Monday, November 24, 2008


Dateline: October 20, 2008


When I’d served about seven years in prison I was addressing a group of “outside” Christian volunteers, telling them about life in prison. I did a lot of that in those early years, speaking to numerous groups of college students, professors, juvenile delinquents, reporters, legislators, volunteers, government officials, and many others. Seven years seemed like an awfully long time to spend in prison in those days, since previous to the “minimum – mandatory 25 – year” sentences, a “life” sentence was considered about seven years. Little did I know that seven years in prison wasn’t even a warm-up for the thirty-plus years I’ve served in continuous imprisonment so far.

After I’d made my statement to that group of men from Tampa, we had a question and answer session. I told them they could ask me anything.

One man seemed especially uncomfortable and bothered. We were about the same age and size, he was bright and well-spoken, and side by side, we could have been mistaken for brothers. He was married, with a beautiful wife and child, had a well-paying job and a nice home in an exclusive neighborhood, was active in his church, living out the American Dream.

I had seen it before. I wasn’t the illiterate, drug-addled junkie-dropout from the projects, the image many “citizens” had of the typical prisoner who they could feel sorry for, who’d been deprived and victimized by society, but instead was an educated white man who bore too close a resemblance to themselves. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

On this day my troubled new friend – his name was Denny – asked me what I’ve been asked many times over the years. He shook his head, told me that he could never do this, serve time, and asked, “How do you do it? How do you do all this time?”

I answered him, “Like a man. You do it like a man, Denny.” I couldn’t describe it any more briefly than that. It seemed to satisfy him. And that was true. You do it like a man. Be strong. Be forthright and resolute, maintain your moral values, never compromise with evil, never take the first bite from the apple, for when you do, you are lost.

The years fluttered by like a calendar in one of those old movies where the dates flash across the years in a blur. Seven years became ten, ten became twenty, twenty became thirty. It seemed like forever, a lifetime. It was. It still is.

It’s curious how people react differently to you when they learn how incredibly long you’ve been in prison. People expect you to be scarred, toothless, diseased, covered in tattoos, broken down, a mere husk of a man. It is beyond their comprehension that I have survived this long, seemingly unscathed. I’ve heard it countless times from other prisoners, staff, and free people – “Why are you still in prison? You don’t belong here.” Amen. I agree. But here I am.

I’ve asked that question myself many times, and the preacher-types I’ve asked have usually said something along line of “God has a plan for your life.” And when God’s plan for me is fulfilled, I’ll be released. Not to be so bold as to second-guess God, but I’ve also asked several times why couldn’t God in His infinites wisdom have a plan for my life in freedom? No answer.

It took me a long time, but after years and years of trying to do the right thing, as some singer once said, I realized why I am here, in prison. It became so clear.

I am here to bear witness. I am here to pay attention, observe, document, record, and bear witness to what happens inside prison. I know no one else here who is able or willing to do it, so the task falls to me. I’d been doing it for years already, but I didn’t realize why. I’ve been locked up, deprived, threatened, and transferred to distant prisons far from home for bearing witness, and still I didn’t stop. I slowed down and licked my wounds a few times, but I never quit. And I won’t quit now. I will keep bearing witness to this evil place until they run me out, then I’ll do it “out there.” I’ll keep telling the world how it is, so perhaps one day this will change for the better. It is a small sacrifice to endure.

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