Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Cherished Memories

I cherish this -- my childhood memories of Christmas at Grandma's. Every December 24th, my parents, two younger brothers, and I would travel the two hundred or so miles in the sometimes bitter cold to Grandma and Grandpa's to celebrate Christmas with my mom's side of the family. We would always get there in the evening in anticipation of sharing (well, mostly getting) gifts and spending time with cousins seldom seen throughout the year.

Once everyone was settled in, we would begin with a home-cooked feast of turkey, ham, and all the side dishes. Glasses of egg nog and slices of pecan pie would fill any spot in our tummies left by the main course. Afterward, we would gather in the living room, each grabbing a chair, couch, or spot on the floor. I liked the antique couch with the red fabric that had the distinct homely scent that I would always associate with Grandma. It was a pleasant scent (not an old person smell that might bring a grimace). Beside the couch was the old coffee table that doubled as a record player. You could lift the top and see the record player and the compartment that was used to hide the toys. Inside were Star Wars figures and a set of kids' boxing gloves. Smiles and gifts were exchanged in a flurry of ribbon and wrapping paper flying through the air. The anticipation of which He-Man figure or Lego set was more than I could bear. No matter what I got, I was never disappointed.

Afterward, with the clock approaching midnight, we would all say our goodbyes and talk in anticipation of the family reunion in the summer. We would load up our blue Dodge Caravan and settle in for the two-hour journey home. Upon arrival, we would all face the dread of the cold house and try to endure it while the solitary heater warmed up the house. It didn't take too awfully long for the freezing bed to transform into a place of comfort where I could snuggle and hope for sleep in anticipation of Christmas morning. The faster I went to sleep, the quicker I would wake the next day and find out what Santa left underneath the decorated Christmas tree. But that is a take for another time.

I cherish these memories because they are all that's left. Grandpa has since passed away from a stomach aneurysm. He died peacefully in his sleep. The cousins are grown with kids of their own and have instituted their own traditions creating their own memories. Mom and Dad watch their nieces and nephews with hidden sadness because they have no grandchildren of their own. I cherish the memories of Christmas Eve at grandma's so that I don't forget the life that was before.

by Joshua

Monday, December 15, 2014

Becoming a Man

I arrived on Death Row at night, November 14, 1997. I wasn’t worried about my survival, nor was I afraid, though I didn’t know what type of environment I was entering. One of my cousins who’d been locked up since the late 1970’s schooled his nephew and me on Sunday visits. He told us that because of the way we were getting down in the streets, sooner or later one or both of us were bound to come to prison. We were advised that as soon as someone tried to come at us in prison we should make a very convincing example out of them.

So while I was being transported to the prison for my very first bid, that’s what I had on my mind. I reasoned that I was going to be surrounded by nothing but convicted murderers with death sentences, so I set my mind that as soon as anyone disrespected me they were going to be punished severely, according to the level of the offense. I refused to be handled in any way. I was determined to return home to my mother in the same form that I left her.

The Row was locked down for lights out when I arrived. I was assigned to a bunk of 1-F Block – Westside. The first two men that I met were Lil’ Chris and Bro. Frank. I developed an immediate relation with these two men because of our commonality to Charlotte. Because Lil’ Chris was from Gaston County, he was basically my homeboy. Bro. Frank told me that he used to live there, too. They embraced me like a young brother though I really didn’t trust them just yet. But my instincts didn’t detect any reason to fear them.

The third man I met with Keith. He introduced himself to me from behind his cell door by dropping his food trap and informing me that he had the canteen if I needed anything. I quickly developed dislike and distrust of him because he was trying to hustle me while I hadn’t been on the Row for an hour, much less on that block for less than fifteen minutes. I was from the streets, so I recognized game when I saw it — most of the time, anyway.

I made mention that I had to perform Salah (prayer). Lil’ Chris asked me if I was a Muslim. I told him yes. He asked me what kind, and I told him that I was a Shiite Muslim. He pointed to a brother lying on the top bunk behind mine, saying that he was a Shiite Muslim, too. This was the fourth man I met on the Row. He held up his head a little and his right index finger in greeting and said, “Assalamo Alaykum.” (“May peace be upon you.”) I heartily returned his greeting with, “Wa alaykumus-Salam.” (“And may peace be upon you.”) This brothers’ name was Bro. Dawood, may Allah have mercy upon him.

