Attn: Right To Redemption
PO BOX 244
GRATERFORD, PA 19426
RIGHT TO REDEMPTION
NOTHING IS AS SIMPLE AS IT SEEMS
Write to Terrell Carter:
Terrell Carter, BZ5409
Graterford, PA 19426-0244
Early in my life—before I had facial hair and my life was not complicated by overdue bills, the care of children, and trying to figure out my purpose in life—every once in a while I would see these two strangers. They seemed to be good friends and more often than not they would be together. The first of the two went by the name of Time; he was a young man with a body like one of those guys you see on billboards modeling Calvin Klein underwear. Whenever I saw him he would be wearing the same outfit: white tee shirt, blue jeans, and some Timberland boots with metal taps on the soles. He was a handsome young man with black, curly hair, caramel complexion, piercing, brown eyes that sparkled with mischief and a smile that was so infectious, no matter how bad of a day I might be having..... that smile would make it all better. He was full of vigor, and always energetic—which caused him to move at a breakneck pace as if he was always running late.
His partner went by the name of Death. He was little bit older and a little overweight. He always wore white outfits: white hat, white tennis shoes, and white pants that were always baggy as if he was ashamed of his size. He had these lifeless, hazel, hooded eyes that were matched by a face crisscrossed by old battle scars. He never smiled. Instead, he would always be smirking.
Whenever I heard the adults speak of him, the occasions were always sad and tinted with fear—a fear that I unknowingly inherited and that would manifest itself in my dreams. I would be running, with Death close on my heels. I'd hear his grunts as his feet pounded on the ground behind me. Out of nowhere I would always trip, and stumble to the ground. Death would loom over me; he'd reach out for me, with these long, dirty, razor sharp, claw-like fingernails. Right before he would grab me I would wake up, heart pounding, drenched in sweat. Just as quickly as that dream would end I'd forget about Death until the next time.
Death was different from Time in the sense that Time never invaded my dreams and Death moved at an entirely different pace. Death was more deliberate and slower, almost calculated as if he measured ever step he took. They were the exact opposite of one another, but at the same time perfect for each other. This was evident whenever I noticed them together. At those moments it seemed as if they were engaged in this game with the adults in the neighborhood. Time, the younger and fitter of the two, would always be chasing the grown-ups, while Death hid, waiting in ambush. It was like this weird game of tag, one that they could never lose—although they would both always be "it," and whoever was lucky enough to be caught was never seen or heard from again.
Neither of them had any relevance to me personally; other than seeing Time and Death chase after the adults, they existed only in the periphery of my life. But every once in a while, they both would slip out of the margins and make themselves known to me personally. On occasions when Time made his presence known, it seemed as if my days would pass by a lot quicker.
For instance, when I was a boy—after school was out and my homework was done—I would be outside riding my bike, chasing girls, playing tops, or catching bugs. You know, just having fun like young boys do. All of a sudden, I would see Time. He would speed by with these long, quick strides. Before I knew it, the sun would be descending behind neighborhood row homes, street lights would be lighting up, and mom would be calling me home.
Time's quick strides were a blur in the corner of my eye in the summertime, and before the sound of his metal-tipped boots clicking on the concrete would fade from my ears, the shouts and laughter of children playing in the summertime heat was replaced by school bells ringing in the fall.
The funny thing about these sightings was sometimes it seemed as if he would catch me watching him and he would change his appearance. Like I'd be in school sitting in class bored and anxious for school to be over, and I'd take a quick glance out the classroom window and see Time power-walking through the playground. On occasions like these he would notice me watching him. He would pause, nod his head, smile, and right before my eyes magically transform. He would go from a young man to a feeble, gray-haired old man, bent at the waist, with a walking stick in his hand. His new white tee shirt would transform to an old one with the material so worn I would be able to see through it. His blue jeans would be faded and frayed to the point where I could see the flaking of his skin peeking through the holes that exposed his knees. He would hold my gaze for a moment while still smiling then wink, right before turning and continuing to shuffle along in slow motion, scraping his metal tipped limbs across the asphalt of the playground. At those times it seemed as if my school day, which only lasted for a few hours, took days to end.
When I got older, I would still see Time. I'd be in the club holding my girl close, our bodies moving in time with R. Kelly’s smooth voice singing about some Honey Love. Strobe lights would flash in the darkness and out of nowhere Time would glide by on the crowded dance floor, dancing too fast to love songs. Before I could even laugh at the ridiculousness of his non-rhythmic dancing, the lights in the club would flicker off and on, signaling last call for alcohol.
This was also the period in time when Death would escape the margins of my life. On rare occasions I would notice him with his dead eyes, scarred face, and perpetual smirk. But now that I think back on it, it would be on the same occasions when he would pop up in my dreams. Every time it would be right after that weird game of tag was ending, with Time skipping away as some unlucky soul found themselves trapped by Death never to be seen or heard from again. At this point, no one close to me had ever gotten trapped in this weird game of tag. So, although I would notice that some of the adults in the neighborhood would be sad, for me, when someone fell into Time and Death's ambush, it was just something I noticed. There was no emotional investment; it was just some distant occurrence that had no bearing on my life.
On June 6, 1992 my relationship with Time and Death changed. It was one of those events in life while you're in the moment that it's happening, you're oblivious to its impact, and you only realize the significance of it years later. For me it was no different as Time and Death ensnared me in their deadly game.
