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TICKETMAN

Twelve years, six novels, and more than a hundred essays ago, I found myself living between a landfill and a shit plant at a Florida panhandle prison called Walton Correctional, commonly referred to as Wally World by the 1200 men toiling away inside its razor wire fences.

Fresh off lockdown after nine months of miniscule food portions, minimal sunlight, and three tepid showers a week, I hit this new compound at 132 pounds of malnourished skin and bone, white as the paper I’m writing this on. Dudes I’ve been doing time with since I was a teenager didn’t recognize me.

Since most of my property was either confiscated or stolen during the transfer, I was starting this next chapter of my incarcerated journey with very littleโ€”a stack of letters, a transistor radio, my address book. Even my sweet momma was banned indefinitely from coming to see me during that time, the spiteful aftermath of a prohibited relationship with a female staff member at a previous prison. But I had a little money in my inmate account, access to Danny Sheridan’s Vegas lines in the USA Today, and a reputation for having an iron word that preceded me. More than enough to survive.

After all, I had a pretty decent hustle.

Running a parlay ticket in prison can be a lucrative endeavor. Anyone who’s ever bet on a football game knows how difficult it is to pick four teams against the spread. In the joint, that’s what you have to do: Pick four. Usually at 10-1 odds, meaning that if you win, you’ll receive ten dollars for every dollar wagered. If you win. The advantage is definitely slanted in favor of the house, much more so than any casino on the strip. That was me, by the way. I was the house. Only instead of Caesar’s or Harrah’s, I was Bond Money. If you were on any prison yard in the Florida Panhandle between 2006 and 2011, chances are somebody passed you a highlighted Bond Money ticket with the weekend’s games and odds. For those of you who have never lived beneath the gun towers, here’s a brief explanation of how the ticket game works…

I had writers in every wing of every housing unit who passed out tickets, collected money, and jotted receipts that were then turned into me before the games. Writers make a quarter on every dollar they write. That may not sound like much but if you’re stuck in this place and you’re broke, it’s good money. Survival money. The average writer pulls anywhere from $100 to $200 worth of coffee, tuna, and other canteen items from his respective wing over a weekend. (Canteen is currency in a cashless prison system.) Sometimes they write more depending on the financial climate of their dormitory. Regardless, they get their 25% off the top. Then any hits are subtracted. The remainder is mine. And it’s usually substantial. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some brutal weekends, days where the stars aligned and I was forced to empty out multiple lockers. Occasionally, but not often. The key is to always sock it away, so when those bad weekends happen you can cash every ticket with a smile. Along with a flyer for the next weekend’s games and odds.

Within a month I had five lockers full of canteen. After two months I doubled that number. Soon, I began converting those bags of food and hygiene into real money, $100 at a time. All while making sure that every hit was immediately paid as well as running free pools here and there to keep my name ringing. A year passed. Football season bled into basketball season, and basketball to baseball to football again. Money flowed. Life was good. Or as good as it could be for a guy serving decades in prison. So why did I feel so empty?

I couldn’t see it at the time, but a storm was brewing inside of me. An existential crisis. I was 35 years old and all I had to my name was a bunch of lockers full of coffee and tuna and an inflated ego from people telling me what a brilliant ticketman I was. Never married, no kids, no employment skills, no retirement account. I had built nothing, made nothing, grown nothing, done nothing with my life except run a chaingang parlay ticket.

There’s a line in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. It comes after the young Brahmin has left home and goes into the forest to become an ascetic, then a beggar, then a traveler where he meets Buddha in a grove but decides against following the master teacher. After his first encounter with the ferryman, after surrendering to the flesh with beautiful Kamala, after becoming a successful businessman and gambling large sums of money, after years go by and his face gradually assumes the expression so often found among the wealthyโ€”the expression of discontent, displeasure, idleness, lovelessnessโ€”Siddhartha becomes disgusted with his life. โ€œ…But above all he was nauseated with himself, with his perfumed hair, with the smell of wine from his mouth, with the soft flabby appearance of his skin. Like one who has eaten and drunk too much and vomits painfully and then feels better, so did the restless man wish he could rid himself with one terrific heave of these pleasures, of these habits of his entirely senseless life.โ€

I was with Siddhartha on the one terrific heave thing. I was feeling nauseated myself. All this dissatisfaction timed up with mom being reinstated to my visitation list. She finally wore down the warden after almost two years of relentless phone calls and stakeouts in the prison parking lot. That sweet lady can be a force of nature when it comes to her boy. The fact that she was ever suspended in the first place is indicative of the FDC’s heartlessness and draconian modus operandi. Especially in that era. Mom is a taxpaying, law-abiding citizen. She’s never even had a traffic ticket. I remember walking laps with her in the grass around the pavilion that first weekend. I asked her a question that would change everything. โ€œHey mom, if I wrote a book, would you type it?โ€

The following week I shut down Bond Money and bought a stack of lined paper and Bic pens from the inmate canteen. Then I retreated to my bunk and began writing Consider the Dragonfly. I didn’t really know how to write at the time. I remember grabbing Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins off a table in the dayroom to see how she wrote dialogue. Did the comma go inside or outside the quotation marks? But day by day, week by week, chapter by chapter I began learning the craft. Soon, I was falling asleep reading Writerโ€™s Digest magazines and waking up to jot down plot points that bubbled up from my subconscious in dreams. I disengaged from clichรฉ prison conversations and activities. Conversations with the characters in my head were much more fascinating anyway. Gradually, I moved further and further away from my old life. Like a continental drift. Until one day I looked up, and what was once a tiny stream was suddenly the Atlantic Ocean.

