‘I will not be broken’

The search for meaning behind bars

Note from Pam Bailey: I recently interviewed Colie Levar Long, originally sentenced to life when he was 18. He now has served 25 years. The following is the story of his “change point” — when, despite conditions designed to break, rather than rehabilitate, he found his purpose.

My struggle is self-induced. My struggle is a way of life. My struggle is a source of solace. My struggle is filled with strife.

My struggle gives me strength. My struggle aches me to the bone. My struggle is the struggle of a million faceless men. My struggle is the reason why I’m alone.

My struggle is a light within this dismal crypt. My struggle is a revolution of the mind. My struggle is a quest of self-discovery. Yet I struggle with the revelations I find.

My struggle is a cry for acceptance. My struggle for recognition is why I fight. My struggle is a testimony to my very existence, for those who struggle understand my plight.

My struggle is divine in nature. My struggle justifies my pain. My struggle was inherited from a stolen people who knew my struggle would not be in vain.
— Colie Levar Long

It was in 2003. I had been in prison for about seven years and was sent to the hole [solitary confinement] for 27 months. One of the others with me was a guy from Chicago, a Gangster Disciple (street gang). We called him Strong because he was a real athletic dude; I mean he was really ripped: 5’10” and all muscle.

One day, I would say about three months in, I woke up and I hear this sound; it’s hard to describe. It was like a soul-piercing scream, agh, agh. Like somebody being killed. It wouldn’t stop, for hours. You’d think the person’s vocal chords would bleed with all that effort. But he just screamed and screamed and screamed until the sun came up.

When the COs came and got me for rec at 7 a.m., I was one of the first. I stripped naked, shook my clothes out, cuffed up and then they escorted me to the rec cage. That was the routine. On the way, I saw the person who had been screaming was Strong! I don’t know what was in his hair. It looked like feces. His eyes were bloodshot, like a zombie from the walking dead, and his T-shirt was filthy.

Even though we hadn’t been on the best of terms — we were from two rivals — we had a common enemy: insanity.

That was the first time I actually saw a person break, mentally break down. It was so severe that the counselor and COs brought other inmates to his cell to talk to him. But he was catatonic. He wouldn’t talk. He just paced and lapsed into bouts of non-stop screaming. They sent him to a medical institution and I never heard about him again.

It’s a common saying in prison that only the strong survive. We don’t mean strong like in the number of burpees you can do, or even how many people you can fight off. It’s about the stress placed on the mind and the spirit, and the fortitude and resiliency you need to prevent these walls from breaking you. A lot of times when you’re in that cell, the only companion you have is yourself. A lot of people have demons they carry within themselves.

But when I went back to my cell that day, I said to myself, I can’t let these people, these walls break me.

The next day, when the book cart came around, I grabbed some books off of it. Before, when I was in the open compound, I was always ripping and running. It was hard for me to stay still. But you can’t do that when you’re in your cell 24 hours a day.

Two of the books I grabbed were Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning and Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist. Frankl found himself in dire straits in Auschwitz, but he survived by finding a purpose in life and then visualizing it. Coehlo’s message is that we all can leave a personal legacy, but we have to shape it. When I was a kid of 18, when I got thrown in prison, my life was centered on a culture of violence. But nobody is meant to be that type of person.

I want to be remembered as a person who made a positive impact on other people’s lives. I want people to say, He was a good person. He did this for me. He made me feel this way.

I came to the conclusion that I was fighting the wrong things. Instead of fighting other inmates, I needed to change the person who got me into prison in the first place. Later, I started going to the law library and working on my character. I enrolled in more educational programs. I looked for opportunities to mentor others and I haven’t looked back.

My story is not an anomaly. There are many other men and women who made tragic mistakes at crucial stages in their young lives, costing them (and their victims) decades of distress, desolation and despair. We are dying for another opportunity to live a positive and productive life in society. We deserve a second look.

Colie is deeply grateful to the D.C. Council for passing the Second Look Amendment Act and Mayor Muriel Bowser for signing it. If the U.S. Congress approves it as it is projected to do, the act will become law in May — thus offering 300–600 D.C. residents who were convicted of crimes before the age of 25 and have served at least 15 years the opportunity to make the case for their freedom in front of a judge.

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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