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Joker

I met Joker in a poker game at Walton Correctional in 2009. He was fresh out of confinement and new in my dorm. Other than him annoyingly trying to muscle every pot, I don’t remember much about the game. I have no idea whether I won or lost or who else was at the table. What stands out the most about that night is walking past his bunk after lights-out and seeing him on his knees, praying.

I’m not sure why this gave me pause. Ever heard the saying “there are no atheists in a foxhole”? The same can be said for the joint. Prisoners pray. It’s kinda our thing. Prayer is as commonplace as chow hall hotdogs and rec yard stabbings. I guess I just didn’t expect to see it five minutes after a poker game.

I had to ask. “You a Christian or something?”

He shrugged. “I’m praying that my mom stays alive until I come home.”

Joker’s mom is Ernestina. La Jefita. He has her name tattooed on him. Twice. What can I say? The man loves his momma. And anyone who loves their momma is all right in my book.

We became close over the years, me and Joker. Ran a parlay ticket together, ate together, worked out together. I also got to know his family. His brothers and sister, his kids, Ernestina… They live in a little Texas town called Mission near the southern border crossing at Reynosa. Whenever they made their annual trips to Florida to visit Joker, they would stop by my mom’s house with gifts from the region. I still have pictures in my photo album of his little brothers tagging up Graffiti Bridge in Pensacola, Rio Grande Valley style. And when his sister gave birth to her youngest son, she named him Christopher Malcolm, after me. One of the biggest honors of my life. They even call him “Cici” which is what everyone calls me. Except for Ernestina. She calls me “mijo,” short for “mi hijo,” Spanish for “my son.”

In 2015 Joker and I were transferred to different prisons and time did its thing. We still sent cards on special occasions, but by 2018 even that had stopped. I was busy writing books, he was getting close to his release date, his daughter had a baby, his little brothers were growing up. Life was happening.

Then last year I received an ominous message from his sister: Ernestina had to have her leg amputated. Complications from diabetes. It hurt to think about this sweet lady who loved going to dances and playing with her nietos enduring such unimaginable trauma. Unfortunately, things did not improve. Earlier this year, she had a stroke. When I called Mission and got to speak with her, she was crying. Her normal machine gun Español was slowed to an unrecognizable slur. The only words I could make out were in English. “I love you, mijo.” I kept telling her to hang on. That Joker would be home soon. And he would be. April 30 was his release date.

Sadly, Ernestina died on April 15.

Two weeks from the finish line, my good friend who prayed every night for his mother’s health, lost his Jefita.

This Sunday when I’m in visitation celebrating Mother’s Day with my own sweet mom, I will also be honoring the woman who called me Mijo. And my family in south Texas who are spending their first Mother’s Day without her.

 

Menu

The dude in the next bunk is named Menu. That’s not his government name, but in here nicknames are all that matter. He earned the handle because of the way he takes great pride in coming back from early chow and announcing what’s for dinner.

“All right y’all, listen up!” He pumps chain gang chili mac, beans and carrot coins as if it’s five-star cuisine.

Menu has been to prison seven times. He started smoking crack in the 80s and has been enslaved ever since. Well, at least all the way up till 2015 when he was released the last time.

When you’re released from a Florida prison and you’re indigent, you get $50 bucks and a Greyhound ticket to begin the next chapter of your life. The first five times Menu arrived at the Tampa bus station, he made a beeline straight to the dopeman. On the sixth, he decided to take a different road. One that substituted the temporary bliss of the crack pipe for a job, a home, and church on Sundays. In the land of happy endings this would’ve been enough. In the Sunshine State, not so much.

Here we have outdated war-on-drugs laws still on the books, probation and parole officers trained to violate first and ask questions later, and prison profiteers kicking out big bucks to keep bodies in bunks.

In 2017 Menu was working overtime for a renovation company and missed his curfew. This is what’s known as a technical violation, meaning no law was broken, just a rule. He was still arrested. Despite 21 consecutive clean urinalyses, a vouching boss, and a probation officer who recommended reinstatement, Menu was sent back to prison for violating the terms of his parole. This is how our paths crossed.

