Thursday, May 17, 2018

Becoming A Man

By Terrance Tucker

May 18, 2017 – Today is my son’s 18th birthday. Today ends his childhood status in the eyes of society, and he can now be treated as an adult. Today I am reminded again that I have missed his entire life due to my extremely long prison sentence.

The last time I saw my son was in 2002. He was two-years-old and struggling to be potty-trained. Now, he’s a grown man, with a voice so deep it intimidated me when we first got back in touch.

For years I struggled through my sentence trying to keep in contact with him. This was back when phonecalls were six-dollars and some change, and my change wasn’t coming in this fast. During this time in my life I received misconduct after misconduct for nonsense. The “hole” was a place where I lost myself, and slowly my communication with him faded away like my youth. As the years turned into a decade, I began to feel helpless and useless – avoidance therapy was the only way I knew how to deal with certain issues. I psyched myself out by believing that he was better off without me since his mother had married and moved away.

One day a letter slid beneath my cell door, there was no return address on the front. I opened it up to see a small note scribbled in barely-legible handwriting. I was excited – then fear and embarrassment rushed through me. It was from my son. His grandmother had found me on the DOC website. Apparently, he’d been asking questions about me, and she thought it was time he got the answers straight from the source.

I remember being confused – I didn’t know what to say to him. I sought advice from a few other guys who I knew had teenage children. The first few conversations we had were awkward – he gave one word answers, and listened silently to the point where I wondered if he was paying me any mind. I was lost.

There’s a program in Graterford called “F.A.C.T.”, which stands for Fathers And Children Together. This program was created by the prisoners here to help men become better fathers, and build, as well as maintain, relationships with their kids. You’re taught fatherhood skills, like effective communication – which I needed. We also hashed out certain self-defeating issues that prevented most of us from establishing healthy relationships with our children.

Admitting your faults, and sharing your personal life with a bunch of convicted murderers, robbers, and drug dealers was very terrifying. Evenmore frightening was going back to the unit and speaking with this 13-year-old boy. Attending and enduring the long lectures and personal group discussions was worth the knowledge I gained. I never received a visit with my son during the two cycles I sat through in the F.A.C.T program, but the insight into manhood, and being a father, was very conducive in building the relationship I now have with him.

During one of the F.A.C.T sessions, a facilitator spoke about children being angry at incarcerated fathers. I wondered if my son was upset with me. I thought about my own father, how he got hooked on crack and disappeared from my life for months at a time. Over the years I grew to resent my father for being an addict. At times I wished he was in jail, like a few of my friends’ fathers. To me, at that time in my life, being in prison was more respected than being a crack-head; coming around occasionally with your cheekbones poking out of your face, your clothes battered and dirty, and your shoes rundown. Remembering this, I told myself my son couldn’t be mad at me.

The next time we spoke, I asked my son if he was upset with me. At this time, I still struggled to bond and build a relationship with him, back when he would just listen and not talk much. To my question, he answered “yes”, he was upset with me for being in jail and not being there for him. I felt tiny. The lifestyle choices I had made led me out of my son’s life, and it wasn’t respectable – he didn’t care. Incarceration wasn’t an acceptable excuse, if there is one for being an absent father. 

Fact is, a child needs a father to grow up properly, like a plant needs sunlight. A boy growing into a man without a father is like a plant growing in the dark. Is it possible? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t seem too healthy. What I am sure of is that a boy needs a man’s light to guide him, instill in him the morals and integrity an honorable man is supposed to have, teach him the lessons you’ve learned the hard way so that he doesn’t have to hit his head as hard as you did.

Growing up, I told myself that I would never subject my child to the neglect that my father subjected me to. I would never abandon my responsibilities. I’m reminded of the popular statement: “Death Before Dishonor”. Is the honor strictly related to criminal activities, or is an honorable guy honorable with his family, as well as his friends? Who comes first? Because a man can be arrested, keep his mouth closed, and have his respect increased immensely. That same man can have kids he knows to be his and not open his mouth to teach them, open his wallet to feed them, or raise his hands to protect and shield them.

Over the years, these thoughts have been running through my mind, and I’m reminded of the first conversation I had with my son’s mother when I was first arrested. She said: “You ain’t think about us”. That was who I should have considered first when I was still free.