For over a decade I wrote, read, meditated, exercised, disciplined myself, addressed every character defect I could find and yanked them out by the roots like weeds. Age 40 came and went. Then 45. Patches of white appeared in my beard. People started calling me Old School and Pops and Unc. My compound VIP status as ticketman diminished as time marched on and Bond Money faded into the past. Every once in a while I would cross paths with someone who knew me from back in the day and they would inevitable ask why I shut down the ticket. My stock answer was that a good year in the ticket game meant fifteen lockers and maybe a grand in my account. But if I wrote a bestselling novel???

I was so confident that success would come with Consider the Dragonfly. But the world looked at it and yawned. In 2013, I began writing With Arms Unbound. Surely this one would blow them away. (I doubt it sold 100 copies to date.) By the time I wrote the prologue to On the Shoulders of Giantsโ€”2015โ€”I was beginning to grasp the concept of the long view. โ€œJust keep writing man,โ€ I told myself. โ€œThe world will catch on eventually. And when they do, there will be an entire backlog of novels awaiting them.โ€ It was also around this time that it dawned on me that the work was its own reward. I was happiest when I was lost in a project. And miserable when I was idle. Three more novels would follow in rapid successionโ€”Sticks & Stones, Year of the Firefly, and The Weight of Entanglement. Twelve years after I shut down the ticket and bought that first pack of paper and pen, the transformation felt complete. Worldly definition of success notwithstanding, I was a multi-published author. I am a multi-published author. Miles away from my old self.

But how far is too far? If weโ€™re talking armed robberies and crack cocaine and momma crying in courtrooms, I donโ€™t think a million miles is far enough. But that doesnโ€™t apply across the board. A little balance and moderation can be a good thing in certain circumstances. This younger generation of prisoners only know me as the grumpy old boomer who spends all day scribbling in a notepad. They donโ€™t know the old me. They donโ€™t know CC the ticketman. They only know the writer, Malcolm Ivey. My past was calling.

This NFL season, my 18th and final in state prison, Iโ€™ve decided to resurrect Bond Money. As of this writing, Iโ€™m up to seven lockers and itโ€™s only week 6! Why go back? For one, I could use the money. Two, because I donโ€™t want to retreat so deep into myself to write these novels that I end up missing out on the real life happening all around me. I feel like this was a consequence of sequestering myself to my bunk all these years. Those real-life experiences, even if theyโ€™re heavyโ€”especially if theyโ€™re heavyโ€”are the very experiences that inform the stories I write. But mostly, Iโ€™m cranking back up because I want to leave a legacy. Not just as an incarcerated writer who once walked the yardโ€ฆ but as the legendary ticketman who ran it.

I realize that this is partly an ego thing. (Okay, mostly an ego thing.) Siddhartha would not approve. Iโ€™m still a big believer in humility. That hasnโ€™t changed. And Iโ€™ll never stop writing. But as the great Steven Pressfield observed in his fantastic War of Art, sometimes you gotta throw down a 360 tomahawk jam to let the boys know youโ€™re still in the building.

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.

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.

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.

Christopher vs. Malcolm

Thirteen years ago today a skinny, strung-out, zombified version of me staggered into a Circle K with a stolen pistol demanding Newports, Optimos, and all the cash in the register. An hour later, police K-9s found me hiding in a field off 9 Mile Road. The dog bites were bad enough to require stitches. The next morning, I was released from the hospital and booked into the now-condemned central booking and detention unit of the Escambia County jail. I remember scouring the floor for pieces of crack and scanning the ceilings for a place to hang myself. Good times. And there was reason to believe things weren’t going to get much better.

Friends faded, the Feds indicted me, the state was pushing for life imprisonment. I ended up getting 379 months. I was 31 years old at the time. This sentence meant it would be another 31 years before I breathed free air again. Sorta like a life sentence with a little daylightโ€ฆ if I made it that far. Once in prison, I immediately reverted to my old patternsโ€”getting high, gambling, and living unconsciously.

There is a Bob Seger lyric from Against the Wind that I have always loved. “The years rolled slowly past. I found myself alone. Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends. Found myself further and further from my homeโ€ฆ” Soundtrack of my life. Things were getting consistently worse.

Then in 2009, in the midst of a nine-month stint in solitary confinement, it occurred to me what a colossal mess I’d made of my life. And by occurred, I mean it fell on me like an imploding building. I was 35 years old with no home, no property, no career, no pension, no children, no freedom, no future, and no legacy except for the lengthy criminal record that dated back to my 13th birthday. I had to do something to turn the momentum. Quitting dope was a good start but it wasn’t enough. I needed to rebuild myself. This is where the books come from. A few years, four novels, and one miraculous Supreme Court ruling later, my entire life has changed. Saved by the craft.

There is a scene in my latest novel, Sticks & Stones, where a skinny, hollow-eyed crackhead walks into a convenience store and pulls a gun on the petrified clerk, a scene very similar to a chapter of my own life. Except in this story, the protagonistโ€”an ex-convictโ€”steps forward to stop the robbery. A monumental struggle ensues. This is bigger than just two men battling it out on the page. This is good versus evil, past versus future, Christopher versus Malcolm.

Spoiler alert: The good guy wins.