Thursday, January 18, 2018

What A Difference A Day Makes


Yesterday, I got out of bed at 6 am. It was 66 degrees in my apartment. It was 16 outside. And -- when I looked at the clock, I realized that I didn't have electricity. That meant: no heat, no coffee, no hot breakfast, no hot shower, no internet, no way to charge my phone, no Netflix or Amazon Prime, and no music. Then, after taking my morning poop, I found out the pipes had frozen and I had used my one flush getting rid of my 6 am pee. 

This morning, I got out of bed at 6 am. It was 71 degrees in my apartment. It was 20 outside. As I turned up the heat, turned on the lights so I could read the paper, made coffee and breakfast, booted my laptop, and settled back into my my dark blue leather desk chair, I remembered how un-fun yesterday's get-up had been. "Wow," I thought, "I take a lot of things for granted."

And then I thought about those who woke up in an ice cold cell this morning, behind bars, without enough clothes or blankets, standing on a concrete floor, hungry (but still recuperating from the food poisoning they got from what they were given to eat yesterday), out of snacks, out of stamps, out of soap, out of money, facing two consecutive dimes with nobody left who cares...

I got no pixie dust. There are literally millions of prisoners in this country -- waiting to be arraigned, to see their lawyer, go to court, go to count; get a letter, get a kite, get a summons, get a beating. Some have lost their hope. Some have lost their minds. Some have lost their will to fight or even their will to live. Some have nothing left but their will to live.

Still, one thing I've learned from prisoners and ex-prisoners since my first conversation with Popeye Jackson in San Francisco in the fall of 1970 is that some of them have honed the art of focus to a fine, fine point. I know one guy who was doing three life sentences for his work as an anti-capitalist/anti-racist terrorist. He walked out of the federal system after 25 years because he stayed focused. And he never stopped organizing all those years either.

They let him out with five years on parole in the city where he was infamous for a shoot out with the cops while trying to break a comrade out of jail. Every thirty days until his parole was up, he hand-delivered his monthly report to his P.O. in person, face to face. Neither rain nor snow nor sleet kept him from his appointed rounds. That's focus.

And he's not the only one, of course. If you pay attention at all, you know that prisoners get released every day, even the ones who weren't "supposed to," even the ones who worked for decades to get out, with no guarantee it would ever happen.

Next month, we'll celebrate the 2nd anniversary of Albert Woodfox getting out. He was released on his 69th birthday, so the celebration will feature presents and a cake with candles and, over time, the release date connotation will take a back seat to the birthday. But after seven years of visiting this Black Panther Party icon who did more than 43 years in solitary confinement because they couldn't break him, it's that out-date I still treasure.

The party will be at his house. That's right. He owns his own home now. In the 9th ward in New Orleans. With a jacuzzi in the master bedroom bath. With a Lincoln in the driveway. Having just returned from yet another round of journalistic interviews and speaking gigs in Europe.

His life story is coming out in book form -- maybe late this year. And he's talking with Hollywood types about a film on the Angola 3. But in the meantime, he's hanging out with his grandkids like an ordinary person might. And that's my point. It can happen. Former Angola Prison Warden Burl Cain and former Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell (who formed an unholy alliance committed to seeing him die in prison) are old news now, gone from the scene. He beat 'em and kept on going.

A more recent case I got involved with is of a Black man convicted of a rape back in the 1970s on the testimony of the victim alone and sentenced to do life without parole. Despite the fact that the victim eventually recanted, the DA office that handled the case wouldn't budge and five governors refused to act on the recommendation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles to release him forthwith. Until a couple of months ago, that is, when he was quietly ushered out of prison with zero fanfare and no prior notice.

He's already been on a cruise with his family, celebrated his first free Christmas and New Year's Eve holidays in 37 years, and he's talking with local folks about setting up a program for newly released prisoners. He's been to the movies, to dinner, to a play at the university. He's tail-gated before a football game and he's toying with the idea of getting a Harley Davidson cruiser when the weather gets warm. They meant for him to die in there, but he's not.

Finally, those of you who've been reading this blog for a while may remember me referring to my relationship with Boxer, a man who had done 28 years (most of it at Angola) and who had only been out twelve months when I met him. We were together off and on about four years until we parted in 2013. But Boxer got his name from being a heavyweight champion and then training a world class boxing team -- all inside the walls.

Today, he's a happily married church member who has his own boxing gym and is the trainer and inspiration for a whole group of young up-and-coming men and women boxers, including a young pro who's undefeated in the WFC at 168 pounds. 

All four of these men were innocent of the charges for which they were sentenced and punished for decades. It didn't matter. All of them lost much of what could and should have been their lives as free men. Nevertheless, they each found a purpose for themselves inside. And in the process of fulfilling that purpose, they learned a number of things -- not the least of which was how to stay focused.

This may not mean much to the millions of prisoners still inside. But I offer this post to say that no matter what you're suffering right now, no matter what you have to survive, no matter what they tell you will never happen, walls come down, too. I've seen it. And it's a beautiful thing.

Stay focused.

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