Monday, April 20, 2015

Buried Alive

I have been buried alive for the past 23 years of my life inside these prison walls. That time has been full of trials and tribulations, such as the death of my father (R.I.P.), my grandmother, and sister, as well as friends I made here who became my family and who were executed. My beloved brother William Hasan Jones (R.I.P.) who I loved as a Muslim and convict. Brothers Samuel, Insane Zane, Joe Bates, and the many brothers who have sacrificed and lost the fight to get this death row overturned.

The fight is not just with the courts, the fight is also with one’s self. We have to take this time, in most cases many years, to ponder our past and reflect on our futures. Some of us are going to be blessed to get off death row, and some of us are going to be executed. Either way, it’s going to be accountability. When you re-enter society you will be judged first from your past and then based on how you are living. In this case, you have a chance to show that you redeemed yourself and are ready to live a productive life and help society. In the second scenario, when you go before your Creator, you are being judged for the time you were allotted on this earth, no returns, no do-overs, etc. All you will have with you is your deeds (good or bad)—that’s why it is important how we manage our time, our lives.

It is written that every human being has the right to pursue happiness. Does this right stop because you are confined? We should continue to strive for happiness and peace, and the first place this has to be established is within. I want a healthy relationship with myself, with my family, and most importantly with my Creator.

This journey to obtain inner peace is a constant battle. Every day presents something new. We must really examine our lives and make the right choices. As a Muslim, I have to keep my armor with me daily. I’m not talking about a knife or razor. I’m talking about asking God for His protection and guidance. I try to shield my shortcomings, and I try to unwind in the evening by reflecting on how I managed my day. This is how I work on myself.

I also try to build with family. I must admit this has been one of my greatest challenges. As Muslims, we cannot cut family ties. When I was growing up, my mother, grandmother, and oldest brother showed me the beauty of family. I miss my family dearly, even those who don’t write or visit. It’s hard to reflect on all of the things you have been through with your loved ones when they can just forget about you. If it wasn’t for the things I mentioned earlier, I would just stop praying for them, stop writing them, take them of my visit list.

But I will never give up. You must fight for what you love. I often read the story of Joseph (Yusef): His brothers wanted to kill him and they threw him down a well. But God established him in the kingdom and brought his family back and gave them many blessings. The moral is: don’t ever give up. You never know what blessings are in store for you. I would like to share two of the blessings before closing.

During the many executions I have witnessed, I have seen men, women, and children outside of the prison, in all kinds of weather. They never selected one inmate to do this for, and 97 percent of those out there don’t know the inmate or the family. But they’re out there because they care on a humane level. What they don’t realize is they’re not only supporting the one about to be executed, but all of us who are looking through our chambers (windows); it helps us know we are not going through this alone. People do care and the fight continues.

Another blessing I’ve received is pen pals. I want to send a warm shout-out to the many pen pals who hold us down. In so many of our lives, they are our lifelines. I have been blessed to meet a wonderful family, and they make me feel like I was a buried treasure. They truly bring out the best in me, and I’m thankful for the blessings they bring to my life and others.

I pray I have shared something of value in these pages

by William Bowie

Thursday, April 2, 2015

At The Zoo: The Demoniac

He takes his energy to live by
leeching from the images:
he holds them captive in his head
as they fly past his empty eyes

that act as if they need no lids
to keep them from escaping him.
A glutton for sex and violence,
he feasts his soul on Pandemonium.

His heart beats like a tattered drum
in tune to the incessant chatter
created by crafty tongues and lips
that shape and shift into proven patterns

guaranteed to pleasure him.
His lust is gratified by their plastic faces;
the dribbling drool is evidence of his approval.
Any brave who tries to change the path of Fate,

as it’s been determined by his whim,
will see his wrath unwrap itself like Giant Wings:
full of fangs will his words become
as they utter their obscenities

in a liquid tone which turns to lava.
He’s prepared to chew through someone’s will until
he breaks the bones of their resistance
or dissolves their sorry soul in humiliation

so he can dominate the TV once again.
He’s a beast! a Tyrannous Rex
that doesn’t give a shit whom it pisses on
when it lifts its leg to leave its mark on our remote.

He lets them figure out how to wash it off…
or whether to do something else about it:
for some his fangs induce contempt,
and his lava tone sets them on fire,

provoking an eruption of profanities to fall like rain
over the slap and thump of rapid fists tending to overthrow a depot,
allowing someone else the opportunity
to be king of our remote control.

by George Wilkerson

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

American Idyll

Remember that famous scene in “Poltergeist,” the one where the child is kneeling before the TV, her palms pressing onto a static-covered screen—then her hands press through it? That kid was me, well, except I’m a guy and I didn’t exactly go into the TV like she did, but I identify with the imagery. After my parents’ divorce, reality became a place I didn’t want to be so I reached out toward the alternate universe offered in movies. It seems that gateway had always been waiting in the shadows, watching and rubbing its hands together eagerly, biding its time in the background until the tension between my parents snapped, flinging my mother and father in opposite directions. They each had a hand in showing me into the TV’s waiting arms.

Divorce was a declaration of war to my parents, turning them into generals of opposing armies that ripped our world apart. They fought over the hearts and minds of us kids—our loyalty—and like any war-torn and ravaged land, we bore the ugly marks of conflict. Our bruises recorded a history of abuses. They had duel custody of us, so we were marched left and right between them, leaving bits and pieces of ourselves behind each time, hoping we could just go back to the way we were.

Eventually, it was clear that we kids loved our parents equally despite their winsome efforts, and my mom proposed a peace treaty: She wanted to take the younger two and go her separate way, leaving my older brother and me with my dad, but he flat-out refused, telling her she was fucking crazy if she thought to split the boys up like that—it would turn us all against each other, perpetuate their war down through the generations. Rather, he wrote in stone that we four boys were to always remain together, either with her, or with him. That was when their war took on a new dimension, their wrath growing to Biblical proportions, and everything became a weapon in their hands…even their children. In hindsight, they remind me of my older brother and me. When we got angry at each other, we’d grab the other’s most prized possession—a favorite pair of shoes or baseball card collection—and destroy it in front of the other since we couldn’t physically hurt one another. It was psychological warfare at its basest. Pettiness wasn’t off-limits.

When Dad heard Mom made us go to bed by nine, he’d make sure we didn’t sleep ‘til sunrise unless we wanted to, or until we fell over from exhaustion. Then he’d just pick us up and carry his sad sack of shit to the nearest couch or bed, sort of chuckling low to himself about how we were too weak to keep up with his insomnia. As soon as she found out he let us eat all the junk food we wanted, she began pointing a sharp finger at every deposit of fat we possessed while saying in broken English, “You be just like you fahdah—fat bum if you no stop eating junkkk,” turning the last word into a disgusting sound as if trying to get the thought of it hocked up and spat out. Then she forced us to eat every odd vegetable known to man that was able to grow in her garden secreted behind her house.

