Saturday, November 05, 2011

To the Prisoners, With Love

A couple of weeks ago, Boxer and I went up to the Art and Craft Fair at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Boxer was incarcerated for twenty-eight and a half years in all, the first twenty at Angola, so we spent much of the day just hanging out with guys he's known for decades, guys we carry in our hearts, guys that can't leave when we do.

We didn't go to the last Fair, so it had been a year since we saw them. They wondered if we had moved on with our lives and left them behind, as so many others have.

"We went through some changes," I explained. "We split up for a minute, had some things we needed to work through on our own. But now we're back together and ready to reach out from the center again."

They were glad to see us. But some of them had gone through changes, too.

One, we were told, had died of cancer in a matter of months. One would get out in January and was counting the days like a walking calendar. One got out and had already returned.

"Whataya gonna do?" he shrugged with a grin. "It was a bitter pill, but ya gotta just keep goin', right?"

What he wasn't saying, but I heard loud and clear in the tone of his words was that the rapid return was actually a relief. It was complicated, being on the street. The economy sucks. There's no place for him in his family, if they're still around at all. He's not prepared to get or hold a job. He's not used to making even the smallest decisions. And nobody understood him in the world outside of prison except the guys who'd already been there or were on their way back. He got tired of trying to figure it all out. As bad as prison is, it's now the only place he can really exhale. That's the dirty little secret of nearly all recidivists. And nobody knows it better than the guards and the administrators who pay their rent making sure things stay just the way they are.

One guy looked, if possible, even better and stronger and "happier" than he did a year ago. He's doing natural life and trying to get released on a technicality. I talked with his mother for a while and she told me she's doing the time with him. For more than thirty years -- and he's not an old man -- she's been visiting and speaking with him on the phone, encouraging and loving him with the singular focus only a mother can muster. But it takes its toll on her physically, psychologically and emotionally. And she worries about who's gonna be there for him, if something should happen to her.

Her husband (his father) died last winter and the prison administrators not only let him visit his father on his hospital deathbed, but turned around two weeks later and let him leave again for the funeral. He went from the church to the cemetary and on to the house for lunch with all the other mourners, only returning to the prison that evening. Yet he remains a "danger to society."

Another guy we stopped to talk with -- who's also doing natural life -- seemed distracted. He might be slipping away to that place in his head where one goes to give up hoping. But we were moving so fast, I barely caught it until later.

Another lifer, though, -- I'll call him "Danny" -- got my attention big time and follows me around like a phantom. I met him in the spring of 2010 when Boxer first introduced us. We bought a powerful painting from him at the time, which we subsequently hung in our bedroom. And he later gave us a painting which I allowed my sociology club at school to auction off to raise funds for their radical activities. He liked that.

But from what I could gather two weeks ago, he doesn't like much else. He's been down more than thirty years, too, with the rest of his life stretching out in front of him like a long dark tunnel. He appeared before the Board of Pardons and Paroles three years ago and was told to wait seven years before asking again for his freedom. I cannot begin to imagine what possible use seven more years of incarceration could be after already doing thirty. It is obviously an arbitrary and subjective number. It's not based on odds after all this time. What good does it do society to continue to keep him imprisoned? Yet the Board could and did -- quite casually, I'm sure -- relegate him to seven more years as if this was a largely meaningless decision. ("Do you want fries with that?")

His eyes are dull. His facial expression flat. His voice is a monotone. And despite the presence of his grandchildren and his son's mother, the fatigue in his body language related to more than just the fact that he had gotten little sleep the night before in order to prepare for the Fair.

When all the others left, we talked like old friends.

"Don't give up," I said helplessly. "If Boxer and I could survive where we've been and find each other, anything can happen."

"I know," he responded. "You do believe in God, right? I didn't used to pray, but I do now..."

His voice trailed off.

"I do believe in a Force bigger than me," I agreed. "But we have to do the footwork..."

The words came out of my mouth, even while I was kicking myself in the ass in my mind for saying them. What "footwork" could I be referring to when the Board gave him "more time" for no reason, when the plan doesn't include any other instructions or any other benchmarks to strive for? Just do the time and maybe -- maybe -- then we'll let you out. Or not. And you won't know which till the time comes.

Not much to cling to.

On the way home, it poured. Boxer and I don't like to be on the road in the rain and it was not only rainy, but dark. Then I took a wrong turn in Baton Rouge and spent part of the trip afraid we were going to wind up driving around the city endlessly. By the time we arrived at our place, I felt inside like Danny's face had looked. Played out. Frustrated. A little disgusted by life. And fresh out of any ideas about what to do about anything.