I’ve never met a gentler spirit. Despite growing up in the Jim Crow south, despite his decades-long battle with addiction, despite serving multiple terms in one of the most violent prison systems in America, Menu has somehow managed to remain untouched by hate and bitterness. I wish there were more people like him in here. Hell, I wish I were more like him.

He’s read all four of the Ivey novels and is taking an autographed copy with him when he gets out next month. I feel kinda stupid autographing a book, like I’m Hemingway or somebody, but he insists. And believe me, he never insists on anything. In fact, the entire time we’ve been living next to each other, my locker has been stocked with food, coffee and hygiene items bought with money sent by my loved ones, while his has been virtually empty except for his Bible. Yet he won’t accept so much as a saltine cracker. See why I can’t refuse? I’m just happy he finally asked for something.

He actually asked for two things. He wanted me to help him write to the halfway and transition houses in the Tampa area for a place to go when he gets out. So that’s what I’ve been doing this week. Writing letters seeking room and board for an elderly gentleman who will be starting from scratch in a month. I can’t even imagine what that’s like. Getting out of prison with nothing and no one. Happens everyday, though.

Sometimes I forget how blessed I am.

(Next up: Mi hermanito. Joker.)

Viejo

Picture a freeway in some metropolitan city. Traffic zooming at 90 mph in both directions. Revving engines, blaring horns, road rage. Sleek little sports cars maneuvering around SUVs and trucks, with even faster motorcycles weaving in and out of tight spaces. Chaos. Now picture a rusty little El Camino chugging along in the right lane, doing 55. That’s my friend Viejo on the soccer field.

Soccer is my sport. Always has been. And if you’re one of those people who considers soccer soft, I bet an afternoon on the rec yard would change your mind. Make you a believer. It can get pretty brutal. Twenty or so prisoners, many serving life, mostly from places like Mexico, Honduras, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, Colombia… Some wearing state-issued boots, some in hand-me-down tennis shoes, some barefoot, all highly skilled, on a field of scorched clay and patchy grass with sand spurs that collect on the rolling ball like hitchhiker assassins (ever had a sand spur lodged in your forehead? Ouch!). Fights erupt frequently, dirty play is a given, and the uneven terrain is murder on the ankles and knees. It was in one of these violent games that I first met Viejo.

January 2017. I was new to this camp and determined to establish my dominion on the field. I’m no ordinary guero. My nickname is “Salvaje.” Legendary defender, known throughout the state. I was eager to prove this. I might’ve been a little overzealous though. Just a smidge. Because this sneaky little Guatemalan grandfather-type was hanging out near the goal and when they passed him the ball, I drove, he juked… and scored. Easily.

“Haha,” he said as he ran off, “sucker!”

His teammates celebrated. To be honest, my teammates celebrated, too. Even some dudes on the track applauded. I was probably the only one glowering. The next time they passed him the ball, I was ready. I broke hard and intercepted it just before it reached his little size 7 shoe.

“Ah la Madre!” he cried as he fell down and gripped his knee in a classic World Cup flop. All play stopped. Time stopped. Trust me, you don’t want to be the big bald bearded outsider who injures Viejo. I imagined the rustle of knives being pulled from waistbands and hidden pockets while my death was discussed in several dialects of Spanish. Miraculously, he popped back up. Well… as much as one can pop at his age.

“It’s okay,” he said in his horrible English, still limping a bit just to sell the performance. Then, in the waning moments of his Oscar-caliber grimacing, he flashed me a quick mischievous smile.

Viejo means old man in Spanish. He was born on Christmas Day. I know this because last December he made it a point to tell everyone on the yard, “Today is my happy birthday!” Just a side note here: When I say that Viejo speaks horrible English, that’s not an exaggeration. The only words he has mastered are the same ones you got in trouble for when you were a third-grader. And he lets those fly with naval precision and almost flawless enunciation.

Yeah, Viejo is a character. But he wasn’t always Viejo. Before that he was just plain old “Guate,” a Guatemalan immigrant who made the long trek north seeking a better life. He found one, too. Or he built one. I’ve seen all his pictures. Three grown children and four grandchildren, all American citizens. He’s the only person in his family who does not have citizenship. And now he’s facing deportation back to a poverty stricken country that he hasn’t seen since the 1980s.