Lil’ Chris also told me that in cell 16 there was another Shia brother named Fareed; I’d have to wait until the morning to meet him. (He became my best friend that morning by the Grace of Allah. I was directed that I could perform my Salah in the block bathroom, so I proceeded that way.)

This was my first night on Death Row. I’d been cheated of my freedom with lies and sentenced to die. But on my mind, despite my anger, was to worship my Lord. No matter what, I must worship Allah and turn to Him alone. I didn’t care much about everything else. I already knew that this was all a test, a trial from Allah.

What! Do people imagine that they will be left off on their saying: ‘We believe!’ and they will not be tried? And indeed we did try those before them, so Allah certainly knoweth those who are true, and certainly knoweth He the liars. - Holy Quran Surah 29 v. 2-3

I had complete faith in Allah. I just had to use this time to perfect myself for His Cause. I wanted to get out of prison so that I could do the good which I’d left undone, but I’d learned something about myself: I can’t change anyone nor anything until I first change myself. So I gave myself to self-reformation.

I learned to practice something very valuable from my Brother Fareed: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything; but if you stand for just anything, you’ll fall for nothing.”

I wasn’t on The Row for three days when I was engaged in a conflict with a Christian brother in the hallway outside of the kitchen. I had arrived here during a time when there were Christian-Muslim tensions, so I fell right into it. I got 10 days on lock-up for fighting. After all was said and done, we eventually reconciled. We realized that surviving prison was our common goal so there’s no need to bite at each other’s throats. We would rather be part of the solution than continue to contribute to our shared suffering.

In the summer of 1998, our chance to stand united presented itself. Once again, the locale was the kitchen. This day they served fried chicken, and when fried chicken is on the menu almost everyone goes to chow. When there’s a kitchen full of inmates wearing the same color clothes and similar shoes, things are bound to get blurred for the meager staff. They can’t see it all. So a chicken tray was boosted — someone doubled back and got another tray. Since the tray lines’ garage-like door was down to about six inches, the staff behind the line could only see pant-legs and shoes. This caused confusion.

I was fifth to last in the line. Behind me were four Christian brothers. After I’d received my tray and moved ahead, the guy behind me, Lee, moved to get his tray. He was immediately accused of coming through the line again. This was a total mistake, because he’d been behind me the entire time. He argued his case with the kitchen staff and an inmate that was serving. Most of us stood bearing witness to what had happened and waited to see how this situation would resolve itself. The kitchen staff became angry, decided to shut the line down, effectively denying Lee and the other three men behind him their food trays.

Lee stood up for himself. As they were shutting down the garage-like blind on the serving line, Lee reached through, grabbing the chicken pan. What ensued was a tug of war, Lee versus the kitchen staff and the server inmate. This short, stocky weightlifter held his own with just on arm! The commotion invited the Sarge and lieutenant from the hall outside the kitchen to come in and sort this out. We’d found our opportunity to stand together.

Since I was a direct witness to this man’s innocence, there was no way that I could stand by without saying or doing something. The other men were being denied their right to eat, too. It did not matter that Lee and the other three men were Christians and I’m Muslim. It was a simple matter of right opposed to wrong. Many of the Muslims and some of the Christians in the kitchen came to these men’s aid. This in turn led to my first time on Unit One (Segregation) for inciting a riot with Bro. Fareed and Bro. Jibreel. They let Lee off after a few days of lock-up, but the three of us had to do at least 18 months.

O ye who believe! Be always upright for Allah, bearing witness with justice, and let not hatred of a people incited you not to act equitably, Act ye equitably that is nearer to piety, Fear ye Allah; Verily Allah is fully aware of what ye do. – Holy Quran Surah 5 v. 8

My direct appeal was denied in 2001. That dashed my expectations of going home in the two years, at least. Disappointment washed over me. But as quickly as it arrived, it disappeared. It was not my time. I wasn’t ready. I still had things to work on within myself and much more to learn.

In the time that I’d been on The Row my paternal grandfather died, my only brother was murdered, and my favorite aunt died from complications of AIDS. It seemed as if I was losing more than my freedom. My family was beginning to fall to the grave, and I couldn’t be there to help the survivors.

Naturally, anger and resentment entered my heart and mind against everyone who caused or aided in my incarceration. Still I didn’t curse Allah. I continued to worship and strive to better myself. I submitted to the facts that Allah has control over everything and that my grandfather, brother and aunt didn’t belong to me, they belong to Him.

