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A fresh take on prison reform

Another day, another article involving prison reform. The same politicians who were once shaking their trembling fists and promising to get tough on crime are now calling for an end to the war on drugs. The crocodilian Beltway suits are coming out of the woodwork to be at the forefront of this hot-button issue, even (gasp!) reaching across the aisle, which has been a rarity since our 44th president coached Chief Justice Roberts through his inaugural swear-in.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the numbers. They’re almost a catch phrase by now. The U.S. makes up only 5% of the world’s population, yet a whopping 25% of the world’s prisoners are confined right here in the U.S. of A. The world’s freest country owns the dubious distinction of being the world’s leading incarcerator, and it ain’t even close.

Prisoners and prisoners’ rights groups know these numbers and facts by heart but lately they’ve been surfacing in the unlikeliest of places — conservative op-ed pieces. Tea Party congressmen sound bites, even the old guard of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” talk-radio blowhards are suddenly Gandhi-like in their benevolence.

The winds of change are picking up momentum and the prison industrial complex, with its multibillion-dollar, tax-guzzling budget and draconian policies, is slowly drifting into the national crosshairs. But each time the numbers are trotted out and prison reform is mentioned, there’s the accompanying political escape hatch of an asterisk. *Any relief would be strictly for non-violent drug offenders.

Here’s the thing: An overwhelming majority of these “non-violent drug offenders” are the same traffickers and dealers pumping dope into communities. Selling drugs is purported to be a victimless crime, yet anyone who lives in a neighborhood where drugs are sold can plainly see the victims in the form of crackheads and junkies shuffling up and down the block like zombies. Most violent offenders were not out robbing gas stations to build their stock portfolios. They were just sick and desperate for money or anything else of value to exchange with their local non-violent, victimless dope dealer for their coveted medication.

The recently deceased truth seeker and international friend of prisoners, Bo Lozoff, once said, “Every joint smoked, every drink drunk, every pill popped, every crime committed, is just to get some relief. Just to feel good, to feel safe or powerful. It’s like going crazy from a toothache without knowing what to do about it; we blindly grope around in pain, and some people do it more violently than others.”

Prison reform will be a major milestone in the evolution of this country and it’s refreshing to see President Obama, the Department of Justice, and members of congress working tirelessly to eradicate minimum mandatory sentences and the heavy-handed policies of the war on drugs. But rather than blanket relief for non-violent drug offenders, why not a renewed focus on rehabilitation, a revamping of the parole system, and the powerful incentive of hope for all?

The heavy gift of forbidden love

By Marcus S. Conrad, Guest blogger

Since the days of William Shakespeare, writers have been using every tool and contrivance imaginable to bring together two unlikely characters. A flicker of attraction builds to a healthy dose of white-hot passion, then inevitable conflict snaps to life and suddenly, the reader is teetering on the edge as the two struggle their way back to each other. For some, the most engaging part of the story is seeing how they conquer obstacles to find each other again … as we know they will. As we hope they will.

Some say they don’t read romance novels because the genre tends toward the formulaic and predictable. Malcolm Ivey’s second novel, With Arms Unbound, is not strictly of the romance genre, but it does have a romantic subplot which is anything but formulaic and predictable.

The two characters who become lovers meet in the most unlikely of places. From one comes suspicion and aversion, while the other fast-forwards directly to hatred. A thoughtless remark is followed by an unexpected apology, and the ice between them begins to thaw. He risks vulnerability and opens his soul to her, she listens gently and touches his cheek. The author describes the feeling of her touch as “gold dust swirling around in his mouth, down his throat, into his lungs.” This simple gesture is restorative, transformative, astonishing.

Their attraction is hungry and raw, their love fragile and forbidden. Discovery would be disastrous for both. Among the others, they must act like nothing has changed. They must walk through their day outwardly embracing their roles as adversaries, while inwardly carrying this heavy and wonderful gift they’ve given to each other.

Knowing he uses sign language to communicate discreetly with his peers, she decides to learn it as well. From across the room, he watches as her delicate fingers form the letters of words that convey her deepening affection, the electricity of their sweet secret. When she leaves work one afternoon, she knows he’s watching her walk to her car. She appears to be adjusting the shoulder strap of her purse, while signing the letters “I-L-Y” toward his window. Her message hits its mark and he soars into thrilling distraction.

In a private moment, he teaches her the Spanish phrase “Te adoro.” She signs the endearment to him when they are separated. He is nothing like anyone she’s known before; he feels as if every day of his life has been leading up to the day he met her.

But the obstacles are staggering. Eventually, she allows a pessimistic inner voice to cast doubt on the truth, while he languishes in a torturous hell.

The author clearly knows what it’s like to yearn, to crave, to need, to cherish. He reaches into the vast underground of his own soul to dredge up the pain of the past, as well as the buoyant excitement of new love, when delightfully obsessive thoughts of the other person crowd out all reason.

