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O My America: Letter from a Prisoner in Solitary Confinement

December 22, 2013
by J.B., incarcerated in Florida prison-d7f96423c0e1ee1b55c455b9266cf9d28a3d17a5-s6-c30Jewish Currents HAS A LONG HISTORY of giving free subscriptions to prisoners who ask for them, through our “Distress Fund” (which also enables us to extend the subscriptions of people who have fallen on economic hard times). This history is rooted in our long-time editor Morris U. Schappes’ experience of incarceration as a political prisoner for thirteen months, as described in his 1982 memoir in our magazine. We have enjoyed hearing from some prisoner subscribers who became regular paying subscribers after their release. We have also lost some incarcerated readers who died inside the walls. In this season of society-wide consciousness about issues of mercy, redemption, and hope, we’re presenting some portions of a recent 10-page handwritten letter, below, from a new prisoner subscriber, a man in his sixties. (If you’d like to make a year-end donation to our Distress Fund, please e-mail the editor; likewise if you’d like to correspond with this or another incarcerated subscriber.) —Lawrence Bush, editor Sunday morning December 8th To the Good people of Jewish Currents, I have written to you before — in case you have forgotten — I am in prison here in Florida. I was born in the Bronx — raised in New Rochelle, NY — my last 10 years in N.Y. — in the late ’80s and all through the 1990s I lived in Stone Ridge on Route 209, then moved across the river to Rhinebeck [Editor’s note: both locations are in the neighborhood of our offices]. I have been receiving your publication — you have no idea how much I appreciate your kind thoughts. Thank you so very much for sending issues. I am the son of Benjamin — Benjamin was the youngest son of Jacob, who was my grandfather — who immigrated from what was once part of Russia, along with my grandmother Celia. What amazing stories we all have — the struggles, the trials, the hard work, the enormous challenges. The sheer will even to exist for the family who still lived in Eastern Europe and Russia in the 1940s.... My father owned and operated a delicatessen in New Rochelle for years, a family operation. We all worked so hard — but I have such fond memories. “Berman’s delicatessen” was the name, located on North Avenue. I come from a working-class family — none of us ever got rich — but life was good. We always got what we needed. My Aunt Nettie and Aunt Mariam would volunteer to work at the voting polls. Also my extended family was active in politics. Mickey Schwerner’s mother was my biology teacher in high school. I remember her well — a no-nonsense teacher who was also very kind. After her son’s tragic, senseless death, she continued to teach‚ that is when I had the pleasure of knowing her, in the later 1960s. God bless them. Because of who I am and how I was raised and schooled makes me so very drawn to Jewish Currents. Especially now that I’m in prison. Human rights and civil rights are violated on an enormous scale here in Florida. BELIEVE ME, YOU ALL HAVE NO IDEA what takes place here. Here is just a very small sampling: On Wednesday I passed a note — when and where and to whom was against the rules. I truthfully was not aware of this rule. Because of this small infraction, I am now in solitary confinement, known to us here as “the box” or “the hole.” I’ll be confined here for the next 60 or 70 days. Basically I’m in a prison within the prison. The guards open a slot in a steel door three times a day for meals. Also I’m escorted three times a week for a shower. That’s it! For the next two months. No contact with anyone. Luckily I was given a small amount of property, so I’m able to write. I hope you all don’t mind me writing you and I apologize if I ramble on. But it’s so very lonely in here and if I write to you I feel like I’m talking to you. Writing you will help retain my sanity. Anyway, it’s the norm here to be sent to confinement for trivial, harmless things. In fact, many go to the box when they did nothing wrong at all. Because of budget cuts we are simply being housed like cattle. We cattle bring job security. It’s very simple. The Box is O-Dorm — and the more O-Dorm is filled, the more officers are needed. Job security — that’s all it is. So here I sit in a living hell. Four walls and me.... If the Florida taxpayers really knew how much tax dollars are being thrown away just for the sake of job security, they would be outraged. This O-Dorm scenario is just the tip of an incredibly enormous iceberg. You have no idea. LUNCH SHOULD BE COMING SOON. We get three meager meals a day. But