I lay in my bed the other night, stressing about what I could do to maximize my chance of gaining my freedom. Thanks to a new, COVID-related, D.C. law, my sentence has been recalculated to account for “good behavior,” making me parole-eligible. But that means returning to my previous “home,” the federal prison in Florida, since the parole commission refuses to conduct hearings at the D.C. jail (where I have been held for the past two years during an unsuccessful court proceeding).
I have been watching so many of my peers win their release under D.C.’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, making the real world seem tantalizingly close. I am soooo ready to follow them. The thought of going back to the deliberate chaos and punitiveness of federal prison is like a weight in my chest.
While I lay there, I had an epiphany. Before I came home to D.C. to fight for my release in court, and before this chance for early parole, I would never have spent my mental energy obsessing about my freedom. I wouldn’t even have cared where I did my time. I was so locked into my bid (the routine on which a prisoner relies to get through his time) that nothing outside of my immediate world affected me.
You see, although I wanted to go home, freedom didn’t seem within reach. So, as a defense mechanism, I placed that yearning into a box with the rest of my emotional attachments to the outside world and locked them away. Symbolically, it’s the same as saying, “f**k” something. What you’re actually doing is training your brain to accept the futility of worrying about a particular challenge. Of course, the challenge is still there, and eventually you’ll have to face it again (more on this later). But this is the only way to mentally survive decades in prison. In essence, you become an automaton in order to protect your emotional stability and sanity. In other words, your bid becomes all that is real.
This is the gift of bidding. Your bid sequesters you from the mental and emotional stress of doing time. As you do the same things repetitively for years at a time, the days run into each other and time flies by. Time, in essence, ceases to exist.
But today, due to exposure to the outside world offered by the programming at the D.C. jail, and by sudden tangibility of freedom, I am again face to face with and emotionally connected to all of the things I locked in my closet. And this is why I am stressing about returning to the feds. My reality and frame of reference has so drastically changed that nothing less than freedom seems tolerable.
These feelings are directly attributable to my life being “normalized” again. There are so many small, subtle differences: not being handcuffed in over two years, waking up and opening my own door (I am a mentor in the Young Men Emerging program and the doors don’t lock in the unit), being able to shake the hand of a visitor. Doing these very simple things has given me back my humanity.
I can see my mother all of the time after years of being imprisoned far from home. A good year was when I could see her once every 12 months. I sometimes went several years without seeing her or anyone else at all. I can look out the window and see cars, trees and people. In the penitentiary, I couldn’t see anything but the sky, walls, fences and gun towers. I am again in contact with all of my family members and friends; in the feds, I was limited to 300 minutes of phone time a month.
I no longer look at a wall that blocks my path to freedom. I can look over the wall. Yes, my body still is held captive, but mentally, I am in the streets. My freedom feels so close it’s like I can reach out and physically touch it! I don’t think the same. I don’t feel the same. My future reality is not the same. I no longer have to subconsciously deaden my emotions to survive. My emotional treasure chest is empty. I am no longer a prisoner!
I have noticed this same transformation in most of the guys who are still here with me, awaiting their release via IRAA or parole. And I am hearing the same message from my friends in the feds. After being locked up for decades and not knowing when, if ever, they will be released, they had come to terms with this reality by (like me) boxing up their emotions. But now, the sliver of promise of early parole has given them a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. This alone changes a person’s entire attitude toward life — even though they know that release is too often a long shot under the regime of the U.S. Parole Commission. (Want to try to help us change that? Please sign and share this petition!)
Things are rapidly changing in the criminal justice space. Due to COVID, a lot of nonviolent offenders are being released to decrease the incarcerated population. Let’s keep the momentum going by not settling for small wins. (Most of the people released so far should not have been in prison in the first place.) We must remain vigilant and focused on our ultimate goal of dismantling mass incarceration.
That means advocating for real opportunities for second chances for people who are rehabilitated. It doesn’t matter if the crime they once committed was violent. It’s time to mean it when we say we believe in redemption.
A note from Pam Bailey, Rob’s editor and publisher: Donzell McCauley, one of Rob’s best friends behind bars, is serving a life sentence without parole. (Try to imagine that!) He responded with this way when I wrote him about Rob’s musing that he no longer has the armor needed to survive in “the feds”:
There are all types of armor we can wear. To survive in the feds, some type of armor is necessary. But he has a choice about what type it is. Now that Rob’s talents have been unlocked, I am confident he’ll select a more natural suit of armor to wear to combat the madness swirling in the cesspool of the federal system.
With Rob’s newfound abilities, I know he will use his talents for good. So many of us here are so fully swathed in armor that we are constantly on the defensive. But because of the rejuvenation that the D.C. jail provided Rob, he’ll have a more optimistic outlook this time around. He will create opportunities where most of us, who have restricted our thinking, see none. He has developed an essential skillset that has been trained out of many of us in the federal system. That skillset is a firm belief in his integrity, ability and effectiveness. Rob is gonna be “all right.”