I spent my second time on Unit One (Segregation) from 2001-2004 because another prisoner violated me by laying around with his private parts exposed. After I had a civil conversation with him about covering himself and respecting other people, the third time it happened I referred back to the advice of my cousin who told me what to do when someone disrespects me – I punished him.

For the second time, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend some time with one of my best friends and Brothers, my Brother Alim. We came to The Row round about the same time, but we didn’t get to know each other until my first go around on Unit One. Although under unfortunate circumstances, this turned out to be a blessing to be able to learn some more knowledge and wisdom from him.

The first lesson that I learned from him is from the Holy Quran, that we should compete with one another in goodness and righteousness. This was a serious contest that not only brought us both closer to Allah, but closer to each other. The second great lesson that I gleaned from Brother Alim is the art of organization. If I wanted to help my people as I desired, I had to harness the ability to think through every pro and con of a situation in order to get the best result. The third lesson that I learned from him is to be very careful about my friends and associates. I had to swallow the hard pill that some of those whom I’d held close to me from the free world and the prison were not my compatriots. We didn’t share the same views and values, not did we have the same passion for reformation. If I sincerely had aspirations for success, many of my past and present friends had to go.

And say thou: “O my Lord! Increase me in knowledge.” – Holy Quran Surah 22 v. 114

Is he who was dead, then We raised him to life and made for him a light by which he walketh among the people, like unto him whose similitude is that of one in utter darkness whence he cannot come forth? Thus hath been made fair seeming for the disbelievers what they did. – Holy Quran Surah 6 v. 122

Disappointment reared its head again when my MAR (Motion for Appropriate Relief) was denied in State Superior Court in 2008. I just knew that I was going to get a new trial that would have led to my release from prison.

During this time, I met Bro. Mumin, who wasn’t a Muslim yet when I got off segregation, but shortly afterward came home to Islam. My brother Fareed told me that I needed to save him from being miseducated in Islam, so this is how I began to be close to him. We were an odd pair because of our different races, but we discovered that we had a lot of common interests. Islam brought us closer.

This Brother has a very analytical mind which he employs to assist him in study. This is what I learned from him — how to be analytical. Although I am a little older than he, we became compliments of each other. Sometimes, when there are two people that are very much alike, they are bound to be butt heads. And this occurred from time to time. Though we would get frustrated with one another for whatever the reason, always Islamic, we’d immediately amend and continue on without skipping a beat. So from this man I really developed a virtue that is essential to success in this life as well as the next - that is, patience, especially with my beloved Brothers. Sometimes we won’t agree on everything, but as long as we agree on the main things – the Fundamentals of Islam – then we’ll always be united.

This period was the longest that I’d spent on Death Row general population. I’d served most of my time up until then on segregation. During this period, I had to live around the other men more, so I had to deal with the multiple personalities, unbalanced emotions, and moderate-to-severe mental health issues. Already angry about my situation, having to learn to live with these different men, some of whom I really didn’t like, was difficult at first. But gradually I learned to use my wisdom and this new gift of patience in order to navigate the conflicts that arose. This practice elevated me to another pinnacle in my life. I began to find my inner peace and also learned to forgive and overlook the faults and shortcomings of other men. Allah humbled me, for the most part.

This experience was a blissful adventure. I am a very proud man. I can be very arrogant at times, looking down upon those whom I consider beneath me. Being proud in the sense that I won’t allow someone to mistreat me or trample upon my rights is never a negative. So I learned to nurture this quality. But as for my arrogance — my feelings of contempt for those whom I consider lesser than me — that had to go. I had to crucify this negative characteristic, especially after I realized that this type of pride and arrogance is characteristic of Satan. It was this type of pride that caused Satan to disobey Allah’s Command and to become a disbeliever after he’d worshipped Allah for 6000 years in the company of the angels.

And indeed We did create you, then We did fashion you, then said We unto the angels, ‘Prostrate yourselves unto Adam,’ so they all did prostrate themselves except Iblees, he was not of the prostrating ones. Said He (Allah): ‘What preventeth thee that thou didst not prostrate when I did command thee?’ Said he (Satan), ‘I am better than him, me hast thou created of fire while thou didst create him (Adam) of clay.’ Said He (Allah): ‘Get thee down hence for it doeth not befit thee to behave proudly therein. Get thee out, verily thou art of the despised ones.’ – Holy Quran Surah 7 v. 11-13

Allah had already told me that Satan is my avowed enemy, so why would I want to exemplify my enemy, Satan? He stated that he was better than Adam (May Peace Be Upon Him), Adam is me and I am Adam – Man. So I would be Satan to believe that I am better than my fellow man, except where piety or God-fearing is concerned. I had to eliminate this pride from myself, and I have graciously embraced this continuous struggle. Now I’m feeling better about myself, free even.