This morning I called my son to wake him up on his 18th birthday – to let him know that he’s not a boy anymore, and that he should take life seriously and think about his future. Over the years, I’ve been beating these things into his head on the regular. Today, on his 18th birthday, he took it in stride, like he always did. I asked him about his plans for the day, and he told me he has a job interview at Walmart. I felt like all the long talks we had over the years were working. I got goosebumps.

When we ride for our homies, our blocks, our cities, we never consider or think about our sons and daughters learning to ride a bike. Being a man of integrity, honor and principles, is not being the man holding the seat of their bike, coaching them on.

An absent father is an absent father. A child doesn’t care if you’re in jail, or if you’re somewhere strung out, or drunk. All they notice is that you’re not available. Time is more valuable than anything else in the world, so who will yours go to?

While writing this paper, my son has been hired at Walmart, graduated from high school, and is scheduled to start college in the fall. I let him know how proud I am. He’s humble and doesn’t truly understand the magnitude of his accomplishments in life.

Most young black men don’t graduate from high school. Most don’t make it to the age of 18 without being touched by the long arm of the law. Kids with incarcerated parents have a higher chance of being incarcerated themselves. My fear is my son being bit by the same wolf that bit me, so I will continue to be the light shining out from this cave, preventing him from following my footsteps inside.

Terrance Tucker EZ7394
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Promised Land

By Steve Bartholomew

One hundred seventy six months, one week and six days. A clunky clause describing a period impossible to reckon--not in any experiential sense, anyway. I try to envision it as the arc of human development spanning from fetus to high schooler, a possibility engine steadily increasing in intensity. I can no more grasp such a blur of mediated history than you can imagine the same timeline cemented to a scopic patch of fallow life, one salted with longing on a scale that dessicates the soul.  

Nearly fifteen years no matter your vantage, over seven of which I've spent in this cell, alone. Not in solitary confinement, mind you--I don't want to incur undue sympathy. Rather, a single-man cell, meaning I may leave it for nine hours a day, to work or shuffle about the yard.. What I lack in freedom I make up for in material security, such as we can have in here. No other prisoner may trespass upon my humble 55 square foot abode, this dim cloister where my possessions sit unmolested (the occasional search notwithstanding), immune to the usual guarantees of mistreatment and theft.

Here I may retreat from the manic doldrums of prison drama, the endless reruns of hotshot theatre in the yard starring yammerheads and witless impersonators of actual convicts and gangsters. Surrounded by reminders of loved ones and a world beyond, in this cell I may find refuge, an agreeable monotony that passes for respite. No small thing, this. Here I can create in solitude, spatially encased, my projects safe in their vulnerable stages of percolation. Even now I fail to appreciate fully how different it could be. Habituation and tedium can convince you, after years of waking alone in an enforced space, that it belongs to you. You forget the upheavals of caged life, the punctuated stasis of human storage in a dominion remotely directed. 

Washington has five levels of mainline custody. Over the years I've slowly progressed from closed (max) to medium, then long-term minimum, which I've been deemed since before I started writing for MB6. Four years from the gate, goes the rule, minimum custody invokes camp eligibility.

Today I leave this cell, this prison, for good. I've been promoted. I'm heading to camp.

It's 6:20 AM, and my cell door opens. I haven't been able to sleep much for the past few days--not since they told me I'm leaving this week. Anxiety born of uncertainty has shouldered aside most thoughts and charged my still moments with mental ruckus. I've been up for a couple hours, but the callout schedule says I'm to go turn in my state clothes at 7:30. I'm programmed to expect things to commence when the callout says they will, or later--not earlier. Nothing ever happens early here. I thought I had another hour to leisurely pack up the few remaining items in my cell. A guard appears at the cell front. "They want you now. Bring everything. You're not coming back."

Over the past week I have bid farewell to everyone I know in here. Some I have come to know well down the years--a few of whom you have met as well, through their writing. I will likely never see any of them again. In our world, relationships are subject to involuntary severance at any time--an eventual inevitability we're all aware of. 

My nerves are crossfiring, my hands shaking. I am cold, but sweating for no outward reason. I am struggling to stuff into my state duffel bag the proper amount of issued clothing for turn in. I am losing count, forgetting which items I've already sorted. Evidently I've packed my mind first. I ask the boss for a couple minutes to use the facilities. No telling how long the transfer process will take. "Sure," he says.