It was one of those-record-breaking summer evenings. The air was thick with moisture and as still as a statue. The heat was stifling, oppressive, and it clung to me like the embrace of a desperate lover. I was in my early twenties, on the cusp of manhood, lost, a stranger to myself, and addicted to anything that felt good. In this particular night I was in heaven, enjoying the effects of the heat on the codeine that polluted my bloodstream. As I nodded in and out of awareness I was oblivious as Time funneled me into Death's ambush. When Death sprung his trap I was caught totally off guard. There was no pain at least not in the physical I-just-got-shot kind of way. It was more like a how-stupid-can-you-be type of shock; after all I was in the ninth month of being on the run for a homicide, and with all the brilliance of a twenty-three year old, I figured the best place to hide was the first place the police would look for me—my neighborhood. It was sort of a stupid version of hiding in plain sight. But now that I think back on it, it was a stupor, a side effect of the codeine coursing through my bloodstream, and I was just high rather than in shock.
Cold metal handcuffs bit into my wrists, and for a moment I climbed out of my stupor. In that brief moment of clarity, I felt Death's cold hands began to squeeze.
"You fucking murderer! We finally got your black ass! You'll never see the outside of a prison wall again." Harsh words shot from the detective's mouth. They cut through the hot, humid air. My body jerked as if his words were bullets that penetrated my flesh. I stumbled. Rough hands gripped tight, steadying me, not to protect me from injury, but to prevent any slick escape attempt—and also to be used as an excuse to inflict some pain. The detective yanked my cuffed hands that were behind my back and lifted them upwards. I was forced to bend over awkwardly at the waist as daggers of pain shot through my shoulders. All of a sudden, I was weightless. My feet dangled in midair before he tossed me face first into a black maw. As I rode air currents of pain on Fear's back, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glance of Time as that feeble, old man, and he was shaking Death's hand. I began to panic. My life flashed through my mind right before I landed in the back of a police van. Pain exploded throughout my body and purple light flashed in my eyes. My head spun as I tried to get my bearings. A loud bang. The police van doors slammed shut and I was swallowed alive in Death's trap.
When the effects of the codeine wore off, I found myself in the county jail. At 140 pounds, I was lost in a bright orange jumpsuit and oblivious to the seriousness of my situation. Instead of preparing myself for what lay ahead, my days were spent gambling Little Debbie snack cakes and cigarettes. Time was there also. I only saw him once and it was a quick glance. I almost didn't recognize him with his tight-ass jumpsuit as he moved at that breakneck pace, but then he paused for just a second and smiled. Before I knew it six months had streaked by and I found myself sitting in a courtroom.
BANG BANG BANG! "Order in the court!" The pounding of the wooden gavel and the judge's shout exploded like gunshots in the confines of the crowded courtroom, killing the murmur of the crowd. The judge cleared his throat and glared at me, "Will the defendant please stand." He pronounced each of his next words slowly and deliberately, as if they would be the last words I would ever hear. Malice dripped from his voice, "I find you guilty of murder in the second degree which carries a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole."
I sat in that courtroom with my head bowed, staring at the lines of the tiled floor. Although I heard the judge's words and I understood what those words of condemnation meant I refused to believe them. Forever was a concept that my young mind lacked the capacity to process. I refused to believe in the possibility that my life could be one where I spent decades living in prison only to die there. That was not how I envisioned my life would be.
I slowly raised my head and took stock of all the pain that echoed through the sobs of my loved ones, and the hurt that was apparent in the tears staining their faces. I locked eyes with Time. He had transformed once again, and this time he closely resembled his partner Death. He was dressed in an all-white suit, and those piercing brown eyes were devoid of that spark of mischief. They were lifeless, hooded. His infectious smile was also gone. Normally relaxed, his body was tense as if he was poised to strike. But he didn't strike; instead he smirked as if the loss of my freedom was something to be mocked. I glared angrily at him, long and hard, and Time stared right hack. I shouted threats at him, and lunged angrily at him. But Time didn't budge. He didn't respond at all to my idle threats. In that fast power-like stride, he just turned his back to me and simply walked away. By then, Time was no longer a stranger. He had become my bitter enemy.
When I left that courtroom handcuffed and shackled on my way to board a Blue Goose prison bus, all I could think of was Time and how much I hated him: I find you guilty of murder in the second degree, which carries a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. This feeling was my constant companion. It stayed with me as I traveled from the county jail to a state penitentiary.
When I found myself residing in a state penitentiary trapped behind forty-foot walls topped with razor wire, motion detectors, and interspersed with towers manned by guards armed with assault rifles, I was in a daze. Separated from everything and everyone I loved, I retreated into a prison of my own construction, and it would be years before I figured out what it meant to truly be free.
As I fortified the walls of my inner prison, my hatred for Time ran out of fuel—I simply became indifferent towards him. This indifference created a duality, where sometimes he was a distant relative—like a cousin ten times removed that lives down South that I never saw, and didn't have a relationship with. On other occasions, he was like a close family member who’d always be there. Because of this, I would take him—like I did them—for granted. That's the best way that I can describe how our relationship was by then.
