purpose
(1) Dream of a conversation while you’re getting a haircut in an apartment that was filled with milk crates of old stuff that was brand new, including the first Nintendo, a record player, and a couple different color pairs of Nike ’89 Flights
(1) Strong desire for an existence to have unequivocal worth
(1) Trip to the barber shop to cut off 3 year old dread locks
(1) Righteous brother to break bread with from a “street” point of view of the Bible
(1) Bachelor’s degree with Honors, to go along with a street degree with honors as well
(184) Ball point pens
(1) Cherry sunburst acoustic electric guitar named Rachel Blue
(1) Novel (written in 30 days)
(1) Person beyond you who believes
(2) Interviews with the city paper and the local news
(1) Life-changing performance at Square Cat Vinyl in Fountain Square
I recently gave the men in my class a prompt. What is freedom to you and how do you attain it? I found the men’s answers to be interesting and thought-provoking. A question such as the one I posed lends itself to a myriad of responses, but I felt given their current situation, the idea of freedom might not be as black and white as one would assume for these purported hardened criminals. The following is freedom defined in their own words:
“Freedom, liberty, fair treatment and free from being a captive. Free from slavery and torture. Free from penitentiary, free from depression, free from stress, mind and body free. That is what freedom is.”
“Freedom is the right to believe whatever we want. My beliefs are my own, and no one can take them away from me. Right or wrong, good or evil, light or dark – beliefs are what constitute the individual. They form us. Drive us. Define us. Even kill us. We are only free when we believe it to be true. Our loved ones become more bolstered when we believe in them. We become lost when we cease to believe in ourselves.”
“People incarcerated say that the only true prison is in your mind, so the only thing that can hold one captive is oneself. Here, imagination is the key to freedom.”
The word freedom can be defined by the dictionary, but I think the idea of freedom is something far greater than the words that define it. To each of us, freedom has a different meaning depending on where we are in life, what we believe, and how we choose to live our lives. Is freedom a physical freedom – the freedom of life beyond prison walls? Is it a mental freedom – one that gets you out of your head, if for only a short time, like a drug clouded consciousness? Is it the release that comes when relentless sin and struggle finally lose its grip and the bad habits that cling to us like unwanted leeches are defeated? Is freedom death for the pain-riddled drug addict or hospice patient, or is it life and the chance to try and live again? Is freedom forgiveness given to the seemingly undeserving, freeing the victim from the bondage of hate? Or, can freedom be found in happiness and a life free from worry, stress, and anxiety? Is freedom attained by shedding the skin that’s grown calloused to the world around us through the lives in which we have walked day in and day out and choosing to be made new?
When I think of freedom, I think of art. Artistic expression marinates in freedom. The artist is free to choose what they want to create as well as the emotion they want to evoke. The irony and beauty of that process is that the person who views the work has the freedom to interpret it differently. Writing as an art form also gives way for freedom. It allows for the freedom to bare one’s soul and create works of art through words.
The men in IPWW, though not physically free, have the freedom to express themselves through their writing, saying whatever they want and allowing the words buried deep in their bones to emerge and give shape to the written word. Writing is an outlet for these men and a way for freedom to be found inside the walls that contain them. Just as one of the men stated, “[In] here, imagination is the key to freedom.” What better way to give imagination viability than by allowing it freedom to come alive on paper. For writers, imagination fuels us and with heart and soul we create.
In a place where daily decisions and schedules are enforced by someone other than themselves, writing allows the men a sense of normalcy and autonomy. As writers, we allow what’s inside of us to come out be it in the form of fiction, poetry, memoirs, or journal entries, and we embrace words like a close friend or cling to them as if they are our lifeline. We choose how those words are used, whether we share them with others or reread them silently in the safety of our own space. The beauty of writing is that we can touch others with our words if we choose to give freely of our gift, or we free ourselves from the hurts that lie within us by simply writing the words and allowing them to bear our pain. Our words have power and the ability to empower. With every prompt, every journal entry, every homework assignment, the men are allowing writing to empower them to believe in themselves just a little more than they did the day before. Believing in oneself cultivates confidence and with confidence comes the ability to try again no matter the barriers that keep us captive.
