Skip to content

Take Me to Church

Man praying beside a lake at sunrise.

The Florida Department of Corrections was established in 1868. It says so right on the logo. That’s 155 years of misery bound up inside these razor wire fences; 155 years of blood and tears and beatings and cover-ups, of roach- and rat-infested dormitories, sub-standard medical care, untreated mental illness, salmonella diets, and a workforce trained to hate.

Not complaining. People have been complaining since 1868 and it’s done no good. This is just the way it is. This is the prison system I grew up in. I first arrived at Lake Butler on a county van in 1993 to serve a decade. Then I returned in 2005 and I’ve been locked up ever since. I’ve wasted most of my life on the rec yards and in the dayrooms of the Sunshine State’s correctional institutions. Close to 30 years. Damn near one fifth of the Department’s bloody history. Lots of changes during that time: secretary changes, legislative changes, policy changes, uniform changes… But if there has been one constant over the years, it’s the good Pentecostal and Baptist folks that come in every Sunday to minister to my broken brethren.

“Fellers,” I remember one old country preacher saying as his wife beamed at us from the piano, “I could be wearing them blues just like you. And sitting in them same pews. The onliest difference is I didn’t get caught. And I found Jesus before that old devil could get his hooks in me good…”

Sunday after Sunday, rain or shine, they would arrive with a message of love and hope and forgiveness. Some of the greatest hits: that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that Paul was a murderer and the Lord still used him to do great works in the early church, that Jesus was crucified between two common criminals and he promised them a place in paradise on that fateful day…

These people would hug you, call you “brother,” pray with you, make you feel less alone in the world. God’s love was more than just an abstract idea in those services, more than just some ancient mythology on a Dead Sea Scroll. It was a palpable presence that filled the room, emanating from their smiles and pulsating in their hugs and handshakes.

But then a darkness crept over the land. Religion and politics intertwined. God’s all-encompassing love was suddenly limited. There were terms and conditions to salvation. Sure, the Sermon on the Mount was still relevant and, yes, Jesus’s greatest commandment was still to love one another. But there was also Levitical fine print that could not be ignored. Certain restrictions applied.

At least this is what I assumed was going on in recent years. Especially when the evening news ran a segment in 2019 about a pastor getting booed by his congregation for calling out former President Trump on his lack of humanity. Compassion was dead and division ruled the day. No shelter, no quarter, no love. Even the Church had succumbed. Matthew 25:35-45 had no place in the modern American landscape. Not in these hateful and hyper-partisan times. But again, this was all conjecture. All theory. I haven’t been to church much over the last couple decades. Practically zero attendance on this bid. Up until recently. (More on this in a couple paragraphs.)

Everyone is Christian when the handcuffs get slapped on. God is like Momma—the last person you think about when you’re out there doing dirt and the first person you call when they throw you in a holding cell. Lord knows how many calloused and trembling hands I held in county jail prayer circles back in the day. Full of desperate men like me petitioning the man upstairs for a little mercy. Staring down the barrel of life in prison will make a born-again Christian out of even the most devout agnostic.

But then we get sentenced and sent down the road. And as we work our way through the post-conviction process, our hope and faith evaporate with every denied appeal, every deceased loved one, every unaccepted phone call and unanswered letter. Not everyone though. My friend Lester Wells has not missed a church service since he came to prison in 1983 for a crime he insists he did not commit. Forty years in a cage and his faith has not wavered. Even though he’s lost everything. Hard not to draw book of Job parallels when I see Mr. Wells praying in the mornings.

My situation is different. I am not an innocent man. I’m guilty of 99% of the crimes I’ve been charged with, and the list is substantial. Not proud of this but there’s no getting around it. No one to blame but me. In fact, that one percent that I’m actually innocent of is offset by the few things I managed to get away with. So it all balances out. Especially when you factor in the crimes that weren’t technically crimes but in many ways were worse than the burglaries and robberies that put me here—the women I used for sexual pleasure and ego gratification, the lost souls that I could have affected positively but instead infected with the miserable slavery that is addiction, the lies I’ve told, the people I’ve let down, the disgrace I’ve brought upon my family… So when that great white-bearded cosmic wish-granter in the sky opted not to rescue me from the colossal mess I made of my life, I accepted my fate with no hard feelings. After all, I’m the one that put me here.

