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The Astral Pipeline Book Club

I was 126 pounds with bones sticking out of my face when I was removed from society in 2005. Barely a man, a broken pitiful thing, enslaved by addiction, financially destitute, I would’ve been homeless if I didn’t have such a sweet momma. As the saying goes, I didn’t get arrested… I got rescued. It took a minute to get the crack smoke from between my ears. There might still be a little swirling around in there to be honest. Lord knows I’ve made my share of questionable decisions over these last seventeen years. Many of you who have done time with me can attest to this. But if you know me, then you also know how focused I am on change. On maximizing my ability and efficiency… as a man, as a writer, as an inhabitant of Planet Earth.

The late great Bo Lozoff once observed that major life changes generally happen in the form of wide round curves as opposed to sharp turns. That has definitely been my experience. Change is a gradual thing. Still, there have been moments of truth along the journey, individual decision points that have contributed to the metamorphosis.

Quitting smoking in 2009 was massive for me. All my life I’ve been taught I was powerless over addiction. In juvenile programs, in twelve step meetings, by my father who was battling demons of his own. Cigarettes had me by the balls since elementary school. Kicking nicotine at age 35 made me realize that, contrary to popular belief, I was not powerless, I was powerful. After that, I started kicking all kinds of bad habits. Just because I could.

Another element is the workout. Will is definitely a muscle. I don’t know about you but if I don’t work mine, it’ll get soft and flabby. Just like a neglected bicep. Nobody grabs a pullup bar and automatically levitates. We have to tell our muscles “perform this task.” For most of us, it takes a while. But if we stick with it, and keep showing up, one rep becomes two, two become five, and five become ten. This process doesn’t just build muscle, it builds grit… and, inevitably, will.

Then there’s this writing thing which has taught me discipline and structure and how to delay gratification. Believe me: there is nothing instantly gratifying about the lonely journey of hammering out a novel. You spend years writing longhand on your bunk, pouring everything into your workโ€”all your love, all your pain, all your hopes and fears and life experience, only to have it earn an Amazon ranking of 2,000,000 and go largely ignored by the literary world. Then you do it again. And again. Not because you’re a pain freak but because you believe in yourself and the importance of the stories you tell. Because you have a vision and refuse to give up. This has been both game-changer and soul-shaper for me.

Another milestone occurred when I realized that I had to be my own father. My dad was a good man who loved good music, good food, and a fat joint. He was a blast to be around. But he was never a father in the conventional sense. And he never got around to teaching me how to be a man. In many ways he was a child himself till the day he died. Twenty years after his death, it dawned on me that there was a little kid inside of me who never learned impulse control or what it meant to live honorably. That young man is now my responsibility. It may be a bit late, but I’m raising his little bad ass right.

Finally, there’s the books. Not my books. We’ve covered that already. I’m talking The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Focus by Daniel Goleman… Books by masters on the pursuit of self-mastery. Seekers, Philosophers, Holy men, Gurus, PhDs. In 2019, my friend Shonda and I began reading this select genre of books together from 2000 miles apart and messaging about their impact on our daily lives. A convict and a work-from-home mom. A year later we began calling ourselves the Astral Pipeline Book Club. This year we’re inviting our friends to read along. If you’re passionate about getting the most out of your time and energy, your relationships, your body, your brain, then look no further… Youโ€™ve found your people.

Groundhog Day

One desperate afternoon in 2005, a skinny and addicted version of myself was scanning the lawn care equipment and power tools in mom’s garage for something I could pawn for dope money when suddenly I was struck by a bolt of inspiration: Why deprive mom of her weed whacker when I can easily rob a neighbor? There was far more honor in that, right? I went in through the bathroom window.

First thing I found was a loaded 9mm. Fate crackled in the barrel. I tucked it into the waist of my jeans then made a quick check for jewelry and money before slinking off into the March afternoon to do what the broken people do. (Legal noteโ€”Since I armed myself in the commission of a crime, this simple burglary became an armed burglary. A first-degree felony punishable by life in prison.)

Over the next 36 hours in a dope-fueled tailspin, I used this weapon to jack various area drug dealers as well as two convenience stores. In the parlance of Narcotics Anonymous, this phenomenon is referred to as “a case of the fuck its.” Luckily no one was harmed in my unraveling. I never even fired the gun. And because I spared the State the expense of a jury trial, the State spared me the misery of a life sentence. (Legal noteโ€”According to Florida’s 10-20-Life law, brandishing a firearm in the commission of a felony carries a mandatory ten years, firing the weapon carries twenty, shooting someone triggers a life sentence. There is no parole.)

I ended up with twenty years in the department of corrections along with more than a quarter century in the federal system. For a more detailed account of the night of my arrest, check out the Divine Intervention essay at malcolmivey.com. But please do not mistake my tone as flippant or unremorseful. This could not be further from the truth. I am deeply humiliated by the weak and pathetic actions of that miserable little crackhead. It’s just that all this occurred almost two decades ago and when you spend so many years pacing cells, alone in your head, relentlessly scrutinizing your life and the moment things went south, over and over and over again, it all becomes a little mechanical. Like a movie you’ve seen a million times. Groundhog Day.

