Earning Freedom: Chapter 4
Chapter Four: 1990-1992
Contractors complete the remodel of B cellblock and I join the 600 prisoners who were confined with me in A cellblock for our relocation. It’s not far from the old housing block to the new one, just across the polished corridor. I climb the zigzagging metal staircase to the top unit, B-3 carrying all of my possessions. I have sneakers, t-shirts, sweats, khakis and toiletries bundled up and tied inside my blankets and sheets that I carry over my shoulder, like a hobo. The move lifts my spirits. It’s a fresh start in a clean, new environment. Although I’m still in the same prison, the remodel replaces the hundred-year-old decaying building with modern plumbing, working lights, and air conditioning. The remodeled B cellblock brings an upgraded quality of life, much better than I’ve known for several years, and I’m learning to appreciate these incremental improvements.
In place of the old-style cages, the new housing unit features a different design. Solid steel doors enclose rooms, side-by-side, along the outer walls of the building. Community areas include an open rectangular area the size of a basketball court that prisoners call “the flats,” located in the center, and a second-tier, mezzanine level. I smell freshly painted walls, but with costs and utility in mind, the builders left the bare concrete floors unfinished. Six single-stall showers at the far end of the unit offer an illusion of privacy. An annoying fire alarm blasts repeatedly, suggesting that contractors still haven’t finished their work. Even so, I already like B cellblock better, which is good because I expect to remain here for several more years.
Prison counselors may have additional duties but, from a prisoner’s point of view, their scope of responsibility is limited primarily to assigning work details, approving visiting lists, and assigning living quarters. I don’t expect any counseling on how to cope with the inevitability of living for multiple decades in prison. I have to adjust on my own, and from the counselor’s list, I see that my next adjustment will take place in cell 616, on the top tier. I’m assigned to share that cell with a man in his late 30s who goes by the nickname Windward. The proper term is “room” rather than cell, as it has the steel door instead of bars. But since we’re locked in, it’s still a cell to me.
Windward is a native of Georgia and his speech has that slow southern twang, peppered with lots of “y’all’s,” that I’ve become familiar with over the past two years. Windward likes to say he is American by birth but Southern by the grace of God. He takes pride in his appearance, wearing his hair in a mullet–long in the back, feathered on top, and cut short above the ears–with long, sloping sideburns that he calls the “Georgia slant.” His mustache curves down around his mouth, and he has a habit of twirling the long ends with his fingers when he talks.
Windward served a previous prison term for drug trafficking in a Georgia State prison. With that criminal conviction on his record he couldn’t find a job, so he reverted to smuggling drugs. The Coast Guard intercepted his boat–which was loaded with 300 kilograms of cocaine–as he cruised through a channel somewhere in the Caribbean known as the Windward Passage. He pleaded guilty to an importation charge and his judge imposed a 20-year term. The name Windward became his handle. I won’t mind sharing the cell with him, as he’s not dangerous, and he’s entertaining with his tall tales about thousands of female conquests.
Coordinating a schedule in our two-man room is easier than it was in the larger cell I previously shared with five men in A cellblock. I continue to work in the factory business office, attend school, volunteer on suicide watch whenever possible, and exercise. Windward’s schedule is more relaxed. He’s a unit orderly and he works the night shift, sweeping and mopping the floors while all other prisoners in the block are locked in their cells. Except for lockdown periods, Windward and I don’t crowd each other in the tightly confined space of our closet-sized room. I have time alone to think, which is how I like it. But not everyone feels the same way.
Whenever violence erupts in the penitentiary the warden orders a lockdown and the claustrophobia drives Windward stir-crazy. Sometimes the lockdowns last for a day, sometimes for weeks. Although I miss the yard, I relieve stress with pushups or running in place when I’m not working on my independent studies. We don’t have enough space for both of us to be on the floor at the same time, so while I read on my rack Windward paces four steps toward the door, peers out the window, turns, paces four steps toward the bunk, turns, and repeats this pattern over and over.
“Can’t you relax?” I ask him.
“I hate being cooped up in here.” Windward snaps as he continues to pace.
“You know what you need? A goal. Some self-direction, something to work toward, to fill your time.”
“What I need is a woman, a fifth of Jack Daniels, and an ounce of good weed.”
“That’s what you want,” I point out, “not what you need. There’s a difference.”
“Damn straight, and I know what I want,” he tells me. “I want a woman, some good booze, and an ounce of good weed.”
“It’s better to focus on something to work toward, something they can’t take away or stop.” I’m no longer a novice at serving time, but I haven’t yet learned how to restrain myself from dispensing unsolicited advice.
“Not again with all that dime-store psychobabble bullshit,” Windward waves his hand at me, swatting away my suggestion as he would an annoying fly. “I told you once and I’m tellin’ you one more time. All that schoolin’ ain’t fixin’ to help you none. A convict once, Michael, a convict forever.”
“That’s giving up.”
“That’s reality, Son. Ain’t nothin’ matter here but time. Y’all can read all the books you want, but in the end ain’t nothin’ gonna matter. I done been there. You ain’t tellin’ me nothin’ I don’t know.”
