Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Rehabilitation Trumps Mass Incarceration, Recidivism and Capital Punishment


I was talking to my son while he was preparing my grandson for football practice.  The sound of his fatherhood continues to instill a great sense of pride within my being.  At the same time, when I hear his fatherly instructions, and my grandson’s obedient responses, I become overwhelmed by the reality of my political handicap.

Capital punishment and mass incarceration cripples a free society with the psychological effects of knowing one poor decision can lead to spending the rest of your life living in captivity.  Everyone you know and love continues to thrive – making new memories day-after-day, while your eyes and ears absorb the same walls and routines of day-to-day life inside of the box.

Once the gates close and the steel doors are locked, failure eats away at any aspirations to be more than your circumstance, similar to a terminal illness deteriorating its host.  There are no light switches, thermostats, or windows for me to control.  Prison extracts that most minute forms of independence – making success seem like a distant pipe dream.

Prison rarely grants the opportunity to unleash success from the shackled grips of failure.  As a first time offender, I long for the second chance to show the most extreme failures can entail progression.  Rehabilitation for death row prisoners in North Carolina is unsettling to a society who trusts that their political leaders’ core values are what fuels the potent engine of justice.

These same leaders ignite their megaphones and political platforms with the malarkey of capital punishment being a justifiable deterrent to crime: the need to kill, in order to prevent murder.  They will convince their constituents that it is more suitable to build more prisons than schools. 

Underplaying schoolteachers while cops get a pass for escalating black death rates.  If our kids are not being taught properly; if they’re not staying in school, they are destined to join the ever-growing population of mass incarceration.  Some will even meet the demise of a poisonous cocktail that the twisted political leaders will promulgate as humane.

Looking at the free-world from a slit five inches high, I can clearly see the generations of my son and grandson resisting defeat while in the sights of capitalists eager to fill up their prison spaces.  Death row prisoners, on the other hand, know the disappointment of defeat, yet some have proven rehabilitation through prison programs like: social psychology, creative writing, journalism, and the chess club.

In most cases, success is stimulated by failure.  The best way to understand success is to know that it is subjective.  The successes of Barack Obama, Michael Jordan and Jay-Z are templates of what can be accomplished when your work ethic speaks louder than your proclamations. 

In life, we all fail to some degree.  As my grandson takes the field for his Pop Warner football team, I am inclined to see that he can drop a pass, and then come back to the huddle for the very next play.  If he stumbles before making a tackle, he can still recover to make a game-saving stop.

However, some prisoners take their place in the stadium of outside competition – winning through our diligence to change the game.  Others may choose to sit in the parking lot, listening to the game on the radio.  To fail, and end up in prison, could mean the end of your opportunities to fail again.

Stay Up,

Copyright © 2016 by Leroy Elwood Mann

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Art of Prayer

Of all the things people pray for, I am inclined to believe that wealth stands tall atop the list.  I mean, I would like to be financially secured just as much as the next man, but wealth is not exclusive to monetary riches.

Wealth simply means to have a great amount; a profusion.  This being the case, prayer is the wealth for someone feeling overwhelmed by the circumstances that goes beyond their control:

“Dear God, help me!”
“Lord, please don’t let the state kill me!”

Prayer is ongoing no matter what.  We pray at funerals, baptisms, and births. Some may pray for their favorite sports team’s next victory, while the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air are much more than a patriotic song.

A prayer comes in the form of a mother’s whisper every time her son leaves the house.  Prayer is a Mann’s first thought when his initial scenery of the day is the concrete and steel of a death row prison cell.

The power in the prayer within that cell travels from Central Prison to the sandy shores of Cali; protecting the grandseeds he has yet to meet.

Prayer can be the unspoken words, but loud thoughts when stepping through the threshold of a penitentiary chow hall.

Prayer takes its place at the forefront of all activities involving another person facing death, for taking a life.

Prayer is the remedy for tear-stained faces and the tortuous visual of loved ones leaving a visitation booth.

The psychological calamity an execution night imposes on the wearer of the red jumpsuit is an immediate cause for prayer.  This is the spiritual art of communication manifested by faith in THE ONE that grants this form of wealth to which we are eternally indebted.

My prayers do not require a definitive style of posturing; a look of stoicism; or glamourized speech.  One word holds as much weight as a million tongues speaking a thousand; Thanks.