But I haven’t been hanging out in church. For these last eighteen years I’ve just been making the best of this bad situation—playing soccer, playing poker, doing pullups and dips, gambling on football, hanging out with Momma on Saturdays, doing my time… Then, a little over a decade ago, I started writing these essays and books which proved to be a watershed moment on the timeline of my incarcerated journey. This led to an interest in self-improvement, the study of philosophy, mindfulness meditation, neuroplasticity. The Law of Momentum is not just the working title of book three in the Miranda Rights trilogy, it’s a powerful force that can carry us to both dizzying heights and crushingly low depths. It all depends on which way you get moving.

But momentum is also a strange and mercurial current. It can shift like the wind. This is especially evident in sports. Take football, for example. One team is racking up chunk yardage, going up and down the field, scoring almost effortlessly. But then the opposing team digs in and forces a goal line stand, then drills a long field goal just before the half, then forces a turnover to open up the third. Suddenly, they’re only down ten points with the ball at midfield and an entire half to go. What happened? Momentum shifted.

I experienced a momentum shift of my own recently. Things were humming along. I was working on my seventh novel, pumping out these essays, surging toward the finish line of this lengthy prison sentence, when I made a couple questionable decisions. Nothing major—a joint here, a bottle of buck there, cranking up my old parlay ticket for one last run. But it was enough to stall my momentum. And after a few repetitions of these old behaviors, I was moving in a completely different direction: backwards.

Things got real bad, real quick from there. (For a more detailed account of this unraveling, check out Divine Intervention Part Two.) The point is that I had to do something drastic to shift the momentum. I needed a goal line stand. So on Sunday, November 13th, 2022, I signed up for church. First time in forever. Just to change up the energy. Just to escape the hovering dope smoke of my unit and sit in a pew for an hour. Just to be around some positive people.

And do you know what I discovered? Those same volunteers are still showing up every weekend. Those same country preachers and their piano-playing wives. And they’re not interested in politics, or who’s Baptist or Catholic or a Messianic Jew. They definitely ain’t in it for the offering plate. They’re just living Matthew 25, spreading a message of unconditional love and hope to us, the least of their brothers.

I’ve been going for a few months now. I won’t pretend it’s always awesome. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes I disagree with the message, sometimes I’m grumpy because I have to miss football. But I always feel better for going, I remain clean, and most importantly, I got the momentum shift I was seeking.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages from Michael A. Singer’s The Untethered Soul.

“Your relationship with God is the same as your relationship with the sun. If you hid from the sun for years and then chose to come out of your darkness, the sun would still be shining as if you had never left. You don’t need to apologize. You just pick your head up and look at the sun. It’s the same way when you decide to turn toward God—you just do it. If, instead, you allow guilt and shame to interfere, that’s just your ego blocking the divine force. You can’t offend the Divine One; its very nature is light, love, compassion, protection, and giving. You can’t make it stop loving you. It’s like the sun. You can’t make the sun stop shining on you; you can only choose to not look at it. The moment you look, you’ll see it’s there.”

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 note—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 note—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 crime—not just the tragic and headline-dominating mass shootings but also gangland drive-bys, ambushed police, and robbery homicides—many old guard politicians are already dusting off their tough-on-crime speeches from the ‘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 aftermath—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 🙂 but by rolling up our sleeves and investing our time and our hearts and our energy in the coming generation—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 centers—barring pedophiles and clinically diagnosed sociopaths—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 bachelor’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 guy—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 Mother’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 this—where we can all agree on the atrocious nature of a thing—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 Scott—the lone black republican senator from South Carolina—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 Bublé… 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 Davidson—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.

