by Herman Bell
43 YEARS AND STILL IN
I’ve lived in this cell longer than I’ve lived on the streets. Its metal locker where I keep my food from the mice, the toilet and face bowl, the bed, the floor, the cell bars and metal clothes rack all have come to know some part of me. I want to talk about me today.
Through and beyond the iron-framed windows before me, I see blue sky and the free world where I yearn to rejoin my family and community, wherein with just a single click serrated metal handcuffs produce extreme pain, and rattling gate keys may at any moment echo chain-like rushing down prison corridors often resulting in broken bones, bruised bodies, and affronted dignity. Prison is a dangerous place. And in a courtroom, whose words bear more weight — the prisoner’s or the prison guard’s? Here, you may live or you may die; a prisoner awakens, a prison guard leaves home for work, both may never do so again. At the edge of some distant tomorrow, I may walk free out the front gate. I am 69 years old and my youthful and optimistic heart and good intentions have not gone unchallenged.
I remember back-in-the-day when I was a small boy in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. The neighborhood boys and I used to hang out at the local grocery store on Saturday morning helping mothers carry their groceries so that we could earn movie money. I recall helping one mother lug her bags up tall flights of stairs to her apartment, and when she got them all in she smiled, thanked me, and closed the door in my face. For her, that was perfectly fine – after all, my face is black.
Throughout the ensuing years, I have occasionally wondered about that. Racial abuse, stereotyping and bigotry are deeply rooted in u.s. society. Even as an adolescent, I’ve felt like a stranger in my own country, and I’ve not been given reason to feel much different today. I’ve often been made to feel invisible, uncomfortable, out of place. A black face, especially a male black face, automatically prompts suspicion.
While blacks and Native Americans in particular have long been excluded in u.s. society, they are inextricably linked to its origins and know too well its violence and bigotry. No amount of native blood could quench the white settler’s thirst for native land, and the Afrikan whose slave labor largely built north america fared no better. Wealth generated from this enforced labor profoundly transformed the u.s. and sowed the seeds of the modern world. Slave owners drove their slaves from dawn to dusk into the tobacco and cotton fields, the mines, the rice paddies, the woods, sawmills and brick kilns. This back-breaking labor, therefore, is what bind u.s. blacks to this land, and in a way, I believe, Native Americans can understand. Not forgetting what the Buffalo Soldiers were ordered to do to them out West.
Yet despite this, slavery’s legacy endures. It prevails not only in the U.S. Constitution as regards U.S. prisons, providing for “involuntary servitude,” where a disproportionate number of Afrikan-Americans now find themselves on “modern plantations,” but also in u.s. institutions and culture. The ravages of slavery transformed the Afrikan into a nameless, stateless being bereft of tongue and cultural memory, and of some means to cut through the agony of his desolation and despair. This bode ill for his descendants. I am one of them.
As a young man, my thinking changed when I discovered my people in history. Their significant contribution to the advance of human civilization amazed me. This and their historic struggle to reclaim their rightful place under the sun affected me profoundly. It changed the course of my life as well as that of many young people of my generation cognizant of this history. Accordingly, we became advocates in the long-denied and unrecognized black struggle for social justice in the u.s. The white power structure felt threatened by this advocacy, by its assertiveness and growing confidence. Rather than with reason and fair treatment as its response, it chose a stick disguised as law enforcement. Unfortunately, violence ensued and some of us went underground, some of us were subsequently murdered, imprisoned, or both. As time passed, a few among us were released and have gone home. But I and those left are still in after over 43 years.
Imprisonment exacts an incalculable toll on the body and mind and is the closest descent into Hell as one can imagine. The warders aim to impress that every part of your being belongs to them. If not now, then soon or soon enough, that time is on their side. Whether you do or don’t know how to hate, they will teach you. If God does not exist, in here, you may wish that he or somebody like him did exist to intercede and comfort you. For you will presently discover that you and you alone are all there is in here. Enduring prison is one thing, surviving it is another.
The alchemy of a prison sentence transforms a person into an “alien” or social outcast, which exempts him from the rights, privileges, and tender mercies that are commonly accorded to the non-sentenced person. He is inventory on a shelf, color-coded, numbered, thrown in a cell and counted several times a day. His mail is delivered with neither a smile nor eye contact. He’s a blank face to be treated with studied aloofness.