We kids were about the only thing they kept in common besides their hatred of each other, thought even that appeared to be different: She hated him for the way he was, because he was a “fucking pig,” a perpetual offense to her sensibilities. He hated her for not loving him forever no matter what, as she’d promised, and because he suspected she’d only married a soldier boy to escape the oppression in Korea. He had been her lifeboat to America, where everything seemed shiny and glowing with potential, and as soon as her feet stood on solid citizenship, she abandoned him. So he blamed her for his degeneration.

She started putting on airs as if they were jackets, and he sunk into his savagery like it was a tar pit. They were two time-elapsed movies of evolution moving in opposite directions. He seemed to grow hairier and more slovenly, and he went shirtless and barefoot in winter, even over gravel and broken glass, putting his cigarettes out with his bare heel. She raised her nose higher, stood up straighter, walked more upright; she dug dust from every corner of her polished floors on her hands and knees like a Korean Cinderella, accompanied by a bucket of suds and rags, and had fancy slippers for every occasion. His violence grew in volume proportionate to his gut, more overt, brutal, and volatile, as hers became more sophisticated. He’d ground and pound the living shit out of us in sudden explosions of rage, while her artful criticisms, contemptuous looks and snorts count be so sharp and slick I’d barely register a thing…right then…but later I’d feel an emptiness gathering within, and a sensitive spot, tender to the touch, where an insecurity was festering, growing gangrenous. We were constant reminders of the absentee parent, walking around and back and forth before them like sandpaper rubbing old wounds raw. We became their whipping boys.

Their mindless war even crammed them into opposing moral and financial positions. However, seldom can life be clearly defined in terms of solid-colored categories—there are just too many grades of gray between, especially when it comes to humanity. Living with my dad, being poor made going out anywhere a rarity, but when we did go anywhere together as a family, crazy as we were, even going to the movies was a National Lampoon’s Family Vacation. To further cheapen the experience, we’d fill our pockets with Dollar Store candy, some of it paid for if necessary, and only one ticket would be purchased if possible: “Goddammit, Son, you need to pay attention! You already know what to do but don’t fuck around once you get inside. Don’t stop at the concession stand,” he’d say, ticking points off on his fingers, “don’t go to the bathroom to piss, don’t go to the goddamn arcade—keep your grubby little dick-beaters to yourself and get yer skinny little ass in their before everyone starts showing up. We’ll be at that door in two minutes; you’d better be too.” With a quick shove to help me along, they head outside to wait. Ticket held ahead of me like a magic key to get me into heaven, I’d ease past the gatekeeper. I was always a bit surprised I made it in so easily considering what I was about to do. Then I’d creep like a ninja to an emergency exit door and let in my anxious brothers with an air of magnanimity and a sweeping gesture as if I owned the place. They’d come twisting and slinking by as I held the door, then my dad, looking like a plainclothes cop version of the Kool-Aid man in cutoff jeans and a raggedy plaid shirt, would smash by me sweating, wheezing, and growling, “Stop acting like a goddamn idiot and shut the fucking door before you get us all caught—“ clubbing me on the head, “remind me to beat yer ass when we get home,” and he’s through the door like a cork from a bottle, my chest popping and spurting air. I never reminded him; he beat us enough as it was.

Movies big as God Himself were awesome to behold and made me feel like one of the apostles, or Moses, with a mountain-top experience, but they were too few and far between like mountaintops, so to keep myself elevated during my time in the valleys, like Aaron and the Israelites, I had myself a golden calf. I idolized the TV movies. They mentored me, taught me where to touch a girl and how to do spinning back-kicks, how to rob a bank or track down fugitives, and how to talk a guy down from a ledge.

At my dad’s, the living room was our church, the TV stand our altar, the TV our god. The motley collection of used furniture served as pews where we sat in slack-jawed ecstasy while eating up every word coming from the mouth of our god. We were united as one body, our differences set aside and temporarily forgotten—except when deciding between channels, we entered the heavenly vision, believing but never receiving the promises. Bleak as our world was, we hungered and thirsted for the milk and Honey Nut Cheerios advertised in our dreams, hoping and begging for a miracle to be Cool Whipped and spread over everything. Such is the life allotted to any family living below the Mason-Dixon poverty line: Everything north is rich and white (or so we thought then), while everything South is the unrefined sift leftover, wearing leftover clothes and shoes salvaged from Salvation Army bins, fighting over the leftovers kindhearted Christians would sometimes bring on the weekends when they came to bring the Gospel, which, at the time, we discard like so many other leftovers. All I could think of was being one of those 5,000 men miraculously fed, even if I had to sit through a sermon first. Sometimes I would pray they lay hands on my dad, cast out his legion of demons; or just lay hands on him lie he did us.

We placed such a high value on being able to watch cable, along with HBO and Cinemax, that we were willing to settle for lesser things in other areas. Every household budget has needs and wants constantly chirping for attention, and ideally the needs would take priority over the wants, but we were so hungry for our shows that every image floating from the TV was manna to feed our souls. If we were running low on cash, we could always trade our food stamps for the going rate of fifty cents per dollar for forcing us into such a dilemma. HBO and Cinemax were greedy High Priests who made a living worthy of their high calling, heedless of the sacrifices our family made. I suppose it’s how we justified ourselves. If we died from malnutrition, so be it—at least it’d be while smiling idiotically as we watched the American Dream being dramatized in other people’s lives. But I can’t really blame or begrudge them; it’s just their nature; that is, the nature of business as usual. Every now and then that compassionate cable company would give us all the free static we could eat.

I’d be lying if I claimed we suffered all the time. We were blessed compared to most other families living in the projects: Our other parent actually paid child support. That time of month would be like Christmas—well, how I imagined it must be up north—and we’d go grocery shopping, buy stuff food stamps didn’t cover. First we’d cram our freezer with hot dogs, bread, and baloney. Our staples. We bought cakes and pies and potato chips, massive amounts of generic soda (Orange, Grape, Lime, etc.), and we bought with Dignity, now able to look those cashiers and beggars in the eyes, rather than at their feet. When I complained about receiving a pitiful allowance, my dad pounded a lecture into me, “Be satisfied and go ride yer bike—at least ya fuckin’ have one, you ungrateful little shit. We may be poor but yer sure as goddamn hell the richest fuckin’ poor kids around!” I knew it was true, although I didn’t like the way the Truth was hand-delivered. All I had to do was look around; poverty would spit in my eye.