I am a gun criminal. Embarrassing to admit this with all the recent ugliness on the evening news, but my record speaks for itself. No getting around it. I was actually classified as an Armed Career Criminal by the United States government until a 2016 Supreme Court ruling resulted in my federal sentence being overturned.

Although the above debacle was my first taste of armed robbery, it was not my first rodeo. I’ve been sleeping on hard institutional bunks and eating cold food on dirty trays since I was a pre-teen in juvenile detention. I don’t pretend to know a lot about the outside world because I’ve been removed from it for so many years, but if there’s one subject I’m fluent in, it’s the criminal justice system. I’ve written six books and over 100 essays on life behind the razor wire.

With this recent spike of violent crimeโ€”not just the tragic and headline-dominating mass shootings but also gangland drive-bys, ambushed police, and robbery homicidesโ€”many old guard politicians are already dusting off their tough-on-crime speeches from the โ€˜90s. And the public will predictably respond at the polls. For good reason: something has to be done. But I would argue that the solution will not be found in tougher laws. How much tougher can you get than consecutive life-without-parole sentences? The death penalty? We’ve got that too. And the robberies and car-jackings and murders continue to surge. Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Another approach might save us from where we are headed.

All across this great nation, impoverished young people with mothers and fathers either in early graves or serving lengthy prison sentences are walking the same lonely roads as their parents. Why would anyone choose such a miserable existence? Maybe it’s not a choice. I know they’re not getting much help from their countrymen. Especially not our nation’s two political parties. The liberal message which blames systemic racism for every bad break and poor decision provides zero viable solutions and runs counter to American ideals of self-sufficiency and accountability. The conservative pull yourself up by the bootstraps narrative is unrealistic as well. When you’ve never met your incarcerated father and your mother alternates between violent dopesickness and being slumped on the couch, when your world is confined to the project buildings and trailer parks where you were born, when most of your neighbors supplement their government assistance income with some form of hustling, when your normal consists of scrapping and stealing just to survive, when this is all you’ve ever known, you don’t just wake up one day, crack your knuckles, and decide to go to vocational school. It may happen occasionally. But as the exception, never the rule. So what? you’re probably thinking. Why should the average American care? Why should you care? I mean, we’re talking about a bunch of criminals and slum dwellers, right?

Well…

If Covid has taught us anything, it’s how interconnected we all are. Conspiracy theories aside, a virus from Wuhan China has circled the globe and killed millions of people. An incident in a laboratory on the other side of the world has wreaked that much havoc. And we’re still dealing with the aftermathโ€”supply chain issues, factory shutdowns, inflation, mutations, political unrest. The shockwaves are inescapable. Even the remote Panhandle prison where I sit and type this essay is not immune. Outside my cell door is a beleaguered workforce, rising canteen prices, diminishing food portions, rampant drug abuse… But our interconnectedness is not limited to global pandemics. Look how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected the price of fuel, and how the price of fuel has affected world markets, and how plummeting markets have affected people’s 401(k)s. Like it or not, we are all in this together.

So it follows that if events in Asia and eastern Europe can have an impact of this magnitude on Bible Belt America, then what about that other section of your very own hometown? What about fentanyl, what about meth, what about gangs, what about an ideology and culture that places no value on human life? It doesn’t take an epidemiologist to recognize that violent crime is spreading exponentially. And it is no longer confined to those neighborhoods across the tracks. A generation of unraised and unloved children are coming of age. You see their faces every night on the local news. And on their way to life sentences in prison and fatal gunshot wounds, they’re making babies who will also grow up fatherless, motherless, hopeless… America has extremely broad shoulders. But at some point she will collapse beneath the staggering weight of her broken citizens. And the world’s longest running democracy will finally come to an end. That is, unless we do something. But what can we do?

I have two suggestions.

The first is so simple that it seems inarguable. We need to love our kids. And by “our kids” I mean America’s kids. We need to teach them the value of honest work, discipline, and respect. All of them. No child among the 330,000,000 of us should grow up without a rock-solid support system, without consistent direction, without love… Imagine a coalition of teachers, athletes, business professionals, community leaders, neighbors, moms, dads, police officers, even reformed ex-prisoners committed to stepping up and assuring the abandoned and forgotten that there is love in the world. Not by throwing money at the problem or writing preachy and long-winded disquisitions like this one ๐Ÿ™‚ but by rolling up our sleeves and investing our time and our hearts and our energy in the coming generationโ€”and doing this with the same sense of urgency and conviction that Christian missionaries carry on their voyages to foreign continents every day. If we don’t, then the only ones who will suffer the consequences is us.

