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Finding peace without hope

A few years ago, I used to walk the track while pondering the cosmos with my homeboy JG at a private prison in the Florida Panhandle by the shady name of Blackwater (no relation to the infamous private-sector security firm that dominated the headlines in Green Zone Baghdad during the second Iraq war).

Although he was 15 years younger than I was, JG and I had a lot in common — same hometown, same circle of friends, both audiophiles, both sports fans, both committed to self-mastery and a life free from the enslavement of addiction. We were also both doing a substantial amount of time: him, 10 years; me, 30. But for all the things we had in common, there was a fundamental rift in our philosophies regarding the prison sentences we were serving and how we approached them.

JG is a Christian who is also well versed in The Secret, The Prosperity Bible and other new-thought, mind-over-matter, mustard-seed doctrine. His guiding principle is Biblical, Matthew 21:21-22 which, to paraphrase, says “Prayer and faith without doubt can wither fig trees and move mountains.”

While I don’t subscribe to any religion, I lean Eastern, spiritually, and call myself Buddhish. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha has had a profound impact on my life. I’ve read Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul three times and We’re All Doing Time by Bo Lozoff has been a constant companion and manual to me for over a quarter-century in the chain gang. My guiding principle is straight out of The Four Noble Truths: Desire is the root of suffering and contentment is the way out.

Day after day, lap after lap, we debated our philosophies and invariably arrived at the same dead end. In a nutshell, JG believed that through prayer, visualization, and faith he could will his way out of prison long before his distant release date. I believed that through meditation, gratitude, and acceptance, freedom could be attained right here, right now, regardless of my release date.

We hit a stalemate. He thought it was cowardly of me to accept my conditions without a fight. I thought he was naรฏve to believe in the impossible. In the end we had to agree to disagree. I was in my tenth year of incarceration at the time and he was on only his second. Sooner or later he would come to the realization that hope hurts and learn to find peace in the present moment without clinging or resisting.

Fast forward two and a half years. We had both been transferred to different prisons and I was so immersed in writing the final scenes of On the Shoulders of Giants that the only time I departed the story world of Izzy and Pharaoh was to eat, sleep, and shower. So I was shocked when I called home one day and my mom told me that JG had won his appeal. It was all over Facebook.

That night as I lay in my bunk, I thought about JG and Blackwater and all those afternoons spent walking the track and debating the power of faith vs. the freedom in acceptance. Guess he won that argument.

But since then I’ve been wondering, have I robbed myself of miracles by failing to expect them? Would I be home right now if I hadn’t tapped out and surrendered to my circumstances? Are desire and contentment really mutually exclusive? Maybe there is a Tao between these two polarities, a middle road that allows for both ambition and inner peace.

I won’t say that JG’s release caused a radical shift in my belief system, but it did inspire me to open my mind, adjust my philosophy, and leave a little room for hope… at least a mustard seed’s worth.

A voice in the gun debate

I’m not positive when it happened, somewhere between Virginia Tech and Fort Hood. But by the time the little 9-year-old girl in Chicago was murdered in a drive-by while waiting on her school bus, the feeling was unavoidable. Irrepressible. Then came Gabby Giffords, then Sandy Hook Elementary, then Aurora, Colorado. I cringed with every tragic breaking news story, right along with the rest of America. But unlike the rest of America, my disgust was not reserved strictly for the shooters. Some of it I saved for myself.

Full disclosure: I’m a gun criminal. There’s no explaining this away with a bunch of pretty words. NFL Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells once said: “You are what your record says you are” and my record says I am an armed career criminal. That’s how the Federal government classified me over 11 years ago when I began this 30-year sentence. And these men, these murderers, these ruthless takers of innocent life are gun criminals, just like me. For the rest of my years on this planet, at least in the eyes of the system, I will be lumped into this category of cowards.