I walk down to Receiving and Release, where there is a small gaggle of transport guards waiting to process the seven of us who are leaving today. On the counter another small contingent--urinalysis cups--is also waiting for us. One guard points at me as I approach and asks if I have to piss. I explain that I just went, that I'd figured since no one had called me in the night before that we'd do the transfer UAs on arrival. "They should have told you," he says. "You have one hour to provide, beginning now. I have 6:32. If by7:32 you fail to provide, you will be escorted to seg instead of camp."

Nothing stifles the waterworks like panic and concentration, wishing for an urge. The others each go through the dehumanizing process, stripping before urinating beneath a cold stare. I am the last one, alone in the UA hallway with six impatient guards. They are each trying to one-up the others, embellishing stories first of sexual oddities then weapon snafus. Not much difference between the two subjects, in delivery or themes. At 48 minutes I squeeze out enough to avoid a trip to seg. They escort me into another room, where the other six prisoners are awaiting in a cage. I arrive to a small smattering of applause. I take a bow, then a seat.

They verify our identities one last time, comparing us to our photos and making us recite our DOC numbers and birth dates. Then they walk us out into the Gate One courtyard, where I have not been since disembarking from the chain bus over seven years ago. We are in the shadow of the 30 foot wall circumscribing the prison, a centenarian behemoth of prisoner-made brick coated in peeling white paint. A monument to, and for, human suffering. The full effect is one of geological separation, even now that I know my remaining time behind this wall can be measured in seconds. Dead center is a bus-sized steel gate. An armed guard outfitted in correctional bulk stands outside his tower, looking down on us with his rifle half-slung. Escorting us is a female guard I've never seen before. In her mid 50s and slightly built, she has the air of a chipper tour guide.

An electric motor whirs to life, a drive chain clanks against its shroud. The enormous steel gate shudders and groans in its tracks, opening at last.. 
The world beyond unfurls itself, a young prodigy of a day rushing through the rectangular portal to meet me, to be experienced at last. Swerves of sap green hills like faroff dunes wreathed in cirrus, forested swells flecked with autumnal ochre and russet. Crisp brushstrokes of nature in her full scope throng behind my eyes, eluding my comprehension. For these ashen years I have tried to dream of distance, but learning to live without a horizon beneath a box-shaped sky has hobbled my grasp of panorama.

Emerging from the open gate, I am suddenly aware of being neither cuffed nor shackled, and that I am wearing my state-issued khaki clothes rather than a pumpkin suit. I glance at the other six faces in the procession. I know the story of only one, a man who has been divorced from this world for sixteen years, one more than I have been. His eyes, like mine, are widened slightly, engaged in the business of reacquainting. We are in the midst of outbuildings, a few parked vehicles. I am walking by rhythmic reflex, staring about while following the lady guard across the macadam. She pauses to key open a small gate in a cyclone fence, and we have arrived. We are at camp.

She leads us along a sidewalk past thriving vegetable gardens. We enter a door in one of several low-slung buildings, its construction evoking a real estate office more than a prison. In a large classroom medical is checking our vitals, one by one. My resting heart rate is usually below 60 BPM, but now I cannot get the hammering down to 72. I am directed to another room where a nurse delivers a ten minute soliloquy on medical policy, then asks me questions about the world (what is the date, and who is president) and what she's said (her name, and how to report sexual misconduct) to determine whether I was listening, and presumably to judge my mental competence.

Next we follow the lady guard down a sidewalk leading to the gym, filing between manicured lawns and barked beds of coiffed shrubs. The rec supervisor is waiting for us inside, on the weight deck. He gives us a short lecture on what not to do vis a vis his department. In the door walks my friend and bandmate--the other half of Versus Inertia--who I've not seen in a year, since he came out here. I break from the group to go shake his hand and give him a hug. He's stayed back from work today because he knew I'd be coming in.

