In prison, if you’re not a complete idiot, you recognize rather quickly that it is wise to refrain from putting things on paper. Especially when you know that things can always be twisted by the administration to put you in a more fucked up place.
I spent my first Christmas in prison when I was 18 – I had spent the previous Christmas when I was 17 in the county jail just before going to trial from solitary confinement and being sentenced to 20 years in prison for a gang-related shooting. I was in Joliet prison at the time – if you’ve seen The Blues Brothers, it’s the prison Jake gets out of in the beginning of the movie. Joliet prison is a medieval-castle-looking monstrosity that was built by convicts in 1858 – prior to the Civil War!
It was also the last max joint that still had college classes at the time. I got my GED within a few months of being there, they said I got the highest score on the test that they’d seen in years, and the GED teacher asked me to work for him as a teacher’s aid. I found the notion of working for the prison that was holding me captive to be a patently absurd idea, but given that he was a pretty nice guy and seemed to genuinely care about the guys getting some semblance of education in his class, I reluctantly agreed to try it out. That lasted a couple weeks before I was sent to seg for some stupid shit. I think the college classes I was taking went out the window then too. Plus I got bored with the stupid homework, which I’ve always detested – pointless busywork. They had some graduation party for the GED class too, where they let people come in from the streets and had nice food and whatnot – I refused to even go to that shit. I didn’t get my GED to “impress” anyone in the system and I certainly wasn’t interested in legitimizing the institution holding me captive.
At Christmas time my grandma, being the kind soul that she was, decided to send me and my celly at the time Christmas cards with money orders for a few bucks. I don’t remember the exact amount, could have been $10 or $25 or something like that. And we both were served “tickets” from the administration of the prison for “trading and trafficking” – because my grandma decided out of the kindness of her heart to send me and my celly Christmas cards with a couple bucks to both of us.
Just one example of how a tender, kind, humane gesture was criminalized by the “authorities” of the “correctional” department of the state of Illinois.
So, I had kept a long practice of not writing things down on paper, because the prison administration could take anything and turn it into some “infraction” if some petty motherfucker with nothing better to do with their time decided that they wanted to fuck with guys who “The People of the State of Illinois” deemed guilty of some “offense” worthy of imprisonment.
I know I should probably be spending more time putting some of this writing into a format that will be useful for the book, but if I never make it to the point where anything I get written actually makes its way into a piece of literature that is deemed worthy of being printed in ink on dead trees by whoever decides such things, then none of this shit is gonna matter any way.
So this will be what it will be. And frankly, there’s a lot of shit that I need to get out of my head. I’ve made both some serious attempts and made some serious progress in getting real work on the book underway. But I’ve also realized that given where I’m at and what I’m dealing with, this process is going to be longer than I’d like or expected. And whether I want to be ok with that or not, I have to be ok with that because that is the reality of what I’m dealing with in my life.
And to me writing is a social act. It’s meant to be shared. If I keep everything in my head, it’ll never have a chance of being shared, or be of any value whatsoever to someone, somewhere, even if it’s only as an example of what not to do. But nothing else really seems to be working.
And I’ve missed just being able to try to work through some of my thoughts on my website. There were some real, legitimate strategic reasons why I perhaps should have taken some more care and thought to what I was writing here prior to my lengthy struggle taking on the political prosecution initiated by the “Ethical Humanist” Society of Chicago in conjunction with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and Skokie police (and whoever else had input in it). But there were also other less than healthy and legitimate reasons that led to curtailing my use of the one significant place where I could write in a public forum (even if no one ever reads my website) and work through some things in my head.
And at a time in my life when I’ve been attempting to take some very initial steps of doing things most people do in the years that I spent as a teenager in prison, as well as attempting to recover from years in prison and solitary confinement as well as said multi-year political prosecution and being locked up again, I’ve had both my adoptive parents die. And a number of people who allegedly were friends and comrades of mine have shown quite clearly that that was not in fact the case.
