BY: RAHSAAN THOMAS
I was on the edge of insanity and couldn't study. My mind was attacking from within. Frustration so strong made reading and thinking dramatically hard. I couldn't function. Words danced around the page, never staying put long enough to be comprehended. Violent thoughts rode my cerebellum nerve endings, trying to stimulate violent action. I was losing my mind.
However, I didn't have time to go crazy. The shot clock was running out on filing a habeas appeal. If I missed their one year Anti-Effective-Death Penalty Act deadline, a 4 x 9 cell would be my home until I did owning the reminder of double-life sentences.
The circumstances were ironic. I was imprisoned for stopping a young lady friend from being robbed by two gang members armed with semi-automatic weapons. They rode on us in a red Oldsmobile, making "your money or your life" demands. She wasn't willing to part with either and they few down on her. I responded with a hail of gunfire. When it was time to explain to the court what really happened, she pleaded the fifth. I felt like the Great Gatsby when the prosecution took advantage of her absence to lie to the jury.
Worst was that I could prove my innocence but I needed to jump through complex legal hurdles to get my issues reviewed. The justice system is all about its procedures. If you don't follow their rules, they deny you justice on a ticktack technicality. Missing their deadline was their biggest excuse for denying review of meritorious claims.
This meant I had to go to the law library and study the law. Problem was they wouldn't let me go for eight months straight because the prison was on lockdown for acts of violence that had nothing to do with me. Meanwhile, the courts don't accept lockdowns as an excuse for late filings. I had to scramble to learn on my own what lawyers take years to do in universities. They have access to laptops, purchased books,and professors. All I had was four-hours access a month in a law library that doesn't loan out its outdated books.
On the day my sanity threatened to leave for good, my cellie went to work, leaving me alone to wrestle with the demons plaguing my consciousness. I paced the small cell, from the blue gate to the back gray wall. Back and forth, three steps in each direction, bugging out. Deep breaths didn't seem to calm me much, but it was all I could think of to maintain control. No one was coming to save me; I had to stay strong to save myself. A task easier said than done.
Thoughts of rushing a correctional officer when my cell gate opened crossed my mind. I wanted to express all the frustration physically, but not in some cowardly way. Instead of bullying someone weaker than me, I wanted to charge the very people keeping me caged in. I wanted to get the life sentences over with instantly.
The came a letter from her, the young women I chose to play ghetto superman for. I wrote her about giving up. About being tired of jumping through legal hoops just to be denied. About becoming institutionalized in a real negative way. About accepting I was never going home alive and had lost fear of death. She quickly wrote me back.
Her response was a poem. It spoke about "not knowing how to help him deal when his appeal is feeling less and less real." Of the system not understanding that "I did the only thing I knew when I saw their weapons--drew." Her words flowed about not knowing what to tell me, but knowing she couldn't let me give up. The in the midst of her own poem, she discovered that she's "institutionalized, complacent, unwilling to push up against what she is faced with." She knows m conviction is illegal, the harmful effects of greenhouse gases, the ill health effects of eating red meat, our government's flaws, yet she accepts it all, --she is "institutionalized, complacent, unwilling to push up against what she is faced with," and she made me realize so was I.
Her words said she cared a lot, but was too weak to fight for herself, so she couldn't defend me. I started to see she would help if she only had the strength to. Instantly I stopped feeling so betrayed. She's a coward but she wasn't selling me out as I had begun to think. I don't see any danger in coming forward. However, I respected that she did. It matter that she cared. Her poetry gave me strength to keep the course. From her lines, I learned that the problem of institutionalization is bigger than me. I learned that I couldn't give up. I have to keep on fighting. Not just for me but for all the inmates who can't read or write well enough to file legal briefs. The moments of weakness passed for the reasons articulated and others I don't even understand. I found the will to keep on fighting because I can't let them win. Giving up means an innocent man stays in prison until he dies. I can't let that man be me.
Exhaling a deep breath, I grabbed a stack of law library sign-up forms from off my locker. I filled out one for everyday of the next two weeks. Then I put the first into my tray slow for the CO to pick up. I might get one appointment for ever ten-signed up forms sent in, but as long as there is air in my lungs, this beautiful struggle on.