Adjacent to the gym a long staircase descends onto the yard. This complex of five prisons has always been referred to as "The Hill," but the Reformatory--where I've been for over seven years--is a flat-bottomed box, vision-stunting and topographically deceptive. From the head of the stairs I see the hill proper for the first time, sloping into the town of Monroe. A Chevron, an RV dealership and thrift store lie within slingshot range. In the middle distance an elevated highway weaves through the valley, its stream of speeding cars spangled with morning sun. Here is the pulse of the freeworld, arterial and glorious, the pageantry of purpose scoring its circuits in ways I could once read. My eyes ache in trying to track so much movement--thirsty, I realize, for non-prison stimuli. I cannot look away. I am speechless, overcome with a bracing awareness of my own estrangement, more or less leveled by the grandeur of quotidian life in its paces. 

My friend notices I have paused, frozen but for my watering eyes. "Oh," he says, remembering I'm sure his first glimpse of this breathing diorama . "I'll give you a minute."

I am dimly aware of a brainwave shift, a subtle subtraction from my perceptual backdrop. After a long moment of introspection, I realize what it is I no longer feel. Watched. There are no guard towers here, and the few cameras are watching the fence lines.

Typically, upon transferring to a new joint, I plan on waiting two weeks to a few months for my property. But here they pass out our boxes minutes after our arrival, and send us off to find our units, our bunks. Outside, prisoners wander about, unescorted. A couple prisoners who work in the property room offer to help me since the amount of stuff I own doesn't fit on the cart, and I have no idea where I'm going.

Upon entering the dorm I am struck by its spatial economics, cramped and overlapping. A long room or wide hall, low-lidded and planted with an orchard of steel bunkbeds laden with laundry and flatscreen TVs. Natural light streams from the windows in each cubicle. Most of the occupants are either cocooned in blankets or milling about, the conversational voices of easily a dozen people sounding tightly confined in the dry acoustics of the tier, and this is how it is here, most everyone jobless and without visible endeavor or aim. Walking between the row of cubicles I inhale the pungent ghost of cigarette smoke. Everyone pauses to size me up as I pass, the newest and 43rd member of this community. I offload my boxes of property onto the floor and three of my new neighbors approach and introduce themselves, welcoming me onto the tier.

I find my bunk, a top shelf in a four-man cubicle. Alongside my upper bunk a partition extends vertically about 16 inches, separating this cubicle from the next. On the other side is another prisoner. Imagine a double bed bifurcated by a single bookshelf laid on edge, so that you sleep less than a foot away from a stranger (well, I suppose that soon we will no longer be strangers, will we).

I discover that the window in my cubicle slides open about six inches, letting in air as free as any. Although the principal view is one of the next tier and the strip of lawn between, I stand at the window for some time, transfixed. I can see the sky now, whenever I like. I can stand here all day if I wish, watching birds nod and scamper along the adjacent roof, maybe 30 feet away.

Thus begins the final four-years of my journey. And I am celebrating all I must accept. This is camp life.

Steve Bartholomew 978300
P.O. Box 7001
Monroe, WA 98272

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Lovin' Life

By Eduardo Ramirez

For Donald Hall. 

“I've been by myself so long I wouldn't know how to live with another person.” Dr. G took in this comment and without even looking at his notepad scribbled something. It might've just been a doodle, or something equally meaningless. But Dr. G wasn't given to meaningless activity. He took his job seriously – but in a good way. Some guards take their job seriously and that means not even an extra piece of fruit coming out of the chow hall; there are counselors who will not see anyone without the proper paperwork being filled out first. Some call this professional diligence, I call it overkill. Dr. G was a no nonsense type of guy but he was easygoing too. As the shrink at SCI-Pittsburgh – nostalgically referred to as Western Penitentiary – I suppose he had to be. It would hardly be productive if he didn't use that light touch with the dozens of guys he saw daily. My visit was prompted by an upcoming transfer to a prison closer to my home region. I was feeling tense, mostly because after spending the better part of three years in a one-man cell I was about to lose that privilege and be forced to live with someone else's funk. New house, new rules, you know. I was hoping Dr. G would agree that a cellmate wouldn't be exactly conducive to my “custody, care, and control”; a recommendation from him to have me permanently Z-Coded (administrative lingo for “left the f@#! alone”) would go a long way.

“There's a guy at Graterford I want you to look up. His name is Donald Hall, and he recently got off of death row.” Dr. G tore the paper with Donald's name and number on it from his pad and handed it to me. He gave me his version of a primer on Mr. Hall. He had spent over twenty years on death row before an appeals court overturned his sentence and gave him life-without-parole instead. “You would think that the trauma of facing execution and literally avoiding it by a few weeks would forever scar an individual,” Dr. G said, “but not Mr. Hall. He came out telling everyone he loved life. It got so that people started calling him “Lovin' Life”.” The man was a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, Dr. G told me. “Change is often uncomfortable, but ultimately can prove to be necessary.” 