When I showed him my novels and told him that I’m an escritor, he pointed out that the name on the books is some gringo named Malcolm. I think he still thinks I’m full of shit. But he always comes to my bunk when he needs help with a request or some other form. I’m his designated writer. I wish I could file some motion so that he could be released to his family. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks I can. I hope not.

Prison is the great equalizer. It forces people of all ages, races, and religions to be tolerant of one another. The system just throws thousands of us, millions of us, into these warehouses and says “There you go. Coexist!” Most still gravitate toward their own groups, but not always. Just as 30-year-old Josh is like a little brother, and 21-year-old Eli is like a son, 73-year-old Viejo is like a granddaddy. I’m already planning a trip to Guatemala in 2023.

(Next up: my neighbor. Menu.)

Eli

I’m institutionalized. I admit it. I never thought it would happen to me, but all these years on my bunk, in my cell, in my head are adding up. Writing has been both a blessing and a curse. The same craft that pulled me out of my old self-destructive bullshit, gave me transcendental hope, discipline, and structure has also made me insular, cynical, even crotchety. To the point where I prefer the company of the characters in my notebook over the real live people around me.

But no one writes in a vacuum. Not for long at least. Life informs art. And after four novels it got to the point where I felt like I was tapping an empty well, not to mention becoming a grumpy old convict. Things got so bad that I set a New Year’s resolution for 2019 to connect more, to laugh more, to find the humor in any given situation. Not just because it would make me a better writer but because it would make me a better man.

The universe heard and sent me Eli.

Most people enter prison dorms tentatively, if not fearfully. You never know what you’re walking into. Not Eli. He blew through the door with an infectious smile, slapping backs, shaking hands and high-fiving everyone that crossed his path. Mostly handshakes though. High-fives are difficult to pull off when you’re only 5 foot 5.

The son of a Senegalese father and a Jamaican mother who died when he was four, Eli is now 21 years old and serving 15 mandatory in prison. We have the exact same charges. I have often wondered how any judge could listen to Eli speak and still banish him to a prison cell for so many years. Especially considering how he easily could have been classified as a youthful offender and given no more than six.

The day after he moved into the dorm, he walked over to my bunk. “I heard you write books. I’d like to read one.” He gobbled up all four in a week. Then he devoured every other novel in my locker. David Mitchell, Donna Tartt, Nathan Hill, David Foster Wallace… not exactly light reading. Now he’s working on his own novel. An urban Game of Thrones set in Gangland America. He’s been interviewing gangbangers for material. It’s amazing to watch him penetrate the hearts and minds and histories of these violent men. The most stoic, militant, knife-scarred murderers open up to Eli like he’s Diane Sawyer. And it’s not just them. It’s everyone. Inmates and officers alike. Dudes that I have never exchanged a word with in the two-plus years I’ve lived in this dorm, dudes that NOBODY speaks to, I’ll look around and see Eli on their bunks, legs swinging, deep conversation, pondering the cosmos.

It ain’t all sunshine though. He’s taken his lumps. He’s already been in a couple fights. Prison is a difficult place to be when you’re 21 years old. Even if you’re as bright and personable as Eli. ESPECIALLY if you’re as bright and personable as Eli. A lot of people don’t know what to make of this eloquent, black surfer kid who’s just as fluent in Indie rock as he is in hip hop, who’s just as conversant in geopolitical affairs as he is in pop culture, who refuses to conform to anyone’s notion of how he should talk or act or be. Even mine. I give him instruction, he nods sagely, says “got it!” then proceeds to do the exact opposite of whatever I said. Doesn’t he realize that I know the game? That I can spare him years of misery? That I’ve been doing this prison thing since before he was born? Makes me think of how frustrated my family must have been when I was young and inexperienced and hell-bent on running head first into walls.

But he’s so much farther along than I was at his age. I wish I would’ve started writing at 21. I’d like to think I inspired Eli, that my books were tangible, physical evidence that even in this hopeless place, we can dream big. The truth is likely less syrupy. He’s probably in it for the chicks. Either that or he read my shit and thought, “This is whack. I can do better.” Hey, whatever it takes. I wouldn’t doubt him. (Do kids say “whack” anymore? I’ll have to ask him.) While he’s absolutely one of the most hardheaded people I’ve ever met, he’s also one of the most intelligent. He gives me hope for the next generation. To quote the great Wally Lamb, “I know this much is true…” if I had a son, I hope he would be like Eli.