I may never get my freedom. This prison may be my lot. But I have to keep living life, no matter the circumstances. I could have lost or abandoned faith, throwing away my Quran, prayer rug and kufi. I could have said I’m done with this way of life called Islam. I didn’t though, and I’m not. I have been blessed to persevere, even though things may not go my way. Perhaps Allah has something better for me that I don’t or can’t see, or He is protecting me from something that is harmful to me. Nevertheless, I still have to live my life in Islam (Submission to the Will of Allah). Everything else is vain.

Now I’m finally becoming a real man. I now know that my ultimate objective in this life is to live and die as a righteous man, whenever and wherever that may be.

by Elrico Fowler

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mercy on my Soul

It took the jury a little over four hours to determine my fate.

I sat in silence at the defendant’s hardwood table while twelve strangers filed into the courtroom to take their seats as my designated peers. I searched their faces for some clue of what they had decided, but their expressions were stoic.

Sitting with his fingers comfortably entwined on his desk, his brow creased with austerity, the judge issued his command in a voice seasoned with authority.

“Will the foreman please rise?”

Juror #8 stood with a sense of duty, summoned by an acknowledged superior. He was an older white man, perhaps in his early 60’s. Tall, with a casual polish, wearing a light-colored polo and tan slacks. He had the appearance of a man who might spend his spare time playing golf — a man I envisioned brushing shoulders with the social elite. Certainly no peer of mine, though an obvious choice for foreman. His presence seemed to demand deference.

He reminded me, in an odd sort of way, of Leslie Neilson, the bumbling and totally clueless detective who personified the satirical image of civic duty in the comedy classic, Naked Gun. I smirked within myself at the irony of what this charade evoked: a mocking comedy of justice where even the actors resemble the characters of a spoof.

“Has the jury reached a decision?” the judge asked the foreman.

“Yes, Your Honor, we have,” Leslie Neilson responded.

“Will the bailiff please convey the sealed decision to the clerk?”

The bailiff walked gracefully over to the foreman, received the decision and handed it to the clerk. My eyes were transfixed upon this scene as the clerk, remaining seated, accepted it with her right hand and passed it along to the judge with her left.

His Honor was a plump man of about fifty years, with rosy cheeks and a head absent of hair on the top. He carefully and deliberately opened the sealed decision and looked at its recommendation. Glancing at me with the same look of severity and condescension he had worn throughout my trial, he pushed the bridge of his reading glasses up the slope of his nose and returned his gaze to the decision before him. Lifting his pen, he began to write as the entire courtroom, including its audience of seven spectators, waited in anticipation for the outcome.

I glanced at the spectators. In the last row of the courtroom sat the Warden of Caledonia Prison Farm. He wore a smug look on his youthful, chubby face. He had the look of a white man who knew how to wield power. He could’ve easily passed for a plantation owner or a Southern politician with his good ole boy demeanor and sly and mischievous eyes.

Next to him sat his deputy, a taller, slimmer black man with a bit of a stoop in his posture. He had a bland, sullen face that looked to be worn down by years of servitude and posturing. His eyes carried heavy bags that spilled down onto his cheeks - eyes that hinted that they were filled with secrets that his sad and downward-turned lips would never utter.

Right behind me, in the second row, sat my mother and my sister, the only people in the world who cared enough about me to show up on this day when strangers would determine my fate. My mother, with her dignified head of gray hair and blue eyes that smiled while concealing a lifetime of pain, held tight to the hand of my sister.

Keisha and I had the same face. I could look into her eyes and see myself reflected in the best light. She was the only person in the world who saw me as a role model - someone she looked up to and took pride in calling her brother. Despite the accusations, despite my misdeeds, I was forever her hero, her protector, her guide.

Behind the prosecutor sat the aggrieved family of the victim. A grandmother and a mother who had both lost a man they called “Son.” The grandmother was graceful. Her light brown face still contained a youthful glow as she sat with dignity despite her grief. Her eyes, visible behind the large-framed glasses that covered almost a third of her face, had a quiet kindness to them. Her face showed mercy, compassion, and empathy for her daughter’s pain.

Her daughter, though an obvious younger version of the grandmother, had none of the kindness or mercy in her eyes. Instead, her eyes were like daggers of hatred that I could not bear to meet, lest they pierce my soul and further torment the guilt-ridden heart of my conscience.