As the days slipped by since then, I've had to teach and grade papers, fulfill obligations and meet responsibilities, do what I can to keep the students I mentor focused on social change in meaningful ways, and somehow avoid catching the varied collection of sicknesses that run rampant through the campus during and after midterm exams. Still, I've been thinking about the prisoners, as I so often do. Especially Danny.

I know I haven't been to prison. I only spent one night in jail ever. It was over so fast, I hesitate even to mention it. But I've been talking with and listening to and writing and visiting and reading about and watching movies about and thinking about prison and prisoners for forty years and if it's possible to "get it" without being there, I'm pretty sure I do. I have met some men and women (and heard about others) that spent lots of years behind bars and yet not only survived the process, but did so with dignity and grace. And there are some commonalities. Those are the ideas I'm going to write about in this post.

If you know someone in prison you think would want to read this, please send it inside. I used to write for a newspaper that went from hand to hand inside the walls. We were unfailingly mesmerized at how a piece of news could fly from one prison to another coast to coast with the efficiency of radar, smoke signals, and the telegraph combined. The prisoners often knew things before the mainstream press.  So please pass this on.

I'm not suggesting I have some magic answer. I own no pixie dust. Nor do I purport to. But I love prisoners with an inexplicable constancy. And I long to make their time easier, to the extent that it is possible.

There are circumstances inside (just as there are circumstances outside the walls) that are so painful and so debilitating, they make life almost impossible to bear. As much as I would like to mitigate those circumstances, I know the limitations of any set of ideas. Even so, I have watched human beings survive circumstances beyond their own capacity for doing so. And as a person who has been beaten and beaten up, molested and tortured as a child, raped on multiple occasions as an adult, who has survived the suicide of my father and a husband and the murder of my son, all while trapped in the prison of my own madness because of what I had experienced, I know there is life after weird.

As a Haitian street kid said to me over the phone one day, "Where there is life, there is hope." And anyone who can read these words is alive.

I can't whisk you out of prison over the wall, out of the cell, away from the troubles of your life, but I can tell you what I've learned. If it sounds crazy, remember how I learned it. And keep in mind that others have independently arrived at some of the same conclusions.

Albert Woodfox, for example -- one of the Angola 3 -- tells me every time we visit that if he could go back, knowing what he knows now, after spending forty years in solitary confinement because he wouldn't disavow his Black Panther principles, he wouldn't change a thing because he likes the man he's become through his experiences.

In Killing Time (the story of John Thompson, who did eighteen years on death row for a crime he did not commit), the authors recount the statement of Thomas Lee Ward, a man who was executed shortly after Thompson arrived at Angola:

"In the end, you know, it don't make no difference. Death is comin' and none of us is gonna run fast enough. It's not this cell that keeps me from runnin' either. None of them guards is gonna escape it. Hell, lookin' at some of those fat crackers, I might live longer than they do. It's somethin' else. And the question you gotta ask yourself is: if it's somethin' outside of this cell that controls life or death, then how are you gonna act inside this cell? Death row is a beautiful thing. We got no distractions. We got our lives and our deaths and that's all. And in between, we gotta figure it all out."

In his book, From the Bottom of the Heap, Robert King, also one of the Angola 3, wrote:

"During my twenty-nine years of solitary...I lived out the conclusion that the Black Panther Party's assessment of America...[that power actually does belong to the people and we are empowered en masse to direct or redirect our own course], was correct. Without the Party's appraisal and my own total acceptance of this appraisal, I could not have survived intact those twenty-nine years. I had been given a truth to live by, a truth to cling to...[T]his truth has sustained me. I made a vow to myself that no matter what, I would do my best to live out this truth, even in solitary confinement. I told myself that no matter where one resided in America -- whether in minimum custody (society) or maximum security custody (prison) -- the struggle must continue."

And the struggle is not just the struggle to be free or to free others. The struggle is to become, as Woodfox reminds us, the person we really want to be in a world full of people who are only being what they are told they must or should be.

e.e. cummings wrote: "To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting." He didn't mention prison, but whether we are in a physical prison or "just" a social prison or even a prison inside ourselves (as I was for the first six decades of my life), while that makes it harder to know who we are so we can try to be our true Selves, it does not let us off the hook. And the fight goes on, cummings says, until the day we die.