The projects were the vision of desolation. Clumps of dying grass floated on seas of red dirt and sprouted strange flowers made of spent bullet casings, used condoms, crack pipes, and broken glass. To run and play was dangerous, and I have scars to prove it. The first gun I ever had was found lying on the ground, resting in a halo of heavenly light that I alone could see—it was my Destiny to discover it…and I swear I heard a chorus of angels singing in a creepy “omen” kind of way the second I laid eyes on it. Giant dumpsters stood like sentinels around the complex, layering the air with rotting garbage while the pungent threads of drugs and alcohol woven throughout glowed as brightly as neon EXIT signs promising a quick escape from our harsh reality. Hopelessness created an atmosphere of bitter desperation and inevitable destruction. For us, hell was here already.

There were only a handful of bikes around and they all looked like Frankenstein’s creations with scavenged parts holding them together. NERF footballs looked more like football-shaped sponges for all the missing chunks. Basketballs had more breasts than porn flicks. NO ONE ever saw roller skates in real life until the 5th grade field trip to the skating rink, which was a joke because we spent more time on the ground than skating. For many, hunger was a close companion. Kids carried around empty soda cans as mementos of better moments, absently sipping at it as if hoping to draw out one more drop of joy, or filling it with water so they could be seen actually drinking, though the many dents and faded paint usually gave its age away. I tended to be oblivious like most kids; my dad, however, saw it all.

For his many faults, his uncontrollable anger, his insane ramblings, and mysterious midnight conversations with people not there (yet—it turns out he was preplanning his arguments with us, mom, or others like a chess master seeing ten moves ahead), his heart had gigantic wings that never stopped expanding, taking in everyone around him. He embodied the “love thy neighbor as thyself” principle. We kids took his abuse, but everyone got to be embraced by his heart. He gave us everything we asked for if he had the power, but he also gave himself to everyone he encountered. He shared our home with the neighborhood, every bike, every basketball, every videogame; our ketchup, mustard, and sugar, and even our cable. He’d let neighbors bore holes through adjoining walls to run extensions into their apartments until our hook-up looked like a nest of skinny snakes slithering in every direction. That way they could watch and worship too. Our place became a safe haven for the neighborhood children, a sort of surrogate home or indoor playground. His love bridged the racial divide; we were one of the first non-black families to move into our ‘hood.

We’d burn through Mom’s child support as if it were soaked in gasoline, then share sodas out like communion to anyone who happened by asking for a drink. Whoever decided to be our best friends that day, and were around when dinnertime came, were more of my dad’s sons and got to eat like one. Even a couple of rich kids from school would come hang out because they were allowed to eat, drink, smoke, or do just about anything they wanted. We definitely got to watch everything a kid shouldn’t, and nothing one should. His only vice was cigarettes. He wasn’t a drinker thought he talked like he was drunk. Many thought he had a speech impediment, but in reality he was so excited to be speaking (to someone, anyone, it didn’t matter) that his words would tumble out of his mouth like a box of kittens being overturned, all tangled and wrestling one another for dominance. Sagely, he’d share his smokes and his opinions—the two came as a package deal—with anyone who wanted, or was willing, to listen to the burly, grizzled bear-of-a-man who seasoned his speech with helping handfuls of foreign language phrases so garbled and mangled they were hardly recognizable to anyone but him. Everyone else just nodded and agreed, or laughed whenever he did because really, he was happy just to be socializing. Between his gruff appearance and hard-to-understand way of speaking, he very seldom got to do the very thing he loved (interact with other adults) unless he was giving them something. He knew it too, and though it hurt, he used it to his advantage because he knew how to control who did, or didn’t, come around. Children loved him—they responded to him on a deeper level, one where one’s looks or words were second to what emanated from the heart. They sensed his spirit and knew he’d die for any of them. How interesting they should feel so safe while his own sons were often terrified.

A strange thing about my dad was that he was both narcoleptic and an insomniac. Sleep danced away when he tried to catch it, but would turn around and pounce on him at the oddest times. At night, he’d wedge himself into a corner of the couch, propped up by the extra back and arm in case he passed out. Sitting in absolute dark, he was but a disembodied voice and a pulsating red-tinged face that was lit for seconds at a time by the ever-present cigarette, tempting Fate with his narcolepsy. Every seat and arm looked as if an army of melted caterpillars was invading or burrowing into our furniture. It’s a miracle he didn’t burn us out of a home, or go up like a blazing ball of cotton, though there were gaps in his mustache, beard, and chest hair. Sadly, his narcolepsy never brought him more than an hour’s rest, and seldom more than fifteen, twenty minutes; most often he’d only get five or ten, so he was never really able to relax. “All I fuckin’ want is some GODDAMNED PEACE AND FUCKING QUIET—is that too much to ask?” he’d say while looking up at God. I’d flinch every time, expecting (and admittedly sometimes hoping) for lightning to strike. Lightning never came, but there was no need; he was the most tortured soul I’ve ever known. Ironically, his sincere blasphemy helped convince me of God’s existence.

Since it gave us so many good laughs and brief respites from his abuses, I considered his narcolepsy a unique blessing. We’d be gathered in the living room attempting to let his latest rant roll right off our backs, trying not to make direct eye contact with this rabid bastard, and mid-sentence a switch was thrown—his chins would pillow the fall of his heavy head as it hit the carpet on his chest. We’d all heave a concurrent sigh of relief, look around wide-eyed, snickering and shrugging at one another. Then turn the TV on quietly, surgically remove his dwindling cigarette before it burned his fingers, and worship while we waited…Eventually he’d awaken as if he’d only blinked and continue his soliloquy exactly where he left off, then stop when his empty hand reached his lips formed around a memory, and take notice of the change in seating positions: sometimes we’d shuffled ourselves around or hurriedly go change clothes to mess with him. With an epiphany blossoming bright red in his face, a mixture of embarrassment and anger, he’d condemn our goddamn disrespect and ask why we didn’t fucking wake him up. Yeah, okay, Dad, please wake up and continue your abuse. Having lost his momentum, he would huff and puff and blow as much menacing silence as he could muster. “Just get the hell outta my sight; go outside or to your rooms—I can’t stand to see you right now,” while he flipped his hand dismissively, perhaps to deprive us of our show or movie since we obviously were so engrossed in it.

For my dad, abuse was in his DNA. He grew up fighting a never-ending row of stepfathers that tried to treat him and his siblings as their personal punching bags or blow-up dolls. I believe part of his torment stemmed from his own ruined past, one he’d sworn never to put his children through. He KNEW its power to devastate. After a beating, he’d often sit down and cry with us as if he was as much a victim of his violent nature as we were. Strangely, in his effort to keep his boys together, when one of us provoked his anger, he’d make all four of us line up in front of the couch with our hands gripping the cushions as he went down the row beating “respect’ into us with his heavy leather belt. How many hundreds of lessons we had to learn like this. At first we cried and flinched from every lash or fist, but then he beat us for that too. We had to learn to take it, to embrace the pain, to toughen up until the only pain we felt was the humiliation of physical subjugation. He knew one day we would reach our breaking point and grab the hand that held the belt, but that’s another story. For the time being, we will subjected ourselves to his authority even though his abuses were so arbitrary; we never blamed each other for the unmerited beatings. He’d punish us for spilling an ashtray or for not getting out of his way fast enough, yet he might take us out for ice cream when we got suspended for fighting or skipping school, but the next day could be the opposite. This unpredictability, his psychotic instability, gave me the wary mind and quick reflexes of a wild animal.