Windward expresses only two possibilities for his future. Either he will seduce and marry a rich woman, or he will earn a living with drugs again after release. He thinks I’m fooling myself with my aspirations of joining society. He’s convinced that a prison record extinguishes all possibility for a legitimate life. It’s like an echo, this recurring message of hopelessness, reverberating throughout the penitentiary. I refuse to buy it, refuse to accept that I can’t create new opportunities and new directions for my life. Every day I renew my commitment to work toward something better. I’m planting seeds, knowing that those seeds will take many years before they take root and blossom. When they do, however, they’ll provide for a better life than I’ve known and a better life than what others tell me I can expect.
I prefer not to have contraband in the cell, but I don’t live here alone. The best I can do is get a promise from Windward that if guards find his stash during a shakedown, he’ll take the heat. Still, I’m not deceived about the value of such promises and I worry. He assures me that he’ll never keep home-brewed wine in the cell, or drugs, but I know he conceals a plastic shank inside a hole he hollowed in his mattress that he insists is necessary for protection. I have different perceptions on how to protect myself: I stay out of people’s way and I mind my own business. I can control my decisions, but I can’t tell anyone else how to live and I won’t go sniveling to the counselor with a request to move because I don’t like what Windward keeps in the cell. I have to roll with the realities of living inside a high-security prison.
“Rolling with it,” however, is stressful because of the personal commitments I’ve made. I constantly visualize how I’ll return to the outside world, and I’m not convinced that society as a whole would agree with my prosecutor’s statement that 300 years of good deeds would not suffice to atone for my two years of trafficking in cocaine. Redemption may be as elusive as the Fountain of Youth, but I’m determined to minimize my exposure to problems that can block my efforts to find it.
I’m familiar with executive clemency, a power vested in the presidency by the Constitution. With the stroke of a pen, a president can commute a federal prison term. It’s rare, as presidents build legacies by signing international treaties, or pursuing world peace, not by releasing prisoners. Still, striving to build a record that proves worthy of consideration for clemency gives me a purpose, something to work toward.
“What’re you gonna do, walk on egg shells through your whole sentence?” Windward taunts, laughing at my aspirations. “Don’t you get it? No one cares what you do or what happens in here.”
“Maybe not. But what do I have to lose by trying? Even if the president doesn’t commute my sentence, if I earn real credentials, don’t you think I’ll have a better shot at success when I do get out?”
“It’s just no way to serve time. You’ll see.”
Windward is right. It’s the reason I never think of myself as serving time. I’m in a hole, a pit that is deep and dark, and I’m doing what I can to build a ladder that will allow me to climb out. I don’t know how long it’s going to take but I know that every rung I ascend to will make a difference in my future.
That’s why I pay close attention to Mark as I sit in those Mercer University classes. He’s in his mid-30s with an athletic build that is suited to his chosen sport of tennis; I never see him working out on the weight pile where I exercise every morning. He doesn’t have tattoos and he’s one of the few prisoners in here who keeps a clean-shaven face.
Mark may sit at the small desks in the same classrooms with other prisoners and me, but his vocabulary, eloquence, and knowledge distinguish him. It doesn’t matter what course we’re studying, whether it’s literature, history, or economics, Mark articulates his thoughts with confidence. It’s obvious our studies at Mercer are not his first university experience.
“In what ways does Jane Austen use irony in Pride and Prejudice?” Professor Higgins asks the class, but only Mark has answers. I don’t even know what “irony” means.
“Who can help us understand the connection between the Treaty of Versailles and World War II?” Dr. Davis, our professor of history asks, looking for a class discussion. Mark is the only student capable of discussing the treaty’s influence on the morale of the German people and the subsequent rise to power of Adolf Hitler.
“How does the economic system of Marxism differ from capitalism?” While the other prisoners and I shift in our seats and stare blankly at Dr. Watkins, our economics professor, Mark’s hand shoots up. He offers an elaborate contrast between the theories of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, emphasizing the essential influences private property, competition, and free markets have had on advancing Western civilization, particularly that of the United States.
I want to express myself like Mark, intelligently, and with a style that shows I’m a man who understands the world and how it works. Knowing that I can learn from him, I introduce myself after class one day.
“You must’ve gone to college before,” I observe.
“No, only in prison. Been taking classes here and there for the past seven years,” Mark answers.
“Seven years? And you haven’t graduated?”
“I hardly ever finish. A year hasn’t passed when I haven’t been hauled off to the hole for something or other. Sometimes I just drop the classes, bored with it all.”
“Don’t you want to earn a degree?” Seeing an obviously bright guy with such little ambition puzzles me.
“It’s not that I don’t want one. I just get caught up with the day-to-day living. Can’t do much about it when I catch a shot for a dirty urine or get caught with a mug of pruno.”
“Why don’t you quit using drugs?”
“You sound like my ol’ lady,” he laughs.
“Yeah, I don’t get that,” I tell him. “It seems to me that someone as smart as you would understand the importance of having a college degree.”
“If I get it, fine. If not, it doesn’t make much difference.”
“How is it that when you’re in class you sound like a lawyer, but out here you sound like you don’t care about anything?”
“When in Rome, do as the Romans,” he laughs. “Truth is, I don’t care. But in class I get tired of all those professors coming in here thinking we’re all worthless.”
“That’s not how they see us. Most of us probably aren’t as advanced as the students they teach on campus.”
“I like letting ’em know I speak their language.”
“I’ve noticed. Someday I hope to know as much as you.”
