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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.

The radical choice of militant kindness

The first lesson every young man learns upon entering the prison system is that aggression is king and violence is law. The traits that are valued in the real worldโ€”honesty, generosity, friendlinessโ€”are viewed as weaknesses in prison. Weaknesses that are pounced upon and exploited. Survival in this world depends on at least the perception of brutality and if you’re not particularly brutal, you had better be a damn good actor.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 22 years. Acting. Acting tough, acting hard, acting cold. Acting as if I don’t see the loneliness and sadness and brokenness that surrounds me. Why? Simple: Fear.

In 1992, a scrawny teenage version of myself looked around at the savage world of prison and said to my mind, “Help! I don’t wanna be jumped or stabbed or raped or beaten to death by abusive guards. I wanna make it back home in one piece!” And my mind, amazing babbling problem-solver that it is, said, “I got this,” and went to work on building a wall and posting the ultra-sensitive ego as a sentry to ward off any potential threats. My job was to act. And act I did. I spent so much time acting that I almost lost myself inside the faรงade that was supposed to be protecting me. Almost.

But looking at prison through the eyes of a 40-year-old man is a much different experience than seeing it through the eyes of a scared little 18-year-old kid. And recently, after decades of fortifying this hardened exterior and living with a conditioned mindset that places toughness over all other attributes, a series of books, films, and extraordinary people have wandered into my life with an unmistakable message: there is nothing more honorable, more radical, more standup than the path of kindness. Especially in such a hopeless world.

Suddenlyโ€”no, not suddenlyโ€”gradually, I wanted this more than anything else. Militant kindness. Love without fear. A wide open heart. For someone who has spent years coveting the appearance of fearlessness and physical strength, the concept of kindness, regardless of consequence, was a revelation. A last shot at a life of meaning and authenticity. I wanted to get back to the me I was before all of this acting BS began, back to the kid I built these walls to protect.

Kindness. It seems like such an easy choice. But a crazy thing happens when you drop your guard and step from behind that icy standoffish barrier: people become comfortable around you. Comfortable enough to open up, to confide in you, and occasionally, comfortable enough to hurt you. Or at least say things that are damaging to your ego. But that is what we want, isn’t it? It’s what I want. This lonely half-life of keeping the world at arm’s length for a false sense of safety and to defend the ego is a fool’s game and the exhaustive struggle to continue propping up an illusion is not only cowardice, it’s treasonous.

Only kindness matters.

[This post first appeared on malcolmivey.com 10/30/14 and was featured on Huffington Post on 11/29/14.]