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(Part 2) “The Next Level”: Alabama Prisoners on Learning, Mental Health, and Friendship

“X” has been doing time in Holman Prison for around three decades. August, he interviews with HTR on self directed learning, friendship, mental health, and dreams in prison, among other related topics. 

He already enjoyed reading and writing as a young person, before prison. 

“I used to skip school and go to the library, and I used to read a lot of books in the library. Sports books, magazines. I used to read, man, all the time. I loved readin – see – that’s something I always did,” says X. 

“My writing got better when I got here. I wrote on the street, but not like I write now. I was writing somethin totally different from now, because it’s the maturity. You know. The writin only get better the more you mature, because your subjects get wider and better. But I always read in the streets though,” he reiterates. 

“When it comes to readin,” he adds, “your maturity level have to come up to … different varieties of books.” 

Growing up, X was mainly interested in sports history books and sports magazines. “I was big into sports, college football, basketball. So, I’d read anything that contain – like Sports Illustrated, I’d read them front to back in a heartbeat, and the sports pages in the newspaper. So, I was a big sports fan,” he recalls. 

“But I wasn’t ever really into no one topic. As I got older and maturer, that’s when I started picking more topics that I liked,” he says. 

About 15 years into his sentence, X taught himself how to write left-handed due to an injury, still writes clearly with both hands to this day. He describes the incident. 

“I messed my [right] hand up on the basketball court, and they wouldn’t fix it. So, I couldn’t write with my right hand,” he says. 

“What do you mean they wouldn’t fix it?” asks the writer. 

“They didn’t fix it. I had broken my finger. They didn’t fix it. So, they never got around to seein my finger, to see that it’s crooked. It’s out of place,” X explains. 

“Did they give you a reason they wouldn’t fix it?” asks the writer. 

“No. They didn’t give me no reason. It’s bad. You know what I’m saying? It’s bad medical attention, period. Period. It ain’t got to be nothin broken. You could be sick, have a headache. It’s bad, period. See?” X answers. 

X spends a great portion of every day writing letters and sermons to mail to friends, family, other loved ones, and to penpals from around the world. He also shares the writings with other prisoners during their Sunday church service and in his conversations with them while working the hall and socializing on the yard. 

When X broke his finger playing basketball around a decade and a half ago, rendering him unable to write with his right hand, “the letters did not stop coming in. So, I had to write the letters. So, I just sat down one day, and said, ‘Well, I got to try this left-handed,’” he recalls. 

“It took me a while. Matter of fact, it took me hours to write that one letter left-handed,” he says. “But then I just kept on it, and I just started writin left-handed until my hand got a lil better, and then I started back right handed again.” 

The hardest part of teaching himself to write left-handed was “the process of getting the letters spelled where you can read em, because I was writin in cursive. See. I wasn’t writin in print. So, I learned how to write in cursive left-handed. So, I had to take my time. So, it took me – it was a process,” says X. 

“But I learned a lot about that too, because, during that process of writin them letters [left-handed], it helped me start proofreadin my letters sometimes, because sometimes – I don’t know if you notice this – sometimes you think differently than you speak, and than you write. You notice that, right? You go back and proofread your stuff, you’ll see that you’re sayin somethin, but it’s not there. You know what I’m saying? So, [writing left-handed] helped me start proofreadin all of my letters … So, that was good, those sort of things,” he says. 

Asked about the importance of self directed learning generally while doing time, X responds, “Well, I think it all depends on what you want to change in life, and what do you want to help you.” 

He pauses, then continues. “My change came this way. This’s how I changed. Let me tell you how I come to change: My change came in looking at other brothers around here. They was makin decisions like never before. And I was makin decisions, but not decisions like they was makin. So, I was learnin I had to step out of my comfort zone, step into another comfort zone, to help,” says X, trailing off and again briefly pausing before he continues. 

“Like I read books, but I didn’t read books to help be mature, and learn like I’m learnin now. See? So, there’s a lot of educated people in prison. Here’s my thing, though: They’re just educated. They only can use it for certain things. They can’t use it to help nobody else. See what I’m sayin? They only use it to help themselves, and I didn’t want that kind of learnin. I wanted to learn to help somebody else,” he says. 

“So, it took time, and then I had to get the right books. You know? But I’m big on knowledge, on learning somethin new,” he adds. 

“Like, here’s a prime example: About a couple of years ago, I’d been readin on marriage. And this had helped me expand my knowledge on marriage, not for me, but just to help someone out … I had been studyin on marriage so much, gettin so much information on marriage that, for about six months, God had me speaking to brothers that come in here from church about their marriage. And every time I said something to them or asked em a question, they’re like, ‘How did you know that?’ I said, ‘I didn’t. I’m just askin a question.’ So, I knew I was on the right track every time they did, and they was like, ‘Man, you’re not even married. How you know all this stuff?’ I said, ‘Well, I do a lot of readin,’” X recalls. 