So in many ways I’ve been more isolated than I’ve been in a long time. Some good friends and comrades of mine have continued to stand with me, and that has been tremendously important and something I’m quite grateful for. But having both of the people who were as close to parents as I’ll ever have die within 10 months of each other, and having a large number of people that you’ve worked closely with for many years essentially ex you out on some pretty seriously ridiculous pretense – AFTER I have spent years disregarding my own personal issues and health in order to be involved in the broader struggle against the many injustices of this system, and been on the front lines in that struggle many times… Yeah, not the most helpful combination of things for me to have to deal with by myself when I’m already deep in a fucked up hole from being locked up and tortured for years.
Hearing about MarShawn McCarrel‘s death on Monday night was quite hard to take. The fact that no one else I was with said one word about it, and didn’t even seem to know about it, made it even harder. I was down at the University of Illinois in Champaign because a good friend of mine, Brian Nelson, was invited down there to speak Tuesday and Wednesday about both his experience in solitary and the work he does with Uptown People’s Law Center and helping other prisoners and their families fight against the criminal system of injustice in the United States.
It’s hard to talk about that experience. Frankly, most of the time that I’ve spoken publicly about it I speak more about the broader political history and agenda of solitary and the need to fight to end it rather than the specifics of how it affected and continues to affect me. And I’m quite disturbed by the paucity of serious criticism of the pervasive use of torture in the form of long-term isolation in solitary confinement that the United States is using on tens of thousands of men, women, and children on any given day. Even groups and people who do a lot of important work around mass incarceration have, in my estimation, been far too complacent in accepting the crumbs of “reform” on what is torture. You cannot be taken seriously – not by me, at least, or anyone with consistency of principles – if you applaud torturing a few less people, or banning a torture practice for juveniles but continuing it for adults.
And, as we continue to see, the police murder of people of color has not abated one iota since those nights a year and a half ago when the people in Ferguson really put this struggle on the map internationally. Even with all the important and militant actions that many people have bravely and courageously been doing since then, risking their lives and health and futures – including protestors like Josh Williams (a young brother I’m deeply honored to have met and to have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with on the front lines in Ferguson) spending more time in jail for protesting than any one of the pigs who killed Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, or Eric Garner have spent.
If any other government was murdering it’s own citizens every single day – on video, in public, in utterly outrageous and disgusting circumstances – that government would be the target of an international campaign of condemnation, it would be considered a rogue nation, it would have sanctions levied against it and its leaders would be criminally charged – and probably an international military coalition would come in and take out that government. The United States is doing that and much more every single day. Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, is barred by the U.S. government from investigating the torture practices of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. These are life and death daily realities for tens of millions of people of color – Black folks in particular. This is utterly illegitimate and must be stopped – now.
This isn’t meant to be some super-serious analysis or fully developed critique. Things have been quite hard for me and hearing about MarShawn made the day much harder, juxtaposed with some of the discussions and things I’ve been dealing with, it just made me feel it was way past time I tried to write, more or less unfiltered, on my website and try to get some of this shit out of my head.
Because as many times as I’ve tried to explain to even some dear friends of mine that I feel both care about my wellbeing and have some real understanding of solitary, almost no one gets how seriously this shit affects us every moment of every day. And I was attempting to have a serious discussion about this with some of my friends and that conversation got sidetracked into a different discussion about respectability politics and some other shit. Which in a certain sense is fine, but on another level I really felt like even that was an example of how when I was trying to get some shit out of my head about how all of this is affecting me, and trying to share with some friends of mine about that, that point got completely subsumed in another separate discussion on respectability and language (which in and of itself was not necessarily a bad thing to discuss).
Anyhow, I gotta start getting more of this shit out of my head… So maybe I’ll be on here a little more frequently.Posted in Thoughts
Tags: book, celly, christmas, college, Eric Garner, Ferguson, GED, Joliet, Josh Williams, Juan Mendez, MarShawn McCarrell, mass incarceration, max, maximum-security prison, Michael Brown, police murder, prison, Protest, Rekia Boyd, solitary, solitary confinement, The Blues Brothers, ticket, torture, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, writing