Benjamine Spencer never stopped being who he is, no matter what the world and prison threw at him. We met in the barber shop the day I arrived on Coffield (a unit in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice [TDCJ]) in 1999, and I knew Benjamine until I was transferred to Darrington in 2015. Like anyone else who meets Benjamine, I encountered a kind man with a genuine smile who tries to help others as best he can.
Benjamine’s kindness and passion to help others easily created a good first impression. Later, when I learned about his false imprisonment, the way he held on to himself struck me as extraordinary. Through all of the adversity and unfairness that befell him, he never gave up being who he is. In fact, I don’t recall him ever mistreating anyone, or even raising his voice.
As time went on, I saw Benjamine around Coffield. He faithfully attended Church of Christ services, and true to his nature of helping others, he quietly passed out communion to the congregation. He also shared words of inspiration at his services and around the unit. Even in the midst of his own pain, Benjamine constantly sought to encourage and comfort others, no matter who they were or where they were from.
Eventually, I became a Peer Educator (a prisoner who teaches other prisoners about health, preventing/mitigating sexual assault, etc.). Since Peer Education took place in the education department, I saw Benjamine frequently because he ended up working there as a janitor and teacher’s aid. Benjamine’s character made him a welcome and ideal presence in education.
At work, we conversed a lot, and I learned more about Benjamine’s case. To hear the depths to which corrupt law enforcement went to secure Benjamine’s conviction, and the impact it had on him was disheartening, to say the least. Then there was the ripple effect of lost decades with loved ones as Benjamine quietly suffered–all the while striving to help others.
Then a light appeared for him. A lot of things in his case didn’t add up for certain authorities who cared more about truth and justice than politics and agendas. Consequently, Benjamine’s case was re-examined.
Of course, Benjamine was hopeful, as was I. There was a witness who testified to have identified him, but who could not possibly have seen him. Unfortunately, the response to Benjamine’s obvious innocence was that the conditions on the night of the alleged crime could not be replicated to determine anything. Basically, the DA or someone was claiming some lights couldn’t be turned off. Benjamine was hurt when he received this news, and I don’t blame him; yet, unless he spoke about it, you wouldn’t have been able to tell anything was wrong–because he never stopped being who he is. Ironically, prison is full of guilty people with a chip on their shoulder who strive to make things miserable for those around them, and most of them attempt to justify it by claiming their incarceration is unjust. But whereas Benjamine could easily be deemed as justified if he became a negative, or even militant person after his ordeal, he never chose the path of hate.
Prison constantly brings people into and out of each others’ lives, and I was transferred to Darrington to participate in a rehabilitative program while Benjamine remained on Coffield. Eventually I read the article in the Atlantic about Benjamine’s plight. It saddened me as I reflected on it and how Benjamine’s hope seemed to have been snatched away. He deserved to get out, and not once did I even consider that Benjamine was lying, as his honesty is one of his most obvious characteristics.
Personally, I am a skeptic believer; that is, I believe that all sorts of things are possible, but verifiable reality is surer than possibilities-and no hope is better than false hope. Fortunately in Benjamine’s case, the light was not extinguished–a cloud had just momentarily obscured the eventuality we all saw come to pass. The news was brought to me here on the Michael Unit by an excited friend who did time on Coffield with Benjamine and I–yet another smile that Benjamine Spencer brought to someone’s face, this time from miles away. As many of you know, Benjamine is out with his family in the life he never should have left. Or did he truly leave it? In many ways most people would answer, “Yes!” However, in the way that Benjamine kept himself, he held on to the life that so many others, acting from selfish ambitions they value more than human life, attempted to steal from him.
Benjamine’s life is a powerful testimony to us all. It exemplifies the power of human virtue to overcome the devastation resulting from corruption among those meant to uphold justice. Likewise, if we follow Benjamine’s example of remaining true to the extraordinary person he is, we can weather the seemingly hopeless storms that enter life while the storms, rather than life, dissipate. This is Entre Nax Karage’s, and Daniel Pinchbeck’s, and Benjamine Spencer’s, and so many others’ legacy to us–if we choose to listen. From the time I knew them in prison, and from magazine covers and news after being released from false imprisonment, they tell us to never stop being who we are–no matter what the world throws at us.