Thursday, April 28, 2011

Herman Bell - 25 to Life - What Does That Mean To Me?

BY H. BELL, 3/26/11)

Although I have served more than 37
years in prison, I am still unable to wrap my
mind around what that means; years of locking
in-and-out of cells, letters from home and the
occasional family photo; one letter telling that
the new baby has arrived, another telling that my
niece or nephew is doing well in school and that
the neighbor next door died in his sleep; the
photo shows Ma-dear and Dad looking good but are
noticeably older, 25-life (what does that mean to me?).

If you were a family man, like I
was, with a young wife and two rambunctious boys,
the separation had to have been heart-wrenching.
It was for me. My boys, Johnes and Keith, had
thoroughly broken me into domesticity: feeding
them, changing and washing their diapers,
dressing them, consoling them, taking them for
their shots. Hoping the family dog wouldn't bite
me for reprimanding them. Their mother,
high-spirited and the love of my lie, was no less
challenging; a borderline red-bone, with a
delightful spray of freckles across her nose and
cheeks, almond-shaped eyes and pouty lips. During
our feuds, rather than talk, we wrote notes to
each other and the children handed them to us.

What does doing 25-life mean to me?
As I mull over this question, I am reminded of
Elmina, the Portuguese slave fortress, located on
the West coast of Ghana from which enchained
afrikans were led through its infamous
"door-of-no-return" to the holds of waiting slave
ships that would take them to the New World. I
too feel as though I've walked through a "door-of-no-return."


If one knew nothing about the
geography of a town in upstate NY where one is
imprisoned, then one can readily imagine what the
afrikan slave must have felt on a southern
plantation � not knowing where to run or how to
get there. For me, getting from Attica or Clinton
Dannemora, to my hood, seemed no different than
for the afrikan on a slave plantation in Georgia
getting from there back to Afrika. Across the
country, I have been held in many jails, and my
family has had to travel thousands of miles to see
me at considerable expense.

You know how families are received
at these places: standing in the elements to get
in; suffering the indignities of disparaging
remarks; seating arrangements; frustrating
package rules. Prison is where spiteful, petty,
contemptible, morally unkind acts find free
expression at the whim of those who have
authority over us. The keepers are vigilant and
they instinctively ferret out unguarded
self-esteem, courage, and strength. Prison is
designed to break you down, not build you up. It
casually destroys the weak and unwary (as though
they were an afterthought), and turns the
spiritually debased into beasts. What's not so
strange about this is that the spiritually
debased elicits no particular attention from the
keepers. 25-life (what does that mean to me?).


Time, faces, and relationships change, and like
sand cascading down the funnel of an hourglass,
nothing can resist this change. One day, you look
in the mirror and see gray hair and a face that
tells you you've aged; your body tells you that
too. Some of your old friends have moved on and
new ones have come to take their place.

Your mother and father may have passed away, as
have mine, and I was unable to see them buried.
You may have contemplated numerous possible
scenarios, should you be imprisoned, but never
that; and neither did I. The years take their
toll, the people you believed in, the certainties
you once embraced might have led you to realize
that the more you know, the more you realize you
don't know. With luck, we come to understand that
humility and wisdom come with age and experience,
and that death is often merciful.


In doing 25-life, you never now when your release
time will come; as it is with death, you can
never foretell the day it will knock on your
door. Yet, in both instances, you better be prepared.


The old-timers in here will tell you: make time work
for you, not against you.

I earned a dual Bachelor of Science
degree in psychology and sociology and a master's
in sociology. It was hard work and could not have
been accomplished without discipline, commitment,
and sacrifice. Through the self-help projects
I've developed on the outside while imprisoned,
e.g., Calendar, Community Gardens, I have built
remarkable relationships inside and outside these
walls. And I have managed to keep a good name
(which is all one can rightly claim as one's own
in here). Because of that, I have managed to make
it through the day, one day at a time. 25-life (what
does that mean to me?).


Parole is discretionary, we are
told, not a right. When one's freedom is withheld
by another, be it a state institution or a
private individual, it's tantamount to slavery
and is a poignant reminder that slavery was never
abolished in the US; the 13th Amendment preserved it.

State parole commissioners have
guidelines to aid them in their parole decision;
that decision, nevertheless, is still subjective.
A host of variables weigh in on this process,
including the kind of day a commissioner is
having, societal stereotypes, the crime that one
committed 30 years ago. As a parole candidate,
one has to be impressed by what I've accomplished
inside and on the outside; and my disciplinary is
exemplary. Yet my next Board appearance will mark
10 years beyond my minimum sentence. And I am not
alone in this experience. Because of consistent
denials, one is led to conclude that more is
involved in these parole denials than what meets
the eye. One is led to conclude that power,
politics, and economics are driving them. And
that this triumvirate serves special interests.
Yet those invested in this practice, and who
profit handsomely from it, still argue that the
mission of prisons is and always shall be about
corrections and rehabilitation. They argue that
prisons are not used as an employment agency or
as a tool of social repression. But if that were
true, then surely fewer people would be in prison today.


This is just a tiny piece of the
picture. The point is that we remain in the grips
of an economic order and culture that's as
formidable and treacherous as the recent quake,
tsunami, and meltdown in Japan, and I wish it were not so.

Think about it. What do you or I
produce in prison? Okay, there is the Corcraft
Industry, which generates a few million dollars a
year, yet it's a pittance compared to the bigger
picture relating to you and me. Billions are made
just by keeping us in a cell. Our very presence
is the raw product that sustains the prison
industry. It did the same during chattel slavery
for almost 400 years, and, like today, we've
benefited none from it. Today, our people spend
well over 500 billion in the US economy, and we
control practically none of it. The only
institution of any consequence we control today is
the Black church.

Today, the sons and daughters of the
people employed to keep us here have begun to
keep watch over us and our children, who now are
finding themselves in here. We have to get out of
these places, stay out of them and keep others
out. And while still in here, it is our duty to
use this time constructively, and thus be an
asset to our communities when we get out. That
way, we turn this thing on its head, snatching
victory from the jaws of defeat, which in this
instance is what is meant by: falling in a
shithouse and coming out smelling like a rose.

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