Pickatree

This time last year a little old man moved into the bunk at the end of my row. Amphetamine thin with no teeth and two faded teardrops tatted under his right eye, barely visible in the wrinkled roadmap of his face. It was obvious from day one that he was a character.

“Where you from, pops?”
“Pasco.”
“Oh yeah, I know a few people from down there. Where at in Pasco County?”
“Pickatree Lane… I just pick me a tree and go to sleep under it.”

Donny has been homeless for most of his adult life. This is his seventh time in prison. He’s been in and out for the last fifty years, doing life on the installment plan. Because he fits the profile, many of my fellow inmates assume he’s a pedophile. He’s not. He’s one of us. He just got old.

Although he’s not really all that old. Seventy. There are men his age doing pull ups on the yard. But Donny’s seventy is a hard seventy. His pull-up days are long gone. He can barely get off his bunk without help, he pees on himself in his sleep, his hands shake, he’s damn near blind, and his brain is clouded with dementia. But you wouldn’t know that from all the smack he talks.

“Hey George. Does your mother know you’re a damned queer?”
“My mother died last year.”
“Yeah, mine too. Get over it.”

There is not a politically correct bone in the old man’s body. He drops n-bombs without a second thought, mocks my Latino friends by talking gibberish, and openly ogles every female guard on the compound. Some would say Donny’s filter is broken, but I’m not convinced he ever had one. He’s just a relic from the rural south who’s spent most of his life in a cage. Or sleeping on sidewalks.

I had just received a job change from impaired assistant to administrative clerk when he moved into my dorm. I was writing a novel, the first in a series, about a young woman who takes the fall for her dope dealer boyfriend, finds herself in prison, learns her way around the law library, and discovers that she’s a natural in the process. But I knew I couldn’t write convincingly about something as complex as the law without learning it myself. So I got a job in the prison library for research purposes.

I kept seeing Donny shuffle by the window every morning for legal mail. He wasn’t difficult to spot. He’s got one of those Rollator things; sorta like a walker with wheels. One day he banged on the library door demanding assistance. I explained to my free-world boss that he lived in my dorm, had a touch of dementia and was in really poor health.

He entered the library shivering. “Damn it’s cold out there!” (It was maybe 75 degrees. Early October Florida Panhandle weather.) He looked at me. “I need your help, young feller.” He pronounced help like “hep.” When I asked what I could do for him, he slapped a letter on the counter. It was from an attorney representing GEICO.

Between the letter and a maddening hour of circular and sometimes nonsensical discussion with him, the details emerged. He was hit and dragged by a car before he came to prison and the insurance company was offering $50,000 dollars. Problem was, the hospital had placed a lien on him for the weeks he spent recovering. After checking with a couple of the inmate law clerks, it became clear that his chances of ever seeing the money were slim. Even if the hospital mercifully forgave the lien, the Florida Department of Corrections would come after him for all the free room and board. Either way, the consensus was that he would never get a dime. An exclamation point to a lifetime of bad luck.

I wrote the hospital for him anyway. Just to do something. They never responded. I’m not even sure if the letter reached its destination. I’m not even sure I wrote the right hospital. But just after Christmas, fifty grand was deposited into his inmate account. And my status was sealed in his eyes.

Months passed. I was caught up in the world of my characters. He was caught up in his new-found wealth. Occasionally I would look up and see him smashing a honeybun or a nutty bar. Once in a while I would walk into the bathroom and be confronted by a horrific scene involving him, feces, and bad aim. I knew that the guy caring for him was more interested in enjoying Donny’s canteen food than making sure he was okay. But at least he changed his sheets, cleaned up his messes, and walked him to chow. I rationalized what I saw by telling myself that it was a mutually beneficial relationship. Dude was doing something that nobody else wanted to do.