I wasn't sure what this had to do with me getting single-cell status but the more he droned on the clearer it was that Dr. G wasn't going to give me the relief I was hoping for. 

A few weeks later, I found myself at the legendary – though not for the greatest of reasons – Graterford State Prison. I wasn't even thinking about Donald Hall, nor lovin' life, so much as I was thinking about how shitty life was turning out. I was eight years in on a wrongful conviction – and, yeah, my appeals were offering me some hope but the daunting football-field long prison blocks and the ancient cons who'd been down since the Nixon administration gave me an eerie insight into what I could look forward to. Life was looking anything but lovable.

Graterford was alive, though. Its proximity to Philly's fluid political scene gave the prison a vibrant air of social activism that just didn't seem to exist in the other lock ups I'd been at. It turns out that rather than waiting to die, most of the oldheads were politicking in the hopes for a commuted sentence. I'm sure that more cynical minds would pooh-pooh these activities as being the efforts of desperate men who were only in it for the recognition, and these guys probably did start off with selfish intentions, but given that only a handful had ever made a successful bid for commutation – which made the odds akin to hitting the lottery – at a certain point I have to believe that their rhetoric for social change and ending violence really became a personal philosophy. 

I got involved in whatever group would have me. There was the arts project that painted murals in sections on portable cloth panels so that our finished products could be transported to the city and installed. The End Violence Project was a weekly workshop conducted by Landmark Education that focused on a simple philosophy: the moment you have an idea, life will immediately present you with obstacles to overcome. Temple University offered a criminal justice course in which students from campus studied alongside students within the prison – that venture prompted me to seek enrollment in another college program being offered by Villanova. There was literally no shortage of activities to take part in. 

It was as a result of my newly discovered outlets for my lifelong avocation as a quasi- intellectual/pseudo-philosopher that I found myself in the dayroom expounding on the theological intricacies of the masterpiece known as Futurama. Yes, even a silly cartoon about a 20th Century slacker in the 30th Century, with a crooked sidekick robot, and a slapstick menagerie of characters, can teach us valuable lessons. Sort of like what goes on at Graterford…

There's a particular episode in which Bender – the booze swilling, pocket picking, floozy loving robot – finds himself adrift in the vastness of space. Organic debris collects on his shiny metal ass and evolves into a civilization. Being that Bender can communicate with the life forms that are developing on his classy-chassis, he starts to unwittingly (then eventually, quite wittingly) take on the role of a god. His chosen people need water, he produces a flask from his trunk; they ask for guidance, and he instructs them to build temples in his honor – in the way only a self indulgent narcissist can. Eventually his civilization breaks into warring factions and they annihilate each other, leaving Bender to float on in the loneliness of the cosmos. That is, until he comes across his own personal god – who happens to communicate in binary code. 

Bender pleads his case with this god, telling him how lonely he is and how he understands the responsibility of a god – though he did a poor job of handling those responsibilities. The god assures Bender that he was watching the whole time, and empathizes about how when you do too much for the people they can become too dependent; don't do enough, and they lose faith. “You gotta have a light touch, like a safecracker, or a person who burns down his business for the insurance money – but only if he makes it look like an accident,” the god tells Bender. This is the joke. And in the way artists use lies to tell the truth, the writers of Futurama slip in that little nugget of wisdom: “Sometimes when you do the right thing people aren't sure you've done anything at all.” The episode ends with the god packing Bender's bag and whipping him through the universe to be with his fellow Planet Express crew back in New York.

The guy to whom I'm explaining this smiles through what I imagine is his confusion – although it could've been polite disinterest. We start to wrap up the conversation when the oldhead sitting next to me says, “I've never heard anyone use a cartoon to explain god's love.” He extended a lean, sinewy hand and introduced himself: "My name's Donald Hall, but most people call me “Lovin' Life”." 