For the men inside prison and for those of us who (perhaps hesitantly) call ourselves writers, freedom can be found in the flow of the proverbial fountain pen. It is a fountain of life, flowing freely and moving with intensity. Its strength swells as the words pour out and we are filled with a sense of purpose. We are writing our own stories. Regardless of our circumstances and despite the pages of our lives that are peppered with challenges, we write, because writing allows for freedom for our soul and with that freedom we find peace.
Some might say that I never had any real, true friends left when I came home from the war, and they were probably correct because after I went to prison, they were nowhere to be found. “True friendship is like sound health; the value of it is seldom known until it is gone,” wrote Charles Caleb Colton, and I understood his analogy.
True friendship should never be confused with acquaintances. True friendships are cultivated, matured, and if necessary, tested over time by fire. They are known by their staying power- their willingness to stay when the bottom falls out of a friend’s life. In life, very few true friendships are ever realized. Henry Adams knew this when he wrote, “One friend in a life is much, two are many, three are hardly possible.”
In prison, I met men from all walks of life with different characters, crimes and personalities. They remain, of course, acquaintances who I kept at a distance. But I developed a close friendship with one prisoner named Jay T. Jay had a life sentence, too. We walked the prison yard routinely, and we discussed nearly every aspect of our lives. In prison, Jay met his future wife. When the parole board paroled Jay, I shared his joy. Even after Jay left prison, our friendship held together until Jay died of a heart-attack as he played with his boys on the front lawn. Once again, I felt abandoned.
Jay’s death hit me hard like losing close friends from my Marine Company. During that time, we developed a closeness. We covered each other’s back wherever we went. Since I joined the Marines at the age of seventeen, they became my first adult friends in life. Most of them died in Vietnam in “Operation Star-lite” on August 18, 1965. I tried crying them back into existence.
People who I don’t even know call me friend. In most cases, I don’t even know their names, but they know mine. They hang around like lost puppies, which makes me suspicious. Have people in the 21st century become so overwhelmed with loneliness, I wonder, that they will attach themselves to anyone? I understand that people need a steady diet of closeness to other people or their persona may fade in time like an old pair of worn blue jeans. People need each other to make life work, but they should seek out the few friendships meant for them.
It has been seventeen years since Jay’s death. It seems like yesterday we were walking the prison yard together.
Growing up and living the same ways that I knew over and over, expecting the world to change at my convenience, always landed me with the same results. I kept going down the same roads hoping for different results and they have gotten worse. I blamed everyone for my mistakes and bad situations and bad outcomes. I have lost and gave away so many things and lost so many people to due to my ways and decision-making process. Now I’m so sick and tired of who and what I’ve become. I’m on a mission to learn new things, new routines, and educate myself in all positive ways. Things I’ve heard through the years but never cared to do or consider learning. I find myself every day pushing to the limits of change. Life has a new meaning to me and with change I will succeed.
Forty-seven years ago, I received a life sentence, and even though I have been eligible for parole for twenty-seven years, I continue to live a restricted life in prison. What does one do if he or she has years or decades on the inside or may not be able to leave?
On this day, I sit on my bunk with my back against the wall, holding my tablet made in China, looking out my window at the forest in back of the prison. I remember when the trees were just shrubs, but now, twenty-three years later, they are giants. In winter, when trees are bare, the squirrel’s nests made of dry, brown leaves are visible in the forks of the trees. I watch them as they run and jump from tree to tree, and I remember a time when I was in the woods squirrel hunting with my Dad and brothers. I felt a deep-down yearning for those days gone by. When watching the forest, I’m able to escape the concrete, brick, and steel that represent the desolate landscape of prison. But my escape is only temporary.
To be clear, prison life is not the only life that lives with restrictions. Everybody’s life is restricted to some degree. In what is allegedly a free society, one cannot jump in his or her car and go as fast as they want because there are speed limits. Neither can one take in the good life without paying for it. Nothing is free in our capitalist society. For a roof over your head, food to eat, and bills paid, one must work. Otherwise, you will become homeless, hungry, and indebted to life. There are, of course, greater restricts on the prisoner’s life. No intimacy with the opposite sex and no decision-making over one’s personal life are among the most severe. These two restrictions took some getting used to, but neither one brought life to a screeching halt. Restrictions can weigh heavy on our lives, but they do not change the living, breathing nature of life. Life is life no matter where one lives.