You will disagree with this second suggestion. And I totally understand. But I can only tell you the truth as I see it. And what I’ve seen every day for decades in prison is young unaffiliated men stepping off county vans, wide-eyed and green to prison life, ready to do their time and get home. Only to exit the system years later as full-fledged gang members with the requisite crowns, stars, and swastikas tattooed on their heads and necks. Why? First of all, prison is a dangerous place and there is always safety in numbers, but there is also the allure of dope, money, cell phones, respect, and brotherhood. Five years ago I wrote about this emerging crisis in a series of essays called Fixing a Broken Prison System. At the time, gang members made up about 10% of my dorm. Today it’s closer to 25%. Again, who cares about a bunch of prisoners and low-income trash, right? But these same hardened young men are returning to their neighborhoods as heroes home from war, and many are indoctrinating the young people in their communities. That’s not just a problem. That’s systemic failure.

The Florida Department of Corrections cites public safety as a top priority. This is emphasized in their mission statement, core principles, and pretty much every press release regarding prisons and prisoners. Yet on this, they are failing the public on a scale so spectacular that it boggles the mind. There’s a relatively easy fix for it, but it flies in the face of every stump speech being made by every tough-on-crime politician on the Florida Panhandle right now. Be tough on crime. Hell yeah. Be merciless on crime. But bring back parole.

Aww Malcolm… you’re just trying to get your buddies home.

This is true. And if you knew some of my friends (and their mommas) you would see why. Good people. Men who changed their lives decades ago and are now just hanging around, waiting to die. Many of the guards who work here would attest to this. But allowing men and women to earn their way home would have ripple effects far beyond my circle of friends.

Imagine a prison system where every person arriving at the reception centersโ€”barring pedophiles and clinically diagnosed sociopathsโ€”would be given a series of diagnostic tests to gauge IQ, reading and math levels, vocational skills, emotional intelligence, etc… Once their history and aptitude are established, a team of psychologists, educators, and trained classification officers would set a number of almost impossibly high benchmarks to be reached over time. A final meeting with the incoming offender would sound something like this: “Okay, young man, you’ve been sentenced to life in prison. Life means life in the state of Florida. This means you will die behind these fences. But that will probably be 70 or 80 years from now since you’re only 18 years old. During that time everything you love will be taken away. However… there is a faint possibility that you might be able to one day earn your way home. But only if you accomplish the following. Get your GED, get your bachelorโ€™s degree, complete these 50 courses, log in 10,000 hours of anger management, keep a clean disciplinary record… And, by the way, if you join a gang you are automatically eliminated from the program.”

Something like that. If this idea were implemented, prisons would be safer, guards would have a legitimate management tool, and gang affiliation numbers in Florida would plummet within a decade. Amazing what a little hope can do. Of course, there will be some who try to game the system, but over time I think even those men and women would be converted. I know from my own experience that a strange thing happens on the road to education: the more learned you become, the less likely you are to do harm to your fellow man.

I mentioned all this to a teacher at the prison where I’m doing my time. Really cool guyโ€”an Army Ranger with a bachelor’s in political science. He identifies as a fiscal conservative but leans slightly left on matters of social justice. His response: These are not kitchen table issues for the average American. People are worried about inflation, the price of gas, illegal immigration. Not the plight of inner-city kids or criminal justice reform.

He’s probably right. The human brain is not wired for distant threats. This is why things like rising sea levels, ballooning national debt, and evaporating social security are such a hard sell to so many. In his spectacular book, Focus, Daniel Goleman illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. “We are finely tuned to a rustling in the leaves that may signal a stalking tiger. But we have no perceptual apparatus that can sense the thinning of the ozone layer, nor the carcinogens in the particulates we breathe on a smoggy day…”

Ditto the long-term effects of the school-to-prison pipeline and the broken criminal justice system it feeds.

I’m guessing many of you disagree with all this. I probably would too if I hadn’t lived in here for so many years. But I can’t unsee these problems and potential solutions. Aside from writing books and enjoying the people I love, the rest of my life will be dedicated to improving this social condition. Maybe I can pay my proverbial debt to society in this way. A few years ago these concepts might have found more traction. There was an empty Supreme Court seat, bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform, and conservative politicians like Jeff Brandes roaming the Capitol halls. That time has passed. Violent crime is soaring and hardliner rhetoric is the message of the day. The pendulum has officially swung. But popular or not, I will continue to bang this drum until someone hears me. Groundhog Day.

Where Is The Love

“What’s wrong with the world, momma? People acting like they ain’t got no mommas.” Remember this lyric? Black Eyed Peas “Where Is The Love?” I’m not a big fan of the song or the group or the genre but it’s been on auto-loop in my head since last Sunday.

That morning, exactly one week after Motherโ€™s Day, I took up my customary seat in the day room, instant black coffee sloshing in my cup, ready for some George Stephanopoulos. Like many Americans turning on their TVs that day, I was expecting the latest on Ukraine, the obligatory Congressional interviews, Covid updates, inflation outlooks, primary election predictions, maybe a little partisan back and forth between Chris Christie and Donna Brazile…

What I got instead was Tops Supermarket. Buffalo, New York. Where the day before, an 18-year-old white kid strapped up with Teflon and tactical gear and drove 200 miles to live-stream his massacre of a black community.