Despite it all, I can’t get the image of a werewolf out of my head, the good one who’d chain himself in the basement during a full moon so he didn’t harm anyone when he turned. My dad gave us freedom to roam, while he stayed chained to the couch. I don’t believe it was just his opposition to my mom, which motivated him. One reason was for our protection…from him. But also his feelings of inadequacy as a husband and a father—as a MAN—along with his guilt drove him relentlessly to try and compensate by giving us everything we wanted. Being penniless for the most part, and poor in self-control, he gave the only thing he was capable of giving: FREEDOM. He got the hell out of our way. Without a parental obstacle to negotiate, I sought answers to life’s questions on TV anywhere but at home.

Under Mom’s restrictive regime, it was, of course, the opposite. I had so little freedom I couldn’t touch the fridge or go outside without permission, let alone try to develop any relationships that weren’t screened and approved first. She could afford two family rooms: one for her and my stepfather, one for us kids. My sister, born of my mom’s second marriage (this was her third), was a fascinating addition to our group. Nine years my junior, she made it difficult to leave his world because I had to protect her from the dangers I knew existed. However, she’d plant herself beside me and together we’d travel the worlds offered on display. Our little family room stayed stuffed with kids and FDA-approved friends watching regular TV—no cable—through bars and static, or memorizing the dozen or so movies we had on tape (not even on DVD). My mom’s family room had a big screen television that dominated one side of the room, two plush recliners that were like thrones exactly twelve feet directly opposite, a futon couch along a perimeter wall at such an oblique angle it was more for rest than for watching TV. She also had a satellite reception, and it was about twice as spacious in their room even though they had a third of the regular people. We weren’t allowed in there without them, and definitely couldn’t touch anything unless it was per their request to hand them something, although they graciously permitted us to sprawl on the floor at their feet and watch whatever boring thing they had on.

Alas, we were abandoned to worshipping by ourselves. She was blink-blinking in and out of our world, there but not there simultaneously. She was either in her family room, at the spa for hours at a time, or at one of their favorite golf courses. Before they had “retired,” she spent all day working in the restaurant she owned. The only time we really spent together as an actual family was at dinner. Food was even more sacred than TV, and my mom was a High Priestess able to cook meals worthy of the gods. Even so, I felt like I lived in a perpetual state of homesickness, hungry for my mom’s attention through she was right there. I was invisible unless I did something wrong to show up on her radar. No doubt, love provides food, shelter, and the decent clothes Middle America faults, but people need something money can never buy, something free but seldom freely given: genuine affection in the form of hugs, praises, and gentle looks.

My mom’s parents were hypercritical or outright neglectful. She became a mother to her siblings, forced to grow up overnight, cooking, cleaning, and literally singing for food on corners in Korea. Abuse takes many forms and sometimes it’s the passive aggressive, subtle gestures that wound us most. Like the fact she had wanted to take my younger brothers to live with her. Though my dad rebuffed her attempt, the desire manifested in myriad ways. A singular incident stands out amongst the piles of decrepit things. My older brother, Michael, and I were in our room when dinnertime suddenly dove between us. Knowing the importance of punctuality, we decided to go on downstairs rather than wait until the last second. We stepped out of our room above the foyer and saw our brothers, sister, stepfather, and mother sneaking out the front door. Before she could close it,

“Mom? Where’s everyone going?” we ask, dumbfounded.
“Out to dinner.”
“Oh! Hold on, let us grab a jacket and—”
“No, you stay. We go.”
“What… what about us?”
“You big boys; you eat sandwich—or whatever. Clean after. Okay?”

As if she was giving us a choice. And with that the door shuts.

We were seventeen and fifteen, but still. We eyed each other telepathically, unable to hide our shock and pain. Dazed, quiet, and fighting tears, we headed downstairs like a couple of drunks trying to pass a field sobriety test. We hadn’t done anything wrong that we knew of. “George, I’ve got some money. Screw them. C’mon, we’re going out, just you and me.” It seems he was always the strong one, always there to pull my ass out of the fire or out of the depths of despair; or stand between me and bullies, even when it was our parents.

Sure, there was plenty of food at home. There were two extra freezers packed full and chilling in the garage. I asked if we could catch a movie instead, saying I’d eat later after we returned. “Sure, little brother, sure. Whatever you want.”

To be honest, I never doubted the sincerity of either parent’s love. It was more complicated than that. Ideas have consequences. Looking back, it’s clear both had a flawed, incomplete understanding of what it means to love. The effects were apparent in the collapse of their marriage and the deterioration in their children. My dad found escape into TV long before, gleaning his twisted idea of love from there, since it was evident no example was to be found at home with his parents. All he knew was unrestrained giving to others (and himself), hedonistically, without thought of moral boundaries or tomorrow; pleasure was all it valued. In contrast, Mom’s had little to do with pleasure or emotions, but rather was more pragmatic in that it focused on sustaining the basic necessities to keep a body alive.

Both believed their way exclusively correct, and neither could see it otherwise, yet both would later admit they knew something wasn’t right, but for the life of them [they] couldn’t say what it was. She condemned his brutal methodology, and rightly so, though she too was tarnished despite her polished, highly cultivated living standards. Dad toughened us with his thick leather belt or whatever was at hand—even his own heavy hands. Although he also verbalized his violence, she was the true-spoken samurai soldier ripping us to shreds with her heavy-handed tongue lashings, cutting words and looks, and cold-hearted cold-shoulders. Worst of all was her abandonment. She left us to raise ourselves and a dad who never truly grew up…until he grew up with his sons. We were more a parent to him than he was to us.

I’ve wished I could simply explain love to her like this: “The love you were always looking for? It’s been right here the whole time tugging at your dress, clip-clopping through the house with your shoes on because I didn’t know then that boys ought not to, waiting at the door for you to get home from the store, then running out to jump up and down around the car, eager to tote those ‘heavy’ bags for you, hoping you’d uncover that radiant smile even before you spent a car to fix your teeth (while leaving mine as is). You’ve always been Miss America to me, Mom, the most beautiful girl in the world, without any make-up on, hair all mussed up in the morning. Every kind of gentle word or look from you was sunshine on my face to erase all the previous negativity as if it had never existed: love covers over a multitude of sins, and you have a blank page in my book.”