(laughs) 

“So, it really blessed them and it helped me. So, that’s what I try to do. I don’t stay on one subject. I jump around different subjects, subjects I don’t know about,” he says. 

X remembers what some of his first ever favorite books were at the time he started reading more broadly in prison, decades ago.

“My first book I read in prison that I really loved – and I want to go back and get it and read it again – is the [Stanley] ‘Tookie’ Williams book. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that book called Redemption,” he reflects. 

Redemption is “by a brother that was in prison, California, started in a gang up there, the Crips gang, and he wrote a book. And when I first read his book – oh my goodness – when I read his book, somehow it helped me in so many ways, helped me because he changed his life in prison, changed his life. He educated himself in prison, and started helping people outside the prison. So, that’s what helped,” says X about Williams’ Redemption

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told To Alex Haley was another one of X’s first, most formative books as he expanded his reading interests, writing, and spiritual life toward the beginning of his sentence.

“When I first read that book – no, I didn’t read the book first – I saw the movie. I saw the movie about five times before I got the book. So, saw the movie five times, but then I sat down and read the book, and the book was so powerful,” X reflects. 

In the Malcolm X Autobiography, “I saw – I didn’t know how to do it – but I saw how he changed in prison, and educated hisself. So, at the time, there was this guy who was in the cell block with me, and he reminded me so much of Malcolm X, so much, yes. So, I’m like, man, and I try to get up under him as much as I can. But also, he was very spiritual. At the time, I was nowhere near spiritual, had no self guided connection with God whatsoever. So, I knew I couldn’t connect with him right then at that time, but I latched onto him, and gleaned from his life, and how smart he did get. So, he’s part of that journey that got me spiritual,” says X. 

“With Malcolm X, if that movie came on today, I’d look at it today, because I know I missed a lot of it, lot of it,” he adds. 

X further elaborates on the significance of friendship in prison. 

“Oh, this is – let me say something: I have had some brothers in here that I would give my life up for, not in a game, in reality. You know what I’m talkin bout? It’s like, they are good brothers, man. And all these brothers have a different – they bring somethin different to my life. I’m gonna share this one friendship I shared with this brother,” says X. 

“So, there was a brother in here, and when he came in, I didn’t like him, because I thought he was kind of prideful, kind of cocky, and eventually we got to talkin, and God did somethin to help me. He got me to reconnect with my family, and I never forgot him, never forgot about it,” he says. 

“That was so powerful because at the time, I had no relationship with my family but my mom. That’s it,” X explains. The friend let X use his phone account to call family and friends from prison for the first time, loved ones X hadn’t spoken to for years upon years, and he played a major role in teaching X the importance of being as proactive as possible about reaching out to family and others in the free world while doing time. 

X reflects further on that friendship and his friend’s life and struggles. “What happened was he messed around and got on drugs, real bad. Everybody had abandoned him. But I didn’t. And one day – I’ll never forget – he was cryin, and he was telling me, like, ‘X, man, I know you heard somethin.’ I said, ‘Man, I ain’t heard nothin. I know you’re on drugs, and I know everybody done told you how bad’ – I said, ‘Listen, brother, you was the first brother in here that connected me back to my family.’ But I knew there was a God right then … I said, ‘We ain’t talkin bout outside, or nothin bout back home. What you did, I ain’t agree with, but that’s not you. It’s you on drugs,’” says X. 

Decades later, “to this day, we still got a friendship,” says X. “And I’ll never forget that.” 

In general, though, “Friendship in prison be tricky. I’m gonna tell you why: because brothers never had no real friendship on the street. Their friendships was based on somethin – their friendships was based on what they did. It never were based on, ‘OK, I want to help this person get to the next level.’ If everybody who has a friendship in prison were at that point where it’s making you better, that’s onto a relationship. It’s far and few in prison, far and few, far and few in prison, for real, because everybody trying to get over, gain somethin, and if you ain’t mature enough, you’ll miss it,” X explains. 

He discusses mental health issues in the prison. 

“Let me say this: there’s a lot of brothers that got mental [illnesses], and they don’t even deal with it. And here’s the sad part about it: It’s two things, a twofold: First of all, one: They came to prison, and they tried to be strong all the time, and that’s put a mask over their mental illness. Second of all: They never ask for help. That put another mask over their mental illness. So, got two masks on your mental illness. Then, that’s compounded with: You got to do time, got to deal with certain things, deal with certain issues, and your mental illness never get dealt with, which, when you get mad or angry, that come out. You see?” says X. 