When the final shell casing hit the pavement and he dropped his assault weapon in surrender to the police, the official body count was ten. Ten moms and dads, ten sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, grandparents… Ten Americans, grocery shopping on what they thought was just another day. One story in particular hit me hard. A father went in to pick up a birthday cake for his three-year-old son. He never made it out. His kid is probably still asking “what happened to daddy?”

Brutal.

Moments like thisโ€”where we can all agree on the atrocious nature of a thingโ€”are few and far between in these hyperpartisan times. But this is not a political issue. This is an American tragedy that is occurring with more and more frequency. Charlottesville, Charleston, the Pittsburgh Synagogue, the Walmart in El Paso…

One year ago, in his rebuttal to Biden’s address to Congress, Tim Scottโ€”the lone black republican senator from South Carolinaโ€”famously announced “America is not a racist nation.” If you’re like me (white and middle aged) this was music to your ears. Not rap music either. I’m talking Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, Michael Bublรฉ… Finally, a person of color gave America express consent to move on from its ugly past and validated our progress as a nation. Thank God. Unfortunately, my brothers and sisters on the left didn’t see it that way. ”Uncle Tim,” they called him, dismissing his speech as right-wing propaganda and dismissing him as someone handpicked by the GOP to make white folks feel comfortable. Damn. He did actually make me feel comfortable. Or at least hopeful.

All this emphasis on race. Democrats seem hellbent on wringing every drop of distrust from past and present injustices and converting this into political capitol. Critical Race Theory immediately comes to mind. Across the aisle, more and more Republicans are coming to embrace divisive philosophies as well. Case in point: Replacement theory, the ideology espoused by the Buffalo shooter in his manifesto. Anyone who watches Fox News has probably heard host, Tucker Carlson, promote this same doctrine. According to the Washington Post he’s mentioned it more than 400 times on his top-rated show.

Here’s an alternate theory: We’re not all that different. And this relentless focus on race and identity politics has much farther-reaching consequences than the next election cycle or the culture wars being fought on social media. America’s children are being indoctrinated. Loners and misfits are being lured into shadowy corners of the web, places where their confirmed kills on Call of Duty are lauded and the promise of brotherhood is offered. Places where grown men whisper dark ideologies into the hearts of teens. Although the rhetoric smacks of far-right nativism, there is nothing patriotic about these groups. I have my doubts that they’re even based in the U.S. Our elections aren’t the only things our enemies are meddling in these days.

A few years ago I heard an interesting story about Tommy Davidsonโ€”one of the original cast members of the hit 90s show In Living Color and a hilarious standup comic in his own right. Apparently, he was stuffed in a garbage can by his biological mother when he was a baby, and a white woman who happened to be passing by heard him crying. She ended up taking him home, adopting him, and raising him with her own children in Colorado. For much of his young life he was oblivious to fact that he was any different than his siblings. His dark skin was a non-issue. Like the horses on the ranch where they lived, he just assumed some people came out black, some came out white, some had spots. No big deal.

Kids aren’t born with hate in their hearts. Hatred is a learned behavior. Racial prejudice is a learned behavior. The question is, who are they learning it from?

There is no them. Only us.

Bobby and the Supremes

A prison visitation park is not a park at all. Just a cinder block room packed with folding tables and chairs. Maybe a box of dirty and well-used toys in the corner, a couple of 80s-era microwaves. But it’s the place to be on the weekends. Who wouldn’t want to hug their momma or steal kisses from their old lady or play with their kids? These connections are vital. They remind us that we are human in an increasingly savage world. Plus it’s nice to get away from the fights and stabbings and squawking PA system and just be with family, mask off.

Unfortunately, not many people in here get visits. Some are too far from home and the trip is too expensive or they burned too many bridges on the way in. Others had the years whittle away their remaining loved ones until they found themselves alone. There are roughly 900 inmates in the gated community where I reside and maybe ten are in the visitation park with any regularity. Twenty on Christmas. Some of them I know from other prisons. Their mommas and wives have stood in line with my momma and braved the weather, the pat searches, and the ever-changing rules of the Department of Corrections for close to three decades.

This is how I met Bobby.

He used to come and visit his son J, who is serving a natural life sentence for felony murder. J didn’t kill anyone, but he was party to a crime where shit went bad and a codefendant snapped and did the unthinkable. By 2008, Bobby and his wife had sold their home and pretty much everything else they owned to pay attorney fees. J had exhausted all of his post-conviction remedies. Natural life. He accepted his fate but his family would not. They remain vocal opponents of the felony murder law. Both parents have spent a few afternoons rallying for change on the Capitol steps.

Bobby is a good old boy who lived on the Blackwater River and claimed to have done time himself at Raiford back in the day. His narrow views on race and religion and the world are consistent with the views of other rural white Southerners his age. I don’t hold this against him. People are more than their fears and insecurities. Bobby was a product of his times. I still remember his face when I tried to convince him and his wife to vote for Obama. “I ain’t voting for that socialist…” He may have used a couple other descriptive words as well. This led to a vigorous debate on presidential politics and who represented who.