Almighty Creator,

I am a man unworthy of the precious life you have breathed into me.  The many days and nights when I have felt worthless, you have shown me my true worth.  When I felt like dying, you awaken me to yet another sunrise.

With a sound mind I leave behind the constant of slamming cell doors, malfunctioning fire alarms and the ongoing stench of prison life, as I bring forth my latest bout with spiritual warfare.  My heart is heavy with the thought of one day having to live after my parents have left this physical realm behind.

During our last visit, the Plexiglas and steel bars could not disguise their physical exhaustion of their combined 156 years enduring life’s afflictions.  From the womb to the present date, Moms has always been my outlet.  How am I to fathom living when she is gone?

Most recently, a dear friend revealed that her mother is suffering from an inoperable brain tumor.  My friend is strong in appearance, but when I look into her eyes, I see a little girl not ready to live without her Mommy.  Hear my prayers for this family.

Then there is the cardiogenic shock that overwhelmed the heart of the beautiful woman who birthed and nurtured my soul mate.  You have already awakened her from a coma.  We are all so greatly in debt to your mercy, but we need strength.  Mrs. Addy and Mama Rose need their children and loved ones to maintain a solid support system for whatever they are destined to face.

No matter how daunting this reality is to me, I recognize there is a reason I am so close to these health related setbacks involving the mother of two women I have grown to love.  Give me strength, Almighty Creator.  Whatever is, has already been, and what will be, has been before.  I am what you make me to be.


Your Bondservant,
Copyright © 2016 by Leroy Elwood Mann

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Anonymous Witness: The LETHAL INJECTION Q&A An Interview by Leroy E. Mann

            If I had to guess, I would say the combined number of people having viewed of SERVING LIFE is north of 160. Coming from an onstage observation, I can assure you that no human emotion went neglected. 

Once the tears were wiped away and the laughter-subsided, most of the members of our audience extended their courtesy by congratulating our cast personally. Handshakes and a brief hug or two, from staff, volunteers, and of course fellow prisoners were gestures of appreciation, no doubt. But what happens next?

            In order to prevent such a monumental display of humanity from becoming a mere "prison project," people would have to take what they have witnessed back to their communities. Engaging, informing, and ultimately organizing movements to dispel this morbid influence of state-sanctioned murder as a proper course to reaching justice. Bringing death to capital punishment will require "party starters."

In my personal experience, there are two kinds of people that attend parties, the "party starters," and those who absorb their vibe. While bearing an irremovable stain of regret, I admit I was once the latter. Prior to developing a sense of immunity to the inevitable judgment of my peers, I was uncomfortable with being the first on anybody's "dance floor." I was content with absorbing the vibe rather than setting it.

            The following interview engages, informs, and invites community "party-goers" to meet at the intersection of our various disciplines in order to mobilize for change. This particular anonymous witness will help those in need of that first dance to understand that passion and drive breeds harmonious results on the "dance floor" of activism more effectively than authority and power.

            So let's get the party started!   
            This is the "two step" of defusing mass criminalization and diminishing capital punishment from the foreseeable future.

Without revealing how you came to witness the play, SERVING LIFE, paint a picture of the 90-minute experience for our readers.

                  Serving Life is one of the most creative displays of storytelling I've ever encountered. The play takes the viewer through the day-in-the-life of a Death Row prisoner such that the performance is bracketed by a 5am wake up call and a call to lights out. But throughout, the play is interspersed with multiple forms of storytelling (spoken word, monologue, re-enactment, and more) as one learns about the life journeys and circumstances that led to each performers living on Death Row.

The very design of the play maps these two realities onto each other so that viewers have a raw and intimate view into the memories, histories, experiences--which is to say, lives--that fill North Carolina's Death Row.

            The play has all the elements that make for a meaningful and moving performance: drama, wit, humor, and social commentary. But more than anything, Serving Life is full of energy and life force. It is art full of truth and is particularly urgent in this era of mass incarceration.

The work of art covers familial drug addiction, child abuse, police brutality, racism, mental illness, and countless traumatic circumstances that led to 6 death row prisoners serving life to a room full of strangers. What type of message should this send to a free society?