So, “What does one do?” One thing I do is I keep hope alive in my life. Hope is vital to prisoners doing decades in prison. Hope makes me believe in the impossible; it reminds me to never give up, and it enables me to go on. For decades I have hoped for a better life. I realize that a better life may never come, but still, I keep on hoping and I keep doing the very best I can with what life I have. When I came home from Vietnam, my hope was shattered. I suffered from full-blown, chronic PTSD-documented by the VA. I had problems coping and adjusting to life. Consequently, I committed a horrible crime that left me facing the death penalty. It was then that I realized the hypocrisy in America’s promises to veterans who fought to protect her. She sent me to war where it was kill or be killed, she abandoned me at home to face the demons of war alone, and when I failed and could not cope with the horrors of war, she wanted to execute me. Despite that realization, my hope never wavered, and before my trial began, the death penalty was struck down as being unconstitutional. Afterwards, I was put in prison for the rest of my life as if America was bound and determined to hide her hypocrisy from public view. Concerning hope, I have seen that warehousing prisoners for life without a glimmer of hope is not only wrong but cruel, and that it’s contrary to God’s will towards humanity.
I have had faith in a higher power throughout my life. Out of his abundance of mercy, he shielded me from the death penalty. I was not surprised. In Vietnam, he protected me from death as fellow Marines standing by me were shot dead. Later, when I worked for the power company framing 50’ poles, a fellow lineman argued with me that it was his turn to climb and frame the next pole that I was preparing to climb. I stepped aside, and the three-thousand-pound pole that was set too shallow fell over and crushed him to death. I felt horror-stricken and confused as I watched emergency-workers lift the pole up and cut his toolbelt to dislodge his body from the pole. In prison, I’ve seen men stabbed, beaten, and burned to death. But in forty-seven years, I have not received as much as a scratch. I do know why he blesses me, but I faith.
During my long stay in prison, I have been blessed with an unwavering family. They never forgot me. Their love is constantly shown in all that they do. They still support me with “icare” food gifts. They keep money on my phone account. Pictures and emails arrive regularly. The first few years in prison were the hardest on me. They worried about me constantly. Learning prison routines, schedules, and rules, getting used to the constant noise, meeting new people, which is always stressful, finding out who to hang with and avoid – it all takes time. Unfortunately, most prisoners come up short when it comes to family, and family is necessary if a prisoner doing decades is going to survive. Speaking of surviving, I make my escape to the forest.
The forest is beautiful. In the spring, the trees begin to bud, and in the summer, buds turn into shiny, green leaves. In the fall leaves turn yellow, orange and red before giving up and falling off, leaving the trees barren again. In the dying and regeneration of leaves on the trees in the forest, I see the nature of humanity. In the evenings, the deer come out of the forest to eat the sweet, tender shoots of grass that grown alongside the road that lies in the front of the forest. If I’m lucky – Mama may bring her two fawns out with her for me to see.
There was once a butterfly with a broken wing who struggled to stay alive in a world that sought to make its existence invalid. Null and void. All the other insects told him how useless he was, being that he had a broken wing. Some of the insects admired the beauty of his color but they would never admit it in front of the rest of the insects. Instead, they secretly envied his beauty and wished they were as beautiful as him. Some who knew the transition he made from an ugly caterpillar never missed an opportunity to remind him that they knew him “before” his transformation. They poked fun at his change and said that they liked him better when he was just another worm. But he ignored their comments and continued to build upon his strength so that one day his wing would heal and he could fly away from all the negative energy of his present environment.
Coming out of the cocoon that gave birth to his new image, the other insects told him he wasn’t any better than them; which he knew, but he also knew he was different. One day another butterfly was flying over him and as he looked up, he saw the grace and majestic manner in which it flew. He wished he could do the same. The other butterfly landed close enough to see him.
“Why aren’t you flying? Why are you down here walking around like the regular bugs?” the butterfly asked.
“Because my wing is broken so I can’t fly,” he replied. The other butterfly examined his wings and laughed.
“Who told you that your wing was broken?” she asked.
“All of the bugs walking around down here, and I’ve heard it for so long that I believed it,” he replied.
The other butterfly smiled, stopping for a moment before flying off.
“Your wing isn’t broken, but when you listen to other people’s value and opinion of you, especially those who don’t want to see you grow, you do yourself a grave disservice and you’ll never reach the heights of your true potential.”
At that point the butterfly who thought he had a broken wing flapped his wings and took flight for the first time. He saw the world and life from a new point of view, while leaving the negative insects and bugs who once made fun of him in the mud and dirt, where they belonged.