Now my mom will argue this to her grave, and I have nieces and nephews who have no idea about my armed career criminal title. The only title they know me by is Uncle Chris. Maybe at some point in the future, I’ll write an in-depth character defense for the unconscious, addicted young man who racked up all these ugly charges and explain in detail how I’ve never physically hurt anyone, never even fired a gun. But in the opinion of the U.S. government and for the purposes of this post, I am an armed career criminal. Considering this label, coupled with the fact that I have no problem sounding off about every other issue known to man, my silence in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre and the murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge feels craven. So for whatever it’s worth, here’s how one gun criminal feels about guns and gun crime.

We are living in an era of first-person-shooter video games and a rap culture whose biggest stars glorify murder and gun violence. America’s children are being brainwashed. Their senses are under siege, many of them without the benefit of vigilant and engaged parents to at least offset this deluge of violent information. The result is usually a footnote on the evening news: carjackings, home invasions, drug deals gone bad. For every Newtown, Charleston, and Dallas, there are thousands of less publicized shootings every day.

These are troubled times. People should be able to protect their home and family. That being said, a street sweeper is a little excessive. A handgun seems like ample protection until the police arrive. Automatic rifles — or “choppers” as they are lovingly referred to by rappers like Rick Ross — are nothing less than weapons of urban warfare. Have you ever heard of any hunter mowing down deer with an AK-47?

I don’t think this is what the Founding Fathers intended. The Second Amendment was written as a protection against tyranny. This is pretty clear. But when Jefferson wrote “The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is a last resort to protect themselves against tyranny in government,” I doubt he envisioned that government having fighter jets, tomahawk missiles, and nuclear warheads. A well-regulated militia? Please. Not in 2016. You’ll be the new occupant of the empty bunk across the aisle from me, on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government.

I know there are certain voices clamoring for all firearms to be banned and others who think the status quo is just fine. The logical course of action is probably the middle road, somewhere between these two extremes. It’s interesting that human evolution is being outpaced by technology, even lapped by it. For all our stem cell research, Mars probes, and advancements in artificial intelligence, we are still a small, covetous race that wars over religion, murders over tennis shoes, and uses skin color as a basis for hate.

Maybe the answer lies not so much in banning firearms, but in molding future generations too humane to use them.

[This post first appeared on in August 2016.]

Divine intervention

I think I had been up for four days when I robbed the second gas station. But it could have been five days or even six. I don’t know. Days run together when they’re not separated by sleep. Armed robbery was a new low, even for me, but then so was crack cocaine. In the six months following my first hit from a crack pipe, I’d lost everything — my car, my job, my girl, my family. I couldn’t stand the weak thing I had become and by then, I was ready to die. My plan was simple: rob and get high until the police got behind me, then blow my brains out.

Although cocaine is not classified as a hallucinogenic, sleep deprivation most definitely is. And as I was exiting that gas station, I was seeing and hearing all sorts of things – police search lights, sirens, footsteps, voices… I hopped into a stolen car and sped away, zigzagging my way through neighborhood streets and charting a course for the nearest dope hole.

As I pulled out onto the main thoroughfare, two things happened that would change my life forever: 1) My headlights stopped working, and 2) a cop was driving by. I checked the rearview to see if he was going to turn around. Of course he was. It was 3 a.m. and I was driving with no headlights in an area where a robbery had just occurred. When he turned on his siren, I stomped on the gas and yanked hard on the steering wheel…

…and drove straight into a brick mailbox. I bailed out of the car and ran through someone’s yard, tires screeching behind me. Desperate to escape, I sprinted toward the field abutting the backyard but never saw the fence. It was one of those waist-high, rusty barbed wire things and it flipped me upside down. I felt the gun fall from the pocket of my hoodie into the tall grass below. I quickly freed myself, then frantically groped for it in the dark. I couldn’t lose the gun. I needed it to off myself when there was nowhere left to run. But I heard squawking radios and jingling keys approaching. I had to go.