Because Donny saw me as advocate and ally, he would sometimes hobble over to my bunk and say things like “I want to go to the infirmary.” Why man? What’s up? Are you sick? “Naw. I just don’t like it in here…” Well hang in there. You’ve only got 18 months left. “Damn, that’s a long time!” He was always surprised when I told him his release date. He could never remember. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. He had no idea what year it was. I pacified him by telling him I’d write the warden requesting a transfer to his hometown of Zephyr Hills. But I never got around to it.

Then Covid hit and the library closed. I was in the dorm for six extra hours a day. Suddenly all the things I conveniently ignored were constantly in my face. Donny weighed less than 150 when he got off the bus. Skin and bones. Now he was easily 250 from pounding sweets all day. Itchy red sores littered the landscape of his body. His feet were swollen and purple. His area reeked of urine. His pendulum swung from listless mumbling to angry ranting with fewer moments of clarity in between. The medical department was indifferent. The guards saw but didn’t see. And all his caretaker seemed to care about was eating his canteen food. My conscience grew louder. He needed me. But how could I let the other guy know that his services were no longer required? Especially since relieving him of his duties meant taking food out of his mouth.

In the end, the Universe intervened. A corona outbreak in the kitchen dorm prompted the need for 100 new food service employees. Shady caretaker guy was one of the lucky lottery picks. So he packed his shit (and probably half of Donny’s) and moved to another building. A few days later, someone in my dorm tested positive and we were placed on quarantine. During those 14 days, the old man must’ve peed in his bed 21 times. I’ll spare you the details of some of our other adventures but believe me when I say it was not your typical male bonding experience.

That was three months ago. Today, I’m proud to report that my good friend Pickatree is back to his old gruff, womanizing, politically incorrect self. A steady diet of oatmeal, tuna, eggs, peanut butter, trips to the rec yard, regularly scheduled bathroom visits, and basic human kindness have made all the difference. Sometimes I worry about what’ll become of him when he gets out, but I try to stay focused on the things I can control. My mission is to get him to the door. The rest is in God’s hands.

“Donny. You’re worth 50 grand! What’s the first thing you’re gonna buy when you get out?”
“Ice cold Busch beer. When do I get out again?”
“Right around fifteen months.”
“Damn.” He shakes his head. “That’s a long time.”

Jason Isbell

“I hope you find something to love, something to do when you feel like giving up. A song to sing or a tale to tell. Something to love. It’ll serve you well…”

I think Jason Isbell had his baby daughter in mind when he penned these lyrics, but they feel like they were written specifically for me. All of his songs do.

I discovered him a decade ago on NPR’s World Cafe right around the time I was working on my first novel. The homogenized rap and metal on corporate radio felt soulless and prepackaged and did nothing to inspire me. The Indie artists on World Cafe seemed more honest, more creative. Tuning in became part of my writing ritual. A ritual that has evolved over the years. Mainly because tablets were introduced to the prison system in 2018, I barely listen to my radio anymore. But I own every album by Jason Isbell. From the obscure side projects with Elizabeth Cook to his “Sea Songs” with wife and fiddle player, Amanda Shires, to all of his releases with his band, The 400 Unit. When I finally get my hands on a guitar again, his music will be the first I learn. I envision a free me on Mom’s back porch with an acoustic, finger-picking St. Peter’s Autograph. It’s coming…

A friend of mine told me Mr. Isbell is one credit short of a master’s degree in storytelling. I can hear that in his music, in the details he presents in his lyrics. “Sharecropper eyes” and “burning Ferris wheels” and “old women harmonizing with the wind…” Dude is the most gifted songwriter this side of Dylan.