“None of it’s new. This stuff was drilled into me night after night at the dinner table growing up. Got turned off of education when the parents beat me over the head with it, telling me how crucial school was to my future. Fuck it. Started getting high instead, rockin’ out with Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and the Stones.”
“I wish I knew so much that I could simply turn my educational level on and off at will. It takes everything I have just to keep up with the class.” I explain to Mark that I consider an education essential to my future and describe how I’ve structured my time inside to avoid the obstacles that block so many others.
“Doesn’t that get old?” he asks.
“All that goody-two-shoes bullshit, the rigidity, that structure. I mean, Dude, we’ve got enough people telling us how to live in here. I can’t see how you’d want to put those kinds of demands on your time. I mean, let’s be real. You’ve got enough time. It wouldn’t hurt nothin’ to let up a little.”
“Yeah, I don’t see it that way. I’ve got an opportunity to earn a degree right now. Who knows whether I’ll have it tomorrow? I’ve got to seize the moment, then create something from it.”
“Big deal. Let’s say you finish all your classes and get your degree. What’s next? You’ve still got more than 20 years to go.”
“One step at a time. With a degree, I know I’ll be able to open new opportunities. Maybe I can go to law school. I’ll find something and I know the degree will help, especially if I can learn how to express myself as well as you. How did you build such an extensive vocabulary?”
Mark laughs. “You mean my ‘grown up talk?’ All you need to know in here is ‘motherfucker.’ Learn how to use that word as an adjective, noun, and verb. Drop as many motherfuckers as you can into every sentence, drop it into the middle of words, and you’ll fit right in. Like I fuckin’ said, when in Rome, fuck everyone else. Do as the motherfuckin’ Romans.” He laughs.
“I’m not trying to fit in here. This isn’t my life and it’ll never be my life. I’m serious. How did you develop such an impressive vocabulary?”
“I don’t know. How did you learn the word window?”
“Really, I’m serious.”
“I’m serious too. I learned the language that was spoken in my house. When I write home or to people outside, I communicate one way. When I’m in here I use the language of the pen.”
From my pocket I pull a stack of index cards I carry with me. On one side I’ve written a word that I came across in a book, on the other side, the definition, the part of speech, and an example of the word in a sentence. “This is how I train myself to learn new words,” I tell him. “It’s a strategy I picked up after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Whenever I’m waiting in line or whenever I have down time, I work through the flash cards. Test me.” I toss Mark the stack.
“You’re kidding. Man, you’re fuckin’ obsessed, intense!” He starts shuffling through the cards, looking at the words. “Immutable?”
“Immutable.” I spell it. “Not capable of being moved or changed.”
“Okay, that’s pretty close. How about truculent?”
“Mean, a bad attitude, a truculent person is one who always wants to fight or battle.”
“A lot of that in here. I don’t even know this one. Tenebrous.”
“Dark and gloomy.”
“See, your vocabulary’s good, just as good as mine.” He passes the stack back to me. “Just keep reading.”
“It’s not the same. I’m learning the words and I’m able to use them in writing when I concentrate, but they don’t come to me easily, or roll off my tongue naturally when I’m trying to express myself. That’s what I want to learn.”
“Well you need to reach out, to communicate with more people. All work and no play makes for a dull guy. You can’t just live as a hermit in here. There’s a word for you, hermitage.”
“I already know how to speak the language of this place. I’m trying to transcend this place, to leave here without everyone I meet knowing that I’ve spent my whole life in prison.”
Mark considers me for a second, then he offers a suggestion. “I’ve got a friend you should write. He’s a professor. My sister’s always trying to straighten out my life and she introduced me to him.”
“You’re kidding! You have a friend who’s a professor?” I can’t believe this good fortune Mark offers so casually. I’ve been living in prison for three years, but books and learning have transported me out of here, at least in my mind. A university campus is like a mythical setting to me. Although I’ve been studying, accumulating credits, and building my transcript, I can’t imagine a more personal connection to the university than communicating with an actual professor.
“He’s from Chicago, but for now he’s in Chapel Hill, at the University of North Carolina. We write every week.”
“Is your sister a professor?”
“She’s not a professor, but she’s affiliated with the university. Bruce, my friend, heads the program she’s with, some kind of renewal center for educators. Do you want to write him?”
“Do I! This is the best news I’ve had since I’ve come in. I’ll write him tonight.”
“Fine. Give me the letter tomorrow and I’ll send it off with an introduction.”
The next morning I give Mark the lengthy letter I want him to pass along to Dr. R. Bruce McPherson. It describes who I am, what I’m doing in prison, and how hard I’m working to educate myself. I try to express how grateful I’d be to learn from him through correspondence.
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Podcast 121: Earning Freedom 4.2
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A week later I’m sitting on the lower rack when a guard flicks an envelope beneath my door. I lean over to pick up the envelope and read “University of North Carolina” on the return address. For a moment I just hold it in my hand, tracing my fingers over the embossed lettering and the university logo. The wreath signifies academia, and a charge of excitement runs through me. I’m a 26-year old man, yet I open the envelope with the same giddy anticipation as a child anticipating birthday money from his grandparents.
Dr. McPherson’s letter expresses his enthusiasm to mentor me through my term, and he asks me to mail him the visiting authorization form. He also writes that I should soon receive a book he sent separately, from the university’s bookstore. Wanting to share my good fortune I pass the letter to Windward for him to read.
“What’s the big deal?”