Although I had become indifferent towards Time, it seemed like to Time, I had become an object of obsession. No one was deserving of my thoughts, love, or attention except him. Like a jealous friend Time began to subtly come between as many of my relationships as he could. With a well-placed whisper, Terrell ain't never getting out of prison. You might as well get on with your life. Before I knew it, people that I once knew and loved became strangers to me as they began to listen to those whispers and drop out of my life. No matter what I did to reconnect those severed bonds, Time would kick up some dust, and year after year after that dust had settled I was left alone holding the tattered remains of those broken ties.
During the first eight years of my incarceration, as Time sabotaged my relationships, he no longer shuffled by slowly as a feeble old man. The minute I stepped inside those forty-foot walls, Time appeared to me as that young man, but instead of simply walking at a quick pace, he moved with the record-breaking speed of a world-class sprinter. Every tenth of a second the clicking of his metal-tipped boots echoing in the hallways of the prison marked his passage, and before I knew it I had aged eight years, although it felt like I had just arrived. You see, my mind was in rebellion against reality. I'd been condemned to die in prison and the best way that I knew how to cope was to act as if my condemnation wasn't real. So I focused on the immediate. I immersed myself in the daily prison existence: I played cards, chess, sports, I read books, I exercised, I listened to stories, and I told stories about the women I had mistreated in the past, the drugs I had sold, the robberies I had committed, the jewelry and the clothes I had worn and the cars I used to drive; while my nights were filled with dreams of getting back to a life I no longer had. Life in the penitentiary was fast-paced, and my days passed by in a blur. It was just like it was when I was younger when Time would step out of the periphery of my life and I would see him in the club gliding by as he danced too fast to love songs. The minute I saw Time sprinting through those dim corridors, those first eight years of my incarceration went by just as fast. Only now there were no clubs, no dancing too fast to love songs and Death was conspicuously absent.
By the turn of the new millennium I noticed that instead of seeing Time every once in a blue moon I would see him every day. I noticed that Time no longer moved like a world-class sprinter, for he had transformed into that feeble old man. Simultaneously life in the penitentiary had slowed to a crawl. It no longer felt like I had just arrived, but instead it felt like I had been in prison forever. For eight years, Time had been sprinting at that record-breaking pace and only when I accepted the truth about my circumstance did he seem to slow down. It had taken me eight years, but I finally came to the realization that there was a strong possibility that I would grow old and die behind those forty-foot walls. I finally realized that I had been so immersed in that daily prison existence that I had done nothing to change that possibility.
During that same period, his partner, Death, had reappeared, and he and Time resumed their game. From the year 2000 to 2015, every so often someone I loved would get caught in their trap: my father, my grandmothers, my grandfather, my little brother, my cousin, my uncle, and one of my childhood friends. But Time and Death's game of Tag wasn't an exclusive thing that was only reserved for those outside of those forty-foot walls. It was the kind of game that transcended boundaries. All around me, I began to notice the older men within that concrete fortress being funneled by Time into Death's snare. With each episode of loss I'd find myself back in that courtroom face to face with Time. He would be dressed in an all-white suit, his eyes would be dead and hooded, and that mocking smirk would be plastered across his face. This vision would be a painful reminder of what my life had become: an endless parade of occasions where I’d be trapped in a world of hopelessness and despair with no means of escape. There was no refuge in my dreams, for my dreams had become corrupted by years of living in the penitentiary. Every time I drifted off to sleep and found myself in the world of dreams, I would be walking down a familiar street in the old neighborhood, but before I could get to the corner, the row homes of the neighborhood would be gone and I would find myself on a prison cell block. Other times I would be stepping out of my mother's house, or the house of my ex-girlfriend, only to find myself entering a prison yard. These dreams weren't populated by ex-girlfriends or guys that I had grown up with; instead they were populated by new friends I had met while in prison, and correctional officers that I hated. They were also haunted by the faces of my loved ones who had been ensnared in Time and Death's deadly game.
Through all the pain and the longing to be free I would still see Time with his tattered, worn clothes hanging off his weak and frail shoulders. He would be shuffling up and down the penitentiary's dim corridors with the familiar sound of his metal-tipped boots scraping against the waxed floors. For some strange reason he would always be singing. With a voice as soothing as a summer breeze, his song would provide me with a little comfort:
I was born by the river
In a little tent
Whhooaa just like a river
I've been running ever since
It's been a long, long time coming
But I know change gone come...
And yet, even with the comfort his voice provided me, I would always find myself thinking, why the fuck is he always singing this old ass song?
In June 6, 2015 I had reached a milestone—my twenty-third year residing in a state penitentiary. On the morning of that day, I stepped into the prison yard into the brilliant rays of the sun, and there was Time staring me in the eyes. For the past fifteen years he had been singing that old song. But on this day there was no singing, he just stared at me with this knowing smile. Because it was on that day, at the age of forty-six, that I realized I had lived twenty-three years outside of a prison wall and twenty-three years within the confines of a prison wall.
Those first twenty-three years had produced a man that no mother would be proud of. I was walled in behind facades of what I thought would protect me, of what I believed people would accept me as. I had developed a false sense of consciousness that resulted in a perverted world view that took me down a path that led to half of my life languishing in a maximum security prison. It was on June 6, 2015 when I stepped into that prison yard that it dawned on me, when I was arrested way back in '92, who I was for those first twenty-three years of my life had been chased by Time into Death's waiting arms. For the first eight years of my incarceration I struggled to stay alive. I retreated further behind the facades that had been protecting me for most of my life. My false consciousness became my life support system that allowed me to desperately cling to a life I had known. But Death removed the bricks of those facades of self-protection and others' expectations right before his claw-like hands grabbed the cord of my false consciousness and yanked out the plug of my life support. The walls to my inner prison came tumbling down, and who I used to be flat-lined. As Time shuffled along singing that old Sam Cooke song, it was on June 6, 2015 that I finally understood why—he was singing my requiem.