My position, then and now, is that the only power a president wields that directly effects state prisoners is the ability to appoint Justices to the Supreme Court and judges to the lower appellate courts. That’s it. And for prisoners and their loved ones, whose hopes rest on future rulings of this court, it’s all that matters. It transcends race, supersedes party affiliation, and nullifies petty grievances. A couple years ago, my Christian nieces didn’t understand when I spoke out against Trumpโ€™s SCOTUS appointees. For them, abortion is a major issue. For my second amendment buddies, itโ€™s guns. I get it. And I respect their conviction. Climate change, affirmative action, a robust military, national debt, nuclear nonproliferation, transgender bathroom laws… These are all complex issues that voters must grapple with, but they’re not my issue. I’m trying to get my friends home.

I once read a case where conservative Justices Scalia and Thomas said that a prisoner in Louisiana who got his teeth kicked out by guards in a confinement unit at Angola could not seek punitive damages. This is not the exception; this is the tradition. The conservative wing of the court is extremely consistent when it comes to ruling against prisoners, while liberal justices tend to have a more human rights-oriented monocle through which they read and decide cases. If you ever get the chance, read Justice Sotomayor’s masterful dissenting opinion in Jones v. Mississippi, where the conservative majority shot down the possibility of parole for a young man who was 15 when he committed his crime.

I was thinking about Bobby in 2016 when there was an empty seat on the Supreme Court (because the senate majority refused to hold confirmation hearings on Obama’s pick until after the election). During this time there was bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform. Crime was at a record low and the war on drugs was in a death spiral. For all her warts, if Hillary wins that election she gets to fill not only that opening but also two more during her term. Plus hundreds of open federal seats across the nation. Instead, the biggest upset in the history of American politics occurs and Donald Trump goes on to stock the courts with a record number of young conservative judges who will shape the landscape of the judicial system for years to come. His appointees were former prosecutors by a whopping 10:1 ratio over former defense attorneys. This was obviously horrible for prisoners.

Equally depressing is the fact that violent crime is once again rearing its ugly head. It was a matter of time. Between the opioid epidemic, extreme poverty, and the merging of gang culture with the entertainment industry, no one I know is really surprised. Tough-on-crime politicians are already dusting off their old speeches. Prison profiteers are salivating over the financial possibilities. Here’s what you should know: America is already tough as nails on crime. We are the worldโ€™s leading incarcerator. I’m sure you’ve heard the numbers. We make up 5% of the worldโ€™s population, yet 25% of the worldโ€™s prisoners are caged right here in the land of the free. Getting tougher on crime will only spend more tax dollars to build more prisons that teach people how to be professional criminals. What America needs is a mechanism in the penal system where men and women can earn their way home. Back into the communities that need these reformed mothers and fathers to take up their places in the families they left behind. If their kids are already lost, maybe they can reach their grandkids. The bleeding has to stop somewhere.

Enter Biden. During his first year in the White House, the world watched as desperate Afghans hung from American planes in the botched pullout of our twenty-year war. I think even his most staunch supporters would agree that he gets a triple F minus on his handling of that situation. No other way to spin it. Same goes for the lack of a coherent policy on the southern border. And inflation. And gas prices… Little fires everywhere. He’s had his successes too. Infrastructure, plummeting unemployment, keeping his promise to lower the national temperature. But I’ve got to give it to the old man. He knocked it out the proverbial park with his Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The fact that she’s the first black female appointed to the highest court in the land is obviously monumental. Volumes will be written about this. But the honorable Judge Jackson is also a Miami native with relatives in prison and in law enforcement. She has a firm grasp of the state of Florida and its broken criminal justice system. For prisoners and the families of prisoners, this is astroseismic. More importantly, she’s a former public defender. This means she’s actually been inside jails and prisons to meet with clients who could not afford counsel. A life sentence is not some abstract idea to her. And by the way, she’s not just any public defenderโ€”she’s the first public defender nominated to the Supreme Court. Ever.

The typical path to a judgeship is to be a prosecutor or work for some big law firm. Then with a little luck and the right connections, you might get tapped. Public defenders and civil rights lawyers are generally left out in the cold for these positions. Of the 880 federal appeals court judges in the US, a whopping 318 are former prosecutors. More than a third. As opposed to the 58 former public defenders who make up 7% of all judges. When PDs do get nominated, they are usually grilled about their ability to be impartial. As if their prosecutorial counterparts are beacons of truth and light who put justice ahead of their coveted conviction rates. No need to inquire into their impartiality. Right. For those keeping score at home, three of the nine current Supreme Court justices are former prosecutors: Alito, Gorsuch, and Sotomayor. The Biden administration appears determined to address this disproportion as he continues to nominate more public defenders than prosecutors for all federal judgeships for the first time in history. Time will tell.

I heard Bobby died a few years ago but I haven’t been able to substantiate the rumor. I hope not. I would love to be able to talk smack to him when none other than Ketanji Brown Jackson authors some future majority opinion that renders his boy’s life sentence unconstitutional and sends him home.

It’s not as far-fetched as it was a couple years ago. A glimmer of hope has arrived. Her name is Ketanji Brown Jackson. And it’s officialโ€”she’s Supreme.

