From the July-August 2019 issue of News & Letters
What does it mean to be paroled from prison? The question can be answered in a variety of ways depending upon one’s philosophy of life. One could conclude that it is a chance to experience freedom; the opportunity to have extended mobility, including interacting with family and friends. But on a larger level, that kind of freedom is not real freedom.
FREEDOM ‘IN A STRANGE LAND’
Before release, all I had was time. It was all torture. Now, I don’t have time. The effort to sustain myself takes most of my time and energy. Freedom, for me, means having time to work out who I am, how I want to relate to others. That was true especially in prison. Bob Marley sang about how one cannot sing a song about freedom “in a strange land.” Out here I am in a strange land.
What is freedom in a real sense? We can break through limited thought and rethink the idea of freedom. This must be brought out front for serious thought and discussion. Central is what kind of world we humans want to live in.
In the mainstream definition of freedom as extended mobility, we become victims of capitalist thought. Extended mobility is being allowed to participate in the perpetuation of our own enslavement to the capitalist idea. In order to survive, you have to sell yourself. For freedom to have real meaning, it has to be projected beyond its present definition.
EXPERIENCE OF BEING RELEASED
I was released from prison several months ago. People ask me how it feels to be free. I respond politely, checking the desire to gush and say what I believe. Not because of fear, but out of respect for that person’s mindset. Not everyone is going to agree with how I think, and I am learning to accept people’s different positions.
The experience of being released did not come the moment I walked out of the prison gates to friends waiting to pick me up. The moment of emotional and mental effervescence came four and a half years earlier, in May of 2014—the morning I was released from solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison to go to another high security prison. For decades I had no hope of ever leaving solitary alive. By the time of my actual release, that earlier experience could not be topped.
Walking out of prison in early 2019 seemed a formality because I had come out only to walk into the vicious struggle for survival of the fittest. The ability to procure basic human needs, i.e., food, clothing, and shelter becomes most important. The constant pursuit of the fulfillment of those needs consumes newly released prisoners, but it also constitutes a cycle of oppression that minorities of low income are caught in. There can be no pursuit of peace, happiness or liberty. This is the so-called freedom that I’m supposed to be elated over.
The shaping of the idea of freedom that pervades my whole conscious being has no particular design, because it is predicated on a dialectical process. A human society is one where necessities like food, clothing, and shelter are no longer the privilege of a wealthy few, but a right of human existence.
The first thing I have to do is find shelter, but that doesn’t mean just a roof. It means people who can help you sustain your ideas. That’s why having collaborators and discussing ideas is so important. We need cohesiveness that can keep us together.
I discovered News & Letters and Marxist-Humanist ideas by accident. But humanism grabbed me. In a place that enforced racial identification I/we were trying to break through racial designations. I was trying to understand people, not from the perspective of who they are as separate individuals only, but how they embody their ideas. That’s what enabled me to survive the torture of solitary confinement in Pelican Bay.
Being able to read about Marxist-Humanism kept me focused on who I wanted to become. The first thing to go in solitary is your mind. Marxist-Humanism steadied me. Working out how to sing freedom “in a strange land” demands continuous feeding of your mind, not just your body.