At least my golden calf was there for me. I was mothered by a multitude of moms, doted on by dozens of dads, parents we all dream of. I had moms who hugged me often, who let me know how much they loved me and convinced me that they meant it. Moms who were understanding and cried with me when I tried so hard but failed anyway. Moms who promised me it’d be okay while the world around us was crumbling to ashes at our feet. I had dads who protected me, taught me the value of a dollar, and how to treat a lady. Dads who taught me respect by demonstrating and earning it rather than beating it out of me; and who taught me how to stand for something, accept responsibility, be a MAN.

I also learned to take the law into my own hands, to follow my heart wherever it led me, even into sin; that I could steal from the rich or do whatever the hell I wanted and all would be forgiven if I just gave a dollar a day to some kid with flies on his face—he’d even send me monthly updates to tell me how much of a saint I was. TV told me I could be anything I dreamed….It lied.

Recently, someone asked me to dig through heaps of yellow-tinged memories to find the first movie I ever saw. But that’s like asking me to retrieve my first breath from where it came to rest after the doctor slapped it across the room! Movies have been such a part of my life and there have been so many, I suppose it’s only fitting for my memories of them to be smeared together like an abstract painting on the canvas in my head. I catch fragments of images flitting past my eyes while a cacophony of gunshots and screeching tires is blended together with maniacal laughter and colorful profanities. Fingers of fear, lust, and envy dance up and down my spine to play me like a piano. It’s all discordant and flickering like a faulty projector.

As I stare up at my insane history, popcorn peppers my lap and shrivels my lips, my neck is cramping from the sharp angle of the front row, and my eyes (which haven’t blinked since the movie began) are leaking sympathetic tears that meet beneath my chin to comfort one another.

by George Wilkerson

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Struggling: Stigmatized

It smells like pee,
it must:
they crinkle their noses in disgust
every time I walk by wafting it in their faces.

It seems to follow me
and precede me
and hangs in the air
like a cloud all around me,

only I can’t smell it
because I’m acclimated.
I’ve seen it choke off conversations
and invitations mid-sentence.

I’ve seen hands fly to mouths
to cover gasps
of giggles while they pointed
down their throats,

gagging and looking down
their noses at me,
causing me to look down
at myself,

looking for a spreading stain
that never came, yet
what else could it be?
I lift my arms and sniff

cup my breath into my hands
and whiff the contents: minty fresh.
Is it just me, or does poverty stink?
It poured cold water on my cotton candy confidence,

melting me within myself.
Since when did being poor become a sin?
I’m too scared to raise my hand
or sit at the front of the class

lest I draw attention to myself.
I’m scarred by Salvation Army clothing,
burning with humiliation
dripping with self-pity,


I am less of a person now.

by George Wilkerson

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Man of Knowledge Increaseth Strength

I have learned some hard life lessons in my short time upon this earth--one of them being this: just because a person says they are going to do something doesn’t mean they’re going to do it. For most people, actions speak volumes while their mouths say something contrary. I know whatever a person chooses to practice becomes a standard of living for them, whether it’s right or wrong.

I would love to believe that every person lives by a moral code. But my personal interactions and the news reports I read leave me thinking that many people don’t have a moral code. Morals are taught and a person grows and continues to practice them or opts out of them to seek a different path in life. Look at soldiers in any military throughout the world. How is it that some come from a moral background, then go to war, kill people, return home, and are expected to live a normal life? These same soldiers raise a family, teach their children the very same values they learned, and leave out the killer they were in battle. This was true for my momma and her siblings. My momma’s dad was in World War II, in Southeast Asia.

But for me this common experiences raises the question, Who gets to judge whether a person is good? If someone does something terrible, how long does he need to show that he has altruistic qualities before another’s opinion of him changes? How long does it take for a person who was once believed to be evil to be considered moral?

My parents reared four children. They taught us the principles of the Holy Bible, and I am a Christian. My opinions and beliefs are biblically based, and I stand solidly upon those teachings. I’m not perfect, but I do try to grow more each day by God’s perfect grace. Like any fallible human being, I too often allow my ego to get in the way where I need to practice patience and understanding.

My dad and mom worked hard rearing us children while at the same time trying to acquire a piece of the American dream. My dad was one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known. I remember at one point in his life he worked for the Department of Transportation, working 40 hours a week. Also, after each day with the D.O.T., he farmed and ran a garage.

Daddy was a great provider and protector of our family, friends, and the weak. I don’t understand how he did it, holding down a full time job and farming—which is demanding, especially if you are intent on raising a good crop. The garage was a small operation, but coupled with the other two jobs it added to the toilsome labor.

As far back as I can remember, my brother and I rode around with our dad when he was farming or going to work on a car. Going to the garage was mostly fun for me, as I loved being around my dad. I always wanted to know what he knew. In many ways I tried to imitate him. He was my role model.

To this day I remember one of the earliest lessons I grabbed onto. At this time I was about four. I don’t recall my brother being with us this day, but I do remember that I saw someone with something I wanted and when I asked for it--or for some of it--this upset my dad. Daddy waited until it was just me and him, and he scolded me, calling what I’d done begging. He said, “Boy! Don’t let me hear tell of you begging anybody else for nothing.” If it would have ended there, I seriously doubt the lesson would have stuck.

But later that day, Daddy and I stopped by an older couple’s home in the neighborhood—Mr. Lee and Mrs. Easter. While we were there we sat at the kitchen table, and I saw Mrs. Easter baking what appeared to be a cake. It smelled so good. Remembering Daddy’s warning, I said nothing, but I did notice the sweets. I perked up, hoping for a piece of cake, my eyes following her every movement. It was obvious to anyone who was looking what my desire was, and surely Mrs. Easter would soon notice; she wouldn’t deny this cute, loveable, little boy a piece of cake.

Knowing my dad, I’m sure he was watching me too. I thought I had found a loophole in my dad’s warning, and I could still be a success in obtaining my desire. I could plead with my eyes and use body language but be within the guidelines of the old man’s warning. Who said children aren’t smart? My plan worked like a dream--or almost worked. I got my cake and gave Mrs. Easter a “Thank you” with a big smile. Everything went down smoothly and I could not be accused of any wrongdoing.

With my cake eaten and my dad’s business with Mr. Lee taken care of, we headed out to the car, jumped in, and headed home without a word. At home, as we were getting out of the car, Daddy said, “Boy! Didn’t I tell you about begging?” I started to plead my cause, intending to tell him that I didn’t ask but accepted when it was offered. My pleas were cut short by Daddy’s spanking and my yells. I guess you could say the lesson was driven home.

