Author’s note: Prisoners in this series are confidential sources, each identified by a randomly chosen letter, to protect their safety and privacy.
(Part 1) “G” – How America “forgot about” itself.
An American President, “Man, he can only do so much,” says “G,” an inmate in Ventress Prison.
“He’s voted in, too. You know. So, you know, he…goes about what they tell him to do,” he continues, adding, “A lot of the stuff that goes down in this world, nowadays – you know – the President already knows about, and he’s just letting it happen, because it’s out of his control.”
In the first weeks of June 2020, Alabama prisoners discuss crises in America, President Trump, Democrats and Republicans, police brutality, protest, faith, the future of the country and world, and other relevant subjects. G has been in prison in Alabama for around four decades.
After a pause, G reflects, “You see, everybody thinks the President runs the world. But he don’t run the world – see – there’s people over him.”
He adds: “God owns the universe, but – you know – there’s people over all of us.”
G turns to the COVID-19 pandemic under the Trump administration, a subject he’s raised in other interviews as well.
President Trump “knew…about this here [coronavirus] stuff – you know – but when Obama [left] office, Trump got voted in, and fired all the people that Obama had in place to handle coronavirus.” (See here and here.)
Since Trump took office, G observes about the administration’s lack of staffing and funding to handle potential crises generally, “As far as that goes, there’s just no people [working on it], and that just messes everything up.”
G discusses how the country is doing in general, alongside the pandemic.
“Well, we’re going through a lot right now,” he says. “You know? We’re so busy trying to worry about other folks’ countries [that] now – you know – we’re going through something in our own country.”
In G’s view, “Ain’t nothing going to happen” in the future “that haven’t already happened, that God ain’t allow [to] happen. You know. We’ve just got to move straight forward, try to help one another out, man, and just be here for each other – you know.”
He reiterates: “Like I said, we’ve been so busy worrying about other things in the world, till we forgot about our own country.”
And “now, it’s hitting us,” he adds. “So, we’ve got to be strong, and help each other.”
Asked if there’s anything about America that those incarcerated in its prisons understand, which those who haven’t been incarcerated may not, G explains, “Number one: Like, if you’ve never been to prison, there’s nothing – no way to describe anything like it [to someone who’s] never been there. You know?”
Secondly, he points out, there are “so many Blacks around the world that’s locked up, man, and just been railroaded through the courts, man. And some’re going to get help, and some ain’t. But all over the United States of America, man, they are locked up. For nothing.”
Asked the cause of this country’s treatment of its Black citizens, G again reiterates that the US “has been so worried about other countries, trying to tend to their business, we left our own back door open to – you know – something sickening.”
G believes “it took this here [pandemic] to bring the world together. See? God’s trying to bring everybody together.”
He adds: “God is trying to show us: ‘Hey, man, this ain’t our world.’ But he’s getting ready to destroy it, because he’s not going to let man destroy it. You know?”
He elaborates: “Basically – you know – we are trying to destroy the world. We are trying to destroy something that is not ours.”
Asked to say more, G explains that, “Number one: we wasn’t born in the world, was born of the world.”
“So,” he continues, “everything that’s going on now’s already been written in the Book of Revelations, everything that’s going to take place – you know: mommas going to be killing daughters; daddies going to be killing sons; nation going to turn against nation; countries going to be against countries.”
G concludes: “That’s all that’s going on…It all just repeats itself, and that’s all. God is on His way back to get the world, man.”
Zooming in on the nearer future, G comments on the next one or so years facing America:
“In the next year,” he says, “if we ain’t careful – you know – we can’t even think of it, of what tomorrow may bring. Only thing we can do is just live it one day at a time. You know. We might not be here to see…next year, which I sure hope I do.”
He adds: “But right now, man, we’re in a great depression. If we don’t slow down, man, and try to help the kids get different things, and try to help the state of the word out, man, then we are in a great depression.”
Asked his thoughts on Democrats, Republicans, and the political leadership of America in addition to President Trump, G begins, “Well, we need more younger people in leadership.”
G, middle-aged, believes “younger people will have a better feel of what’s going on in the world than a lot of these older people that have been in leadership 15, 20, 30 years,” because “the world changes every day – you know – and we’ve got to change with the world, man.”
He adds that “what’s going on out there now, the protests [against racism and police brutality], we really needed that, man. And the thing I like about it the most is that the youngsters is getting involved. They are really, really learning what life is all about …They’re learning how to deal with life itself.”
G recently heard of “a 16-year-old girl who spoke about the protests,” he recalls. “Man, she said: Why are we killing each other? You know? And she said: Why are the police killing us? I’m saying: Because that’s all they know.“
He adds that “a lot of people that join the police force – they’re not educated. You know? They don’t know how…to be a peaceful person.”