Branches and thorns slapped my face as I tore through the field. I tripped, lost a shoe, tripped again, and finally rolled into a gully and pulled the brush over myself to hide. An hour passed. Helicopters flew overhead, far off voices shouted, car engines roared. Then the low growl and panting breath of a dog drew close. I could hear it a few feet away, tracking me. Suddenly, the massive head of a German Shepherd poked through the brush. I threw my arms up to keep him from biting my face. He seized my wrist and began ripping flesh from bone. I was quickly surrounded by police and pummeled with flashlights and boots.

But something strange happened in that field. Maybe it was just the dope or the sleep deprivation. Maybe I was in shock, but for a moment, I was hovering over my body, looking down at the scene below. This pitiful crackhead that was me — emaciated, dirty, bloody — being mauled and stomped and finally handcuffed.

If I’d had that gun while I lay there in the bushes with the police closing in, I would have killed myself. There would be no Consider the Dragonfly, no With Arms Unbound, no On the Shoulders of Giants, and you definitely wouldn’t be reading this post right now. I’d be just a forgotten news story from the last decade, a dead crackhead in a field. Forgotten, except to my mom and she would have found a way to blame herself. Instead, it is my belief that something bigger intervened and that has made all the difference. If Malcolm Ivey has a birthday, it’s March 21, 2005, the night I dropped the gun.

[The essayย Divine Intervention Part Twoย can be found on and was written in December 2022]

The truth about spice

I awoke to a shrill and piercing wail, half panicked, half orgasmic. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

I sat up in my bunk and glanced at my watch. It was 5 a.m. The commotion was in the back corner of the dorm. A crowd of inmates was gathered around a young black man whose body was locked in a half-crouch, knees slightly bent, fists clenched, as if he were about to ski the K-12. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

One of the bystanders urged him to snap out of it. Someone forced their way through the crowd and dashed him in the face with a cup of water. When that didn’t work, he was slapped. His distress only increased. The guard frowned through the Plexiglas window of the booth.

Sleep faded and recognition dawned as I watched it all unfold. He wasn’t being attacked or having a meltdown. He was only gooking. No, gooking is not the gerund form of a dated slur, it’s the umbrella term that covers a myriad of strange behavior that goes hand in hand with the drug spice.

If someone is crawling around on the floor, flopping like a fish, mumbling incoherently, seizing, vomiting, or locked up screaming “Oh my God!” over and over, chances are they’re gooking out on spice.

I consider myself a chemical connoisseur. I’ve never met a drug I didn’t like. I started out pinching weed from my dad’s stash, then moved on to blotter acid by the eighth grade. Crack, ecstasy, pills… I doted on each with unconditional love. And whether on this or that side of the razor wire made no difference. I shot cocaine for the first time at age 21 on a prison rec yard with an acoustic guitar in my lap to shield both needle and arm from the gun tower. The first time I snorted heroin was in a prison bathroom. My love affair with dope is well documented. I love it so much that I’m doing 30 years in prison for it.

That being said, spice scares the hell out of me. Ever since it burst on the scene, I’ve watched my fellow inmates have their nervous system attacked, their kidneys fail, their brain function diminish. I’ve watched them hyperventilate and drool and faceplant into the concrete. A potent batch of that shit will have the ambulance in and out of here all day.

But that’s not even the scariest part. The most concerning consequence of the spice epidemic from where I sit is the deadening of hearts. I’m no neuroscientist but I’d be willing to bet that spice suffocates whatever chemical in the brain is responsible for empathy. In a place where kindness and humanity are already scarce to begin with, the last thing we need is a substance to snuff out what little light remains. But spice isn’t just a prison problem, its popularity is exploding everywhere because it doesn’t show up on standard track urinalyses. I’ve just been able to study its disastrous effects day after day in the condensed ecosystem of my prison dorm.

Take it from a dope aficionado: This is no drug. This is a lethal, man-made, brain-eating chemical masquerading as a drug. Big difference.

You know those movies like I Am Legend and World War Z where a contagion creates a sub-human, zombified race that multiplies exponentially? They had it half right. Only the viral spore isn’t from some toxic waste spill or globetrotting bacteria. It’s Yellow Jacket, it’s Red Dragon, it’s the millennial chemical called spice. Smoke up.