He wasn't what I expected – even though my experience was leading me to expect the unexpected. Well over sixty, he still had a boyish smile. He had a boyish build, too; thin, but nothing that made him look emaciated. In fact, he had a frame like the welterweights of old, like Kid Galahad or Sugar Ray Robinson. He smiled like he was about to break into a Nat King Cole number. His smile revealed a pearly row of teeth that could hardly be his own. He didn't look like a grandfather at all. If he wasn't such a straight-laced guy I wouldn't trust him around my mother. But he was straight-laced. 

Donald was a born again, and damned well proud of it! He ushered church services and regularly had bible study on the block. We spoke one time about making mistakes and he told me something I'll never forget: “A mistake is a result you can't expect. Doing something you know is wrong always turns out the way one should expect.” 

I asked Donald how he got the name “Lovin' Life” and he told me it came from the way he would greet people. They'd say, “Hey, Donald, how you doin' today?” To which he'd reply, “Lovin' life”. I pressed him about his sunny disposition and he told me how it had developed on the row.

“It wasn't always this way. At the beginning of my bid, I was angry. I was a five alarm fire in a one truck town and I was ready to burn down everything and everyone. I slept a few hours each night, and my days were restless and filled with anxiety. I hated the white guards ‘cause they reminded me of all the people I blamed for my situation: white judge, white prosecutor, white public defender, white jury. I hated the black guards ‘cause I thought they were sellouts. I hated the other guys on the row ‘cause they were crazy, know-it-alls, or happy-go-lucky fools that didn't realize they were about to die – some even expected a mystery god to come down and pluck them up like a precious flower from this rotten garden. I hated myself, and in the loudness of my anger I couldn't figure out why. I needed a little peace of mind so that I could think straight. It took several years before I realized my peace and quiet were there all along.  
Imagine the quietest place on earth. A church might come to mind, or maybe the top of Mount Everest. But even a church has bells that ring, and rough winds howl atop every mountain. But on the row it's solemnly quiet. Sure, some guys talk in chess moves from time to time, and there's the sound of trays being passed through the bars, but, in general, everyone has too much on their mind that only silence can work out. It was in this silence that my thoughts began to speak with God. It wasn't gradual, the way it is for some. It was instantaneous and surprising to me when I found myself speaking into the silence. And the silence spoke back to me. Whom else could it be but God? I just accepted it. I was too beat down to fight it anymore. So when I did push ups, God coached me between each rep; I wrote a letter home, God inspired my words; but especially when I read the Bible, God directed me to the best scripture at the best times. It really did change the air around me; cooled out my fire, and gave me a different perspective on life. 
With my perspective starting to change – a result that certainly was the culmination of circumstance and godly influence – I started to see things make a change for the better. All of my relationships improved dramatically. My daughters responded more frequently to my letters. My interaction with staff became less contentious and, at the very least, more courteous – by professional standards, if nothing else. But almost as important as my relationship with my Lord and Savior, who had prepared a home for my soul, was my relationship with my lawyers, who were trying to save me here on Earth. I started to see them in a new light: their long hours and hard work in their vocation working against capital punishment, and it wasn't all that pro-salary either. I'm sure my surliness came off as anything and everything but the appreciation I should have been expressing.  
I wanted to be a new man. I apologized to people and began listening to them without feeling compelled to respond. The older guys on the unit began to invite me into their flashbacks of the early days: when they were all as suave as Billie Dee, and as debonair as Sidney. Never mind that these flights of fancy were, for the most part, gross exaggerations of the way things actually were. I had a knack for interpreting these revelries in a way that highlighted our potential for kindness – and as unspoken as it might have been, my brothers and I on the row knew our regrets and eased each other's guilt.” 

Donald's legal drama was unlike anything David E. Kelly or Dick Wolf ever produced. It was more “Law and Dis-order”, and did not at all reflect those kinds of neat storylines with their logical conclusions. In the end, his sentence was reversed due to the Commonwealth's poor choice in words when it came to explaining the death penalty to a jury. Nothing fancy; just enough to spare him from a devil's cocktail. Donald's sentence might have changed but not his outlook – which no one can say was a bad thing.

Donald was transferred from the Capitol Unit at SCI-Greene to the busyness of SCI-Pittsburgh, where all the Philly guys worked on earning a promotional transfer back east. My stay at Western wasn't unbearably long, but I did learn a few things: Pittsburgh winters are cold; when you don't have a baseball field a black top surface will suffice – just don't try sliding into the third; and, what perhaps sticks in my memory the most, just how old the place was. 