(Next up: Viejo. My 72-year-old Guatemalan soccer teammate.)

 

Josh

I’m so sick of talking about self-mastery… and the redemptive power of writing… and race. Ugh, race. I wrote a 140,000-word novel on the subject and still feel no closer to closure. How about Trump? Anybody wanna argue some more about Trump? Such an easy target. Lately, I’ve been noticing how all my essays adapt this stuffy, professorial tone. Like I’ve got it all figured out. Weird how I do that. Especially since I’m writing them from my bunk which, let’s be honest, is a clear indicator that I don’t know jack.

There is, however, one subject that I’m fluent in: Prison life. After two long bids and a quarter-century behind the razor wire, I feel like I have a PhD in this violent little microcosm of civilization. Since it’s the anniversary of my last arrest (March 2005) and my time is finally winding down, I figured I’d write about some of the people who populate my world… Starting with Mustafa.

Crazy name, right? Mustafa is his Muslim name. His real name is Josh. And he’s the smartest person I know. I can guess what you’re thinking: The yard is not exactly a Mensa convention. Agreed. Still, I think you’d be surprised.

I used to walk the track with a dude who taught literature at a state university. And every compound has a few former doctors and lawyers that walk among the uneducated and gang affiliated.

Not that all gang members are uneducated. Josh was a gang member. He was 16 when he got locked up. And that’s what young Latino men are expected to do when they come to prison, join gangs. So he did. It didn’t hurt his résumé that he’d been boxing since he was 12 and was a technician with his hands. One of the first things you notice about him are the words “Thug Life” tattooed across his knuckles. So misleading…

At age 24, right around eight years into a mandatory 25-year prison sentence, he found himself alone in a confinement cell, hungry, lonely, miserable, cut off from his brothers, cut off from his family, cut off from the world. His only company was a paperback someone had left under the mat, a book on the Jewish religion called The Road Less Traveled. He read it. Then he prayed the prayer that most of us humans pray in our darkest hour. There was no bolt of lightning, no sun breaking free from the clouds, no cliché calm that fell over him. But if there was a watershed moment in his life, a pivot point between the unconscious gangbanger he was and the brilliant young man I call my friend today, that night was it.

The way back was gradual. Ground was gained incrementally. He spent two weeks in his bunk healing from the beating he took upon renouncing his affiliation. Then he went to the chapel. Ironic that a confirmed Catholic who found God via a Jewish book in confinement finally settled on Islam as his spiritual path.

But it’s not jailhouse religion that makes him unique, it’s what he’s accomplished. He’s now a GED tutor with an unbelievable success rate. Once his students have demonstrated a firm grasp of the required criteria, he pushes them even further. He teaches them physics. He’s teaching ME physics. In addition to English and Spanish, he’s fluent in Italian and is now tackling Japanese. But the coolest thing about Josh is his ability to impersonate any inmate or guard on the compound. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Keeps me rolling. Keeps my time moving.

It could’ve gone either way. A 16-year-old gangbanger with a 25-year mandatory sentence does not have much incentive to evolve. Not in a beneficial direction at least. But against all odds, Josh has.
I’m proud to call him my friend.

(Next up, Eli. A half-Senegalese, half-Jamaican, 21-year-old surfer with the sunny demeanor of a Walmart greeter and the hardheadedness of an eighth grader.)

A soul feels its worth

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGChapter 39 from Sticks & Stones:
They moved like thieves in the pre-dawn hours. Silent. Efficient. She helped him lug the enormous boxes from his garage to her living room. He helped her wrap a supply line of unrecognizable twenty-first-century toys and other digitalia.

After the last gift was taped, tagged, and tied with a ribbon, they retired to her couch, sipping coffee that was more cream and sugar than caffeine.

Sunrise came in shafts of iridescence, blending with the Christmas lights, caressing her face. She sat with her knees tucked beneath her.

The work had been a distraction. But now that the presents were stockpiled beneath the tree, yesterday’s revelation emerged from the stillness and settled between them on the couch like an awkward guest. Though uncomfortable and unreciprocated, he did not regret telling her the truth of his feelings for her. If anything, he felt invigorated. Set free. Like he’d just faced down some bully on the yard.