But that wasn't the end of me. For Death's trap had become a womb of consciousness and I was reborn. Once I emerged, I finally realized what it meant to truly be free. My past mistreatment of women, the drugs, the robberies, the clothes, jewelry, and the cars were not stories told to fill monotonous days, they were the very things that imprisoned me. So, when Death removed the bricks of my inner prison and yanked out the plug of my life support, I realized that I was free to move beyond the things that placed limitations on who I could be.
Old man Time, weak, bent at the waist, walking stick in hand, has been inching along. As he's slowed, the beating of my heart matches the scraping of his metal-tipped boots. My heart pounds to keep pace as Time once again funnels me towards Death's ambush.
I understand that on this go around when I'm caught it won’t be symbolic. I can see Death hiding, lying in wait, and I know he's waiting for me. I'm okay with this inevitability because I understand that Time funnels everyone into Death's trap and once Death's clawed hands gets a hold of you, there is no escape. Even his partner Time dies—betrayed by Death. But as soon as that second hand clicks past the twelve, Time is reborn into a new day.
Death no longer invades my dreams and the fear that was passed on to me when I was a child is no more. Now I understand that although Death looks frightening with his battle-scarred face and his perpetual sneering, he's necessary. Because without Death lying in ambush, how could I truly appreciate life?
Right now Time is no longer a stranger. I no longer hate him, nor am I indifferent towards him. That duality does not exist. Time is no longer like that cousin ten times removed or that close family member that I had taken for granted. I've become a man who's finally realized how important Time is. Each scrape of his metal-tipped boots is as precious as each beat of my heart. No one has been with me as much as or as long as the old man, and because I finally learned not to take him for granted, he has become one of my best friends. Without Time chasing me into Death's trap, I would have never experienced a rebirth in my own life. I'd still be walled in behind facades of self-protection and others' expectations. I would have lived the rest of my life under a false consciousness and as a stranger to myself. My potential to be more would have remained locked away within my inner prison with me never being able to realize what it means to truly be free. And a life lived like that is a life not worth living at all.
Terrell Carter BZ-5409
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244
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The eyes of the courtroom wept streams of sunlight that filtered through the curtain cracks, highlighting a swarm of dust particles that floated lazily in the air. The movement of the dust had a slow-motion effect, and it could become hypnotizing if you stared too long. Slowly I dragged my eyes away, but I got a sensation that the sunshine was freedom and to look away would be to lose it somehow.
My eyes moved to the judge sitting high up on his throne-like bench. Wrinkles creased his forehead. He was studying some papers on his desk. All I could see were those wrinkles and the top of his balding, age-spotted head. My mind began to wander: what if I'm found guilty? I could feel the pounding of my heart as its rate increased. My mouth became bone-dry while sweat covered my palms and trickled slowly down my back. Anxiety had invited fear to take up residence within my soul, and anger was pounding on the front door. I took a quick glance behind me at the rows of seats filled with family and friends. Could my loved ones see my fear? Did my face betray my anxiety? I struggled to keep my face blank; after all, I had an image to uphold--powerful, soldier, thug, afraid of nothing, one who looks fear in the eye and spits in its face.
Always "the man," I donned my mask of indifference. I smirked, something I always do when I want to hide my fear. Right at that moment, I locked eyes with my five-year-old baby sister. She called out my name and reached her tiny arms out for me. What could I do? I couldn't go to her. I couldn’t pick her up. I couldn't place kisses on her cheeks. I could feel the desperation of my tears as they struggled to be free from prison that my eyes had become. I took a deep breath and secured the locks of their incarceration, blew my baby sister a kiss, and faced forward again with my image still intact.
Not a second had passed before the judge peered over his horn-rimmed glasses. He stared at me as if he could see through me. He cleared his throat. A hush fell over the courtroom. There was no emotion in those cold, blue eyes or his voice. "Mr. Carter, would you please stand." Now not only could I feel my heart pounding, I could hear it vibrating against my eardrums. The judge continued, "I find you guilty of murder in the second degree, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole."
The courtroom erupted into shouts and cries of despair. My father, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and friends all stood. Fingers of accusation were pointed like arrows at the judge. The sudden shift in mood made the sheriffs nervous. Like the shiftiness of a hummingbird in flight, their eyes darted back and forth, searching the crowd for signs of trouble as they quickly gathered around me.
When the judge uttered those words that robbed me of my freedom, time stopped; I became trapped in that moment—not by the judge's words, but by the pandemonium in that courtroom. Now twenty years later, the commotion of that day has settled in my mind, and the judge's words of condemnation are one of two things that I remember so vividly. But at the time, those words had little impact on me, Reason being: a scream. Like the terrifying wail of an air-raid siren warning the people that bombs were dropping from the sky, a cry erupted from my mother. This scream silenced all other voices in that courtroom. It was unadulterated pain begotten by tragedy that manifested in a sound I can only describe as a guttural scream soaked in wretchedness and dragged through an alley of anguish. Everything ceased to exist except my mother and me. This scream seemed to emanate from a place deep within her that only a woman who had given birth would know. Never in my life have I experienced the hurt that I felt at hearing this sound that came from the woman who kissed me on the cheek, tucked me in the bed, and chased the bogeyman away. It sliced through me, cutting me deep to my core.
