By: Mustafa Zulu, Contributing Writer

Mustafa Zulu SquareIt was 4:00 in the morning, just one month shy of my 39th birthday. I was sound asleep in my prison cell. A guard and a property officer beamed a flashlight in my face and started banging on the bars to wake me up. ” Hey, Zulu! Turn on your light and step up to the bars, sir,” the guard yelled.

“How about you turn your light off and step away from the bars?” I snapped agitated. Every now and then, an asshole C.O. [Correction Officer] works the unit, pretending he couldn’t see some inmate sleeping beneath covers, just to disturb our sleep.

“We’re not here to bust your balls. Approach the bars, Mr Zulu,” the property officer intervened. Some of the other inmates on the range begin to wake up, grumbling curses at the guard, so I got up, hoping to get them the hell on so we could all go back to sleep.

“Pack up, you’re leaving this morning.”

“Leaving? You moving me to another unit?”

“No. You’re leaving the institution. You’re being transferred to a non-federal prison in North Dakota. Didn’t your Unit Manager tell you?”

I was dazed. Really dazed. I sat down on my bunk and stared at them. Yes, my unit manager told me they were “working” on a transfer, but they sold me that dream so many times, I lost faith. If it happens, it happens, I’d tell myself, family and friends.

Well, after 20 years in solitary confinement in America’s most toughest federal Supermax prison, still half-sleep and dazed, my mind and heart raced, baffled and excited. The guards gave me less than an hour to prepare to leave.  It was almost like they were now kicking me out of a place I’ve spent half of my life. A den of wolves…wolves that raised me.

I don’t know if you’d call it Stockholm Syndrome or not, but I wasn’t happy about leaving at first, knowing the men whom I’d shared the last 20 years of solitary and misery with, would remain encaged.

I stood to my feet and with a heavy heart, I assured the guards I’d be ready by an hour. As quick as I could, I packed up my property, wrote a few short letters to my family and loved ones, showered and then did one of the most heartfelt things I’ve ever done: I bid goodbye to my mentors, friends, brothers, teachers and students. How could I feel completely happy about that, even if ADX is hell on earth?

The news of my imminent departure spread like a wild fire through the unit. I could hear men whisper through vents in their cells, some banged on their neighbors walls to awaken them and others gossiped on our in-house “cell phones” — meaning, using the plumbing system to communicate. (You take an empty toilet paper roll and placing it snugly over the mouth of the drain in the sink or shower and forcefully blow into it, leaving open empty pipes that you can now perfectly talk and hear through cell-to-cell, hence “cell phones.”

It broke my heart to listen from my cell phone, these hardcore men expressing sincere joyful emotions at my departure, while masterfully suppressing feelings of envy. When would their indefinite misery of solitary come to an end? I’ve tasted that bitter sweet mixture of joy/envy many times over my two decades there and I admired them even more for giving me their smiles, while crying on the inside.

As the guards returned to get me, inmates on my range — some of whom were mentors, close friends, casual acquaintances and even enemies — turned on their cell lights so I could see them, possibly for the last time. The guards handcuffed me, pulled me out of my cell and allowed me to walk as slowly as possible passed the cells. Some simply nodded or smiled, others raised the black power fists, some threw-up their “sets” or warmly gave me the Muslim traditional: “As Salaamu Alaykum.”

I was deeply touched by this. It was the first time in my life a group of human beings honored me–never mind they’re America’s most bad asses!!!

I’d never graduated from grade school or experienced any ceremonies which an honor was conferred on me for successfully completing anything.

I was only 19 when the system locked me down and threw away the key. ADX-Florence, aka “the Alcatraz of the Rockies,” was specifically designed to break men, NOT to rehabilitate them. Yet at the age of 39, I was leaving and graduating from this place with my GED, with the knowledge of myself and my enemy, having learned Arabic, Swahili and some Spanish, a great deal of history, cultures and a little philosophy. A deep study of various religions, systems of governance and of course a Phd in gangsterism.

The guards took me down to R+D where I was to be discharged, stripped, X-rayed and dressed in shackles from head to toe. A prison bus awaiting in the dark tunnel behind R+D to escort me to the airport. The sky cracked open with the first sign of dawn, as we emerged from the tunnel. They’d thrown me out of there so fast I hadn’t had a chance to make my morning prayers.

After I’d thanked Allah for surviving a hell hole where many have lost their souls, I looked out the bus window and the Alcatraz of the Rockies was in the distance behind me now. I smiled. I thought of touching my family again. Kissing a woman again. I was completely happy now…

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