unconditional love

Puzzle piece Photo: PIXBAY

Prison journalism: I am a total jigsaw puzzle

A writer incarcerated in California. Finds writing to be therapeutic as a response to a childhood speech impediment, is awaiting prison and sentencing reforms.

unconditional love

Puzzle piece Photo: PIXBAY

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Life has a habit of reminding you that at the end of the day your choices are not only yours, they affect others in your life. As I swim in this punitive fish bowl, I am in fearful awe of my future and the future of my future. 

I grew up with a resilient, proud working mama. She was always able to turn water into wine. With a son like me, that was always a must. She married twice. My father died when I was young and left me alone with her and her then-boyfriend Ron. Ron became her second hubby, and the unforeseen catalyst of my under-development. It wasn’t that I hated him as an individual. It was my loyalty for my father that didn’t allow the necessary room to open up to him. 

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Both men were career military men. Ron died in 2017 from natural causes. I was at the time fighting my bank robbery charge in Los Angeles, where the state was convinced that a 100-plus year sentence was just despite my nearly non-violent track record. My mama and Ron had been living a retired life in Fayetteville, North Carolina — a city I was raised in, a city that also hosted one of the largest army bases in North America: Ft. Bragg. They had just rebounded out of bankruptcy and life had started to look fair again. The death of Ron and the toll that it took on my mama wasn’t that apparent at first. My baby half-brother in New York didn’t recognize any of my mama’s forthcoming debility. 

Immediately after the last of the ashes were burnt my mama sought refuge with a friend. I thought nothing of it; it had been four or five months since Ron’s death. By this time I was already in the bowels of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That relationship left as quickly as it came, but I noticed a slight change in her demeanor. I shrugged it off and said to myself: even though she is my mama, she is still a woman first. 

At this particular time I was housed on a level 3 yard, which in prison political terms is a setting that is unyielding and breathless. Some type of incident took place amongst the Mexican mafia population, so we were on lockdown. An associate of mine, who was a porter was out on the tier; delivering “kites” and doing his convict job. He happened to zip past my 7-inch cell window, so I stopped him and asked him to give my mama a call to let her know that we were on lockdown and that I would contact her soon by mail. 

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Most prisoners have no issues with this type of request. Even though we might be considered selfish for leaving our family and our community to pursue illegal activities, at the end of the day we are human, and we long to embrace our loved ones. The porter, called O.G., quickly obliged and extended his hand as if to say, “Give me the number.” 

I slid it to him underneath the cell door. He promptly went to the wall phone and dialled. I watched him attentively as he went through the process — his lips were moving, and he nodded. O.K., he had gotten through. I waited by the window as he spoke. When he looked up and gave me the thumbs-up signal, I let out a sigh of relief. The last thing any man wants to hear is that his mama is sick, in the hospital or worse yet … dead! Especially me. 

I really f***** up this time, L.A. County served me 25 years. The plea deal was better than life, but s***, at 50 years old, that is a life sentence. Thank goodness the laws have changed towards prison reform. I have a few shots I can take to get out early. Leaving my mama out there by herself was the worst of the punishment. I felt like a traitor most of my days. 

A short while later, O.G. dutifully came back with the worst news ever. “Hey little bruh, your mom is kool n the gang, she just spoke to your son the other day, and he’s good,” he told me. “Your brother is in the Dominican Republic with that girl, and she has a new boyfriend and he’s from Africa.” 

“You said she has a what?” I exclaimed. 

O.G. brought his mouth closer to the plexiglass and said, “BOYFRIEND!!!”

My heart sank to my knees. Fast forward … His name was supposedly Jeff. He was in his mid-50s and lived in the Mojave Desert in California. He was a contractor of some sort from South Africa. He was a widower with three children, the eldest a student at a university somewhere.