The atmosphere in that courtroom was filled with sorrow, and self-pity thickened it. It became hard for me to breathe. My throat became tight and I swallowed. But at that point it was all about me. The grief in that courtroom became a coat that I cloaked myself in, shielding myself from the chill of responsibility. Why me? The DA is a racist. The judge is a racist. This wou1dn't happen to me if I was white. I was so engrossed in my self-pity that I failed to take into account my actions and what part I played in the circumstances that I found myself in.
Suddenly it was as if God wanted to show me how self-pity blinded me to responsibility and that my mother's pain was an old pain and her wail was a cry that had been echoing across this land for centuries. Slowly the commotion in that courtroom began to fade. There was a white blinding light and I could feel a sensation of disembodiment. I was floating, connected to nothing. A myriad of colors shooting past me, then, the reality that I knew was gone. I had been dropped off into a place that time seemed to forget: Gray clouds fill the skies and the rain falls in a misty haze. I stand as a child shivering in my mother's arms upon a wooden auction block. The judge now is a slave auctioneer. His cold blue eyes latch on to me, sizing me up like a calf on its way to the butcher. He sneers. There is no humanity in that sneer or those arctic seas of blue, no compassion, no mercy. Pale hands reach out. They are huge, growing larger as my fear amplifies them. I flinch right before he grabs me. His hands are cold, hard, and the calluses that cover his palms scrape against the naked flesh of my bare shoulder. I shiver from the cold of his touch and my fear. He squeezes tight and his vise-like grip sends pain shooting down the length of my arm. I cry out, but my cries are the cries of the calf being sold to the butcher. They are just noises of an animal. What does the butcher care for the cries of his food? Then I'm snatched away from the safety of my mother's arms. "We got one healthy nigger boy-child. Let the bidding began at two bits." Dozens of white faces stand in front of the auction block leering at me, and when the thick southern drawl of the auctioneer's voice commences the bidding, hands shoot in the air and competing shouts of purchase erupt from the crowd. In a matter of seconds life as I know it will be over. I will be sold to another human being who hates me, moved to a place unknown, never to see my mother again.
My mother, tears streaming down her face, reaches out for me, but her motherly instinct to protect me is answered by a savage kick to the face and an unmerciful beating. This brave African woman still cries out, not from the pain of the beating but from the agony of losing her firstborn son.
I guess God deemed my lesson learned, and it was; for I saw through the eyes of the truly condemned who bled their innocence on the wooden planks of an auction block. I could feel the pain of my ancestors who lost their freedom through no fault of their own, who, through the following centuries, paved a path with their lives so that I could be free. Free to do what though? Take for granted the lives sacrificed for my own, so that I could then relinquished the freedom that others died for? Who am I to feel sorry for myself? I'm the one who brought to life our tortured past to be relived through the misery of a mother losing her firstborn son. It was I who open the door of my mother's soul allowing the echoed agony of our ancestors to vibrate through her heart.
The tragedy of that auction block began to fade. God picked me up again and carried me out of that time where my predecessors lived and died as chattel.
We traveled along the echoes of a mother's cry passing through a deluge of shame that soaked me to my core. A barrage of colors passed before my eyes. There was a faint sound of voices. They became louder and, just as I realized what I was hearing, I was dumped back into the commotion of that courtroom.
At that point my mother's scream began a symphony of grief. It was a sad melody that infiltrated my entire being, building up to a havoc of dissonant chords of emotions within my soul. Tired of knocking, anger burst through the door of my anxiety, and fear. I just wanted to shout, I ain't dead y'all stop fucking crying!
At twenty-three, I just couldn't understand the enormity of the circumstance. I couldn't understand what was obvious to everyone else in that courtroom: that there now existed a very strong possibility that I would never see the outside of a prison wall again. Was I in denial? I don't think so. It was just that life-without-parole was so far outside of my life experience that I had no way knowing what it meant. To me five years was a lifetime, so the idea of spending the remainder of my life behind a prison wall was just too alien for me to understand. I was lost, my youth blinding me to the concept of time.
Instead of shouting, though, I simply dropped my head and told the sheriff, "Yo, get me the fuck out of here." The handcuffs clicking around my wrist, in a perverse way, felt comfortable because it signaled my exit out of that maelstrom of grief. A slight nudge by the sheriff and I began the long walk through that center aisle of sorrow.
I avoided looking at the faces of my loved ones. The anguish and the tears were just too much to bear. I could feel my incarcerated tears once again begin their struggle to break free from the prison of my eyes, and once again I secured their locks. I couldn't let my family see that kind of weakness in me. After all grown men don't cry, do they? I took a quick glance to my right. Oh, shit! Are those tears streaming down my father's face? Naw, that has to be my eyes playing tricks on me. I quickly faced forward again, resisting the urge to look his way again. At the time I couldn't deal with a challenge to my concept of manhood. This idea of what a man is and how he conducts himself during times of stress is what I clung to in order to maintain my composure and sanity. My machismo was my strength; the warrior in me enabled me to fight. Tears streaming down my father's face would have destroyed this idea. The very foundation that would have given me the strength and the will to fight would be no more and I would have fallen into a black hole of despair. So instead, I kept my eyes glued to the top of the exit where portraits of old white men hung, those whose judgments populated penitentiary graveyards across the state. Who are these men? And why can‘t I see myself in those images. Instead, I'm reminded of the men handcuffed and shamed who've walked this path before and how they all look like me. Before I could fully explore this thought I entered the City Hall corridor.