It took some years to grow into the core of that lesson—why it is not dignified to ask a person for something just because I see it and want it. Most people who work hard don’t respect an able-bodied person who can work to obtain the things they need and want rather than beg. If a person is begging because because of an ailment or some other deformity or hindrance, it’s understandable. Otherwise, begging is a sign that you’ve lost self-respect and think that someone else who works for a living should take care of you and your needs. That’s one of the lessons that my dad taught all of his children: if a person needs or wants something, work for it. Ever since I’ve been old enough to work, I never had a problem with finding a job. Most of those jobs weren’t what I wanted, nor did they pay the wages I wanted. But I never asked anyone for a handout.

Hard work was part of my upbringing. I saw my dad get up early for his job and come home, eat supper, then head out the door again to the garage. Daddy did this pretty much every evening and weekend, with me and my brother in tow. We grew up at that garage, working alongside our dad. In many ways I’m a reflection of my dad. I carry his name; I’m a junior. My dad raised me to be a man, to take on the responsibility of a man. He showed me how to be a protector, provider, and defender of family and friends, as well as the weak.

Coming from that background, I know a person’s work habits, or lack thereof, reveals something about who they are and the goals they may or may not be striving toward. What reasonable adult believes that it’s acceptable to live in a home where they don’t need to make a contribution to the home?

When school broke for summer when I was growing up, we children would sleep late, watch T.V. and if Momma wasn’t working, we would ask her questions until she grew tired of our curiosity. Sometimes we would help Momma out around the house and in the vegetable garden we grew each year. Most of the time helping Momma didn’t seem like work; we were having fun. Once school ended for summer break, after I had grown some, I was old enough to be at home by myself, but too young to get a job like the older kids. But my brother and me had a job cutting grass once a week for Mrs. C. Joiner. With school at an end I was free from those tough and long days of classes and the demands of schoolteachers; now was my time.

I planned to sleep late, roam the neighborhood, and maybe even go fishing. My intent was to enjoy myself without the restraints and watchful eyes of adults. I was excited to put my plan into motion with places to go and things to explore. I just needed to wait until Daddy and Momma left for work. But, as usual, like Murphy’s Law says, “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Normally, through the week when school was in, everyone in our home got up at 6:00 AM, sometimes a little earlier, depending on the need. But on the first day of summer I was laying there asleep, not a care in the world. All of a sudden I heard, “Alright, y’all get up; get on up.”

“What’s going on?,” I thought to myself. “We don’t have school…. Daddy must have forgot; this will be straightened out shortly.”

Once we stumbled out to the living room—still more asleep than awake—our dad started calling off a list of chores for us to do. The list of chores that was given to us was long. After Daddy and Momma had left for work, I said (to myself), “Man, we can’t get all of this done today.” This was something our Dad did each day throughout that summer. Even if he didn’t give us a list of chores (which was rare), he would wake us up at the same time he got up, and sometimes we would stay awake until our parents left. But after a while, most times, my brother and I would stay up, being that we were already awake. But early on, it was back to bed, unless we were cutting grass. One of the things we did after we had gone back to bed is wake up about an hour or so later and start on the chores, doing as much as we could (if it was garden work) by noon. Then we’d go in the house to dodge the heat, our older sister would make lunch, and we’d watch T.V. till we four decided to go back out and work some more.

It was years later when I understood that it wasn’t just about doing the chores. We were being taught to get up early and get the job done. No being lazy, laying around depending on someone else to do the work. For me, these lessons paid off in life, as they did for my siblings. Every one of us became early risers for our daily jobs. No slacking.

Long after Daddy started waking us up early it became a routine. At first I started working in the tobacco fields at the age of thirteen, working ten hours a day, walking up and down those tobacco rows in the heat of the day and every other part of it. Doing this to earn money made me a wise spender of my earnings and taught me a new respect for my parents, and how hard they worked. I remember before those tobacco fields, long hours, and hot sun, when my parents bought my school clothes and I didn’t take care of them as I should have. Most days when I came in from school (before buying my own school clothes), my mom would have to remind me to take off my school clothes and put on the ones I played in. But once I started working and buying my own school clothes, I learned real quick to take care of those items without having to be told. Also, as my older sister, my brother, and I started working all at the same time, we contributed one fifth of our earnings to the household. Today, as then, this was the right thing to do. When our parents told us this is how it was going to be, I wasn’t liking it so much, but once I saw how it lightened the load for my parents, it was good. I learned to appreciate the value of the family working as a unit. By giving a portion of what I earned this gave me a sense of responsibility and self-worth, that even my little bit helped.

For me, when I was at the garage learning to work on cars, most of the time I had fun; I enjoyed the people, the talk, joking, and sometimes being treated like an adult, even though I was a young teen. Being respected for skills I had by the time I was fourteen and fifteen felt good and gave me the encouragement and desire to better myself. I could tell that my dad was genuinely proud of my brother and me when people would comment on what good mechanics we were as such young men. Daddy would swell with pride when people commented how we were such smart workers and hard workers.

At sixteen, I got a job at a chicken house near my home; at first I would ride a 1969 450 Honda to work after school. The guy I worked for paid me a little above minimum wage, but at the time that was cool with me because I was earning money and the work wasn’t difficult. The work consisted of me being there at 4:30 each evening to walk each aisle, observing the chickens to see if any were sick or had died, and remove such. Each aisle was pretty long, maybe sixty yards. There were two sides to the chicken house and each side had about five aisles. After walking each aisle, I would turn the machine on to gather the eggs, stack them, and then place them in the cooler. I would work each evening from 4:30 till about 8:30 if nothing went wrong. The chicken house where I worked sat about half a mile off the road; it could not be seen from the highway. It could be a little scary to work back there at night by myself, surrounded by mostly woods, but by then I was used to the woods and darkness. The whole while I worked at that place, I couldn’t eat any chickens or eggs. I tried, but the smell of them wouldn’t allow me to put them in my mouth. I would have never believed that anything could affect my eating habits. Heck, I’ve seen chittlings cleaned and eaten them, so I was thoroughly surprised by my own reaction.

I have worked other jobs since those tobacco fields of long ago. I learned lessons from each of those jobs and remember a quote from my dad, “Boy, every lesson you learn is going to cost you.” The last profound lesson my dad taught me before I was confined was one that I never saw coming from him because of my belief about who I thought he was. The whole situation started back in the fall of 1991. My dad and I had had some arguments and it seemed that we disagreed about everything. October of that year, my grandmother passed away and about a week or so after that, Daddy and I had it out again. It got heated to the point that he told me to get out. I had been living with my parents since January of that year and hadn’t even thought about moving out, which could have been the real source of all of our arguments. Whatever the reason, my dad told me to get out and I felt instant betrayal and a whole different kind of anger. So I left with no intention of ever going back there again. I didn’t speak to my dad for about a year and a half; I felt like I had been wronged. I was so foolish. I believed that it was all about me!