But it’s not just that. In an era where southern men are increasingly judged by the size of their MAGA hats, his songs are a rallying cry for kindness and courage and humanity. Don’t believe me? Check out these ten Isbell standards:

1) Traveling Alone — “Damn near strangled by my appetite. Ybor City on a Friday night. Couldn’t even stand up right…”
2) Cover Me Up — A story about finding your soulmate.
3) Last of My Kind — A country boy attempts to make sense of neon lights, dirty sidewalks, polluted rivers and the invisible homeless.
4) If We Were Vampires — His wife shadows his vocals in this haunting song about love and time.
5) Overseas — Blistering guitar riff. “This used to be a ghost town but even the ghosts died out…”
6) 24 Frames — You thought God was an architect? Now you know. It’s almost like he told his bass player “you can hang out on this one.”
7) Live Oak — Classic Isbell storytelling
8) Elephant — A song about watching a friend die from cancer.
9) Only Children — “Remember when we used to meet, at the bottom of Mobile Street, to do what the broken people do?”
10) Flagship, Chaos and Clothes, Alabama Pines, However Long, Something More than Free, Dreamsicle (I added a few bonuses just in case anyone shares my enthusiasm.)

The highest compliment my fellow prisoners pay me when they read my books is that they recognize themselves in the stories, that I’m writing their lives. Jason Isbell has a similar effect on me. I can hear my reflection in his songs.

Since his new album Reunions dropped a couple of weeks ago, and his music is such a big influence on my life, I figured this was overdue.

George

There’s this line in Eat Pray Love about Quest Physics. The idea that life is a spiritual journey and everyone we encounter along the way is our teacher, nudging us down the path to enlightenment. I believe this. My most recent teacher is Big George. He moved into the bunk next to me when my friend Menu went home. The exchange was about as seamless as the Obama/Trump White House transition.

George is a 300-pound, 47-year-old man, but mentally he’s somewhere around age 10. It took all of two seconds of conversation to realize this. From the moment he dragged his property down my row and plopped down across from me, I knew he was going to be a character. I had no idea…

“Can I borrow some cookies? What are you writing? Are you eating again? Who sent you that letter? The Dolphins suck!” Big George has not shut up since he moved in. At first it was funny. Then it was irritating. Finally, it reached the point where I had to keep my headphones in at all times. Dude is driven by the compulsion to contaminate every precious sliver of silence with mindless chatter. He can’t help himself. Even as I write this, he’s sitting over there, two feet to my left, narrating the comings and goings of the dorm in his signature whiny nasal voice. Big George doesn’t talk. He squawks. The only time he ever shuts up is when he’s shoveling food into his face.

A few months ago he says, “You think you’re so cool just because you wrote a book. I’m gonna write a book and it’s gonna be way better than yours.” Then a couple weeks later, “Hey Malcolm! You wanna be in my book? I’m a CIA agent with two samurai swords and I own a car dealership with a strip bar on the roof. Buy a car and get a free lap dance!” He’s been over there writing away ever since.

Full disclosure: I was dealing with a vicious bout of writers block for most of 2019 so it was especially infuriating to look over and see his pen gliding effortlessly across his notebook while I thrashed and groped for words. Occasionally, he would catch me staring at the blank page and hit me with that halfwit smile of his. “What are you doing over there? You haven’t written anything! I’m already on page 85.”

Grrrr.

“Wanna read a little bit?” he offered one day.
I did not. But there’s this egocentric part of me that looks in the mirror and sees a writing instructor, sent to assist the unwashed and illiterate. So I sighed and held out my hand.

It was worse than I imagined. Third-grader handwriting, atrocious punctuation, no indentation. The words that weren’t misspelled just trailed off into scribble. I looked up to find him smiling like an expectant chef who had just served up the house special. He raised his eyebrows.

I told him it was garbage. Told him he was trying to fly before he could walk. Told him he should learn the fundamentals first. He needed to write good sentences before he could write good paragraphs, much less good books. He was highly indignant, insisted that I read more. I shook my head and handed him back his manuscript.

“Write me one good sentence and I’ll think about it,” I said. “One simple sentence, but it has to be capitalized, punctuated, and spelled correctly. Can you do that?” He tore a piece of paper from his notebook and went straight to work, tongue out, brow furrowed in concentration as he made his letters. When he finished he passed it across the aisle and gave me the chef look again, obviously very pleased with himself. I glanced down at the paper. “My name is Georg!” Almost, man.