“What do you mean?” Windward’s indifference puzzles me. “He’s a professor, and he wants to help me.”
“Big fuckin’ deal! What can he do? He’s probably a fag.”
“How can you say that? He’s an educator, he has his own life out there, and he’s offering to help me. Why would you insult him?”
“Don’t cry, little guy,” he mocks when he notes my offense at his dismissive response. “I’m just sayin’, what the fuck can he possibly do for you? You’ve got to think about what people want, Dude. Why would he want to write someone he doesn’t know? It don’t make no sense.”
Windward fits right in to the penitentiary culture. He not only accepts defeat for himself, he expects those around him to do the same. Nothing good comes with the prison experience. Therefore, any indication that someone may succeed in overcoming pessimism and despair threatens his belief in failure as the inevitable. Failure is comfortable to him, a real concept. Working toward anything different, or better, upsets his equilibrium.
“Give me back my letter.” I’m learning that within this tenebrous environment my enthusiasm must be internal. Sharing victories, no matter how small, only breeds more sarcasm.
With the news of Bruce’s interest in my life I instantly ascend ten rungs up my virtual ladder to freedom. If nothing else, his friendship will help lift me out of the caverns of ignorance where I dwell.
When my counselor, Mr. Skinner, receives Bruce’s completed visiting form he calls my office supervisor, Ms. Stephens, with a summons for me to report to his office.
“Do you know a Bruce McPherson?” The counselor sits at his metal desk in his cubbyhole office reading from the visiting form that he holds in his hand. With greasy gray hair and a stained white shirt, his appearance, like his office, is a disorganized mess. The office stinks of stale tobacco and his body odor.
“Yes. He’s a professor and he’s helping with my school work.”
“So you sent him this visiting form?” He flicks the form with his fingers.
“Well he’s not getting in. I’m not authorizing him to visit.”
The dehumanization continues. Prisoners have to ask permission for everything, and I’m accustomed to the apparent malevolent satisfaction some staff members get from denying requests. Still, this denial is more of a slap to my dignity than most because I’m convinced that I can grow through Bruce’s mentoring.
“Can you tell me the reason?” I don’t understand why the counselor won’t authorize Bruce’s request to visit.
“You didn’t know him before you started serving your sentence. That’s all the reason I need to deny him.”
“But he’s a professor and he’s offering to help me, to teach me.”
“I don’t care if he’s the Pope. We’ve got rules in here! We don’t know why he’s coming to see you, what you’ve got going on with him. Security of the institution, Son! In order to visit, rules say the relationship had to exist before your imprisonment.”
“Counselor Skinner, I’m from Seattle. No one visits me. Bruce McPherson is someone who can guide me through my prison term. Can’t you make an exception?”
“Go back to work. Give me your pass to sign.” He’s unwilling to listen any longer.
Dejected, I walk back to the business office. I sink into my chair and hold my head in my hands. Our country goes to war over supposed human rights violations, yet it feels to me as if such violations occur within the federal prison system every day of the year.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ms. Stephens straightens a stack of papers on her desk as she senses my despair. “You look like you just got 45 years.”
She’s trying to lighten the mood in her caring way, but at this moment I want to grieve over all the indignities of being a prisoner, of having to ask permission for friendship and then being denied.
“Please. Not today.”
“What happened?” she asks again, giving me her complete attention. I know that she wrestles at moments like these with the awkward balance of being a staff member, a part of the prison machine, and her natural tendency to empathize with another human being. We sit in the same office every day. We relate like two “normal” people, not as a prisoner and a staff member separated by some ridiculous ethos splitting our humanity.
Ms. Stephens knows about Bruce, and she has been totally supportive of my efforts to advance my education. The factory rules forbid prisoners from working on schoolwork, reading, or even writing personal letters during the workday, even though an efficient worker with good organizational skills can complete the daily responsibilities in two hours. She has intervened on numerous occasions to protect me from her colleagues who resent my studying on the job and using the office as my sanctuary. She nods her head when I tell her about Counselor Skinner denying Bruce visiting privileges.
“I need you to step outside for a minute so that I can make a phone call.”
I leave to pace around the outer office. A dozen prisoners sit at their desks, sipping from stained coffee mugs and passing their time discussing the story dominating the news. I saw it over the weekend. Some crazed leader from Iraq, Saddam Hussein, ordered his military to invade a neighboring country, Kuwait. Talk radio listeners can’t get enough of the story although the entire episode strikes me as being bizarre.
I grew up during a time when the United States was at peace. The thought of one country invading another seems like something from the dark ages. Yet the talk shows buzz with conversation about our national security being threatened by Hussein’s aggression. Some commentators suggest that our country might go to war.
It doesn’t make much sense to me, but a lot of the prisoners have been energized by this military action. They’re speculating that if the United States goes to war opportunities might open up to parole prisoners into the military. Such a scenario seems plausible. I’ve read that during previous wars, like the Vietnam War, judges frequently offered offenders the choice of either joining the military or facing imprisonment. I’m not hopeful that changes will come for me, though this sudden shift in global events causes me to think about what else could take place in the world over the remaining 23 years that I must serve.
Shortly before I came in, President Reagan told Gorbachev to “tear down the Berlin Wall.” I didn’t know much about global politics then, but a unified Germany seemed absurd because I grew up learning about two completely separate Germany’s, an East and a West. Then, just last year, the Berlin Wall came down, and just like that, Germany was unified. Soon thereafter, the Soviet Union crumbled ending the Cold War. When it happened I remember thinking that maybe America’s ridiculous Drug War would end too.