Aqua and Orange

You will never meet a more diehard Miami Dolphins fan than me. I bleed aqua and orange. Some of y’all have had the misfortune of sitting next to me on the dayroom bench while I roar at the television like a belligerent drunk. I’m ashamed to say that I once even went Oscar Night Will Smith on a vocal Carolina fan after Cam Newton engineered a game winning drive against us in 2013. Not one of my finest moments. But what can I say? I’m passionate. I love my squad.

So a few months ago when Head Coach Brian Flores was fired and he alleged that his ouster was somehow racially motivated, my kneejerk reaction was “bullshit!” Maybe you saw the post. I have since learned that it was the entire league he was accusing of systemic racism. Not the Dolphins specifically. Although he did accuse owner Stephen Ross of offering him money to tank for higher draft picks on the way out the door.

Is the NFL racist? I’m not naive enough to believe that there are not small pockets of bigotry remaining. If not of salivating hate, then of some unconscious tribalism. But even that is dying out. Twenty years ago, the league took steps to eradicate this with what is known as the Rooney Rule, named after the late Steelers owner, Dan Rooney. The rule states that teams must interview a minimum of two minority candidates when searching for a head coach.

After Flores got canned by the Dolphins, he interviewed for the opening with his hometown New York Giants but did not get the job. It later came out that the Giants had already decided on Brian Daboll, a white offensive coordinator from Buffalo, before the interview took place. Flores cried foul and claimed racism, even called his plight “The Audacity of Hope” in a press release before filing a lawsuit against the league. I’m as big of fan of the 44th president as there is, but the brutal truth is that the Giants DID already have their sights set on Daboll. Not because he was white, but because Buffalo’s offense was creative and thrilling and spectacular last year. They wanted some of that magic in the Meadowlands.

So maybe Coach Flores is right to call the Rooney Rule a sham. Not because the NFL is racist, but simply because the rule has outlived its usefulness. In 2017 eight of the league’s 32 head coaches were black dudes. Last year there were more black coordinators roaming the sidelines than ever before. All of these men are potential head coaches. Based on merit and scheme and success. Not on the color of their skin. The league is not racist. And calling it that weakens legit movements deserving attention elsewhere. For the most part, I think owners want a competitive product, an energized fanbase, asses in seats, championship rings…

The Miami Dolphins took massive strides in that direction this off season by parting ways with defensive-minded Flores and hiring offensive strategist Mike McDaniel, then franchising emerging TE Mike Gesicki, re-signing pass rush specialist Emmanuel Ogbah, and luring Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead and RB Raheem Mostert to Miami in free agency. But the coup de grace, the stroke of brilliance, the all-in chip heave was acquiring Tyreek Hill from the Chiefs. Can you say Lamborghini offense? Nobody in the league saw that one coming.

Our GM, Chris Grierโ€”a black guy who shot up the organizational ladder after beginning as a college scoutโ€”clearly had a vision for the direction of the team after yet another mediocre campaign. If we make a deep playoff run this year, it’ll be because of his masterful off-season moves. Including the one that sent Brian Flores packing. Not because of the color of his skin. But because he didn’t fit that vision.

Already looking forward to training camp. Go Dolphins.

Cosmic balance

My liberal friends accuse me of being a closet neocon because I think cancel culture is a joke and scoff at this new era of national hypersensitivity.

My conservative friends think I’m a flaming snowflake because I refuse to pledge allegiance to a bully like Donald Trump and I admire Obama’s pragmatic swag.

My fellow prisoners often assume I’m a white supremacist based on appearance: clean shaven head with a beard, numerous tattoos and scars. Anyone who has ever read one of my books knows this is not the case.

You’re probably drawing your own conclusions right now.

All these blanket judgements.

But don’t think I’m over here whining about being misunderstood. I judge too. We all do. It’s hardwired into our DNA. Our brains have developed over millennia to categorize, compare, assess. It’s what keeps us out of lionsโ€™ mouths, dark alleys, bad relationships, and bad conversations. Rarely do we see the actual person in front of us though, just the story we’re telling ourselves about them.

One of the most influential people I’ve ever met is a pacifist with a horrible temper, a punk rock anarchist who loves listening to the soothing voices of tea-sipping NPR hosts, a vegan who sometimes eats chicken. I once told her she was a walking contradiction. Her response: โ€œ…what you call contradiction I prefer to view as cosmically balanced.โ€

In her weird and wonderful way, she was telling me that life is more complicated than the binary ones and zeros of the judgemental mind.

Another Malcolmโ€”one who’s sold far more books than the author of this essayโ€”wrote about this in his bestseller The Tipping Point. In it, Mr. Gladwell referred to the phenomenon as โ€œfundamental attribution errorโ€, a filtering system in the brain that sorts people into categories based on isolated instances and small sample sizes. But it’s called a fundamental error for a reason: it’s flawed.

Are you a Second Amendment gun aficionado who still sees no justification for fully automatic street sweepers? A climate science believer who abhors the idea of late-term abortion based on embryonic science? Maybe you’re a Fox News watcher but your gut tells you that Joe and Jill Biden are not inherently evil socialists. Or you’re a black man who cringes every time you see Al Sharpton reach for a bullhorn.