As soon as I stepped into that hallway time slowed and a moment became an eternity. Another one of my sisters, just a few years younger than I, was doubled over in agony, sobs wracking her body and tears pouring from her eyes. Then she looked up. The hurt that was etched across her face became seared into my mind, a constant reminder of the terrible pain I caused. It was at that moment, as I locked eyes with my sister, unable to comfort her, that I realized that my life and how I lived it not only affected me but affected other people as well. My anxiety and fear were so distracted by anger bursting through the front door, that they were totally unaware when sorrow crept through the back to take sole possession of my soul. The sheriff nudged me forward again, and the tears that I had been holding prisoner finally broke free. I couldn't incarcerate them any more. Liberated, they covered my face with signs of their escape.
IN A MOMENT
Nothing is as simple as it seems. As children, our psyches have been stamped with the patriarchal idea of Eve being the progenitor of sin. Because of this, every time something goes wrong, we look for someone to blame—it was Eve’s fault that humankind was kicked out of paradise. This has created in us a laziness as we seek simplistic answers to life’s complexities. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Hopefully, as you travel with me out of the loving arms of a West Philly home and into the cold, hard embrace of penitentiary walls, you’ll begin to understand the choices we make—not unlike Eve’s choice—are a bit more complicated than human beings simply exercising their free will to do the wrong thing.
My early life is best described in two stages: the first stage, from birth up until the age of twelve, was not filled with stories of an absent father and a drug-addicted mother who would lose herself in a weeklong crack binge, leaving me alone to take care of my younger siblings, or an evil step-father who at every turn physically, mentally, and emotionally abused me because I was not his biological son. My early life was the exact opposite of these things. Although my mother and father were separated, my father who was a drug counselor, was a steady and positive influence in my life. It’s kind of ironic that the very things he counseled people about were the very things that destroyed my life. My step-father, a black history teacher, was a man who loved me and raised me as his own. He was a man who tried to instill in me a sense of pride and a love of self, but the very tools he used to teach me—a knowledge of a rich African heritage—was one of the sources of my shame. Both of these men understood the forces that exist in our society and they tried valiantly to save me from what they knew waited outside the door of our home. But those forces and the influences they brought to bear were so powerful that I went against the people who loved me the most. This story is the why and how something like this could happen.
I grew up in a home that was full of love and positive influences. My only worries at the time were the pursuit of childhood ambitions: who could run the fastest, stuffing my belly with as much junk food as possible, and how to avoid homework. So coming out of an environment where most of my friends did not have the advantages that I had, how could my life end up with me being condemned to die in prison and theirs didn’t? Maybe it was because of who I was—a young man not afraid to take risk, who was ripe for the right circumstances to arise that would push me headfirst into a bottomless pit of pain and misery. So even with all the love and support that I had, it still wasn’t enough to help me resist those mean Philadelphia streets. It’s not that I was just a weakling who jumped at the first opportunity to take the easy way out. That wasn’t it at all. It was just by the time I was old enough to succumb to those negative influences I had already undergone years of conditioning.
As far as my memories go I can remember being taught, through ridicule by those around me and through the images I saw, that my very dark skin, my blackness, was a curse, a bad thing, evil, ugly. The very first thing that gave me a sense of self shamed me at the same time. This assault on my being had a devastating impact on my sense of self. So although I had a loving family and I did all the things that normal children do, by the time I was five my self-esteem was virtually destroyed. This hatred for the self would be like fuel leaking from my soul, leaving a trail behind me as I traveled the road of my life.
The next stage of my life, from twelve to twenty-two, started with a gun in my face. I was robbed for the jacket I wore. Knocked in my back, I lay paralyzed with fear, blinking back the tears as the fuel from my soul ignited, engulfing me in the flames of self-destruction. Not only did I lose my jacket, I lost my freedom. No longer could I just be a boy who did boyish things. As sharp stones and bits of glass bit into my back, I took myself to trial, found myself guilty of weakness and fear, and sentenced myself to a life of thuggery. Never would I be a victim again, I would be the victimizer. I became not what I wanted to be, but what forces outside myself determined: a slave of negative circumstances.
So there I was, a boy still, who at sixteen would become a father but knew nothing of what fatherhood entailed; but I loved my daughter and would do anything for her. You would think that the birth of my only child and the love of my parents could pull me out of the hole that I had fallen into. But as my present situation bears witness, neither of those circumstances could. Instead, I had become a student of my environment, and the streets taught me well. I paid rapt attention as society taught me how to hide my vulnerabilities behind things that sparkled and that I could cloak my lifelong shame underneath expensive clothing with European names stitched in the labels. Problems was, I was a child—impulsive, impatient—who like most children lacked the brain capacity to understand long-range consequences. Yeah, I could have gotten a job like most young people who existed in the same environment and who suffered from the same conditions. But that gun sticking in my face as a twelve-year-old taught me a valuable lesson: sheep trapped in a den with wolves get eaten alive. As a twelve-year-old I tried the job thing. I worked hard, packing bags at the local supermarket, to get enough money to buy that jacket, only to have someone take it from me. I was that sheep who had just been bitten by a wolf. So as I lay on my back making that promise to myself, I didn’t realize that I was locking myself in that den (the streets), and the only way for me to survive was to cover myself in a wolf’s fur and grow some sharp teeth. But there were consequences to this choice that my young mind could not foresee.