According to all the business office chatter, though, we’re moving dangerously close to a very hot war in the Middle East. I don’t understand it, but I must admit I’m not nearly as interested in what’s going on in the Middle East as the other prisoners. They’re talking about the possibility of war with a lot more passion and enthusiasm than I can muster. Unlike most of them, I don’t have a burning animosity toward the United States. In fact, I can’t wait to leave prison and return to society, because where I’m living right now feels about as far away from America as a man can get.
I circle around toward my office. The walk has improved my mood. I’ve breathed, allowed my frustration to dissipate, and with all the speculation about war, I’ve reminded myself to keep the bigger picture in mind. Bruce’s friendship and guidance isn’t contingent on us visiting, and whether I’m allowed to visit or not, I’m going to make it. Although I constantly feel the dehumanizing culture of corrections, my attitude and deliberate actions to redeem myself restore my dignity.
I slip into the office and see Ms. Stephens busy at her desk. She’s not on the phone, so I presume it’s okay to walk in. Just to make sure, I ask.
She smiles and nods. “When you go back to the housing unit you’ll see a new visiting list. I had a chat with Counselor Skinner and he told me that he would put the list on your bunk. Dr. Bruce McPherson has been approved to visit.”
My face turns red as I thank her for her kindness, but I’m uneasy. It’s troubling to me that I have to prostrate myself with requests for special interventions in order to find a friend, someone who can help guide these efforts I’m making to grow. It’s patronizing, dehumanizing. Ms. Stephens saw that Skinner got to me, and it bothers me. After years in prison, these kinds of indignities aren’t supposed to bother me, or at least I shouldn’t let my aggravation show. “Sorry to have troubled you,” I say.
“Don’t be. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by this organization I work for.”
I shrug my shoulders. “It is what it is, and by now I ought to be able to roll with it. But sometimes the pressure gets to me. Regardless of how hard I work, I’m always going to be a prisoner, indistinguishable from anyone else in here.”
Ms. Stephens’ elbows rest on the desk with her hands clasped beneath her chin as she listens to me openly, sympathetically. “Look. I can’t imagine what you’re going through inside, and there’s not much I can do to help. I’ve been in this job for 12 years and I do see how hard you’re working. Others might not see it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to help if I wasn’t convinced that you’re sincere. That’s what I told your counselor and I’ll tell anyone else who asks. It’s not right that you’re in here for so long.”
My eyes water as she comforts me. I know Ms. Stephens is taking a position that the system discourages. As a staff member she isn’t supposed to be personal with an inmate. The BOP motto for staff members is to be “firm but fair,” and that means she is first supposed to consider my status as a prisoner. Fairness requires strict adherence to prison policy. If the policy states that prisoners cannot visit with people they didn’t know prior to imprisonment, then fairness requires counselors to enforce the policy across the board. That’s Counselor Skinner’s position. It’s the kind of oppressive rigidity that threatens to suffocate prisoners, every day, and I’ve endured a thousand days of it. I wonder how I’ll make it through nine thousand more.
Regardless, I want to walk over and hug Ms. Stephens. Her concern validates me, restores a spirit and energy that imprisonment so effectively crushes. I cherish this moment and I’ll remember it as further evidence that God is with me, always strengthening me with what I need along the way.
My schedule keeps me in the business office all day, in classes learning from professors in the evening, and on the suicide-watch tier late into the night. I’m more productive than I thought possible. I enjoy challenging myself by setting goals, writing them out, and sending them to family and friends with encouragement for them to hold me accountable. Reaching my goals is one thing, but empowering myself to exceed them is quite another. I’m obsessed with my personal records and with my daily journal, but only because I find them so effective in motivating me to reach milestones that others insist are beyond a prisoner’s reach.
Not only am I accumulating university credits, I’m working through a formidable reading list. My understanding and enjoyment of the classics, such as Plato’s Republic, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, are clear signs that I’m really learning. I summarize what I learn in book reports that I write and send to Bruce for his evaluation and comments. He returns them, bleeding with red ink, simultaneously broadening my education and awareness through his teaching and mentoring.
I didn’t grow up in a home like Mark’s, where both parents held advanced degrees and emphasized the importance of higher learning, but my parents taught me the importance of working hard. In an effort to demonstrate my commitment to making good use of my time inside, I’m applying extra effort. The more knowledge and writing skills I can develop, the better equipped I’ll be to succeed when I’m released, to show that I’ve conquered imprisonment, because this system feels like it’s designed to perpetuate failure.
My vocabulary is improving. The index cards I keep in stacks of 50 now number 1,000. By mastering words and definitions, my spelling has also improved, and when I respond in class, I express myself in the language of the university rather than the penitentiary. When I listen to NPR or read The Wall Street Journal my confidence rises with my understanding of words and concepts that used to baffle me. And whenever I have questions, I have the skills to find the answers.
Since I’ve charted the progress I want to make by 1997, the end of my first decade, I know exactly where I should be in 1992, at the halfway point. I also know where I’m supposed to be now, in 1991, only a year away from earning my undergraduate degree.