With his skillful pen, Malcolm Ivey takes you back to when you would have recklessly sacrificed anything for just a stolen moment with the one who seems too good to be true and you don’t even care. You can taste the abandonment of your better judgment because you’re floating so high that nothing can even nibble at the edges of your bliss. The author also knows what it’s like to tumble head-first into the despair of loss, the grinding agony of separation.

This tale of forbidden love comes to a logical and satisfying conclusion. The difficult path finally leads home in a most unexpected way. Malcolm Ivey weaves this romantic narrative into his characters’ lives with spot-on mastery, and we are drawn in to accompany them.

Rewriting the code

By Kelly Z. Conrad, Guest Blogger

One of my favorite chapters in the Malcolm Ivey novel, With Arms Unbound, is called “Rewriting the Code” in Part Three. The character of Weasel, befriended and mentored by Kevin, has taken his teacher’s wisdom to heart. While he’s ashamed of a recent backslide into weakness, Weasel decides to avenge a wrong committed against his friend. Sometimes it’s easier to fight for a friend than for oneself.

With Kevin’s guidance, Weasel had begun to see the world and himself with new eyes, and from a fresh perspective. Even while he’s slipping into weakness, Weasel feels the strong pull of conscience. He knows that Kevin would disapprove of his recent choices and there’s a part of him that’s glad Kevin is locked away in confinement and unaware of his lapse in judgment. Weasel actually considers suicide, but doesn’t want to die a coward, and that alone keeps him from acting on it.

Then his opportunity comes. The bully who wronged his friend by taking a silver chain given to him by his deceased brother, is open and unsuspecting. Who would ever suspect Weasel? The scrawny geek who’s been invisible his whole life, easy prey for predators, the object of ridicule, the kid who’s always been too meek and awkward and scared to fight back.

Except on this day. Weasel takes a running charge, jumps and swings as he was taught, and knocks the guy to the ground. He lands another solid punch, then reclaims Kevin’s chain. Instead of simply getting up and accepting his punishment immediately, Weasel takes off in a wild sprint around the rec yard, to the growing cheers of his fellow inmates. He is liberated, joyous, a newborn man. He can hardly believe what just happened. His entire life, he bought the definition that others assigned to him. No one ever considered him because no one ever noticed him. Cowardice, weakness, invisibility were his birthright, written into the very code of his DNA.

Until today. He took action, avenged the crime of theft, stood in for his friend who couldn’t right the wrong himself, and rewrote the code.

This is a powerful lesson for all of us. We do not have to accept the box into which we’ve been placed, either by others or by ourselves. Settling for a lesser definition of who we are is the escape hatch of the lazy, the unevolved, the immature. It absolves us from taking responsibility for ourselves and our choices, which many are all too eager to do. Sure, you can lie down and passively allow yourself to be limited, restrained by the world’s labels. Or you can choose to rewrite the code.

If you’d like help rewriting the code, ask God for assistance.
“Who’s your enemy?” Kevin drilled Weasel during their training sessions.
“Not my opponent,” Weasel would answer.
“Who then?”
“Fear, panic, rage, doubt.”
“Good. Remember this, the opposite of fear isn’t courage. The opposite of fear is faith.”

How Scriptural is that? This dialogue could easily be an exchange between God and any of His children. While the author does not draw a direct line between faith and God, he leaves the door open for the reader.

Nestled among the raw, everyday realities of life depicted in this book are important life lessons, learned the hardest way possible, then illustrated for us by an astute and gifted writer. A man in the truest sense of the word, who began his difficult journey as a child, eventually saw the sense in choosing to rewrite his own code, and became an adult.

His writing is brimming with insight, shrewd and unflinching, into human behavior, human needs and desires, shortcomings and faults, violence, betrayal, tenderness, loyalty, compassion. He brings you crashing into his world, shows you around, and watches your reaction as you try to wrap your mind around, then take in, what has become boring routine for him. He takes you on a wild ride and leaves you off a changed person, inspired to rewrite your own code.

How to make a REAL difference

There is something unsustainable going on in this country. It’s happening in every project building and trailer park across the nation. Babies are being born into poverty, if they are lucky enough to make it that far, as many are discarded with the trash.

These kids grow up like weeds, forgotten by incarcerated and addicted parents — many of whom are still kids themselves — ignored by society, bouncing around state foster care systems and juvenile detention centers, raised by the streets.

When I was smoking crack, I remember driving to my local ghetto to score some dope one morning. I was amazed by how many kids mobbed my car. Eleven and 12-year-olds, pushing and shoving each other outside my window, holding out baggies of the rock cocaine I sought, vying to make the coveted sell. Even in my drug-addled mind, I remember wondering why these kids weren’t in school.

