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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 prisoner’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 site—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 life—ministers, missionaries, worship leaders—but I’m not sure if I’ve ever come across faith as strong as Mr. Wells’. 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 theory… 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 children… 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 incarcerator—25% of planet Earth’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.