I’m exceeding my expectations with a schedule that keeps me racing to beat my timeline. Whereas the penitentiary rocks with violence and corruption scandals, I’m so absorbed with my work that news of the stabbings, beatings, and investigations into staff corruption are of little concern to me. I know how to stay under the radar.
I’ve determined that a bachelor’s degree won’t be enough to get me where I want to go. The judge’s refusal to reconsider my sentence and the prosecutor’s statement that 300 years of imprisonment wouldn’t be sufficient for my punishment remains an ugly reminder of a judicial mindset that is unwilling to bend. I have to build a record that warrants consideration for a commutation of sentence, and the president is the only person who has the power to commute my sentence. I must work harder and achieve more.
When I conclude my shift on the suicide-watch tier in the hospital, I walk through the metal detectors, the gates, and the corridors that lead back to the cellblock. The guard unlocks my door and I enter. Windward’s snoring is undisturbed as the deadbolt slams into place behind me, locking me inside.
I grab my pillow from the bunk and set it on the steel chair to use as a cushion while I sit, staring at the concrete floor. While trying to think, I’m distracted and I begin to count the beige concrete blocks that form the walls of my cell. Before snapping out of my reverie, I fantasize about bursting through these immutable walls.
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Podcast 122: Earning Freedom 4.3
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I’m excited to see Bruce, my mentor. He’s a bear of a man, big in every way, and through our correspondence we’ve built a friendship that has deepened. I look forward to our weekly exchange of mail and quarterly visits. He now lives in Chicago, having recently retired as a professor. He continues to use his immense talents, and he gives of his wisdom generously with hopes of making societal contributions through his teachings.
Bruce introduced me to his wife, Carolyn, who sometimes accompanies him on visits, and through correspondence I’ve met his daughter and sons. The bad decisions of my past don’t matter to him. My efforts to become a good citizen define me in his eyes. He strives to round out my cultural education by exposing me to art, opera, and theater, and he often stresses the importance of fully investing oneself in the community. Although Windward and other prisoners here don’t understand the motivations of a man like Bruce, I see joy in his expressions as he describes the experience of helping others reach their potential.
After the guards at the desk clear me, I walk down the stairs and through the aisles toward where Bruce sits. An aging athlete, he stands to embrace me and I notice his white hair is a little thinner than the last time we met, though his eyes still shine a brilliant blue. He played as an offensive lineman in college football and it’s easy to see how his size and strength would’ve powered open huge holes for his running backs.
“How’ve you been?” I ask.
“I’m well,” he tells me, then says that he heard from Mark. “He told me to send you his regards,” Bruce says, embracing me.
“What’s he doing?”
Mark was released from prison through parole. With the restrictions that prohibit felons from communicating with each other, I’m losing touch with him except for periodic updates from Bruce.
“He’s working for a friend who owns retail clothing stores, doing well. A guy with his moxie always has a place in sales.”
“No more school for him then? He’s not going to finish his degree?”
“I don’t think so. He’s putting his life back together and his plans probably don’t include much more classroom time.”
“That’s all I’m doing, putting in classroom time, and I’m grateful for every minute of it.”
Bruce reaches over the table to tap my arms. “You’re steady at the gym I see. How much are you benching now?”
I beam with pride. “I’m hitting 315 for triple reps, feeling stronger.” I tell Bruce about my schedule, how I’m now working out twice a day, once before breakfast and a second time during the lunch hour.
“When are you eating?”
“I eat at work,” I explain. “Avoiding the chow hall is still a priority for me. That’s where the chaos in here begins, with the racial segregation and the politics, meaning which power group sits in which section. My parents and sisters send me money for commissary, so I buy packs of tuna, soups, other foods that I eat at work. Besides that, I can barter my writing or typing skills for sandwiches from guys who work in the kitchen. Great culinary experiences aren’t my priority now.”
Bruce nods his head and smiles. “What did you think of the Monet prints?”
To teach me about art Bruce sends postcards and magazine articles. He describes the great museums of the world and writes that he looks forward to walking through the Prado with me in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, and the Art Institute of Chicago. He buys me subscriptions to The New Yorker and Smithsonian.
“When you get out I’ve got a whole world to show you. You can visit the Stratford Festival with Carolyn and me in Canada. We’re there twice a year to celebrate the performances of Shakespeare plays.”
“That’s what I need to talk with you about. Getting out.” My time in the visiting room is limited so I feel compelled to turn our conversation to something of more immediate importance. “I’ve got to be thinking about what I’m going to do after I graduate next year.”
“How can I help?”
“Well, a lot’s been on my mind, but I need other people to make things work. I can’t succeed without your help.”
“What’s on your mind?”
I explain to Bruce why and how I need to build a coalition of support.
“Do you want help raising money to hire a lawyer?”
Bruce misses my point so I try to elaborate. “The people who become a part of my network must join me because they believe in me, like you. I’m not interested in buying support by hiring lawyers. What I need to think about is earning support, building new friendships and relationships with people who will support my efforts to earn freedom. I’m not trying to get out now, but I’m trying to position myself for 1997, when I’ll have 10 years in.”
“How should we start?”
“Well, one thing I need is support from someone inside the Bureau of Prisons.”
I explain my relationship with Ms. Stephens and the ways that she has intervened for me on a local level to smooth out complications with her colleagues who block me from receiving library books and other resources I need for my education.