All sentenced prisoners have experienced this. Though our black faces abound inordinately in here, each prisoner is viewed up close as he steps inside the prison. And while the government seem never to run out of money for guns, bombs and planes, prisons seem never to run out of cells to put somebody in. Like shaking hands with the Devil, I found coming to terms with being in a cell to be quite the experience. It bears a distinct quality with which one has to reconcile. When you’re engaged in constructive activity in the cell, it seems less confining than it actually is. Yet its distinct mind-squeezing quality applies especially when you brood, do nothing, indulge in self-pity, and see the space as having no possibilities.
Visualize a cell wall with a poster of an old tree-lined street, a bustling flower garden, a towering bridge and cityscape lighting up the night — those are portals through which I can be elsewhere whenever my mind falls upon them. And when they are packed away for a cell move, the cell reverts to its dead, steely, cavernous state, echoing what it hears, and maybe could use a little paint.
Emerging from the cell heading own the tier and stairway out into the corridor towards the mess hall, an interview room or an assigned program area, regardless what jail I happen to be in, it’s “just another day at Flat Rock.” This contrived routine often leaves me feeling like a mouse running a maze. Often enough, I’ve had to re mind myself that in this maze, I can become lost to family and friends and the outside world, that as I navigate this space of endless tomorrows, continuous close contact with them is imperative. Their presence in my life is what keeps me grounded, keeps my mind and hope alive.
I’ve been in a lot of prisons. The older ones where I’ve been held most – Clinton, Attica, Comstock – their worn-down stone steps stand out, and if they could speak, I’ve often wondered what would they say about the men who trod on them, about what they dreamed, their life’s ambition, what went wrong. One can but assume that their crimes were mostly economic ones. If poverty generates obesity in that people eat what they can afford, the same may be said of certain crimes, because the vast majority of people in prison are poor and marginally educated. Poverty, ignorance, and desperation are no strangers to crime. It’s not uncommon for people in dire circumstances to commit illegal acts that they might otherwise refrain from committing. When all else fails, people will desperately resort to doing whatever it takes, including crime, to support themselves and their families. For taking a crust of bread, the police will pursue a poor man to the ends of the earth and turn a blind eye to a rich man’s theft of millions. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial ruin of countless u.s. citizens, none of the Wall Street bankers and traders rushed for the exit doors. Rich people, educated people, seldom go to prison or go to prison for very long. And as the “race card” plays out, whites in general who do land in here get better job assignments than do people who look like me.
The box (solitary confinement) is another nasty lil spot to avoid in here if you can. Rich people are seldom found in these places, because they are so good at escaping. I’ve been in the box more than a time or two, though less so lately. It’s a cheerless, unpleasant place, and it smells bad. It brims with the sins and crimes committed against helpless men that can never be atoned for. In this world I live in, you have to make the best of what’s before you. Laughter, for example, is “on the house,” and no laughter is quite like the laughter you encounter in prison, often because we have little else. Sometimes, when we’re feeling up to it and “on the down low,” we talk so bad about a guard’s momma, his fat kids, his big-nose wife with one eye, til if he knew, we’d never make it out the box alive.
One time I was in the box, they gave me a blanket that covered only half my body. The guards were amused. I was pissed! But after several days, they gave me a full one, just to keep me quiet. Each time in the box, its cold, gray, cheerless atmosphere packs me down inside myself, affording no relief except what I create for myself. So I would save my dry breakfast cereal and seek a trade with the guys. The haggling excited some – how many tiny boxes of cereal to trade for a piece of fruit, a chicken leg, or for something else? Others never saved and therefore had nothing to trade. From a sheet of writing paper, I would create a chessboard, write numbers on the squares, and fashion chess pieces with sliced bread. Push-ups and sit-ups, jogging in place, and taking naps were a fixed part of my daily routine.
During the night and early morning, I would sometimes lie awake, feeling the silence and its peace wash over me. Throughout the day, one can write but so long with a pen the length of my middle finger, read but so much “piss-poor” material that’s almost like not reading at all, do but so many exercises. And my naps had to be sparing, otherwise my nights would be restless. Our rations were meager, and our hunger the day long.