She took a sip from her mug. “Thanks for helping. I should’ve wrapped them weeks ago.”

“Are you kidding? This is the most fun I’ve had in the last thirty years. Except for that blind date with what’s-her-face.”

Her tired eyes sparkled. “Stop.”

He glanced at the staircase. “Do they still believe in Santa Claus?”

She shook her head. “Evan hasn’t since he was eight. Maddy found out last year. Ooh, you wanna talk about one angry little girl? So insulted. I think she felt betrayed for not being in on the secret.”

A Maddy montage paraded across his mind: wiping out on her bicycle, laughing in the back of his truck, practicing cosmetology on his porch, shredding in the music store, scooping the loaded gun, running for her life.

A few short months ago he wondered about adjusting to society after so many years in a cage. How would he fit in? Where did he belong? Sitting next to her on the couch, Christmas morning, he knew the answer.

There was a thump upstairs, followed by muffled voices and the squeaky hinge of a door. Evan yawned on the landing then Maddy appeared next to him. They paused for a moment, soaking it in, then raced down the stairs and collapsed in front of the tree.

Evan picked up a present and read the tag. “This one’s yours, Maddy.”

She tore off the wrapper. It was a telescope. “Mom!” she squealed, her voice hitting an octave of Mariah Carey proportions. “You said I wasn’t old enough!”

Brooke smiled at her daughter.

“Cool!” said Evan upon discovering the Hoverboard. “Thanks, Mom!”

The living room quickly filled with wrapping paper as they ripped into gift after gift. Video games, a mini kitchen, camo pajamas, Hello Kitty pajamas, Legos, roller blades.

“Hey Mason, this one’s for you.”

He opened it carefully, some sort of high-tech coffee maker from Brooke. “Thanks. Now you’ll have to teach me how to use it.”

She smiled without meeting his eyes.

“Whoa,” said Maddy. “What are these big ones?”

Two large boxes were set back from the tree, flush with the wall.

Brooke raised an eyebrow. “I think those are from Mason.”

Evan pushed past his sister.

“Hey, that’s not nice.”

Brooke seconded the motion. “Evan…”

“Sorry,” he said, ripping the paper from the box. Then he gasped. “It’s the same one … from the mall!”

Mason nodded. “We’ll have to assemble it. All the weights are in my garage. I’ll bring them down in the truck later.”

He stared at the picture on the box, a buff military type was pumping iron. Evan looked back at him with a smile that could have shattered his glasses. “Thanks man!”

Maddy’s box was taller than she was. By the time she got it open she was almost hyperventilating. She removed the pink Fender like a holy sacrament. “Mason,” she swallowed. “Is it mine?”

He laughed. “Yeah.”

“But how did you afford it? You’re ‘posed to be poor.”

“Madison…” scolded Brooke.

The little girl came flying across the coffee table and landed in his lap. Her hug was worth a thousand guitars. “This is the best Christmas ever!”

Brooke smiled at him from the other end of the couch.

He patted Maddy’s back. “There’s more presents under the tree.”

She struggled to her feet and rejoined her brother on the living room floor. Evan held up a shrink-wrapped box. “Is this for my drone? Awesome!”

A knock on the front door made them pause.

Brooke stood, smoothing her sweatpants. “I’ll get it.”

He watched her disappear down the hall. Moments later she returned with Blane.

“Well well,” the attorney sneered over a stack of gifts. “Something told me you might be here. Had I known for certain, I would have bought you a gift. Some deodorant perhaps.”

“Likewise,” Mason shot back. “I could have gotten you some teeth whitener.”

“Guys, please,” Brooke urged him with her eyes. “It’s Christmas.”

“Indeed it is,” Blane selected a gift from his stack and passed it to Evan. “So without further ado … young man? I believe this is yours.”

Evan unwrapped the package and held up a Guitar Hero video game.

Blane winked and nudged him. “Huh? Huh?”

Maddy smirked and hugged her Fender. “I got a real guitar.”

“And so you do,” Blane handed her a gift. “But do you have this?”

She tore off the wrapping paper, frowned at the box and cast it aside. “I don’t like dolls.”

With a pinched facial expression he presented Brooke with a flat box in elegantly wrapped paper. She sat on the couch and arranged the gift on her knees.