“What I need is the same kind of help from people who have national influence in the system. The obstacle is that I don’t have any direct contact with them. The leaders of the BOP are all in Washington and to them I’m just another prisoner, a number. Ms. Stephens cares because she sees how hard I work, and she goes the extra mile to help me succeed. She believes in me, just as you do.”
“How can someone in the BOP help you?”
“I’m not going to be able to make the progress I need from this prison. There’s way too much violence here and it’s getting worse. We’re on lockdown at least once each week. I want to stay here until I earn my degree, but at some point after graduation I need to transfer, and I need to transfer to the best spot in the BOP for continuing my education. I’ll need help to identify where that place is and then I’ll need help getting transferred there when the time is right.”
“So what’re you thinking?”
“I read an article in an academic journal by Sylvia McCollum,” I explain to Bruce. “She’s the Director of Education for the entire Bureau of Prisons. Her article describes how she created a new policy that makes it mandatory for all federal prisoners who don’t have a high school equivalency to participate in GED classes. I want to build a relationship with her, to get her support. But I can’t just write her a letter because to her I’m simply another drug dealer in prison.”
“That’s not true,” Bruce counters. He always sees the good in everyone and dislikes my cynicism. “She’s going to see the record you’ve been building, your progress in college.”
I shake my head, disagreeing. “It’s not enough. The culture in this organization is one that trains staff members to consider prisoners as something less than human beings. She’ll only see me as a prisoner, a drug dealer, scum. I need to do something more, something to distinguish myself. I was thinking that we could write an article, a response to her article from the perspective of a prisoner and his mentor. It should describe how the GED is one step toward preparing for release, but it’s hardly sufficient. Men who leave prison should emerge with values, skills, and resources that will truly translate into success, and a GED isn’t enough. The Bureau of Prisons should use incentives that will encourage more prisoners to continue their education with college or vocational training.”
“And what’re we going to do with the article? Send it to her?”
“That’s how I need your help. Not only will we have to write the article, I need you to arrange publication. It would be one thing for me as a prisoner to write an article and send it to her. Big deal. On the other hand, if I were to write an article together with you and send it to her, that would carry more weight, more influence because not many prisoners cultivate mentorships with distinguished professors. But the best approach, I think, would be to write an article that we publish together, as the professor and the prisoner. That’s one way I would stand out, one way that she would remember my name, see that I’m different.”
Bruce nods his head and agrees to help. When he returns to Chicago, he promises to make inquiries at the various peer-reviewed academic journals to see what steps we must take to submit an article for publishing consideration. It’s a process that will take several months, which suits my schedule well, as I need that time to finish my undergraduate work.
“What I also need,” I tell Bruce before he leaves, “is a list of all the law schools in the United States. I need to start writing letters to see if any of the schools will allow me to earn a law degree through correspondence.”
“So you’re still set on law school?”
“I’m set on earning an advanced degree, something, anything more than a bachelor’s. I’m going to need unimpeachable credentials that people respect, like yours.”
Bruce is a role model and I’m eager to follow his leadership, to emulate his commitment to society. He told me how he and Carolyn were volunteering their time on weekends to help homeless people in a Chicago shelter write résumés that would facilitate their prospects for employment. Bruce and Carolyn give of themselves, without expectation for return or desire for recognition. Success for Bruce comes when his efforts lead to another person’s independence or happiness. I’m determined to prove myself worthy of his generosity, of the trust and the investment he’s making in me.
This hard plank of steel I’m lying on influences my thought process. I’m locked in this small room with another man who uses the toilet and flushes a few feet to the right of my head. What Bruce and Carolyn do to make life better for so many people gives me a different perspective on humanity. I know that my motivations lack the purity of Bruce’s, as I’m so much more pragmatic. I want out, so there’s always a selfish component to my actions, and that somehow cheapens them in my mind. I contemplate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a concept I learned about in sociology. Until a man satisfies his most basic needs he can’t evolve. My primary need is liberty, and decades may pass before I leave these walls. Everything I do up until then must prepare me for freedom. Perhaps when I’m free from concrete and steel I’ll be able to emulate Bruce more completely. I want to live as that type of a good, kind man. But I don’t know how to reconcile this desire to live with the kindness and generosity of spirit that Bruce exemplifies with the need for survival in a predatory environment.
My philosophy courses have broadened my perceptions, explaining man’s purpose, his relationship to society, his quest for personal fulfillment and enlightenment. I’ve embraced lessons from Aristotle and Sun Tzu among others. Aristotle advises those who follow him “to know thyself,” while Sun Tzu emphasizes that it is equally important “to know thy enemy.”
Know thyself and know thy enemy. I wrestle with these thoughts. I know I must thoroughly understand my strengths and weaknesses. I must use every resource God has given me to become stronger and to grow. Likewise, I must understand my enemies. In my case, the enemies are a corrupting environment, demeaning perceptions, and ugly prejudices I will encounter in the decades ahead, perhaps for the rest of my life. Responsibility to triumph over a system that is designed to extinguish hope and to perpetuate cycles of failure rests with me. Solely.
I’m grateful that Bruce takes the time to visit the American Bar Association in Chicago. He sends me a package of information that includes addresses to every ABA accredited law school in the nation. All of the schools I’ve written to have responded with disappointing news that the ABA prohibits law schools from allowing students to earn law degrees through correspondence. But there’s a sliver of hope that comes in a letter from Dr. Al Cohn, a professor at Hofstra University’s graduate school.