I learned real quick that the wolves’ den was no place for feelings of inferiority and inadequacies, because this wolf pack fed on one another’s weaknesses. So I watched the other wolves, and it wasn’t long before I discovered that they were just like me—sheep in wolves’ clothing, young boys who could’ve been anything. But because of feelings of inferiority, inadequacies, and fear, it was believed that the only way to live life was to be wolves who feasted off the flesh of sleep. But I still had to protect myself from the other wolves who seemed as if, although my body was covered in the clothing of a wolf, they could still detect the scent of sheep as if it was seeping through my pores. But how did they do it? How did they avoid being cannibalized? After all, we were all masquerading as wolves trying to mask the scent of sheep. So I watched them closely and it wasn’t long before I discovered their secret. In order to hide their insecurities, their fears, their weaknesses, they would drink this magic potion that came in the guise of alcohol and codeine-laced cough syrup. All of a sudden, the scent of sheep would magically dissipate, replaced by a false sense of confidence that I could only dream of. I had to have it, and it wasn’t long before this magic potion was warming my throat. All of a sudden, I had no fears, I felt inferior to no one, and it felt as if I had the power to do anything. The problem with this was the magic lasted only for brief periods, hours at the most, and while under its influence the filter that all human beings have that regulates their behavior is gone. The magic potion rendered me completely uninhibited, nothing became off limits. The feeling was good and it helped me survive the Wolves’ Den. But at what cost? The feel good and how to maintain it became a part of me. So every chance I got, the magic potion was filling me up, and before I knew it I was hooked. I was trapped. As long as I masqueraded in wolves’ clothes, intoxicated with a magic potion, baring sharp teeth, I would forever be stuck in that den.
So from my early teens to my early twenties I stayed fly, I stayed high, and as long as jewels rested against my dark flesh and I continued to shine, the blackness that had been hounding me my entire life would be kept at bay.
But all these things came at a terribly high price—my life. By the time I was twenty-two I had a world view shaped as a child by a gun sticking in my face, and a destroyed sense of self. Considering these circumstances, and as a child how I responded to them, there should be no surprise that on the highway of life I would switch lanes and end up on the express lane to the penitentiary.
Since I’ve been in prison, I’ve grown to hate the month of May. Usually, that’s the time of year when the days are a bit longer. It’s the time of year when the warmth of the sun is just right—not too hot, not too humid, with a nice cool breeze whistling through the thick tree canopies. It’s the time right after April showers have cleaned the city streets and everything has a look of brand newness. It’s the time of year that I feel homesickness most acutely. As the sun filters through the rusty screen of a cell window and steals a kiss on my dark skin, I’m reminded of some of the things I miss about home. The greens of the trees, the bright colors of the flowers. I’m reminded of my old neighborhood because like bears coming out of a long winter sleep, everyone in the ‘hood came out. Like the West Philly block that I grew up on, every time the weather broke, that small residential street would be full of children. The sound of joyful shouts and laughter as children ran up and down the block would last until the sun retreated west and ducked behind rows and rows of row homes. Like Peacocks strutting proudly with their beautiful plumes of feathers on display, young men lean hard in late-model cars, windows and sunroofs open, convertible tops down, with booming drumbeats blasting from brand-new, state-of-the-art stereo systems as they cruise slowly up and down the city blocks. All of them competing for the attention of young women, who just on the strength of a feminine finesse turn those same city streets into supermodel catwalks as they simply go about their business.
For the past two and a half decades, every year in the month of May, all of these things invade my dreams and haunt my waking hours. All the while I’m stuck behind this monstrous wall separated from everything and everyone I love. For me it’s the most depressing time to be in a penitentiary. Recently, though, I’ve come to realize that what I thought was homesickness was nothing more than self-pity in disguise. The real reason why May has become my least favorite time of year is because that was the month in 1991 that my life would tragically change forever.
I was twenty-two years old at the time, dealing with issues of not liking who I was and drug addiction. I was still running with the wolves, by now a veteran of wolf-den politics. On top of all these inner-demons, I was struggling with issues of infidelity and betrayal. The only coping mechanism that I had was a familiar one—that good ole magic potion.
On this particular night after taking at least ten valiums that were ten milligrams and washing the pills down with a 40 oz. of malt liquor, I became lost in the delirium of a drug-induced haze. I was so high after about fifteen minutes of taking those pills I can’t recall anything that happened after that. It wasn’t until the next day that I began to hear what happened that night. My initial reaction was one of disbelief. I actually believed that someone was trying to set me up. Even to this day, twenty-five years later, those feelings of disbelief still plague me.