Two rows behind them sat a reporter, who I was able to identify by his scribbling pen and miniature notepad. From his perspective across the room, he wrote the official story.

As I focused my attention on the judge, I felt my heart rising slowly up the insides of my chest. It reached the top of my throat and lodged itself there, holding me breathless as the judge finished whatever he had been writing and handed the jury’s recommendation back to the clerk.

Composing himself, he sat up erectly from the perch of his throne and with both arms fanned out the sides of his robe. He pulled it tightly around his shoulders as if it were the cape of some superhero who was about to impose justice on the evil villain.

“The jury, having found the defendant, Michael Jerome Braxton, guilty of murder in the first degree, sentences him to death,” the judge began.

His words continued on, but my heart sank from my throat down to the pit of my stomach as everything except my thoughts receded into the shadows around me. Words and sounds became nothing but background chatter in a movie that I now seemed to be watching from outside of myself.

I looked around at this drama unfolding and felt my soul hovering above me as if it were fleeing to seek refuge from the tsunami of emotion waiting to burst forth inside of me.

Amidst the chatter I heard a request for each member of the jury to stand individually and affirm their verdict. I watched in a clouded daze as the figures of men and women see-sawed up and down in succession to acknowledge their fateful decision.

Then, suddenly, there was a pause.

A black woman, perhaps in her thirties with a brown complexion and medium build, appeared overwhelmed by the burden of the occasion. She choked back heavy sobs and continued to sit after her name was called. Every eye in the courtroom was now on her.

I looked at her face and could see the difficulty etched in her features due to the battle waging inside of her. My heart raised barely a micron from its pit with a glimpse of hope. The juror sitting to her right, another black woman of similar age, gave her a tender stroke on the back, consoling her and perhaps empathizing with the difficulty of the task. Then the woman looked at me and a body-racking lament erupted from her throat. Gripping the arm of the chair, she struggled to pull herself to her feet and utter a weak “yes” before falling back to her seat and sobbing.

I almost wanted to console her myself, seeing the pain she had to endure to stand behind a decision that she ultimately believed right. It touched my heart that even though this woman had sentenced me to death, she recognized my humanity. It caused her great pain to participate in my execution.

For a moment I was lost in my thoughts, still numb to the reality of what was actually happening to me. Separated from the part of me that had feeling, everything became white noise again.

I could hear the drone of the caped crusader’s rote-voice from a distance in my mind. Words and phrases were being uttered about being handed over to the custody of the warden of Central Prison to be held until my death was carried out. I heard a date of February 8, 1998 being announced for execution. But in some weird way, none of this was happening to me. I was just another spectator observing the proceedings along with everyone else.

Until suddenly, I heard my name being called.

“Michael Jerome Braxton!” The sound roared like it was being shouted down from the expanse of heaven. It was like a jolt, and my soul collided violently with my body. Once again I was sitting at the defendant’s table.

I looked up to see the eyes of the judge peering down at me over the rim of his glasses. His gavel, like a mighty weapon held firmly in his right hand, seemed ready to smite the wicked. On his face was a look of frightening condemnation as he spoke the words that sent tremors through my bones and made my soul faint — words indicating that my judgment was no longer a concern of this world, for now I was to face the judgment of the Divine.

With a thundering boom of his gavel, his voice reverberated with a tone of finality: “MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON YOUR SOUL!”

I looked back at my family. My sister’s face was a mask of torment. Never in my life had I seen a face so anguished and distraught. She wept until her cries became a wailing hiccup and her body convulsed in her seat.

My mother reached out to me, her hand pleading for one last touch of the son she had birthed into this world. But as the guards surrounded me, her beautiful eyes became puddles of the saddest pain. She mouthed the words “I love you” as they took me away.

by Michael Braxton

Friday, December 5, 2014

"You are men, and I am your God."

Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them.”’”

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: “As I live,” declares the Lord God, “surely because My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep. So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.”’”

For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord God. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.

“As for you, My flock, thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I will judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and the male goats. Is it too slight a thing for you that you should feed in the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pastures? Or that you should drink of the clear waters, that you must foul the rest with your feet? As for My flock, they must eat what you tread down with your feet and drink what you foul with your feet!’”

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them, “Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and with shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns until you have scattered them abroad, therefore, I will deliver My flock, and they will no longer be a prey; and I will judge between one sheep and another.

"Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the Lord have spoken.