                  Recently, a colleague of mine, who had been remarking about the fact that a vast majority of female prisoners have a history of being physically &/or sexually abused (some stats say 90% or more!), asked provocatively, "How do we, as a country, respond to victims of sexual abuse? We put them in prison." I think Serving Life asks a similarly damning and provocative question: "How do we respond to victims of child abuse, police brutality, racism, exploitation, mental illness, etc.?" And, given that the stories told in this play are representative of larger realities, our answer may as well be: We put them on death row, which is to say, we eliminate them.

            In other words, I think one of this play's messages is confrontational; it forces us to ask hard questions of ourselves, our communities and this country, and it forces us to see the horrifying absurdity that is the death penalty.
The "N-word" is used several times throughout this production. So many people, in the "free world," have taken the position of banning the "N-word" from the vernacular of anyone considering themselves as decent human beings. How does the usage of this word affect you? Your answer does not have to be exclusive to the performance.

                  No doubt one of the most powerful aspects of the play was its insight and commentary on the power of words. One of the most memorable lines for me was, "He had what we all wanted: a name," which, in context, got at this deep desire we all share, that is, this desire to be known and loved.

            But the guys in the stories were often not known by words of love, but of hatred, disdain, bigotry. One memorable story, particularly as it relates to the "n-word," was about a man who was half-white and half-black who, as a young boy, was unwanted and rejected by white family members. The storyteller recounted a time he overheard one of these family members refer to him as a "n-word." And, tragically, this was a defining moment for him, making him feel unwanted by those who should have loved him most, placing him on a path of self-hatred and depression.

            As far as how the word affects me, well, as a white male, I can remember hearing people (friends, neighbors, relatives) use the word to describe "those black people over there"--I say it like that because, more often than not, these particular white people did not actually have relationships with any black people. Even folks that knew better than to use the "n-word" would use a word like "thug," which had similar, if not the exact same, intent--the purpose was to pathologize the black community.

What's scary is that, in some of these contexts, such language was normal; it was assumed. As such, the "n-word" had/has tremendous power in shaping the perception of others, that is, when used by one white person to other white people, the "n-word" will start to make people believe that "those black people over there" are actually less moral, less human than us white people.  So yeah, words are powerful, and Serving Life demonstrated this. They can make folks feel unwanted and unworthy of love, and they can reinforce white supremacy.

            As far as black folks using the word to express a bond between one another, I don't feel like it is my place to comment. I will briefly say, however, that I'm not at all interested in conversations where white folks want to prevent black people from using that word. Behind those efforts are a kind of respectability politics that, perhaps counter intuitively, reinforce white supremacy.

Mass incarceration seems to be a hot topic going into 2016. The legendary Bryan Stevenson has dedicated vat efforts to neutralize this ever growing force of injustice. Do you have ideas about strategies in which SERVING LIFE could be used to oppose the judicial practices that facilitate overcrowded prison populations in America?

            Serving Life is both urgent and disruptive. By demanding we listen to and know the stories of those behind bars, it brings the audience face to face with the stories of those we as a society have intentionally tucked away to some far away place and forgotten. And I think knowing your stories, and stories like these, can expose the evil of the sort of fear-driven "tough on crime" politics that have helped lead to mass incarceration, a politics that has, from the beginning, relied on narratives that criminalize people of color in general and poor black people in particular.

            I think one interesting strategy would be to invite public schools to put on a student production of this play. As just one example, it would be so incredibly powerful for students, say a student who has felt rejected and unwanted, to perform parts of the play mentioned above as it relates to the power of names/words. This sort of performance would also force people to confront, and hopefully disrupt, the tragic reality that is the school-to-prison pipeline.

            At a more basic level, though, I think Serving Life needs to be seen by anyone and everyone willing to watch. These intentionally forgotten stories are part of our national identity. They say something about who we are. And that urgently needs to be interrogated; the most vulnerable of lives depend upon it.            

Personally, I feel that SERVING LIFE is a feat that should be recorded. If this were possible, who would you suggest to be the initial viewing audience? Why?

                  I definitely think teachers and school administrators should see this for similar reasons I mentioned above. I also think faith communities should see it. There are some faith communities that just are not informed by your stories, and that is a tragic reality that keeps them blind to injustice.

I also think people of faith will be deeply moved and inspired to find folks living under constant threat of violence and death that have such life and creativity. That is a powerful witness and testimony that people of faith ought to reflect upon.

            And maybe police officers...the police, as an institution, are responsible for the type of social formation and control shape the stories represented in Serving Life.