I never gave any consideration to the fact that my dad had just lost his mom, still suffering his loss, or that I wasn’t living up to my potential as the man he raised me to be—living at home with my parents at twenty-five. There were some other things going on as well, but I believe the biggest problem was the loss of his mom.

I remember one Sunday around March or April of 1993; I was at my uncle’s home when my dad and mom stopped by. Mom stayed in the car, and Daddy got out and walked straight to me. Daddy looked me I the eyes as I did him, me not knowing what to expect. He said, “Boy, when you leave here, stop by the house. I got a car I want you to help me with.” I answered and said, “Okay.” I knew as well as he did that he didn’t need my help with any car, but then again, this wasn’t about any car, it was about reconciliation. The older I get, the more I think about Daddy’s act of humility that he didn’t talk about, but showed. Daddy put himself in a position to be rejected and humiliated, and to me, this wasn’t the man I knew at the time. I was immediately humbled. But back then I don’t think I could have done it, as a matter-of-fact, I didn’t do it, and had no intention of doing so. I was so full of foolish pride back then. I thought that my dad was too proud of a man to humble himself; he was a wiser man than I knew, and a better one than me.

I believe my parents were coming from church that day; they were into the Word of God. Now I understand that I was just a churchgoer at that time, thinking that a churchgoer and being a Christian were the same. Being a Christian is about showing the love of God, not just talking about it. Showing love means sometimes putting one’s self in a vulnerable position, to where one may be rejected. I understand why God says that he fights against pride, because pride will not allow love to flourish and grow.

My place of residence at present date is on death row. Existing in an environment such as this requires all that I was taught by my parents, that I might remain sane. Being on death row is an affliction of the spirit. I must remind myself that I am a man, not an animal, no matter how often I am corralled or put in stalls. Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.” A person’s true nature is revealed when they have another in a vulnerable position, just as another’s nature is revealed in adversity.

For me, there is nothing dignified about death row, though it is important to find dignity no matter where you are. Here on the row, we may be called at any time for canteen or a doctor’s appointment. I’ve seen some guys jump out of bed without washing or brushing their teeth while others would never do such a thing, even though guards complain that they take too long. As long as I live, I will always have an obligation to humanity to live and do my best, as every human in this world’s obligation is to each other. As I believe and my faith as a Christian teaches me, “A person’s life is measured in the quality of life they live, not in the quantity of years.” I make the best of every day by being the best I can.

Sometimes being the best I can, in my belief of God in Christ Jesus, conflicts with the beliefs of others, but this is where respect comes into play between me and whoever may be the other person. As much as humanly possible, in the spirit of Jesus the Christ, I aim to live at peace with others, no matter their thoughts of me. “Your value doesn’t decrease based on someone else’s inability to see your worth,” said the Holocaust survivor Ted Rub. In some ways our thoughts always serve ourselves, but we as a people must reach farther and allow our assumptions and attitudes to serve the community. In this way we can create better communities. To the extent that I have something to contribute to this better life, I have my parents to thank for the values they instilled in me.

by Melvin Lee White, Jr.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Keeping It Together

In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, memoirist Jeanette Winterson offers us the following words on one particular condition required in the pursuit of sanity: "Mental health and emotional continuity do not require us to stay in the same place, but they do require a sturdy structure on the inside." I know just what she means. As one "unduly" convicted of a felony, I was stripped — literally and figuratively — of my former identity and made to assume a new one, one debased and dehumanized, that of inmate, prisoner, and convict. Most may find this event to be humiliating, traumatizing, and difficult to bear. For me, it was not so, at least not consciously. I owe this to the ease with which I find myself identifying my experience of prison with that of my ancestors who endured being enslaved.

Especially traveling from prison to prison on those urine-smelling buses, cramped next to others whom you've never seen before, shackled at the ankles and cuffed at the wrist attached to belly chains, images of slaves being transported to various plantations are conjured in my mind. At such times, one must have a well-fortified structure, a living foundation, within to maintain the hope of mental health and emotional continuity.

I've survived this ordeal by keeping with me what is familiar to me. I've found it necessary to remain somehow weirdly nomadic, because I have to prepare myself mentally for the everyday fact that I can be transferred to any other prison at any time for any or no reason at all. With this in mind, I find that I can relate Jeanette Winterson's story to my own on many levels.

by Rightjust Soul

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Bad Apple Virus

It frustrates me that so few prisoners in this unit seem able to see any connection to their own lives in debates about law enforcement, race, and class struggles in the wake of Ferguson. The indifference of my fellow inmates is so maddening because much of the discussion is thankfully centered around criminal justice reform, with people all over the U.S. currently focused on public policies and laws which affect different communities unequally. It is hard to imagine a better moment in time for informed conversations concerning the real effects of policies which too often never see the light of day in public imagination and discourse.

I understand the point of view which resists the idea that any problems at all exist within the American criminal justice system. After all, there is a strong emphasis on individualism and individual responsibility here which stretches back to our pioneering ancestors. I myself committed a serious crime in my youth, taking a life which can never be restored, and I have repeatedly affirmed what I believe most prisoners will also admit, that those who do wrong must be held responsible as a part of our response to crime. Humans have an almost instinctive understanding of this concept. For instance, even as children we learn that when we steal it is wrong and our family will discipline us, perhaps sending us to the corner to stand or having a cherished toy taken.

Yet what family will take its beloved but misbehaving child and banish them to some far corner to stand forever, never to return? Implied in punishment should be the intent to bring about a better outcome, and a better behaved child who be welcomed back to the fold as a functioning member of an improved family. If our policy instead was to permanently banish the child or only allow his return as a limited member who can, say, sleep at home but cannot eat meals with the family; we must recognize in such treatment of the offender a permanent negative value judgment. We only treat a family member this way who was by nature deficient, who lacked the potential to function properly, or who inspired more fear than love.

Today, this kind of negative character judgment is built into our criminal justice system. Our policies imply the belief that some people by nature are apt to commit crime; that they lack the ability to function as members of our law-abiding human family. Viewed this way, the role of the law, of law enforcement, of our prosecutors and courts, and of our detention and supervision methods is to reach out and find the defective ones among us, to watch, punish, and detain them, and to stop them from harming others and themselves.

In a culture so enamored of individuality, such a role for our system seems to make sense. Now we have enforcement and sentencing policies which ruthlessly carry out this program. So confident are we in our ability to root out the criminals, label and deal with them as it is necessary to treat such dangerous animals, that we now routinely lock away youthful first-time offenders for the majority of their lives, only allowing them to escape the system when they are old, if ever. We have sought out and identified in our state alone more “bad apples” than the total prison population of the country of Australia. And we know that they are bad apples because they have committed a crime, and anyone who would commit a crime must be by nature a defective irredeemable product from our human factory.