“I will make a covenant of peace with them and eliminate harmful beasts from the land so that they may live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. I will make them and the places around My hill a blessing. And I will cause showers to come down in their season; they will be showers of blessing. Also the tree of the field will yield its fruit and the earth will yield its increase, and they will be secure on their land. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I have broken the bars of their yoke and have delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them. They will no longer be a prey to the nations, and the beasts of the earth will not devour them; but they will live securely, and no one will make them afraid. I will establish for them a renowned planting place, and they will not again be victims of famine in the land, and they will not endure the insults of the nations anymore. Then they will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are My people,” declares the Lord God. “As for you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are men, and I am your God,” declares the Lord God.

Ezekiel 34

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My Experience of Solitary Confinement

Recently the PBS program "Frontline" aired an updated documentary about the overuse of solitary confinement in the United States prison system. You can watch the documentary here.

Having recently spent about two weeks locked in exactly the same kind of cage, and pondering a system in which even a moderate dissenting voice arguing for reconciliation instead of exile and slavery is not tolerated by a fearful, totalitarian regime, I watched the program with the definite sense that we as prisoners today are engaged in a struggle for our very humanity.

I did nothing violent or threatening to anyone, certainly nothing to justify being treated as dangerous. My infraction, rather, was perceived as a threat to the system itself, and so I was held in solitary confinement for almost two weeks and then banished to another penitentiary, away from the community I wrote about in a previous post.

In my two weeks in solitary confinement, I learned that a stripped-down, burned-out concrete box with a steel door and a toilet without toilet paper are all that are required to bring me to the point of kicking the door and screaming to get attention in desperate frustration. This type of outburst is a behavior I had witnessed before from the other side of the door as a minimum security inmate. I was comforted by the thought that I could never be brought that low. The brute fact is that had I not acted out this way, the man in the cell next to me and I would have remained soiled with our own feces. I had to throw a fit to receive toilet paper. Aside from shoving food through the double-locking pie flaps that eliminate human contact, the guards ignored our cells, as if they were empty. And I might have used my hand or shirt and held on to my dignity out of sheer stubbornness, but the man in the cell next to me was my best friend of 14 years, and I knew he would not act out that way. It was my fault he was there, and I could not bear the thought of him being reduced to having no toilet paper.

I tried every manner of normal, polite behavior, confident that the officers would respond in kind to someone making the effort to remain civilized in the midst of that hammering cacophony. But what I learned instead was that polite, normal requests almost never receive a response. Only those willing to act out in the most vile, inhuman, animalistic ways could even get the slightest attention from the staff for the things they needed or wanted.

Confined in that kennel, listening to the supernaturally loud noise of all the other animals competing for what they could only receive from the officer milling around and ignoring them outside in the dayroom, the bare facts of the situation reduced my humanity to a simple choice: kick and scream like an animal, or do without the necessities of civilized life. Either way felt like a a most bitter defeat.

I struggled over such choices the entire time I sat in that hole. Every moment I imagined all the people who know and love me - my family, friends, the good people that attend church services with me, both free and inmate, my spiritual mentors, my professors and allies in the community - and what they would think or feel if they could see me in this situation, squatting like an animal, held captive by my own body's functions in a concrete box that still bore marks on the walls where a previous inhabitant literally tried to destroy his confines with anything at hand. He went so far as to tear the metal out of the walls, set the place on fire, and covered the walls and ceiling with feces.

The literal function of these cages is to ignore and degrade the humanity of those placed within them. The authorities who claim solitary confinement is necessary, authorities that are even now preparing to christen the first "supermax" unit in Tennessee at Riverbend, these authorities contend that the cages are required for prisoners who display a lack of humanity, who are a danger to others and to the system itself. I, however, found that the use of the cage very quickly and effectively functioned to diminish my humanity.


The threat of this power now looms over me even as I write these words. I began writing for this blog with certain goals in mind, as set forth in the original post "Who We Are and What We Want." I affirm now my absolute dedication to the ideals expressed there. Recently my entire world has suffered apocalypse, but I will not return in anger. I know that some people celebrated a job well done when they destroyed my life and gutted a whole community, a community which is still under senseless attack. Some people have lived in the one-sided cartoon world of cops and robbers for a long time now. But I remain dedicated to the principles of reconciliation and live with hope for a better day precisely because, other than the humanity which they may one day take by force, hope and the bonds of love which cannot be broken by a tragically ignorant system defending itself are all I have left.

by Moses