“Open it,” he urged, his face smug again.

She worked a fingernail beneath the tape and slid the box free. Maddy nuzzled up next to her as she lifted the lid and folded back the tissue paper.

“Ooohh,” said the little girl. “It’s a beautiful robe.”

Blane sat on the armrest. “Actually, it’s a kimono, one hundred percent silk. A partner at the firm traveled to Tokyo last month and I had him pick it up for me.”

Brooke pressed it against her face. “It’s lovely … thank you.”

“I wanna feel,” said Maddy.

“Hey Mom,” Evan called from under the tree. “Here’s another one from Mason.”

“Well open it up.”

“It’s to you.”

He had slipped it in with the children’s presents before dawn. Though it was not his intention for her to open it in front of her boyfriend, there was little he could do about that now. Blane stared infrared lasers at him from the other side of the couch, unhappy that the focus had shifted so quickly.

Brooke wavered before opening it.

Maddy was practically in her lap. “See what it is Mom! Come on!”

She peeled the paper from the black velvet box and glanced over at him. He feigned indifference. She flipped the top. Her breath caught. The gems shone brighter than the Christmas lights.

“It’s diamonds,” said Maddy, her voice hushed and reverent. “Green ones too.”

“Second rate costume jewelry,” Blane sniffed. “I’ve seen better at the flea market.”

Brooke’s smile was nervous, unsure. “It’s still very nice, Mason. Thank you.”

He looked straight at Blane. “It’s real. I would never insult her with anything artificial. She has enough fakes in her life as it is.”

“Yeah? What’d you do? Rob another bank?”

He glanced at Evan, who was watching from a sea of wrapping paper on the living room floor, then at Maddy, still staring transfixed at the jewel-encrusted bracelet. Finally he looked at Brooke who quickly looked away.

Up until the knock on the door, he was experiencing what may have been the best day of his life. The quiet conversation in the early morning hours while wrapping the gifts, the accidental brushes and electric touches that sent shock waves throughout his body, the wide-eyed wonder of Evan and Maddy as they stood on the landing and surveyed the vast expanse of presents beneath the tree, their unbridled joy as they waded and ripped into them. For the first time in forty-eight years, he got a taste of what fathers must feel on Christmas morning. Then Blane came over.

He could tolerate the slick mouth and overlook his snobby attitude and even deal with his threats at the restaurant, but he drew the line when it came to diminishing him in front of Evan and Maddy.

He stood and nodded toward the door. “Why don’t we finish this conversation outside.” He didn’t wait for an answer.

As he walked down the hallway, he was aware of the attorney’s footsteps behind him. Maddy’s voice carried from the living room. “Is Blane mad ‘cuz Mason’s present is prettier?” He smiled as he turned the knob.

The air was crisp. He could see his breath. The door slammed behind him.

“I’ll have you know,” said Blane, “I was Greco-Roman wrestling champ at Southhaven. I studied under the tutelage of Zach Glover.”

Mason had to restrain himself from laughing in his face.

Sensing that physical violence was not in the cards, Blane poked out his chest and his voice took on a menacing edge. “I thought I told you to stay away.”

“No, you told me not to snitch about your little fling with your paralegal. And I didn’t. I don’t need to resort to gossip to take Brooke from you. She was taken the moment we met.”

“I doubt that very seriously.”

He took a step closer. “Doubt what you want, do what you want, but I promise you this — if you ever insult me in front of those kids again, I will crush you like a child molester on the yard.”

©2018 Sticks & Stones by Malcolm Ivey
All rights reserved.

Scotty

I just assumed Scotty was a diaper sniper when he moved into my dorm. He fit the mold; 5 foot 5, big bifocals, quiet and never far from his bunk. Operating under this assumption, I dealt with him accordingly. Which is to say I didn’t deal with him at all. Different prisoners have different approaches to child predators. Abuse, extortion, exploitation… Karmic law can sometimes be a violent force. My approach is to let it do its thing. So I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that Scotty was, in fact, not a cho-mo. He was doing life for murder.