Now, ten years into a 30-year prison sentence, I see those same kids moving into the neighboring bunks in my dorm; 18-year-old boys with 50- and 60-year sentences, their lives already over. I know people will say they made their own choices, but when a child grows up unraised and unloved, when he has to hustle and scrap for everything he gets, when the only environment he knows is one of crime and violence, when the heroes of his community are gangsters and criminals, when the music he’s been listening to his entire life trumpets murder, robbery, and dope-dealing as a realistic, viable life path … it’s difficult to wake up one day and decide to get a GED. Maybe in Hollywood; rarely in real life.

The newspapers say crime is down 4 percent in this country. Somebody is skewing those numbers. With the rise of physically addictive prescription drugs, and heroin rearing its ugly head, there is no way the crime rate is dropping. The problem is not going to go away. It is a festering sore on the face of society that is expanding exponentially. And there’s only one way to stop it: Love.

Naรฏve as it may sound, if every child in this country were loved and nurtured, there would be a lot less violent crime in America 15 years from now. So let’s set aside the whales and the trees and the ozone for a minute. If we really want to make a difference, we need to save the kids.

Because there is no them; only us.

E = mc2

My fatherโ€™s father was a writer and the son of a philanthropist. His name was E. Malcolm Collins II. I never met him, but his novel, Angel Blood,ย was a permanent fixture on the bookshelf in our apartment when I was growing up.

The story passed down through the family was that he was an alcoholic and drug abuser, and in December 1971, he ran a bath of scalding hot water, stepped in, slipped and banged his head. He died in the tub. He left behind one daughter, my Aunt Carole, who also struggled with alcoholism and depression, and one son, my father โ€œMac,โ€ E. M. Collins III, who had his own issues with drug abuse and compulsive behavior.

In 1990, Aunt Carole checked into a hotel room and shot herself in the heart. Three and a half years later, my father died of congestive heart failure. A lifetime of Camel non-filters and horrible eating habits finally caught up with him. Aunt Carole had two daughters: Kelly and Ginger. Mac had four sons: Scott, Keith, Jeff and me.

Not to air any dirty family laundry, but I think deep down my brothers and cousins would agree that thereโ€™s a little crazy swimming in our DNA; a compulsive gene, a predisposition to addiction, maybe even a touch of psychosis. But thereโ€™s also an overwhelming amount of love and music and laughter.

September 5, 2014 is the 21st anniversary of my fatherโ€™s death. Itโ€™s hard to believe that over two decades have passed since the prison chaplain gave me the news. At age 40, I can see the evidence of his genetic fingerprints all over my life; and not just in my evaporating hairline or the blue eyes staring back at me in the mirror. I recognize him in my passion for sports, my own struggles with drug abuse, my love for the Blackjack tables in Biloxi, my affinity for cheesecake. There are signs of E. M. Collins II in me too, and his father, and the echoes of countless generations before them.

When I began writing novels, I took the pseudonym Malcolm Ivey as a nod to those men: Malcolm I, II, and III, the philanthropist, the writer, and the banker. The Ivey represents the Roman numeral IV, Malcolm the fourth, my fatherโ€™s son to the bone and the youngest of four brothers. Ivey.

Today, September the 5th, I will raise a bottle of water to my reflection and salute the Malcolms in me, blemishes and all. As the brilliant Albert Einstein put it, โ€œEnergy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.โ€ I drink to that.

Think of yourself as a nation

There is a villain in my second novel, With Arms Unbound, with the unfortunate name of Festus Mulgrew. Heโ€™s a meth cook from central Florida with a pet spider named Junior and a problem making eye contact. Like any decent villain on the page or the screen, Festus wasnโ€™t born bad. There are reasons why he is the way he is. But that doesnโ€™t make him any less dangerous. If anything, his humanity makes him even scarier, or at least more believable.

I canโ€™t do the mustache twirling bad guy any more than I can do the square jawed puppy saving hero. Iโ€™ve never met anyone like that. My heroes are flawed and my villains have at least a couple of redeeming qualities. Just like in real life.

When sketching the character of Festus โ€œMethlabโ€ Mulgrew, in addition to giving him a backstory rife with abuse and abandonment, I gave him a personal philosophy for survival under harsh conditions. That philosophy is also my own. The difference is that while Festus used it in a negative way, it has helped me to quit drugs, adhere to a strict workout regimen, manage money, develop discipline, be assertive, and focus long enough to write a few books.