I’ll never forget that first weekend in May. It was Saturday, the night before Mother’s Day. When I stepped outside into that cool spring air, my intentions were to just get away from home. At the time I was having issues with my girlfriend so I just wanted to blow off some steam by hanging out with my friends and getting high. But a typical night out with the fellas was not in the cards for me. After that night I struggled for days in total disbelief. I kept telling myself that what I was hearing were just rumors. But as the days dragged on and the more people talked about it, the more I felt resigned to the truth of it. Imagine waking up one morning after a night out with friends, only to find out that you were involved in someone’s death, but you have no memory of it. I was devastated. I can remember constantly asking myself, Why me? But being a veteran of the wolves’ den, I knew I had to mask my fear. So I just bared my teeth and acted as if it was business as usual. But then the dog catchers picked up my scent and I was forced to do what all the wolves do when the dog catcher comes—I ran. I ran for twelve months before they finally caught me, and six months later I was tried and convicted of Second Degree Murder, sentenced to Life Without Parole and shipped to a penitentiary.
I was twenty-two and I had just been condemned to die in prison. I heard the words when they were uttered from the judge’s mouth, but my mind just didn’t have the capacity to understand what they meant. I was delusional. I actually believed that I would be home after a couple years. As a result of this I found myself trapped in a culture of incarceration. My days consisted of sports, working out, and recalling days spent running the streets. I spent at least eight years in this state. Throughout those years, in the deep recesses of my consciousness, a nagging question—why?—plagued me. Little by little this question whittled away at the distraction of my incarcerated existence, clearing the way for me to search for the answers.
I wasn’t a bad or evil person, but that’s what being condemned to die in prison implies. So if I wasn’t these things, why did my life turn out as it did? This question was like a ghost that haunted the edges of my consciousness. After a while, though, I was able to exorcise this ghost, freeing myself to discover the why. But it wasn’t easy, for the answer to this question was as elusive as the common cold. Had it not been for a few older men who took the time to provide me with the means to find out about the how’s and why’s in my life, the man that I am today would not exist. I was told that in order for me to discover the answers, I would have to first discover who Terrell was. Because in figuring that out, my weaknesses would be laid bare. This would then allow me to figure out how and why my life turned out as it did. So after years of self-reflection, I began to know the hardest person in the world to know—myself. I discovered that I love to learn, that I have no limits on the things that I want to know. I discovered that I love the truth, but it’s hard to accept when it’s a critique of yourself. I discovered that I’m a man who loves life and people no matter what the cultural difference, but at the same time I hate how people can be so cruel to one another. I’m a spiritual man, in the sense that I recognize that all living things are connected and this connection guides me in how I related to the world. I found out that I’m a man who despises injustices and I’m passionate about fairness and equality. I discovered that I’m loyal, I value family, friendships, I’m funny in a serious sort of way, I’m honest, trustworthy, and open to new things and ideas. I’ve discovered that I’m a generous man who’s always looking to do the right thing. Lastly, I’ve learned that I’m a man who’s always seeking to contribute to the well-being of everyone I establish a relationship with.
All of these characteristics that I’ve just described have armed me with the only weapon that I could use in the battle for myself the only weapon in the world that could eradicate the self-hate that had corrupted my being for my entire life—the love of self. The older men I met in prison led me to a well of knowledge, and because I drank from it I was able to provide myself with the sustenance that the seeds of consciousness, my step-father had planted in me all those years ago, needed to finally take root. Armed with this self-love, I could then begin to shed that wolf fur so that I could finally be who I was meant to be.
After a long and difficult journey of self-analysis that has allowed me to know and love myself, I no longer need artificial stimulants to pump me full of false confidence. Now I realize that all I ever needed resides within me and it always has. I’ve grown to love everything about myself and at the same time I’ve grown to know that I’m not perfect. So my journey continues as I recognize that one of the things that life is about is being aware of your faults and overcoming them. So everyday this is my task, making the good about myself better and eliminating what’s not.
One of the things that I’ve learned about my transformation process is that it’s ongoing. You see, I made the mistake of believing that I had arrived, that my transformation was complete. But hidden behind feelings of being mistreated by the criminal legal system was an attitude of entitlement. This feeling was like a shackle that kept me chained to the wolves’ den. You see, I was so caught up in self-pity, I was deaf and blind to the cries and tears of pain that I was responsible for causing. It was all about me, and whenever I spoke I came off as if I was entitled to something, almost as if I was a freedom rider in the South fighting for the right to vote. I couldn’t see that the difference between those sheroes and heroes and myself was the fact that they did nothing wrong. I was blinded by my own selfishness. It wasn’t until a good friend of mine, Ghani, said to me, “Terrell, imagine yourself standing before a panel of judges and the only thing standing between you and your freedom is what you say to them. Right before you begin to speak an elderly woman stands up and says, ‘But you killed my son.’ What would you say?”
When Ghani posed this question to me I was stuck, lost in a wordless bubble. All of a sudden, as heavy as the penitentiary walls that surround me, the weight of what I was in prison for came crashing down upon me. I stuttered for a moment before replying, “I’m sorry.” Which was the only thing I could think of to say. Ghani slowly nodded his head and said, “That’s the only thing you can say.” He smiled then because he knew that at that point I understood. Finally I could see the tears, I could hear the cries, I was no longer deaf and blind. This sensitivity was the key to unlocking the shackle that allowed me to be fully free of the den. Moving forward I will always be mindful of the hurt I caused and this awareness is what drives me now. It is the thing that fuels my desire to be free of the walls that confine me so that I can make amends, so that I can give back to the community that I took so much from.
I’m a man who’s been tried and convicted of murder. The penalty for my transgression is condemnation, to die behind forty-foot penitentiary walls, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, you reap what you sow. Simple ain’t it? But is it really? Or does my life demonstrate that things are never as simple as they seem?
INCARCERATION OF TEARS