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Bobby and the Supremes

A prison visitation park is not a park at all. Just a cinder block room packed with folding tables and chairs. Maybe a box of dirty and well-used toys in the corner, a couple of 80s-era microwaves. But it’s the place to be on the weekends. Who wouldn’t want to hug their momma or steal kisses from their old lady or play with their kids? These connections are vital. They remind us that we are human in an increasingly savage world. Plus it’s nice to get away from the fights and stabbings and squawking PA system and just be with family, mask off.

Unfortunately, not many people in here get visits. Some are too far from home and the trip is too expensive or they burned too many bridges on the way in. Others had the years whittle away their remaining loved ones until they found themselves alone. There are roughly 900 inmates in the gated community where I reside and maybe ten are in the visitation park with any regularity. Twenty on Christmas. Some of them I know from other prisons. Their mommas and wives have stood in line with my momma and braved the weather, the pat searches, and the ever-changing rules of the Department of Corrections for close to three decades.

This is how I met Bobby.

He used to come and visit his son J, who is serving a natural life sentence for felony murder. J didn’t kill anyone, but he was party to a crime where shit went bad and a codefendant snapped and did the unthinkable. By 2008, Bobby and his wife had sold their home and pretty much everything else they owned to pay attorney fees. J had exhausted all of his post-conviction remedies. Natural life. He accepted his fate but his family would not. They remain vocal opponents of the felony murder law. Both parents have spent a few afternoons rallying for change on the Capitol steps.

Bobby is a good old boy who lived on the Blackwater River and claimed to have done time himself at Raiford back in the day. His narrow views on race and religion and the world are consistent with the views of other rural white Southerners his age. I don’t hold this against him. People are more than their fears and insecurities. Bobby was a product of his times. I still remember his face when I tried to convince him and his wife to vote for Obama. “I ain’t voting for that socialist…” He may have used a couple other descriptive words as well. This led to a vigorous debate on presidential politics and who represented who.

My position, then and now, is that the only power a president wields that directly effects state prisoners is the ability to appoint Justices to the Supreme Court and judges to the lower appellate courts. That’s it. And for prisoners and their loved ones, whose hopes rest on future rulings of this court, it’s all that matters. It transcends race, supersedes party affiliation, and nullifies petty grievances. A couple years ago, my Christian nieces didn’t understand when I spoke out against Trumpโ€™s SCOTUS appointees. For them, abortion is a major issue. For my second amendment buddies, itโ€™s guns. I get it. And I respect their conviction. Climate change, affirmative action, a robust military, national debt, nuclear nonproliferation, transgender bathroom laws… These are all complex issues that voters must grapple with, but they’re not my issue. I’m trying to get my friends home.

I once read a case where conservative Justices Scalia and Thomas said that a prisoner in Louisiana who got his teeth kicked out by guards in a confinement unit at Angola could not seek punitive damages. This is not the exception; this is the tradition. The conservative wing of the court is extremely consistent when it comes to ruling against prisoners, while liberal justices tend to have a more human rights-oriented monocle through which they read and decide cases. If you ever get the chance, read Justice Sotomayor’s masterful dissenting opinion in Jones v. Mississippi, where the conservative majority shot down the possibility of parole for a young man who was 15 when he committed his crime.

I was thinking about Bobby in 2016 when there was an empty seat on the Supreme Court (because the senate majority refused to hold confirmation hearings on Obama’s pick until after the election). During this time there was bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform. Crime was at a record low and the war on drugs was in a death spiral. For all her warts, if Hillary wins that election she gets to fill not only that opening but also two more during her term. Plus hundreds of open federal seats across the nation. Instead, the biggest upset in the history of American politics occurs and Donald Trump goes on to stock the courts with a record number of young conservative judges who will shape the landscape of the judicial system for years to come. His appointees were former prosecutors by a whopping 10:1 ratio over former defense attorneys. This was obviously horrible for prisoners.

Equally depressing is the fact that violent crime is once again rearing its ugly head. It was a matter of time. Between the opioid epidemic, extreme poverty, and the merging of gang culture with the entertainment industry, no one I know is really surprised. Tough-on-crime politicians are already dusting off their old speeches. Prison profiteers are salivating over the financial possibilities. Here’s what you should know: America is already tough as nails on crime. We are the worldโ€™s leading incarcerator. I’m sure you’ve heard the numbers. We make up 5% of the worldโ€™s population, yet 25% of the worldโ€™s prisoners are caged right here in the land of the free. Getting tougher on crime will only spend more tax dollars to build more prisons that teach people how to be professional criminals. What America needs is a mechanism in the penal system where men and women can earn their way home. Back into the communities that need these reformed mothers and fathers to take up their places in the families they left behind. If their kids are already lost, maybe they can reach their grandkids. The bleeding has to stop somewhere.

Enter Biden. During his first year in the White House, the world watched as desperate Afghans hung from American planes in the botched pullout of our twenty-year war. I think even his most staunch supporters would agree that he gets a triple F minus on his handling of that situation. No other way to spin it. Same goes for the lack of a coherent policy on the southern border. And inflation. And gas prices… Little fires everywhere. He’s had his successes too. Infrastructure, plummeting unemployment, keeping his promise to lower the national temperature. But I’ve got to give it to the old man. He knocked it out the proverbial park with his Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The fact that she’s the first black female appointed to the highest court in the land is obviously monumental. Volumes will be written about this. But the honorable Judge Jackson is also a Miami native with relatives in prison and in law enforcement. She has a firm grasp of the state of Florida and its broken criminal justice system. For prisoners and the families of prisoners, this is astroseismic. More importantly, she’s a former public defender. This means she’s actually been inside jails and prisons to meet with clients who could not afford counsel. A life sentence is not some abstract idea to her. And by the way, she’s not just any public defenderโ€”she’s the first public defender nominated to the Supreme Court. Ever.