If so, then I invite you to the rebellion.

Life is far more complex than the ideological slots we try to jam each other into. Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, said there were so many sides to him that he defied geometry. This is probably true for all of us. For our handful of years in this world of great wealth and crushing poverty, of hope and fear, love and indifference, the best we can do is seek the truth.

The brilliant David Mitchell summed it up beautifully in his novel Utopia Avenueโ€”โ€œLabels. I stuck them on everything. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. Square. Hip. Queer. Normal. Friend. Enemy. Success. Failure. They’re easy to use. They save you the bother of thinking. Those labels stay stuck. They proliferate. They become a habit. Soon, they’re covering everything, and everybody, up. You start thinking reality IS the labels. Simple labels, written in permanent marker. The trouble is, reality’s the opposite. Reality is nuanced, paradoxical, shifting. It’s difficult. It’s many things at once. That’s why we’re so crummy at it. People harp on about freedom. ALL the time. It’s everywhere. There are riots and wars about what freedom is and who it’s for. But the Queen of Freedoms is this: to be free of labels.โ€

Stay cosmically balanced, my friends.

Mr. Wells

“Hey Mr. Wells, how’re you doing today?”

“Just right,” he tells me in that Southern-fried, Florida Panhandle accent that has not faded a lick over the years.

Just right. I love that. Not outstanding or living the dream or groovy. But not worn ragged and world-weary either. Not too up, not too down. Just right. Such a cool answer. Especially for a man who’s been locked up almost four decades for a crime he still maintains he did not commit.

“Sure,” you may be thinking. “What prisoner admits he’s guilty?”

I do. So do most people I’ve met in over a quarter century of doing time, at least to each other. We may search for technicalities and discrepancies in our cases and try to get back into court while legal windows are open, but there comes a time in every prisonerโ€™s life when we toss our court transcripts and resign ourselves to fate.

Mr. Wells has never stopped fighting. Neither has his family. Before his mom and dad died, they sold off countless acres of family land to pay attorney fees. They believed their boy was innocent. His brother was up here in the visitation room most weekends, before he got sick. I’ve watched them both turn gray over the years. This place will do that to you. Life will do that to you. But neither has given up hope or lost faith.

I first met Mr. Wells in 1995 at this very same prison. I was 21 and he was well into his forties back then. I got assigned as a laborer to build the new chapel and Mr. Wells was on the crew. Most of us were doing typical extracurricular prison stuff on the job siteโ€”cooking wine in the drywall, smoking weed in the rafters, gambling on breaks. Mr. Wells was always off by himself, reading his pocket New Testament.

Our paths crossed again in 2009 at another prison in nearby Defuniak Springs. I had gotten out and pissed away my freedom smoking crack and committing robberies to support my habit. Mr. Wells was still reading his Bible, still passing out religious material on the rec yard.

Now here we are again. At the prison where I first met him 26 years ago. Same old Mr. Wells. Never misses a church service (in the chapel he helped build.) Spends most of his days with his hands in the earth. He can grow anything. Brings back fresh turnips and kale from the garden and shares with guys who have nothing.

I have a lot of good Christian people in my lifeโ€”ministers, missionaries, worship leadersโ€”but I’m not sure if I’ve ever come across faith as strong as Mr. Wellsโ€™. Sometimes I wanna say “Dude! Give it up. He ain’t listening!” But it wouldn’t do any good. His belief in his God is unshakeable… Job-like.

This is not meant to depict him as a saint. Small birds don’t gather at his feet. He’s made his mistakes in life. His gardening talents were once used to grow some of the best bud on the panhandle. That’s where his troubles began: a long-standing Hatfield/McCoy type feud with a family of dope growers in the area. The state used this as a motive in a 1983 double homicide on the Escambia river that attracted national attention. Throw in a couple crooked Southern cops who have long since been removed from their posts, and an ambitious small-town prosecutor who built a case around the facts that fit his narrative while discarding everything to the contrary, and the result is an old man with nothing left to cling to but his innocence and Jesus.

I was reading his transcripts the other day. What a mess. Missing affidavits, bullied witnesses, a bungled crime scene, exonerating forensic evidence conveniently ignored, a shape-shifting prosecutorial crime theoryโ€ฆ No wonder there was a mistrial followed by a reversal from the District Court of Appeals. If these trials were held anywhere other than the rural South in the 1980s, he would’ve been home. If he were anyone other than an old pot farmer from Jay, Florida, home of the peanut festival and the redneck parade, some social justice movement out there would have snapped up his cause faster than you could say Black Lives Matter. Instead he’s in here with me. Two cells down.

Something has been tugging at me to write this for a couple years now. A force almost gravitational in its power. I’ve been putting it off to work on my novels but the pull has gotten consistently stronger over time. To the point where I can no longer ignore it. Maybe something intended for me to write this essay at this exact moment so that some person out there (you?) might be touched, moved, inspired. Maybe you were even meant to help. The Universe is crazy like that. Although Mr. Wells would never call it The Universe. He’d just call it Jesus.