Indeed, a routine in the box is imperative – making a way out of no way – and is as basic and urgent as a desperate gasp for air around something lodged in your throat. Some days I feel my blood racing to the stout beat of my heart; my thoughts refuse to be still. I want to shut down, but there’s no off-switch. My years in the box were long, hurtful, mentally exhausting, and they may put me there again. What happens to men confined this way, for decades, often without feeling or seeing sunlight and devoid of meaningful human contact? When retribution becomes torment, prison conditions often teach men to hate. I ponder this in general population as I walk lock-step down prison corridors with other men.
As these years trickled by, photos of family and friends show that they have aged. My own face, hair, declining agility, show that I, too, have aged. A new world is out there now. It’s as though I’ve hibernated these past 40+ years. So much has changed; so much to learn anew. The guards and prisoners I see now were not even born when I started this sentence. I was brave and brash back then. I was bold and presumed to know more about life and people than I had a right to. My aging journey has taught me that youth and ignorance often pave a thorny path. It’s just as thorny as the one laid out for those who fight for social justice and what they believe is right.
Forty-three years in prison? Someone may wonder do I ask myself, “What am I doing here?” Or ask, “What’s this prolonged imprisonment all about?” Save the occasional visit and phone call, my children, and now my grandchildren, have spent only a bit of time with me. Holding everything together while I’m away, my wife has suffered throughout all this. Family pressure, prolonged separation, all too often break up families. Thus, new relationships may form, and the prisoner may find himself even further removed from his family than he was before. A harsh penalty on top of his sentence. He himself may sometimes wonder: “Does anyone care?” His children, his grandchildren might sometimes ask, as do mine, “Why you, Dad; why you, Grampa?” Or wonder to themselves, “Why couldn’t someone else take his place?” Questions born of love and earnest desire to have me home, not out of selfishness.
I serve an indefinite prison sentence and hope to survive it, but the parole board or you, my supporters, will decide my fate. Sensitive to both political pressure and “special interest groups,” the Board’s decisions are widely regarded as arbitrary and capricious. Because I’m a political prisoner, the Parole Board is far more predisposed to releasing an apolitical (or social) prisoner on parole than it is to releasing me. Otherwise, I would have been home years ago.
It maintains that its decisions are impartially made after an interview. Myself and others are persuaded that their decision is made prior to the parole interview. Before commencing the interview, Board commissioners rifle through their papers, which I think is mostly theater. But it’s the only time you get to size them up; and they in turn take a quick peek at you. Though now most interviews are done by teleconference, seldom in person. They talk to you and you to them on video-screen. A panel of three usually conduct the interview, though sometimes two does it. They are ex-prosecutors, state investigators, and retired police. They will interpret and even twist every explanation of insight and expression of remorse offered by a prisoner. They ignore favorable psychological evaluations, rob prisoners of hope, promote despair, discourage personal growth, and strip us of incentives. They are well practiced in manipulating human emotions. They open with pummeling questions about your offense, rake up your “criminal history,” pick and pause over reports on your prison activity. They then make you wait five to six days before sending you their decision, which almost always is a denial.
“If the envelope bearing your decision is thick,” guys used to say, “you’ve been denied, and if it’s thin, you’ve made it.” And there are those who say theirs were “thin” and they were still denied parole. Obviously, size doesn’t matter. You simply know when you know! As the guard callously opened the envelope from my last Board appearance, “the appeal form” fell out before I could read the decision. I had only waited 40 years for it. Still, I read it, looking for some sign of hope. Accordingly, guys are reluctant to open a parole board decision. Having complied with all the rules and satisfied all structural requirements, how would you feel having to tell your mother, wife, and children that you’ve failed them!? You smother your disappointment and wish that you could shield them from that feeling, too.
The thought of spending the rest of my days in prison is despairing. I’ve not begun to think that yet and hope I never shall. Nowadays, people my age say, “Due to terminal illness or incapacitation, write a will and tell how you wish your remains disposed of.” Talk like that makes me nervous. Before and during these 43 years in prison, I’ve lived according to my beliefs, fought for myself-respect, my community, and for social justice; along the way I’ve helped people where I could and have striven to make myself a better human being. I’ve kept faith with the belief that we humans are responsible for each other and for the welfare of all. So what to make of these long years in prison, I cannot say, I’m still here.
All Power To The People!