What were your feelings when you rediscovered "freedom," after the experience of SERVING LIFE?

                  Man, watching a 90 minute production put on by 6 guys condemned to death, guys who affirm and even celebrate their own lives--as said in a memorable line of the play, "everyday is worth celebrating when you’re alive to see it,"--will mess with any previous simplistic understanding one had about freedom.

What does it mean that folks on Death Row, whose lives (and even deaths) are all controlled, can witness to freedom? I think, at the very least, it says that freedom is not something static; it is a way of being, a form of life-praxis. As such, there is a sense in which people can be free in fact, though not free in form (I'm thinking of Frederick Douglass here. He says in My Bondage and My Freedom: "I had reached the point, at which I was not afraid to die. This spirit made me a freeman in fact, while I remained a slave in form.")

            In other words, I think Serving Life pushed me to take the agency, creativity, wisdom, and insight of those on Death Row. On Death Row are folks who can and should be shaping our visions for a better world, a better future. On Death Row are folks who have something to teach us about what freedom actually is. Freedom requires us to take seriously the sanctity of life, and thus, inside freedom is a necessary refusal and resistance to any death-dealing regimes. So, for me, Serving Life was an invitation to participate in the work of resistance that freedom demands for the sake of LIFE--yours, mine, and everybody’s.

Copyright © 2016 by Leroy Elwood Mann

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Unwrapping G-Dad: A Birthday Gift for Daleah


I come from the cheesesteak hoagie,
     My neighbor’s camera,
          and Pop Pop’s hair clippers.

I belong to my Mom’s heavy hands,
     Pine Sol’s lemony fresh scent,
          City exhaust, ain’t nothing sweet.

I come from loving to write,
     The exhausted appeals of another death row prisoner,
          Everybody in prison is innocent.

I know thinking rationally isn’t the same across
     The board.

 And, I am an ocean,
      A tidal wave!

So much left undiscovered.

This was my opening monologue in the ground-breaking play, SERVING LIFE.  It is the “I come from” poem that symbolizes what was – becoming what is.  Twenty summer seasons have rotated throughout my time inside of “the Box.” The past four have been celebratory, a newfound freedom while remaining imprisoned.

My granddaughter, Daleah is the reason.  Now, I know at this juncture of her promising existence, the words I express may come off as a jigsaw puzzle without color, she can’t tell one piece from the next.  But G-Dad is here to reveal a clear picture for you, Lil’ Mama.

The beginnings of a Mann will always be tethered to you. So let’s’ put this puzzle together – decode this familial blueprint and you will see me, when I was you:
The cheesesteak hoagie is the sandwich of my city (PHILLY).  Served with the works and a side of cheese fries; your G-Dad was a fixture in steak shops.

My next-door neighbor was a professional photographer.  His work captured my earliest years – all the way up to my high school graduation, and eventually the promotional photos of a Hip-Hop career that ended too soon.  Love ya, Mr. V.

Julius Samuel was my maternal grandfather.  He was a barber by trade.  The “ART Barbershop” was a staple in our family dynamic.  Pop-Pop was a positive male influence when I needed one, Baby Girl.

My Moms’ heavy hands are easily decoded as, “Moms didn’t play no games.” The lemon scent of Pine Sol was common in our house, and the exhaust fumes of public transportation (SEPTA) were a constant.  There was nothing sweet about my treks through the city.

Writing has helped me to deal with loss.  Writing, to me, is like bench pressing: I get the stress off of my chest while raising the bar of my own expectations.  Feel me?

The stigma of “every prisoner claiming innocence” is frustrating.  I knew a man who said he was innocent for 33 years.  Because of that stigma, he entered prison a teenager, and then he was eventually released as a middle-aged man.  SMH.

And know this, Daleah; rational thinking can be deceptive when love comes into play.  An ideology that keeps me from holding you in my arms.

The beauty of an ocean is its mystery.  Most eyes can only explore the surface, but there is so much more to be discovered.  So much potential that goes unseen, but every now and then a tidal wave gets everyone’s attention.  Ya heard?

This “I come from” poem is my gift to you Lil’ Mama.  The Mann legacy is an ocean.  Be a tidal wave Daleah.

Happy Born Day, Baby!!!

Copyright © 2016 by Leroy Elwood Mann