Dead end kids, Lifetime bids

Who were you at age 15? Do you remember that kid? Were you a wild child? Did you ever skip school, or sneak out, or play mailbox baseball? Did you experiment with drugs? Who did you love with your teenage heart? Was it that all-consuming apocalyptic brand of high school love? Where is that person now?

I can no more imagine myself into the head of 15-year-old me than I can imagine my 47-year-old body in his parachute pants. We are two different people. One of us has grown, evolved, failed, rebounded, loved, lost, lived. The other is a little hard-headed know-it-all. Loaded with potential but not there yet. He’s just a kid.

Kids are impressionable. They follow crowds. They want to be cool. They want to fit in. And without solid and consistent leadership, they are easily led astray, sometimes never to return.

My world is full of kids serving life sentences. From baby-faced 18-year-olds just starting out, to men in their fifties who have been locked up since the advent of the internet. Barring some miracle, they will all die in prison for something they did when they were childrenโ€ฆ for impulsive choices made when their brains were not yet fully formed. And an 18-year-old brain is by no means fully formed. I doubt there is a neuroscientist alive who would debate this. Many believe that age 25 is a more realistic mile marker between adolescence and adulthood, especially in males.

Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court cares nothing about neuroscience. In a recent decision that split justices 6-3 along ideological lines, the court ruled that minors don’t need to be found “permanently incorrigible” before being sentenced to life without parole. Ironically, it was Justice Kavanaugh who wrote the majority’s opinion, a guy who knows a thing or two about youthful indiscretions.

But the Supreme Court doesn’t make laws. That responsibility falls on the legislature. You’d think that between reform-oriented liberals who at least strive to create the illusion of compassion, and fiscally responsible conservatives who understand that you can’t have “small government” with a gluttonous criminal justice system bursting at the seams, common sense laws might be passed. Especially when it comes to kids and life sentences.

Nope.

Not down here in the South, at least. Our politicians are either too fearful of appearing soft on crime or too busy lining their pockets with the campaign contributions of prison profiteers to do the right thing. There are exceptions. Republican Jeff Brandes for instance. He seems to understand that prisoners and the families of prisoners are citizens of Florida too. And that if anyone can be rehabilitated, it’s our youth. But every legislative session, his innovative ideas die on the House floor.

America remains the world’s leading incarceratorโ€”25% of planet Earthโ€™s prisoners are caged right here in the U.S. Yet our nation only accounts for 5% of the world’s 8 billion inhabitants. Think about those numbers for a minute. Such a staggering statistic for a country that prides itself on being the land of the free. In order to shake this dubious distinction and relinquish it to China or Russia or some other authoritarian government where it belongs, our lawmakers must take an honest look at our outdated and draconian criminal justice system. What better starting point than the kids we’ve been throwing away.

There is no them, only us.

Thank you again

I sent a bunch of property home over the weekend. Ancient letters and cards and photos dating back to when I first began this odyssey in March 2005. Iโ€™ve still got a few more miles to go but Iโ€™m getting closer. What a long, strange trip itโ€™s been.

One of the more beautiful artifacts I found in my locker wasnโ€™t all that old… 2016. It was a motion to correct an illegal sentence. In a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court had struck down something called the โ€œresidual clauseโ€ of the Armed Career Criminal Act. When the ruling was made retroactive, it opened a small window for me.

The prosecution argued that my sentence should remain at 379 months, that I was the exact type of criminal that Congress had in mind when they enacted the law. In response, my public defender authored this masterful brief that took excerpts of the essays Iโ€™d been writing for years and wove them into her argument. She also attached copies of my book covers.

When I say writing saved me, this is part of what I mean. I began Consider the Dragonfly because I was sick of the hamster wheel of prison life and wanted to do something different. I was just trying to live right, trying to be a better man, trying to salvage what was left of my dumpster fire of a life. I had no idea that years later, some Supreme Court decision would get me back into court and those same words might help get me home. Yet thatโ€™s exactly what happened.

But it wasnโ€™t just my words. It was yours. It was all those letters of support that were attached to the back of the motion.

Reading them on my cell floor the other night for the first time in years had me a little emotional. My mind was flooded with images… Of my brother Keith at his computer, of Kelly and Marcus in their living room working on drafts, of Hailey with a notebook at the kitchen table, of Lindsey in his office between patients, of Mimi after church, of Ashton… Of all of you guys. You know who you are. For a brief moment, I could see you in 2016. Putting your busy lives on pause to write a federal magistrate because you believe in me, because you care, because you want me home. Iโ€™m lucky to have such incredible people in my life. Lucky to have family and friends. Iโ€™m surrounded by men who have no one. Many donโ€™t even have release dates. โ€œThere, but for the grace of God…โ€

In the end, the judge rejected the governmentโ€™s argument and resentenced me to 288 months. It still sounds like a lot, right? But those seven years and seven months of freedom I got back represent seven more Christmases, seven more years to play with a generation of nieces and nephews who were born since Iโ€™ve been away, seven more years with Mom…

Thank you again.

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