Back in 1985, when Reagan was just beginning his second term, when breakdancing was still in style and artificial intelligence was only a plot point in a sci-fi novel, Scotty found out his old lady was cheating. The arrest report says he shot her lover six times after leaving a Lakeland bar. He doesn’t remember any of it, but he was pretty drunk. While he was telling me his story, I kept doing the math in my head. Thirty-three years. I’ve been gone for 14 and it already feels like an eternity. When Scotty fell, I was only 11 years old. My life was really just beginning as his was coming to an end. (Although I’m sure the victim’s family would argue that the only life that actually came to an end that day was their loved one’s.) Sad situation, all the way around. If life is really just this flow of atoms through time and space, this endless waterfall of moments, each fading into the next, it’s amazing to fathom how a single drop — a solitary frame in an infinite sea of pixels — could have such far-reaching effects.

At age 20, Scotty was found guilty and sentenced to life with a mandatory quarter. Back in those days, Florida still had a parole system and this sentence ensured that he would serve at least 25 years, day for day, before being considered for release. This is what both the legislature and the court intended. Then came the 90s when the measure of politicians on both sides of the aisle came down to how tough they were on crime. Humane ideas such as empathy, forgiveness and second chances were viewed as weaknesses and quickly pounced on by political opponents. The parole system was abolished, the prison-building craze began, and life sentences suddenly meant exactly that… life.

But there was one problem: people like Scotty who were sentenced according to a different set of laws. This is why there is still a parole commission in the Sunshine State despite the fact that it’s been almost three decades since the parole system was axed. But to many of these dinosaurs, the system is a cruel joke.

Scotty limped to the finish line of his mandatory 25 years in 2010, legally blind from retinopathy (hence the enormous bifocals) along with a host of other medical complications that come with being a type 1 diabetic at the mercy of a starch-laden prison diet. When he met with the parole examiner that year, he presented a stack of certificates; everything from vocational classes like cabinet making to small appliance repair to residential wiring (which he took and taught), to the Christian program “Kairos,” to various anger and stress management programs, to the state-mandated Compass reentry course, along with both parenting pilot programs, from which he was the first in the state to graduate.

In addition to all these accomplishments, he also arrived at the quarter-century mark without a single disciplinary report. Just to add some perspective here, I’ve been incarcerated since March of 2005 and I’ve had eight DRs. Eight. And I consider myself a model inmate. Florida prisons are rife with drugs and gangs and undiagnosed mental illness. Even when one is committed to living righteously in these places, shit happens. Your bunkie hides something in the cell that you’re not aware of, you’re attacked and forced to defend yourself, you talk during count, you miss a call-out… Or you somehow manage to sidestep all of the above, but you have the misfortune of crossing paths with the wrong guard on the wrong day. Bogus DRs are almost a cliché in here. This was especially true during the last two decades when institutional abuse was at its height. The fact that Scotty was able to avoid every pitfall and keep his nose pristine is a minor miracle. Even now, on the doorstep of his 34th year in the joint, he still has a clean disciplinary record.

And yet…

The parole commission set his presumptive release date for 2030. And every few years when some formality of a rubber-stamped kangaroo-court hearing pops up, they pretend to consider all the facts before banging the gavel and denying his release. Again. This despite overwhelming evidence of his rehabilitation, exemplary conduct and deteriorating health. The parole examiner who conducted that initial 2010 interview even recommended to the board that he be released. Didn’t matter. Denied.

This begs the question: Why? Scotty is not the first person I’ve met in this situation. There are a handful at every institution (though I’ve never known anyone with 33 years DR-free). It almost seems that the state is bitter that there was once a time when sentencing laws were fair and provided a mechanism where men and women could earn their way out of prison with good behavior. So even though the parole commission is required by law to have these hearings, for the most part, people like Scotty are just set off until they die. The few that do make it out are those who are lucky enough to have friends and family to make phone calls and show support. This is more an exception than a rule. The reality is that people serving long prison sentences usually serve them alone.

Like I said, sad situation all the way around.

Manhood

When did the GOP become the party of the alpha male? Somewhere over the last few years the Right found its rugged “God, guns and country” swagger while the Left was reduced to a bunch of snowflake socialists more concerned with transgender bathroom preferences than the issues facing the average American. Fair or not, this is the perception. And in this era of fake news and alternative facts, perception trumps reality. Especially in this era.