It didn’t take long for the rest of the dorm to smell blood in the water. Prison is similar to the schoolyard. Remember the bullies from your childhood? They didn’t have spiritual awakenings and change their lives. They grew up and came here, where they perfected their methods of cruelty. “Look at you,” one sneered at him the other day. “It’s people like you who make me realize that things aren’t so bad after all.”

He shrugged innocently. “Why? What’s so special about me?”

See what I’m saying? Clueless. Big George was born with a “kick me” sign on his ass. Of course, he doesn’t make things any easier by constantly drawing attention to himself. I’ve even gotten in on the action. One day when he wouldn’t shut up, Mr. Benevolent Writing Professor himself pulled back a rubber band and snapped him right on a fat roll. “Ouch!” he exclaimed. “What’d you do that for?” It left a red welt. Not one of my finest moments.

But it may have been a defining moment. Quest Physics. Life is a spiritual journey and everyone we encounter along the way is our teacher. Even the Big Georges of the world. Especially the Big Georges. That’s not me. Prison is oppressive enough without some dick popping you with a rubber band just because you’re different.

Which brings me to New Year’s… The best holiday in my little corner of the universe. Way better than Christmas. Nothing like another year down, another year closer to home. I spent the final week of 2019 like many citizens of the world, taking personal inventory, getting my house in order, figuring out my goals and resolutions for 2020. For me, it’s the usual suspects — finish current novel, write more essays, build strength, increase flexibility, hydrate, read more, listen better, be more efficient with time… But this year, kindness and tolerance surge back to the top of the leader board. I lost my way over the last 12 months. It took a CIA agent with samurai swords to lead me out of the wilderness. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I’m fortunate to have crossed paths with Big Georg.

Love you guys. Happy 2020!

Juanito

This summer I was assigned to work in the infirmary. Not a bad gig by prison standards. Air conditioning, TV, the occasional extra tray and a phone I didn’t have to share with 70 other inmates. There were just two dudes who lived back there. Shaky and Juanito. Shaky had stage four cancer and was refusing chemo. The prognosis was six months. He told me he was at peace with his situation. His wife had already died and he had no one on the other side waiting for him. He felt like he had a good run. He was just going to read his Bible until the Savior called him home.

Juanito had a different philosophy. Fight like hell. Especially with anyone who tried to bathe him which, unfortunately, was my job. My first attempt was met with stiff resistance. Just trying to dab at his neck and arms with a soapy washcloth was like giving a cat a sponge bath. Wasn’t happening. Have you ever been punched in the face by a little old man? It hurts more than you’d think. He also stabbed me in the hand with a spork, bit, scratched, cussed me out in English and Spanish, pleaded, prayed, cried… I was totally unprepared. I couldn’t even get his shirt off. After round one, it was clearly Juanito 1, Malcolm 0. But it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

Juanito is 5 feet and 105 pounds of piss and vinegar. A 92-year-old Cuban American serving life in prison for shooting his landlord. He was 80 when he committed his crime. I don’t know if he had dementia when he pulled the trigger, but he was definitely dealing with it by the time our paths converged. Sometimes he wouldn’t get out of bed. Sometimes he’d just stare off into space. The sides of his wheelchair were crammed with old alcohol pads, tongue depressors and other medical paraphernalia pilfered from infirmary garbage cans. Since I was educated in the Dade County public school system and spent a lot of my childhood just a few blocks from Little Havana, my Spanish has a heavy Cuban dialect. I thought this might earn me some cool points with Juanito, but it only made him more suspicious of me. Sometimes when I was on the phone, he would glare at me from across the room as if he knew I was reporting his whereabouts to the Castro regime.