it’s the loneliness that gets to you. I feel so very far removed from the world. Kind of like an old dusty document tucked away in some old rusted-out filing cabinet in the basement of some old dilapidated, abandoned building. Far, far removed from the world. It’s a horrible feeling, really.... What has been happening beyond the walls? I get a visitor every night. We have mice here. Every night a mouse enters my cell. I sit motionless as not to disturb him. He eats the little crumbs I purposely leave on the floor. I’m assuming it’s the same mouse every night because I’ve been observing him — he takes the same exact route every night. I wonder if it’s a she and if she has little ones. If I knew, I’d leave a lot more crumbs. Jewish Currents is based in Accord. It’s so nice there. Is there still the fruit and vegetable market on Route 209 in Stone Ridge? What about Gill Farms in Hurley? I remember, while living in Stone Ridge, in the dead of winter I’d go out the back of my apartment and take long walks on the edge of the cornfields. In the dead of winter I enjoyed those walks so very much. I relished the solitude — everything was so quiet — that little part of the world seemed to be in hibernation for the winter.... Serene thoughts would enter — I truly felt at peace. This was a dead cornfield in the middle of winter, yet the awesome pleasure I experience on those cold walks — it’s hard to put into words, but I felt those walks were so healthy, not just physically, but for the well-being of mind and spirit as well. I wish I could write well. I’d write a poem entitled, “Thoughts from the Dead Cornfield.” Where I am now, being alone and isolated — solitude is now my enemy. Ain’t life confusing? “Solitude, Friend or Foe?” I’VE BEEN IN PRISON for eight years, for an auto accident where there was a fatality. I was sentenced to fifteen years for leaving the scene of an accident, and fifteen years for DWI with a fatality, and five additional years for fleeing with my vehicle (vehicle was considered evidence). All to run consecutively for a total of 35 years. I pleaded guilty to leaving the scene — I simply panicked and was, in fact, guilty of that — but I was railroaded on some of my charges. The DWI was a trumped-up charge. This was a high-profile case, headline news, and my trial was a witchhunt fueled by M.A.D.D. [Mothers Against Drunk Driving — ed.]. While in prison I began to access the law library on Death Row where I worked. I began to compile documents and lay out where the prosecutor lied.... First I filed a motion for a double jeopardy violation [he was twice convicted and sentenced for leaving the crime scene. —Ed.]... The trial court denied my motion. I appealed to the higher court, the District Court of Appeals. Guess what? Bam! They ruled in my favor, so one of my counts had to be vacated. So they vacated the “leaving the scene” count. God! They vacate the charge I actually pleaded guilty to.... That leaves me nine years left. But now the higher court has actually appointed me an attorney to fight my remaining litigation. ... I suppose the trial court thought I’d go to prison and simply lay down and forget about all that occurred. Not this Jew Boy from the Bronx. ... Prison has taught me some profound, meaningful lessons... Freedom is something very special. It is to be cherished. The things in life that I thought were trivial are not. I took freedom for granted. How many of our ancestors were denied freedom? How foolish I have been. My ancestors came from a small town in Russia, packed what they could and set sail to America — land of the free. Our forefathers faced incredible challenges just to be free. Their stories are remarkable. If I walk out of this modern-day dungeon, I will cherish freedom and life itself. ... I KNOW THAT Jewish Currents is a publication concerned with social activism, civil rights, and such. So I cannot explain why I’m writing you this lengthy letter, except that I was given your publication and it’s in my property here — I don’t have very much correspondence with others — so I simply felt compelled to reach out to someone, anyone, for that matter. Ha! I never thought my life would boil down to being excited about a visit from a jailhouse mouse, who by the way is due in about an hour from now when lights-out occurs. If I don’t hear from anyone, that’s okay, I’ll understand. Your publication is for the betterment of our American society. If more people took the time and heart-felt effort for the betterment of others like you all do, our great nation wouldn’t be in such an awful mess. Peace to you all. P.S. Sure could go for a New York corned beef sandwich.
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