If anyone within the sound of this pen is struggling with self-mastery, this may help: Think of yourself as a nation. I am the United Federation of Malcolm Ivey and like any other sovereign country, I am composed of the following:

~ Borders โ€“ these are my boundaries, thou shalt not cross
~ Allies โ€“ my homeboys, every nation has alliances
~ Enemies โ€“ other hostile nations, in my world there are many
~ Military โ€“ my defense system: keep strong and confident through regular exercise and stand ready to protect my borders and allies against any threat
~ National Debt โ€“ the money I owe
~ GDP โ€“ the money I earn

You can even give yourself a national bird and your own anthem if you want. The point is to take a hard look at all the various agencies that make up your nation and ask yourself if theyโ€™re being run efficiently. We ultimately have the power to mold ourselves into nations with robust economies, plentiful natural resources, and solid foreign relations. We can eliminate our deficits, strengthen our alliances and win our wars. Whether we choose to be super powers or third world countries is entirely up to us.

10% Happier

I just finished reading an amazing book, 10% Happierย by Dan Harris. Mr. Harris is the ABC news correspondent who had a nationally televised panic attack onย Good Morning Americaย in 2004.ย 10% Happierย is the hilarious account of his journey as both skeptic and seeker. It centers largely on the benefits of meditation (I can almost see the five people reading this page rolling their eyes simultaneously). While there is a definite unearned stigma attached to meditation, Iโ€™ll leave that for the holy men and gurus to sort out. No sermon here. Promise. I just want to touch on the parallel between meditation and writing.

If thereโ€™s such a thing as Attention Deficit Disorder, Iโ€™ve got it. I have the attention span of a butterfly which makes the discipline of writing a daily battle. Iโ€™ll be one or two sentences into a scene when something hooks my attention โ€“ a bird on a window, a voice in the hall, the smell of food โ€“ and Iโ€™m off โ€œchasing the wishes from dandelionsโ€ as my friend Sheena says.

As one distraction leads to the next, itโ€™s sometimes hours before I remember the project only to find it right where I left it, suspended in mid-sentence โ€“ sometimes mid-word โ€“ so I grab my pen, search for the mental thread of the story and begin again. Itโ€™s the coming back thatโ€™s the thing.

Meditation is similar in that you focus on the breath flowing in and out of your nostrils, the expansion and contraction of your lungs. When thoughts arise and you notice yourself being swept away on that tidal wave of mental chatter, you return to your breath. Every time. Notice and return, over and over.

Iโ€™ve mentioned before that the discipline of writing saved me. Up until the year that I began Consider the Dragonfly, life was all about drugs, gambling, and adrenaline. The tendency to drift toward the extremes is scribbled in the helix of my DNA. But the written word is my anchor. It centers me. The words on the page are the meditative breath that I keep returning to. My om.

Iโ€™m not claiming enlightenment or even rehabilitation. The distractions still come like Craig Kimbrel fastballs. All it takes is a Sophia Vergara commercial, a Black Crowes song or Miami Dolphins breaking news and I hit the ground running. But once I regain awareness and realize that yet again Iโ€™ve been lured down the hallways of always, I shake my head and return to my work, to the open notebook that awaits me.

Itโ€™s the coming back thatโ€™s the thing.

Writing: A transformative craft

โ€œIf your life were a book, would you like your character?โ€

These words have been nibbling at my conscience for years, surfacing at the most inopportune timesโ€”while cheating on a girlfriend, stealing from a family member, cooking cocaine in a spoonโ€ฆย The answer was always the same: โ€œNo, I would not like my character. I would HATE my character.โ€

There are few things in this world as unsustainable and soul-sucking as drug abuse. This is far from breaking news. The hard math states that someone in your orbit is suffering right now, be it your child, sibling, significant other, friend, neighbor, co-worker or yourself.ย ย For most, the needle and the crack pipe are a life sentence of enslavement; however, there are exceptionsโ€ฆ some find Jesus, others escape through a 12-step program, and I would never underestimate the healing properties in the love of a woman. But for me, the way out was through the written word.

When I first beganย Consider the Dragonflyย I did so in desperation. It was a Hail Mary, a half-court buzzer beater, my last shot to escape the quicksand of my old patterns and do something honorable. The universe gave me the bonus plan. Barely a few pages into the first chapter, the characters shimmered to life. Protagonists and antagonists whispered backstory into my heart, explaining why they were the way they were, confiding secrets and fears and dreams, drawing me deeper into the world of storyโ€ฆ and while I was busy being a conduit, head down, scribbling furiously, a sort of alchemy was taking place in my own world. Impulsivity was converted to discipline. Recklessness was exchanged for structure. I was suddenly protective of my remaining brain cells and mournful of those I have squandered. The craft was changing me.

There is something empowering about writing a novel, something spiritual about plugging into the collective consciousness and transcribing the flow of words from the ether, something transformative. Iโ€™ve been clean for a few years now. My second book,ย With Arms Unbound, will be outย this summerย and Iโ€™m presently knee-deep in a new project. Some will say that Iโ€™ve merely swapped addictions. Maybe so. Iโ€™m cool with that. Because today, when that old question pops into my headโ€”โ€œIf your life were a book, would you like your character?โ€โ€”The answer is a resounding HELL, YEAH!

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