Oddly, the only assistance he wouldn’t resist was when nature called. He’d just wait for eye contact and motion toward the bathroom. Yeah, it was part of my job to wipe his ass. The only other ass I’ve ever wiped besides my own. Strange experience. In the beginning it was humiliating and awkward. For both of us. Even with the dementia, Juanito was proud. I’m sure it irked him to be dependent on another man for such a basic human function. But after a few times it became mechanical. I’d push his chair to the front of the toilet and lock in the wheels. He’d grab the handicap rail with one hand, the armrest of his chair with the other, and slowly rise to his feet. Once he got turned around, I’d pull his pants down around his ankles, followed by his diaper. Then, he’d sit down and handle his business. After he finished, he’d grab the arms of his chair and stand while I grabbed the gloves and the wet wipes. Easy as 123.

I let the bathing thing go for a few days. I felt like I was failing him but I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t like he was dirty. Aside from digging in the infirmary trashcans, he lived a relatively clean life. The problem was his clothes. They were smeared with dried snot and food.

“Come on, papito,” I’d say. “Let’s just change you into these clean blues.”

At first he stared at me like I was some babbling idiot. But when he realized I was attempting to remove his shirt, his iron grip clamped around my wrist and his thick yellow fingernails dug into my skin. His eyes filled with terror.

“Okay,” I gave up. “Okay.”

Juanito 2, Malcolm 0.

One day some official looking people came to see him. After they left, the nurses were buzzing. The rumor was that Juanito was going to be moved to an old folks home under something called “compassionate release.” They decided that at age 92, he was no longer capable of harming anyone. Despite the scratches on my arm and the spork holes in my hand, I totally agreed. Society was not being served by warehousing a little old man who didn’t even know he was in prison.

“Juanito!” I told him as I cut up the gray meat on his tray. “You’re out of here man!” He was more interested in stashing salt packets in the side of his wheelchair.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. There was a hearing in Tallahassee, the victim’s family objected, and that was that. No appeal, no second opinion, no mercy. The good news is that Juanito had no clue how close he was. Maybe in some cases dementia is bliss.

That night when we were doing our bathroom routine, I noticed he left a deposit in his diaper. When he sat on the toilet, I took off his crocs, pulled his pants over his ankles, removed the offensive diaper, and chucked it in the trash. Then it dawned on me: I was halfway there. I just needed to remove his shirt and victory would be mine. I could finally get him into some clean clothes. Maybe even scrub him with some soapy water if I could weave his punches while I worked. I moved decisively. His arm was through his shirt before he realized what was happening and it was off before he could protest. Surprisingly, he did not fight. He just sat there and glowered while I went to work on his armpits and neck. Maybe he knew that resistance was futile. Maybe he was just tired of fighting. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe on some subconscious level he realized how close he had come to freedom after all, and was mourning the loss of precious hope within the confines of his diseased mind. Either way, I took no pleasure in the victory.

I’ve since been switched to another job. The prison library. But I occasionally get back to the infirmary to check on Juanito whenever a cool officer is working. He has no idea who I am.

Paradox and reluctant compassion

Every writer loves a good paradox. Our brains are trained to sniff out life’s Catch 22s and spin them into plot points:

A doctor must decide between saving a pregnant mother or her unborn child. A cop with a drug dealer son must choose between loyalty to the job and loyalty to his family. A general has to decide between bombing a village or letting an international terrorist slip away…

These agonizing decisions are the beating heart of good fiction. They keep the pages turning and the reader engaged. But in real life, such dilemmas are a lot less fun. Consider the most recent in my world…

You’ve probably heard me talk about the blind man. He’s been in prison since 1986. I met him a couple of months ago when I moved into my current dormitory. He challenged me to a game of knock gin with his Braille playing cards and we’ve been cool ever since. I walk with him to the chow hall for meals, and most evenings we listen to Braves games together.

For the record, I am not friendly and I don’t require camaraderie. I think of myself as fully self-contained. I could do years on this bunk without speaking to a soul and be perfectly fine. I really prefer the conversation in my head to the conversations around me, and get cranky whenever someone interrupts. But I was intrigued by the blind man. Although my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, touches on a form of blindness called retinopathy, I’ve never actually hung out with a blind person and I was curious to learn how accurate my assumptions were. Plus, this dude has a sunny disposition in spite of his handicap and I admired his self-sufficiency.