So how do we fight this fight? How do we face the obstacles before us? How do we stand at the walls that block our progress and not despair?

What Robert King clung to for twenty-nine years in the hole was a perspective that still informs his choices to this moment, a decade after his release. The perspective had to do with the "bigger picture." We can choose to remember that, no matter where we are, we are, in fact, members of the human race and, as such, are playing our parts to make the world a better -- or worse -- place because of our presence in it. We decide.

Albert Woodfox will go without to help other prisoners in need. He teaches men in other cells on his tier to read. He shares books and leads revolutionary discussions. And he is not a saint. He is a person who chooses to live the Black Panther Party principle that our communities (wherever they are) are our responsibility; that each and all of us can use our time and our lives to leave a legacy of love.

Che Guevara wrote: "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality... We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force." That this can be done anywhere and in myriad ways is common knowledge. We have all felt it in our lives, sometimes at most unexpected moments. And it is precisely that knowledge that makes it possible for us to access this truth and this reality and put it into action in our own lives. The result can not only keep one alive, but actually keep one shining.

When my son (himself the leader of a Black street gang) was murdered just short of his 23rd birthday for trying to stop other gangbangers from selling drugs to kids, I could have self-destructed. He was my boy, my revolutionary clone. And the photo of his dead face (since they would not let me see his body) was an agonizing reality I still cannot always get my brain around. Yet I stared down my rage and my anguish with the statement: "This is not the worst thing that ever happened to a human being on the face of the Earth."

I have, as I outlined above, been through a number of things. Yet, I can at any given moment tick off rapidly a long list of situations happening even as I write that I would rate as much, much worse than anything I have ever had to face. Knowing that others have faced and survived so much themselves gives me hope that I will continue to find within me all the resources I need to keep my sense of perspective so I do not lose my way.

Last night, I had the joy of sharing an evening with friends who are committed to work for social change. One of them told a story about poverty-stricken people in the mountains of Nepal who, though they have no access to electricity or any of the other things we think we cannot live without, though they live out their lives in isolation from even the middle class urban citizens of their own country, nevertheless they say of the revolution they wage, "Even if we do not succeed, we must do this for the world."

These ideas remind us that we -- like the Nepalese revolutionaries -- are inescapably connected to all life and all other humans (even the ones we don't like very much) and cannot be disconnected by anyone or anything regardless of indications to the contrary.  Further, they also remind us that we are in control of our perspective. It was prisoners in a maximum security women's penitentiary in South Florida that taught me that how I think about things creates my belief system; that I then act in given ways because of what I believe to be true; and that I become the person who develops as a direct result of those actions. When the members of the Angola 3 focus their thoughts on the ongoing struggle against injustice and for unity, their belief in those principles manifests itself as actions which have then turned them into role models for all the rest of us.

Martial arts practicianers tell their acolytes, "Don't seek to break the brick. Look beyond the brick. Then put your hand where you are looking. When your hand reaches the spot you are looking at, the brick will have been broken."

One of the reasons this is true is that what we plant grows. If we plant beans, beans grow. If we plant corn, corn grows. I'm not suggesting that nothing bad ever happens to good people. Nor am I suggesting that once we plant mayhem, we can never plant anything else. But I am working on a daily basis these days not to plant anything I don't want to have growing in my life.

In the past, I made some less than stellar decisions, but today, I know better. So I get no excuses. Fire will cook my dinner or my gizzard and it has no feelings one way or the other about either. Consequently, it's on me to sow what I want to reap.

I used to point at all the miseries of my life and tell myself that I couldn't do any better than I was doing because of them. I have changed my perspective and, while it's not foolproof, I am more free of craziness in my life than I've ever been. As a matter of fact, I'm positively dazzled on occasion at how things unfold in ways I could not possibly have engineered and I have become convinced that everything -- small and large -- in my life is somehow connected to everything else. I now believe that the smallest seed I plant can pop up as the most unexpectedly lovely flower. And conversely, I believe that if I do something that my gut told me not to do, it may not only produce something I don't want, but it may further stop something good from coming to me and I will never even know what I missed. Does all this sound like mumbo-jumbo? Maybe. Does it seem to be working anyway? Yeah.