Dr. Cohn wrote that my letter impressed the Dean of Hofstra’s law school, and the dean forwarded the letter to him. Although Hofstra can’t allow me to earn a law degree without attending school there, Dr. Cohn’s letter indicates that he might consider waiving the residency requirement if I pursue a graduate degree. Hofstra has never admitted a prisoner before, he admits, but he admires my determination to educate myself. If I earn my undergraduate degree with an acceptable grade point average, propose an acceptable area of study in which I can specialize, and complete a probationary period of conditional admittance, he will waive the requirements of taking the Graduate Records Examination and on-campus residency. Wow! Dr. Cohn tells me that Hofstra will allow me to earn a master’s degree if I meet those requirements.
I’ve read that roughly 30 percent of American adults have earned university degrees, but fewer than 15 percent have graduate or professional degrees. My aspirations are not to become a lawyer, necessarily, but to earn credentials that others respect. I’m certain that the higher my level of achievement, the more I’ll be able to build a support network, one that will help me transition from prisoner to citizen.
As I contemplate Dr. Cohn’s letter I can’t help but think of Mick Jagger, the rock-and-roll legend. He sings that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. I may not earn a law degree, but with the opportunity extended by Hofstra University I know that nothing is going to stop me from earning a master’s degree.
I pass my fifth Christmas in prison. It’s now 1992, I’m 28, and in only a few months Mercer University will award my undergraduate degree. This is a big deal for me. Out of more than 2,500 men locked inside USP Atlanta’s walls, I’m the only one to receive a degree. In fact, Mercer hasn’t awarded a degree to any prisoner since I’ve been in Atlanta.
I’m inspired by other men who used their knowledge and prison experience to make significant contributions, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn whose eight years in a Russian prison was followed by three years in exile. His hardship awoke his muse, resulting in such classics as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and his opus, The Gulag Archipelago, exposing readers from around the world to Russia’s oppressive prison life.
Eight years, whether in Russian prison camps or the United States penitentiaries, is a long time. Through his literature Solzhenitsyn made monumental contributions to society and earned a Nobel Prize, and he inspires me. As crazy as it sounds, a seed is taking root, and I feel the bud of this thought that maybe, through hard work, I can transform the decades I’ll serve in here into something positive. I’ve begun to accept that I may serve my entire sentence, and I need more examples like Solzhenitsyn’s. Not knowing what I can do for 21 more years, I continue reading about other men who served long sentences.
One such prisoner was Nelson Mandela, the black South African activist locked in prison for 27 years by white authorities between 1962 and 1990. That length of time is comparable to what I may serve, and I take heart that multiple decades did not destroy Mandela. On the contrary, it strengthened his resolve, evidenced by his influence in ending the oppressive policies of Apartheid, and by the position he now holds as a world leader, revered throughout the international community.
I don’t know what it means to be an intellectual like Solzhenitsyn or a leader like Mandela, but I know what it means to face decades in prison. I also know what it means to be a man, and recently I’ve met a woman who’s reminded me of all I’ve been living without.
Her name is Sarah, and she’s a lawyer. We met by chance two months ago when we were in the visiting room at the same time. My father had flown in just before Christmas to spend a weekend with me. Sarah was visiting another prisoner I knew. Under the pretense that I might need some legal advice I asked Sarah for her business card. Yet having lived for so long in an abnormal community of only men, I wanted a woman in my life more than I wanted to know anything about the law.
The dance of seduction begins when I write to her, initiating an exchange of letters. She writes back. At first the correspondence is bland, tame, harmless. Soon the letters between us grow in frequency and in complexity. They’re handwritten now, not typed. I learn that she earned her degrees from NYU, that she contemplates starting her own law firm, and that she’s 30. I also know that she named her cat Snuggles, that she rollerblades, loves aerobics, and is recovering from a broken heart. She’s vulnerable. Through our exchange of letters, I’m coming to know Sarah the woman, and in my world, any connection with a woman is a gift.
Desire creeps into me, threatens me. I’ve been successful in repressing or ignoring these urges that have been dormant for so long, but now they keep me awake. I remind myself where I am, what I went through with Lisa, and the goals I’m working so feverishly to complete.
But another fever takes hold. Every day I ache for a letter from her, for something, any kind of sign that lets me know where this is going, how much I can escalate the heat. I don’t remember what I wrote in the letter she should’ve received today, and like a teenager, I wonder whether I went too far, revealed too much. She must know what’s going on with this exchange of letters, that I want her.
It’s mail call and the guard just flicked her letter beneath my door. I see her stationary, her handwriting, and I pick up the envelope. She wrote her words yesterday, making it an exchange of three letters this week. I’m on her mind. In the words she chooses I catch some suggestive double meanings. My confidence grows. We’re flirting and we both know it, and I want to see her again. I’m a man in the desert and she’s my oasis.
I graduate next month. Mercer University is honoring me with a ceremony. I can’t travel to the campus, so my commencement will take place inside USP Atlanta, in the chapel. A hundred other prisoners will participate, receiving GED certificates or certificates for completion of basic education classes. Even though I’m a class of one, I’m invited to speak as valedictorian. Mr. Chandler authorized me to invite two visitors, and I’m choosing my sister Julie and Sarah. If Sarah accepts it may be the sign I’m looking for, confirmation that the desire I’m feeling is mutual.