The more I got to know him, the more I liked him. He told me stories about riding bicycles while flanked tightly by his two brothers who kept his course true, about the one time he drove a car (!), about his proficiency at the sport of wrestling as a kid in the 50s. When I asked him about the school for the blind where he lived from ages 5 to 18, his usual smile faded. “There were some nice people there, but some were just plain evil.”

I shouldn’t have looked him up. I usually don’t. Nobody is in prison for going to church, and I’d rather not know the sordid details of people’s criminal histories. But there are a couple of exceptions: 1) if we’re cellmates; and 2) if we’re friends. Then I need to know.

In hindsight, it was pretty obvious. What else could he be in prison for? Racketeering? Arson? A blind armed robber? I think I just assumed it was murder. I mean, he does have a life sentence. Turns out, it was something much uglier. Sexual battery. The worst kind. On a child younger than 12. Enter the paradox.

I know what you’re thinking: What paradox? He’s a diaper sniper. Case closed. I feel you. In the hierarchy of prison, child molesters are at the very bottom of the food chain, just below punks and snitches. During my quarter-century in the joint, I’ve witnessed them get turned out, pimped out, and traded like baseball cards until they eventually either commit suicide or check into protective custody. Those who manage to escape that fate are still robbed, extorted, or at the very least, slapped around and relentlessly ridiculed. Although I don’t participate in the abuse, I don’t have any sympathy either. I see it as karmic law in action.

I’m sure there are parents out there who take small solace in the fact that these men are being tormented in here. I know if one of my nieces or nephews were victimized, I would transfer to every prison in the state until I found the predator and punished him for his actions.

But this blind man… I can’t make myself hate him, or even be cold to him, in spite of whatever he did thirty years ago. This is a big-time conflict of interest. No self-respecting convict would ever treat a cho-mo like a human being. I keep rationalizing, maybe he’s innocent. It seems like the only thing worse than being a child molester is being an innocent man wrongly convicted of those charges.

And then there’s the evil he alluded to at the school for the blind. They say most predators were once victims. The idea of a little blind kid, hundreds of miles from home, being abused by some twisted staff member is as sickening as it is heartbreaking. I couldn’t hate that kid, even though he is now pushing 70. The best that I can do is this reluctant compassion. But see what I mean? Paradox.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in July 2016.]
 

Simplicity of kindness

I’ve been in a slump lately. I think it’s some kind of writer’s postpartum. Now that On the Shoulders of Giants is complete and in the editing phase, I don’t know what to do with myself. Without a working project, I feel adrift. Anchorless. And my old diversions only leave me hollow and unfulfilled.

So I was already grumpy when I sat down with the blind man this morning, but the USA Today Sports Weekly doesn’t come in Braille and I gave him my word. (Dude is a die-hard Braves fan. He listens to their games every night on AM radio. He’s also a baseball historian. Pretty amazing, really. Born blind and can still see the game in vivid detail. I never knew the difference between a sinker and a slider until he broke it down for me.)

I’m usually in awe of the blind man. Just the sound of his stick tapping the concrete will make me smile. He’s a good guy with good energy. Both are rarities in here. But today I wasn’t feeling it. I was wrapped up in my own problems. No book to consume me, no woman to love me, no rec yard, no mail, and a release date that is still thousands of days away. Me and my problems. Me me me.

But something happened as I began rattling off batting averages, OBPs, and ERAs to this guy who’s been in prison since 1986 and blind since birth. When I glanced up from the magazine and saw his unseeing eyes darting right and left, processing the information I was relaying, relishing it, I realized I was no longer annoyed. My heart was suddenly wide open, my troubles were forgotten, and in that moment, I was happy.

Why do I always forget this simple truth until it sneaks up on me? Nothing feels better than kindness. I need to practice it more often.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in June 2016.]