I spent the first few years of my natural life sentence muttering incoherently to myself and chewing my fingernails to bleeding nubs while I contemplated the most painless methods of suicide for American prisoners.
How’s a 23-year old kid supposed to process having to spend the rest of his life in prison, in a cage? He doesn’t. How does anyone at any age make sense of a future of captivity? He can’t.
The sun sets at each day’s end, its fire dancing along the steel gates and slim edges of a concertina wire that will shred him to red ribbons should he decide to make a break for it and climb that steel stairway to heaven. Another one bites the dust.
Those skinny fences could deny me every vestige of freedom but this: the joy of sky watching.
The prison fence kept me from seeing my mother who could not tough seeing her boy in chains; my father would struggle to remember that he still had a living son. And the rest of my family: my nephew Joshua and niece Ryan Leigh, who I’ve watched grow nearly half a foot between each of our biannual prison visits. My sister, Erica, who has finally chosen Christ over crack. My brother, Andre, who chose to one-up me in the fuck-up department by overdosing on heroin. My grandmother who has consistently given these fences her ass to kiss by driving three thousand miles a couple of times a year and jumping through enumerable hoops to remind me, with a kiss and a hug, that I remain both human and alive.
Sure those fences could prevent me from seeing the living inhabitants of my heart but they couldn’t do jack about my relationship with the sky, my last day-to-day connection to what freedom must feel like.
I was lost under the weight of all that sky back then. Freedom was a memory my soul, psyche and heart wrapped around to ease the daily evisceration I endured in its absence. Rooted in time’s past, freedom was a mnemonic chimera dogging my heels—a thing as dead and unreal to me as my innocence.
I stared at the sky in those days when it was ash-grey and bubbling with cement colored clouds. When it was clean and deep blue as dry ice. When it was oil-black, cut by a sliver of moonlight. I stared at the sky to be haunted by freedom to recall—in bright, fleeting moments—what it tasted like.
I knew I would not survive this prison until I died, but eventually began to wonder if it might be possible to die very slowly over a long period of time with a certain amount of élan, grace and intellectual ferocity.
I studied the poses of other cons for clues as to how to pull off such a badass coup and parsed their words to tease meaning from the prison proverbs they threw at each other:
“Do the time, don’t let the time do you.”
“A closed mouth don’t get fed.”
“The game ain’t based on sympathy.”
I watched the old-timers, thinking they are suckers for giving the state all those rotten birthdays. I’d cut my own throat before I’d let my hair go grey, my sight dim and my legs weaken under the accumulating weight of the years.
I clocked the movements of the survivors.
Some, like Pop Gates, did their time by blitzing their brains with “buck” cooked from rice, sugar and potatoes or stewing their synapses with crack and dunjie smoke—anything to smooth the edges.
You also have men like Old Man Curtis, who created cartoon candy lands in their mind to blind themselves to the bitterness of exile. Picking up cigarette butts off the prison grounds, giving sexual favors for honeybuns and cookies, holding complex conversations with imaginary buddies — at least their mental illnesses provide them with an internal theatre rich enough to distract them from the relentless hard time nailing them to the dirt day after day.
Cats like Mao go for the full immersion technique of survival. They go all in for the prison lifestyle and turn freedom into a word to be treated with contempt.
Freedom? This is Mao on freedom: “Fuck Freedom.”
OF NOTE: The mother and grandmother of Leonard Scoven’s two victims, Agnes Fury, contacted Scovens in prison some years ago. She and Scovens ended up corresponding for years and eventually the two published a book together called Wildflowers in the Median about restoration and forgiveness.
The sex, violence and vacuum-compressed maleness make prison the post-apocalyptic meme it is. The scams, murders, rapes and extortion are this meme’s currency. Lull the institutionalized prisoner into a narcotic acceptance of his lifestyle as the most exciting and least painful way to do time. He is duped into buying the persona of depraved convict and affirms for his jailers the wisdom they wielded when they jammed him with a life sentence in the first place.
Then there are dudes like Yusef who turned to God.
Sitting with Yusef on a mound of crabgrass one mid-summer afternoon in the prison’s rec yard staring at the blond sun as it smoldered above the pine and sycamore trees surrounding our cage, I asked him, “Man, how’d you handle the time?”
I wanted him to comfort me. I needed him to tell me something about how God consoles the wounded and weary, giving them strength to make it through whatever storms they endure; but he didn’t. He just looked at me.
He must have heard the suppressed panic in my voice and seen the desperation carving deep lines into the corners of my eyes. Maybe the permanent frown disfiguring my face said all that could be said about dying slow deaths in steel cages.
He tore his eyes from mine, snatched a fist full of grass from between his brogans and watched the wind snatch it from his palm.
“You just handle it, brother,” he finally said. His voice was small and brittle as sun-cooked clay. “That’s all. You handle it.”
I stood. The silence between us was a hanged corpse, its bloated body twisting in the wind.
Lowering my head, I walked away as time’s embrace tightened, squeezing the breath from my lungs, breaking my young savage heart.
Leonard Scovens is serving two consecutive LIFE sentences.
Leonard Scovens #165908
Dade Correctional Inst.
19000 SW 337th Street
Florida City, FL 33034