“See – a lot of people don’t know – a lot of times, trauma bring on mental illness. There’s a lot of guys that been abused by their mother, abused by their father, grandparents, abused by somebody, not just sexual. I’m talkin bout mental abuse,” he elaborates. 

“A lot of people don’t understand somethin: If you for a long time been cussed out by your mom or dad, that psychologically do somethin to you. If you never get it dealt with, that’s what happen. That means you pushed it down and pushed it down,” he explains. 

“Now, just think about all the times you got arrested. Think about all the times you might got in fights, you might got assaulted. All that right there, you push that down, still got to push that down, because you’re still tryin to get in that vault, and then you come into prison, and before you left the street, this is what you always heard: ‘Be a man.’ Now, who’re you gonna tell it to that you got a mental illness? Nobody,” says X. 

X has seen mental health workers on his tier approximately three times a week “for some months now,” he says, “and I’ve never heard two guys say, ‘I need help because I got mental illness.’ Never heard it.” 

He adds: “So, the mental health issues in the prison is very high.” 

To deal with mental illness in prison, “First of all, bro, you got to admit that you got a problem. You’ve got to admit that. If you can’t admit that you have a problem, then – guess what – well, I can’t help you. See what I’m sayin? I’m OK. Ain’t nothin wrong with me. I’m just locked up, and I’m disappointed, but if you locked up in your mind, you locked up in your past. Any time you see someone livin their past over and over and over again, there’s something wrong with that, brother. There’s something really wrong with that problem,” says X. 

Further, X comments on his experiences with suicide in the prison. 

“When I first got here, maybe in the first two years I got here, there was a guy committed suicide. He cut his throat, killed hisself. He had mental illness. So, he did that, and it kind of affected me for a long time. And they had a couple of other guys commit suicide – but I didn’t know them – that were on the tier with me,” says X. 

“Suicide, it work two ways. I’ll say this right here: Suicide, two ways: sometimes, guys will say they will commit suicide, to get their family to do somethin for them. Sometimes, they want to commit suicide because they have gave up, and they see no other way out but to do it,” says X.  

“So, that’s why I tell people this all the time, and share this with somebody important: I’ll say, ‘Do you really know your neighbor?’” he continues. 

“And all I’m sayin is: We are sittin right next door to each other. Matthew, we can reach our hand out, and touch each other’s hand. That’s how close we stay. We should have nobody that want to commit suicide – you see what I’m saying – because if they already want to commit suicide, they think they’re lonely, and they think there’s no hope,” X explains. 

“That’s why I talk to so many guys. When I work the hall, bro, I make it my mission to talk to so many guys, so many,” he adds. 

X wishes all the prisoners could feel more comfortable being there for each other in hard times, and feels the same way about the relationships between prisoners and officers. 

“Some of the officers, they have mental illness, too, because they have to be around guys five, 10, 15 years, and God forbid they have to get executed,” says X. 

X says he knows two officers who quit their jobs during his sentence because they grew close with death row prisoners and couldn’t stand to await or experience their executions. 

When the prisoner committed suicide by cutting his own throat early in X’s sentence, “It was shocking, due to the fact that I couldn’t believe that a person would go that far to end their life, because the dude – when he cut his throat, he just bled to death,” X remembers. 

That suicide “made me think about a lot stuff,” X reflects. “I thought about his family. I thought about – you know – what I could’ve did to change that situation. Even though he was dealing with mental illness, I felt like I still could’ve did something to change that situation, which I couldn’t at the time, because his mind was made up. That’s another thing you got to understand: Sometimes, people’s minds are made up to do that, to kill theyself, and there’s nothin you could say to stop em. Their mind already made up.”

He adds: “So, I went through that like that for a period, a while, bout six months of just thinkin bout that though.” 

Asked what kinds of dreams he has, and whether he ever gets nightmares, X answers, “Sweet dreams. Sweet, sweet dreams.”

He elaborates: “Let me say this: One of the dreams I’ve had the most – it’s crazy – it’s where we used to stay at before I got locked up. It’s always in that neighborhood. I’m talkin about, I see the neighborhood clearly. I see houses that I remember, clearly. I don’t see the same people, but I see that same neighborhood.”

“Who do you see?” asks the writer. 

“I see, like, buildings, and I am talking to somebody, but nine times out of 10, I’m talkin to somebody that I met in prison, but we’re out in the free world … But every time I dream, I never dream about prison,” X replies. 

“So, my dreams – I never had a nightmare in here, never had one. No nightmares or bad dreams, absolutely,” he adds.

Concluding the August discussion, X says he sometimes reminds other prisoners: “‘You could be in Christ, or you could be in prison.’ That’s all I’m sayin in here. If you’re in Christ, that mean you are doing what God tell you to do. You’re not focused on being in prison.”

As prisoners, he explains, “We’ve got to help each other to make this a better place.” 

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