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Apparently my mama met him on the ‘Gram and has been smitten ever since. My ex-wife Kay and my brother Ronald have seen the picture that he has sent to her. They both say the guy in the picture is way out of her league, very swank with his Balmain jeans, Louis Vuitton belt, gold chains and millennial disposition. Kay remarked that he was very handsome and why would he want to have relations with your mother, a 76-year-old woman with health issues who has two protective adult sons (one a habitual criminal). She pointed out that he only used a Google number in their communication. He claimed that using Facetime would violate the memory of his late departed wife because this was how they communicated (WTF). He also claimed to be working on a construction project in Iowa (WTFx2) and he commuted back and forth from California to there. The kicker of it all was that my brother had gone to visit my mother in North Carolina to get a better feel for this developing situation. Once he arrived, he snuck into her phone and found evidence that she had been sending the charlatan thousands of dollars! 

All the while, my mama has vigorously defended this ghost to the point of cursing me, her grandson, Kay, my brother, and anyone who tried to shed light on this scam. I had people send video clips of catfishing episodes from Dr. Phil … she rejected it. I’ve written countless letters appealing to her logical side … she rejected them. I even wrote her neighbor, the wife of a sheriff deputy — who scolded me for getting into my mother’s business (WTFx3). 

My anger, frustration and hurt are all self-inflicted. I blame my hunger for drugs, money and criminal fame as the cause. She forfeited a necessary surgery because Jeff claimed he was coming to help her rehabilitate post-surgery. Needless to say, he never showed up. 

The skits that have developed as a result of this faker are endless. It has been three years to this date with no one really there in the midst. I cannot begin to amass the damages that this ordeal has tallied. I do however see the tolls it has taken on our relationship. I have had to become an actor. We talk often, she still does monetary things for me, yet I sense something terrible wedging itself between us. I love my mama perhaps more than any son should. And it pains me that in some ways I am responsible for this anguish. COVID-19 has been the ultimate slap in the face. 

ALSO READ: Prison life: The daily routine of an inmate at Pollsmoor

With the demise of my mother unfolding before me and having to deal with the overt oppressive tactics of certain correctional personnel, the coronavirus has now infected the remaining portion of my otherwise healthy life. 

Trapped in a 4-foot by 10-foot cell that was built in the 1800s, I am left to wonder if I am equipped to sustain myself despite the razor blades hovering above me. This plague has literally torn my 2020 playbook in half. I cannot detail in exact colors how this virus has blinded me and my family. 

Let’s begin with my son, Kareem. I haven’t seen him, held him, and to be brutally honest, I have not been a father to him since he was 10. He is now 20, a smart, humble, new entrepreneurial Afrikan. He isn’t all that he needs to be, but I understand his plight and give him allowances for such. We love each other though and that’s the glue that bonds us. 

I was supposed to see him this year. I didn’t visualise our reunion to be “me in here — and him out there,” but it is what it is, and I’ll take what I can have. It is very important for prisoners, especially men, to maintain leadership and brotherhood with their sons. Especially during chaotic times, like the times we are all experiencing. Trying to guide him was already a challenge in itself due to the distance because he lives in Milwaukee. The tons upon tons of concrete and steel that remain the ultimate juggernaut in our efflorescent relationship during normal times has been made worse by COVID-19. Our communication has been reduced to perhaps two phone calls a week due to new prison regulations that have been adopted in response to the pandemic. 

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Even though my hiatus as a father is noted, Kareem has always supported me. He could be counted on with regularity for a stipend that he would send with no gripes or rumbles. But due to the ever-increasing infection rates in the U.S.; it has been difficult to find employment. Therefore, I am now subject to relying on others who rely on others for needed financial support. 

This may come as a surprise to many — but the fact is it costs money to live in prison. Really, it does. Financially many of my loved ones are without employment due to COVID-19. And without their assistance, I am left barren to attempt to survive on the menial products of the CDCR. So, with visitation being suspended (I have not seen my mother or my son together for at least two decades), no recovery plan for the nation, and a crumbling economy, I am a total jigsaw puzzle right now. 

With several pieces missing, the catfishing, the coronavirus, and the chicanery of the CDRC has me digging hair follicles out of my cranium! Nevertheless, I continue to push, to explore, to understand. A self-defeating attitude won’t provide what is needed. Life will give many some, and some many.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Written by Malik Zakee Ali

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