Built around the turn of the 20th Century, it originally only had one long building that ran maybe a tenth of a mile, and stacked five tiers up; a guy could get a good cardio workout making the trek up and down those stairs and to and from the chow hall several times a day. Just as old was the plumbing. I mean, as toilets broke down they were replaced with newer models – you know, those cold, metal deals that made Pittsburgh winter mornings feel extra chilly. It was in one of the cells with one of these toilets that Donald Hall saw a reflection of himself that I will never forget. 

“The cell was a nightmare. It looked like it hadn't been occupied since the days of Al Capone, and no one had bothered to clean it since, either. Layers and layers of paint caked on the walls; layers and layers peeling and chipping away. I felt like I was living in a musty shoebox. I could reach out and touch either wall with my fingertips. But amid all the dust and grime that needed an industrial grade sandblaster was a toilet that had a universe of bacteria growing in it. I wasn't sure if it was feces or rust that crusted over the inside of the bowl. I just rolled up my sleeves and went to work with an old toothbrush and scouring pad. It didn't come off easily. It took about a week just to get half the bowl looking decent enough that I didn't wanna retch each time I looked into it. I must've used a dozen pair of rubber gloves on that operation. But as I scrubbed away a thought occurred to me: I was that toilet bowl.
Jesus found me on death row when I was covered in years of slime that no sane person would touch. He rolled up his sleeves and with his word, like steel wool, he scraped away; he got down on his knees and held his breath through the stink and polished me up into a new vessel. No one wants to scrub toilets but we all want our souls to be saved. It just so happens that some souls are filthier than a toilet – someone still has to save them, though. I figured, if Jesus thought I was worthy of salvation than even the filthiest toilet is worthy of bringing back to its original luster. Jesus brought me back to a shine brighter than a new penny, and absolutely worth more too. 
That's how I got the name “Lovin' Life”. I really do love it, and I wanna encourage us all to love it. We've all got our crusty sides to us but God, Yahweh, Allah, Buddha – doesn't really matter which – tends to us nonetheless. I don't just love my life, I love your life. I feel responsible in my actions 'cause I know they can influence others – for either good or evil. If anything, I wanna affect the good.” 

Donald would go on to tell this story in a stage play produced by a community organization. One day I'll have to go online to see if I can find it, to see if I've remembered the details as accurately as he related them to me. I can only hope that its viewing has resulted in the effect that he was trying to bring about. I've got to have hope since I don't normally go for the “prisoner portrayal” thing. I see those activities as largely exploitive of prisoners. The producers have a vision of a flawed human who is deserving of redemption and they seek out a resident to help them bring that character to life. Who the man is behind the character isn't necessarily important as long as he is believable. Once the project is over and the lights go out, once the audience has applauded and the high wears off, these “humanists” go about their way and move on to the next project.

Where were the helping hands when Donald was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer? Who among those noble folks watched, let alone cared for, him as his already slight build thinned out and folded like a dogeared sheet of paper? Donald did what he could to keep his spirits up; he still attended service, and in his weakened state was still the head usher showing guests to their seats. If he ever felt abandoned, he didn't show it. That wouldn't be his way. Maybe a lifetime ago, when the world was a shitty toilet bowl whose drain he was circling, he might have had some sharp words. But “Lovin' Life” wanted to die with some integrity. God made him into a new man and this new man wouldn't desecrate the holiness of that relationship. No, prison activists didn't produce any films of a dying man. It was just his family – on the outside and on the inside – who brought him some soup when he could stomach it, and shared a few jokes to help him smile. 

I don't know if he ever got any letters acknowledging his contributions. Dr. G thought highly of him, so I like to think that he still tells the story of the condemned man who was reborn. And the guys in the chapel still bring up his name from time to time. Donald's spirit does live on. In a recent campaign for compassionate release, a picture of Donald (and other long timers who've passed behind these walls) was featured prominently and exhibited throughout the state. A bill to support end-of-life release is being bandied about. This may be too late for Donald, but not for others like him. We'll just have to see which way the political winds blow. Until then (and long after), I'll still have the same response when people ask, “What's up?”

“Just lovin' life, my man. Just lovin' life.”

Edward Ramirez DN6284
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426