Right now people in our nation are starting to realize something is not quite right with this process. When you personally know someone who has been caught in the net of our system, it becomes evident what a tragic mistake it is to judge a man or woman as defective and irredeemable based on one act, or one time period in their lives, usually when they are young. And if you are very poor and happen to be a minority or both, you cannot help but see how our system applies its justice unequally. If you are none of these, you may be among those in our country who feel nothing is broken about our system, a position much easier to defend when you don’t live in one of the poor regions targeted most intensely by law enforcement.

Looking at prisons is essential to shed light on this debate. A process has been taking place inside Tennessee prisons which mirrors what has made people so angry in our country. Right now, I live in a disciplinary unit where men who are judged dangerous have their jobs and most of their outside contact stripped from them and where they are concentrated together under the most intense conditions of poverty, restlessness, and hostility. No matter the nature of the inmate’s transgression, or how well they were doing before their mistake, they are sent here for punishment for a length of time depending on their offense and removed from the neighborhoods of less dishonor in the prison where the men have jobs and outside support. Unlike those upper regions where inmates are generally left in peace by their peers who have incomes, and the officers who feel less threatened by the “good” inmates, in the lowest region, one will witness atrocious levels of drug abuse, violence, theft, and gang activity while the inmates are constantly harassed by the officers who feel all the bad apples naturally end up here, and who therefore focus most of their vigilance in this direction.

To say that it is a matter of individual choice where an inmate resides inside the prison, is only a half-truth at best. Mobility between the different regions depends on much more than personal choice and character. However it happens that one slides down the scale from good to bad, it is much more difficult to climb the ladder than it is to fall because the conditions one faces makes it more difficult to avoid further writeups, and those conditions are created only in the context of the punitive policies which are ironically implemented in the name of promoting good behavior.

So this zone takes up its place along a continuum of zones corresponding to our judgments about the nature of some people who belong in them and what enforcement punishment policies are necessary to control them. Authorities refuse to acknowledge that their own policies have anything to do with the increased problems in these areas, choosing conveniently to place the blame on individual accountability alone. In prison, the bad apple theory reaches its pinnacle practically unopposed. In fact, at this prison, the inmates in each zone wear wristbands color-coded to the unit, and an inmate's nature is commonly judged based on the color of the band alone. My comments about past regimes who used similar techniques on populations gathered into ghettos are not appreciated. I am not a bad apple. For anyone who knows me, the thought approaches absurdity. Yet I am a man who will defend myself as any man will, and as such I am walking a razor's edge every day trying to function while avoiding getting into trouble with an authority who knows what conditions we face here and callously blames the whole situation on individual responsibility. And I may succeed in making it out, but I have extraordinary advantages most don’t have. Just like the exceptions who make it out of bad neighborhoods and succeed out there, my example will only prove what it takes to rise above the rule. The rest may well curse me as they drown in bitter resentment.

This pattern of judgments about the nature of some individuals, and the policies enacted to control them should seem familiar to those engaged in the debate post-Ferguson. It is the same pattern which is repeated like a fractal inside each prison, inside the TDOC as a whole (determining whether inmates go to “good” prisons with at least some opportunities or “bad” prisons where conditions are wretched), and outside the prison system where some communities continue to be the primary targets of broken window policing and simultaneously the inheritors of a legacy of economic and educational devastation in the wake of race and class struggles reaching back in history to before the Civil War and seemingly woven into our societies fabric. It is all the same practice of power justified by the erroneous belief that some people are simply defective by nature, a belief that can only exist alongside a tragic ignorance of the way the conditions one faces in life limits personal freedom and makes a mockery of the classic view of opportunities for mobility in the U.S.

Departments of corrections defend their policies by describing the monster everyone fears, the criminal, the boogeyman; and when I watch men victimizing one another every day, just like many prisoners, I am tempted to curse some of my fellows as well. But I live in danger myself, and even so, I can see the humanity in all but the worst men around me. As hard as it is to understand, only the extremely rare sociopaths are exempt from a certain pattern seen in those I’ve met who seem to be unrepentant lost causes. Namely, from one angry broken man to another, they feel justified in what they do because in their hearts deep down it seems clear to them that before they turned on the world, the world turned on them first.

As Michelle Alexander has pointed out, it is the last resort of the most desperate to embrace a negative stereotype in an attempt to turn shame into pride when no other option exists. The divide lurking beneath the post-Ferguson debate runs deeper than many are aware; it centers around history, shame, and an inability or unwillingness to imagine multiple/competing narratives across the lines that quite naturally divide localized regions. Until we penetrate these layers it will remain possible for either side to demonize the other, and when we cannot see the humanity in one another progress is impossible.

I wonder now whether we will ever be able to make the connections which will humanize the exchange and make progress possible on a problem stretching this deep into our history. One thing seems certain to me; as long as those with power to enact policies are allowed to do so across the barriers if imagination that make it impossible for us to see each other as human beings, as long as those safe and comfortable and prosperous have no place in their hearts for the cries of those they fear and do not understand, and as long as we cannot even be honest with ourselves about our own history in a nation with deep, deep wounds still fresh and bleeding, healing will escape us.

I challenge the notion that communities should not be trusted to respond to crime responsibly and humanely in the context where problems occur and when the parties involved may meet with some understanding of common history and common interests. I challenge the notion that lawmakers should pass laws and enact policies from the capitol which will affect different communities in different ways. I challenge the notion that a vast state-wide system on the scale we see in the U.S. is more useful than harmful, much less necessary. I challenge the notion that the state and national policies which benefit some regions at the expense of others are beyond the attack of those regions and communities which pay the heaviest cost while others prosper and fall back on the lame bad apple theories that only serve to cover what is at best ignorance and at worst pure exploitation.

Our criminal justice system cloaks itself in the illusion of legitimacy, necessity, and righteousness, but that cloak disappears when we lose the lenses of fear that also hide the humanity of prisoners. Those caught in the bowels of the beast often fail to see the humanity in each other because we are kept in a divided state, degraded, hungry, and at each other’s’ throats for the scraps our masters throw at us. But no one thinks himself or his friends to be animals; it is always the other. And if someone out there has family in here, the illusion may disappear as well.

But in order to proceed forward intelligently and humanely, it is vital to recognize the false belief that some people are by nature flawed; the lie which seeks to justify ultimately oppressive policies and practices carried out in the name of justice. This pattern of belief and practice concerning certain people who live in certain zones has replicated itself until it permeates the organism of our society like a disease. Like any doctor would recommend, we must first listen to the shouts of pain and seek to stop doing so much harm. Then this disease must be identified and eradicated to allow the healing we need.

by Moses