The typical path to a judgeship is to be a prosecutor or work for some big law firm. Then with a little luck and the right connections, you might get tapped. Public defenders and civil rights lawyers are generally left out in the cold for these positions. Of the 880 federal appeals court judges in the US, a whopping 318 are former prosecutors. More than a third. As opposed to the 58 former public defenders who make up 7% of all judges. When PDs do get nominated, they are usually grilled about their ability to be impartial. As if their prosecutorial counterparts are beacons of truth and light who put justice ahead of their coveted conviction rates. No need to inquire into their impartiality. Right. For those keeping score at home, three of the nine current Supreme Court justices are former prosecutors: Alito, Gorsuch, and Sotomayor. The Biden administration appears determined to address this disproportion as he continues to nominate more public defenders than prosecutors for all federal judgeships for the first time in history. Time will tell.

I heard Bobby died a few years ago but I haven’t been able to substantiate the rumor. I hope not. I would love to be able to talk smack to him when none other than Ketanji Brown Jackson authors some future majority opinion that renders his boy’s life sentence unconstitutional and sends him home.

It’s not as far-fetched as it was a couple years ago. A glimmer of hope has arrived. Her name is Ketanji Brown Jackson. And it’s officialโ€”she’s Supreme.

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.

Balls and strikes

Most of my family and friends are into Making America Great Again… again. They are not racists. They are good people, religious people, Catholics and Evangelicals who believe that abortion is the most important item on the docket when electing a president. So four years ago, many of them held their noses and voted for a philanderer and a bully and a race baiter because there was a Supreme Court seat open and the big prize of Roe v. Wade was dangling over the plate like a 35 mph fastball.

By the looks of it, they hit a towering home run. In fact the ball is still blasting through the stratosphere.

When Justice Scalia died in early 2016 and the Senate refused to even have a hearing on Obamaโ€™s nominee to replace him until after the election, they effectively put a Supreme Court seat on the ballot. A stroke of brilliance, really. But never in conservativesโ€™ wettest dreams did they imagine that two more seats would come open in the ensuing 48 months. A 6-3 conservative majority on the highest court in the land would almost certainly be enough to overturn the landmark abortion case. At least thatโ€™s the hope. Or the fear, depending which side youโ€™re on.

Iโ€™m not sure where I stand on abortion. Is that all right? To be undecided? To be conflicted about such a polarizing issue? If weโ€™re committed to putting science first on the crucial issues of Covid and the environment, why not listen to what scientists have to say about abortion? Especially late-term abortions. Iโ€™m guessing we know a lot more about the human embryo in 2020 than we did 50 years ago, just as we know a lot more about melting ice caps, carbon emissions, and the ozone layer. But I have the luxury of being an armchair quarterback on this issue since I am a man and will never have to make that difficult choice.

Abortion is not my main focus during election season anyway. Neither is the environment nor the Second Amendment nor the economy nor health care. When Iโ€™m gauging a candidate, itโ€™s all about prisoners and the families of prisoners. And since presidents appoint not only Supreme Court Justices but lower appeals court judges, these elections have a direct impact and far reaching consequences for my little demographic. (And by little I mean the 25% of the worldโ€™s incarcerated who reside right here in the U.S.)

Contrary to popular belief, and despite what they may say in confirmation hearings, these judges are not fair and impartial callers of balls and strikes. That era is long gone. In the 70s, under liberal justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, the Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional, supported Roe v. Wade, and upheld affirmative action. But under Nixon appointee William Rehnquist, whom Reagan made Chief Justice in the 80s, the death penalty was brought back, prisonersโ€™ rights were reduced, and the court ruled that education was not a fundamental right in America. Occasionally some Justice will drift to the center in his or her old age but thatโ€™s happening less and less these days. Most judges are now groomed from high school for these lifetime positions and thoroughly vetted before they make the short list. Too much is at stake.

Thatโ€™s why the idea of a devout conservative like Amy Coney Barrett supplanting a liberal paragon like Justice Ginsburg is so painful. She will be on the court for possibly the next 40 years. This feels like Clarence Thomas being tapped to replace Thurgood Marshall all over again. That was 30 years ago and heโ€™s still the most conservative Justice on the bench.

But the irony in all of this isnโ€™t that Republicans are rushing to ram through Justice Ginsburgโ€™s replacement 30 days before the election, even though they refused to hold a hearing on Obamaโ€™s appointee with eight months left. Or that all this is going on despite RBGโ€™s dying wish that they wait until America goes to the polls. Or that the court is moving back into the 1950s while the rest of the nation is moving in an entirely different direction… The irony is that the least intelligent and most polarizing president in the history of the Oval Office, number 45 out of 45, will have replaced a third of the Supreme Court during his rocky four-year tenure. And if he declares this election rigged, refuses to accept the results, and there turns out to be a court battle, guess who will be casting the deciding vote.