Dedicated to my granddaughter Khalani A.
A prison revolution erupted in 1973 at the state prison in Michigan City, Indiana. It came swiftly and without warning. As a prisoner and witness to that revolt, I can say unequivocally that activist Emma Goldman was correct when she said, “No real social change has ever been brought about without a revolution…”
A gray building and a large wall blocks the view of the street was my home. Steel and concrete are depressing. Inside the large cellhouse are five stories of cells. I was in the C-cellhouse. In front of the cells lay a five-foot wide concrete walkway known as “the range” with high railing that run the length of the range to prevent prisoners from falling off. Each cell has a toilet and sink, a chain and a lock. The chain and lock allow a prisoner the comfort of securing his own cell. The noise level in a cellhouse housing 400 rowdy souls yelling, laughing and talking can sometimes be overwhelming. Only at night, when the body gives up to rest could one know the feeling of peace but it would be short lived because morning always comes.
Tensions in 1973 grew. Prisoners had tried discussing a long list of grievances with prison officials but they fell on deaf ears. In time, it became obvious to prisoners that no one cared, and prisoners felt that guards continued to treat them as less than human. Cries in the night ranked among the most serious grievances reported to prison officials. Even worse, guards had masqueraded as nurses, a terrible sewage smell emanated from the kitchen, and prisoners were found in hung in cold, dark, isolated cells with their hands tied behind committing suicide according to prison officials. At the time I thought, how could anyone look in the mirror, knowing they had let another human being die in agony? I felt hopeless, but back then the reality was guards did not consider prisoners human beings.
Suddenly, a group of armed prisoners entered C-cellhouse. I stood on the range in front of my cell after chow waiting on lockdown to be called but no call came. Unbeknownst to me, a group of armed prisoners had entered the cellhouse and took the guards hostage. The front door was barricaded with fifty-five gallon containers filled with water. No one was coming in and no one was going out. I sensed something was amiss as the normal rhythm in the cellhouse changed. Proof of that change came when a prisoner was running down the range yelling like Paul Revere when the British were coming, “They took over the cellhouse, they took over the cellhouse!” he screamed. I stopped him and asked, “Who took over the cellhouse?” He replied, “We took over the cellhouse, the prisoners.” I felt sickened and thought to myself, we my ass. I’m not taking over anything. I’m more of the pen is mightier than the sword kind of guy. I’m not about knives and hostages. Messages flowed steadily with the latest updates. I soon learned that all cellhouses had been taken over and that prisoners controlled the entire prison.
Those who led the revolution knew what they were doing. They immediately realized the importance of keeping the hostages safe. Some in the cellhouse wanted to harm them but the revolutionary leaders locked them in cells and assigned armed prisoners to protect them. While negotiations went on, prisoners made signs using bed sheets and black paint which read: We want to speak with the media and want to be treated humanely. Signs hung at the top of the cellhouse and out the windows for the public and media to see. Other armed prisoners patrolled the cellhouse and kept the peace. From my time in the Marine Corp and Vietnam, I recognized a well-planned operation.
The revolution continued for days and hunger began to set in. Not everyone had food and those who did held on to it. The Governor got involved. Negotiations continued. Then, an agreement was made with the Governor included no reprisals against prisoners but it was dependent solely on whether or not the hostages were released unharmed. When word spread that the hostages had been released, pandemonium set in and Paul Revere was again on the ranges yelling, “Put your mattresses in front of your doors to protect yourself.” Everyone believed officers would come in shooting. In the hysteria that followed, I grabbed my thin mattress and placed it in front of my cell door. As I stood there, hidden behind my mattress I thought: What in the hell am I doing – no thin mattress was going to stop a shotgun blast. I took the mattress down, put it back on my bed and laid on it. Guards did come in but without guns. They took a head count and passed out bologna sandwiches.
After extensive negotiations, an agreement was reached with the Governor. He promised that leaders would be treated fairly and unharmed. Social changes began to take place. Prison guards had to attend mandatory training classes on how to treat prisoners with respect. Guards had to respond to cries in the night and they had to log them in a log book. Qualified nurses were hired at the hospital. And deaths in cold, dark isolated cells were under investigation. Life at the state prison improved for the good of all because of the revolution and because of the courage of the revolutionary leaders who took a bold step to right the wrongs being done to prisoners.