But I refuse to be sucked in. I’ve done enough herd-following for one lifetime. Wasted too many years ignoring that small voice inside telling me what’s right (or muffling it with chemicals). These last 14 years in the joint have been a massive rebuilding project for me. Lots of soul-searching. My father did the best he could for a man who struggled with multiple demons but he died relatively young. The absence of a strong male figure in my life left me wondering what manhood actually looked like. The gang-banger? The knockout artist? The bodybuilder? The lifer playing with his kids in visitation? The Christian on his knees? The Muslim making his salat? The quiet guard pulling shift work? The abusive one going above and beyond? The warden? The governor? President Obama? President Trump?

This is what I have come to believe: A man treats others with the exact amount of respect he demands for himself. He is confident but not arrogant, strong but not oppressive, kind but not soft. His will is iron, just like his word, and he finishes whatever he starts. He doesn’t take things personally… unless they are. He’s not thin-skinned or combative. He knows what he’s capable of and lets his actions speak. He believes in second chances. He understands how dangerous the extremes are and makes his home in the realm of moderation. He stands up for women and sees his own children in all children. He knows how fortunate he is to have been born on American soil, in American skin, and realizes that he could have just as easily been born in a Guatemalan body. He appreciates the risks that fathers and mothers from impoverished nations face in order to give their families the opportunity of a better life… because he knows he would do the same thing if it came down to it.

Again, this is just my version. You probably have your own. One thing is for sure: neither party has a monopoly on manhood. I have brothers, cousins and friends on both sides of the aisle who embody much of the above. But I don’t see a lot of it in D.C. these days.

It becomes who they are

When gangster rappers put out music pumping murder, gang-banging, and dope life, their message is received by legions of adoring fans. The labels claim it’s just entertainment. But many of these people are so easily influenced and have so little going on in their lives that their identity, reality, and worldview get swallowed up in a rap lyric. It becomes who they are. So they carjack and kidnap and murder… And they end up in the bunk next to me with a life sentence.

When Donald Trump hops on stage at campaign rallies spewing divisiveness, preaching fear, and demonizing his political opponents, his message is received by legions of adoring fans. The Republican establishment and FOX News claim it’s just political rhetoric. But many of these people are so easily influenced and have so little going on in their lives that their identity, reality, and worldview get swallowed up in the hate-speak. It becomes who they are. So they troll people on Twitter and drive cars into crowds of protesters and mail pipe bombs to former presidents… And they end up in the bunk next to me with a life sentence.

A matter of character

I hope people come out in force next month to stand up against this embarrassment of an administration. It’s difficult to pick just a few of the problems, but I’ll try…

The President of the United States of America has long been recognized as “The Leader of the Free World.” A justified and worthy title. But if “leaders lead by example” as the maxim says, then it’s important to examine the direction in which we’re being led, especially here at the halfway point.

Under this administration our long-standing allies are being humiliated and disrespected while dictators and oppressors are being patted on the back. Families seeking refuge from violent and impoverished conditions on our southern border are being labeled as murderers and rapists, third world nations are referred to as “shithole countries,” nonviolent social justice activists exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest are called “sons of bitches,” decent and professional news correspondents like Cecilia Vega are bullied on national television, porn stars are paid hush money, cabinet members are indicted, political opponents are mocked and insulted: “Barack Obama is not an American citizen… John McCain was not a war hero… Ted Cruz’s father was the zodiac killer…” The refusal to condemn the Saudis after a Washington Post journalist was hacked to pieces inside their embassy, the constant media demonizing and delegitimizing, the Twitter wars, the Charlottesville response, the fear-mongering, the coded racism, the outright misogyny, the thin-skinnedness, the hard-heartedness, the overall lack of decorum… All this and more has become the norm over the last two years.

This has nothing to do with policy. This is a matter of character. And the only members of the Republican establishment with the balls to speak out against this assault on diplomacy and civility are the ones who are not seeking another term in congress. I know the economy is roaring. But turning a blind eye to the bossman’s rude and disrespectful behavior for a few extra dollars is not just spineless, it’s un-American.

Kathleen Parker once wrote that “the question of character isn’t always what did you do, but rather what were you willing to tolerate?” If you’re sick of the intolerance and you’ve had enough of the schoolyard bullying and you reject the pettiness that has been the hallmark of the Trump administration from Day 1, then I invite you to the rebellion…Vote Democrat this November.

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