I realize that prisoners can and do argue that prison guards, admininistrators, judges, prosecuting attorneys, other prisoners, and so on have tremendous power over their lives, leaving them helpless and hopeless. If you read the litany of my life events again, you know I'm familiar with what helpless and hopeless feels like. Even as an adult, when the internal revenue service demanded $7500 they swore I owed them and didn't have, when a very fancy house I co-owned was destroyed and abandoned (unbeknownst to me) and I was left holding the bag a week before foreclosure, when my husband du jour had his hands around my neck in a motel room in a city where I knew no one, or when I was writhing in agony on the floor of a hospital emergency room with a shot-out gall bladder and no health insurance, I felt helpless and hopeless, but I am still here and if you're reading this, you are, somehow, still here, as well.

So what are you going to do with the rest of your life? What if you have to live it where you are?

I have diabetes. It doesn't run in my family. I wasn't overweight when I crossed the line. I was eating pretty well and was active in my life style. Yet, I came down with a progressive and terminal illness that constrains my life, restricts my choices in the most basic ways, requires constant consideration, and will eventually kill me (if something else doesn't get me first). Am I going quietly into that good night (as Dylan Thomas wrote)? Not by a long shot. I'm gonna go down swinging.

When the illusion that I am lost and alone wells up around me, one of the techniques I use is acknowledging what I'm grateful for. On a good day, I'm grateful for lots of stuff. On a more problematic day (like the day a few months ago when I was informed on a Thursday that I would be having half my thyroid removed surgically the following Tuesday), I had to get a bit more creative with it. One of the things I came up with that day to be grateful for was that if I died on the operating table or learned I had cancer (which they told me was a possibility), I felt as if all the inner turmoil I needed to resolve from my screwed up childhood had been resolved. See what I mean?

Some days, the best I can do is to be grateful that I didn't walk into a post office and start shooting people. Some days, I'm incredibly grateful that the rain has finally stopped. Or that I got a decent night's sleep the night before. Or that I woke up at all, considering my past. But the more I focus on what is good in my world, the more I see to focus on and the more unfolds -- again quite magically in some cases -- that I'm pleased with and sometimes even amazed by.

Another technique some (and I) have used, is writing and repeating affirmations. For a period of five years earlier in my life, I wrote an affirmation every morning in response to whatever was going on or what I was dealing with at that moment. Unfortunately, a lot of folks seem to think affirmations are sort of a grandiose form of ignoring reality. For example, they might go around repeating over and over: "I'm incredibly, wonderfully healthy" when they're obviously on their last legs. That's not an affirmation. That's denial. An affirmation in the case just mentioned might be (and there could be thousands of them): "Everything I need to be healthy is on its way to me right now." In other words, an affirmation is a statement that does not ignore reality, but instead places that reality in the context of a greater reality. So, when my son died, I wrote as my affirmation for that day, "Every ending is a beautiful new beginning."

Last spring, when I was exhausted pretty much twenty-four/seven because I was way, way overbooked and couldn't cut back for the moment, my diabetes started acting up and the news about the thyroid surgery hit me harder than it might otherwise have done. I reminded myself about all the stuff I've just written in this blog post, hoping to get some peace. But I didn't. I tried telling myself to "trust the process", but I didn't. So I finally said to the Universe/Creative Life Force/Yahweh/God/Goddess/Higher Self/Higher Power or whatever I was calling it that day, "Please.  Give me the grace to trust the process." And I got it. Did it make my diabetes stop what it was doing or grade my papers or make the surgery unnecessary? Nope. But I got a certain calm that let me walk through it all to the other side.

While I was writing this, Albert Woodfox called and I told him what I was writing about. I hope he isn't put off by the "New Age" quality some might see in it. But I'm, if anything, a pragmatic soul. I believe that whatever it is that has made it possible for him to survive forty years in the hole is a force worth believing in. We compare notes -- Albert and Boxer and I and whoever else we come across in our process of evolution -- and holding hearts, if not always hands, we reach into the future of the human race together, confident in the belief that change (personal or social), however slow, is constant. Look for it. Work for it. Celebrate it. And know when you do that you are at that moment One with every other person on the planet who looks for and works for and celebrates it, too.
NOTE: The graphic above is a lithograph by Julius T. Bloch entitled Prisoner, 1930's.


Brotha Wolf said...

Excellent and moving post, Changeseeker.

Changeseeker said...

Thank you, Brotha Wolf. It means a lot that you think so.

RealEyesRealize said...

Thank you for sharing your blog site. This one was wonderful and I look forward to reading many more. If anyone took your course and isn't changed or their heart hasn't been touched, I'd be very surprised. You are a wonderful person and I wish the world had more people like you in it.

Changeseeker said...

Welcome to the neighborhood, RealEyes. Your kind words will keep me going.