G believes that “to be anything in life, or in any type of leadership, you’ve got to be a people person.” By that, he says, “I mean you’ve got to be able to deal with all people, all nationalities, all cultures.”
Further, he comments on the role of big money in politics.
“Well,” G explains, “money rules the world. You know? Money’s the root of all evil. The rich want to get richer, but the rich are going to make the poor poorer.”
He pauses, then notes, “Man, everybody that’s got money, has power.”
G remembers a song by the 1980s group, The O’Jays:
“They made a song a long time ago — I don’t know whether you know anything about the O’Jays or not – but, anyway, they made a song…called, ‘For the Love of Money’ – Don’t let money change you. But shiiit, man, if only we’d get a li’l money, the first thing we’d do is change, just forget all about where we come from, who we is, all that shit.”
G says the movies Scarface and American Gangster also illustrate how money causes Americans to forget who they are and where they came from.
“Money money money,” the O’Jays song famously begins:
Some people got to have it
Some people really need it
Listen to me, why y’all, do things, do things, do bad things with it
You want to do things, do things, do things, good things with it
I know money is the root of all evil
Do funny things to some people
Give me a nickel, brother, can you spare a dime
Money can drive some people out of their minds
Got to have it, I really need it
How many things have I heard you say
Some people really need it
How many things have I heard you say
The song ends:
People! Don’t let money, don’t let money change you.
It will keep on changing, changing up your mind.
(Part 2) “X” – “Democrats and Republicans are Supposed to be Different”
A long-time Christian, X believes that despite how often American politicians espouse religious rhetoric in their political messaging, this country has “taken God out of everything,” and “got out from under His protection and knowledge.”
X has been incarcerated in Holman Prison for around three decades.
Asked why America’s Democratic and Republican politicians invoke God so often in their political messaging if the country has taken God out of everything, X disagrees with the premise. “They don’t” invoke God, he says.
“God is love, and if you hear two people that are divided talking about each other, hating on each other, that’s not God,” X explains.
He adds: “My biggest thing, bro: I believe in Jesus. I have a relationship with Jesus. I don’t let other people that don’t have a relationship with Jesus stop me from having a relationship with Jesus, and obeying Jesus.”
For example, X works an unpaid job in Holman that is often “physically,” “mentally,” and “spiritually…exhausting.”
“When I work the hall,” he explains, “I am around people that don’t believe in Jesus, don’t have a relationship with Jesus. I don’t stop living for Him because I work the hall, because I’m around them. I continue to speak my faith.”
X feels that America’s politicians, in both parties, ought to apply the sort of faith to their own work that he applies to working the hall.
“If you’re a believer – I don’t care where you are at – you are supposed to live up to what you believe in,” X explains.
“That is the problem I have with a lot of political leaders that [are] supposedly Christian: They’re not [Christian],” because “for some votes, and for some money, it became exploiting. That’s troubling to me.”
X elaborates on American politicians’ exploitation of God and faith.
“It’s the same thing about Republicans and Democrats. Even if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ, bro…You’re going to speak your faith. You see? You’re not going to hide your faith, go into a corner and hide.”
X explains how “Democrats and Republicans – they’re trying to play two sides of the fence. They want to be a Christian when it’s convenient. You see? That’s the problem: You can’t be a Christian when it’s convenient.” If you’re going to be a Christian, “You have to be a Christian at all times.”
For example, X elaborates, “Tom Brady can’t be a quarterback when he’s winning the Super Bowl. He’s got to be a quarterback when he’s losing the Super Bowl, too.”
In other words, “Don’t be sometiming,” says X about Democrats and Republican politicians misusing religion, “because when you are sometiming, you are putting a black eye on God.”
X generally distrusts the invocation of God and faith by American politicians, he reiterates, because “When people say to me, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ,’ or ‘I have faith,’ and then you go out there and do something crazy – I’m not saying all of us [are] going to be perfect, because I am not – but when you go out there and do something, systematically, that you know is wrong, you put a black eye on God like that. And then the people that don’t know God be like, ‘I don’t wanna be around that person. I don’t want to commit to that person’s God if he goin’ do like that, act like that.'”
X says that “Democrats and Republicans are supposed to be different.”
Asked how each Party could best be different, “People like me and you…don’t agree on everything,” X responds. But the difference is, he says, that “we will communicate, and we’ll try to open up each other’s eyes to different things. See? Politicians doesn’t do that, because they don’t know how to communicate.”
The two parties are “trying to get their agenda out, instead of listening to someone else’s agenda, and looking at it in a different light.”
X adds: “Nobody can grow on their own knowledge, on their own wisdom, on their own spirits. Nobody. If they do, they’re goin’ die.”
According to X, “Republicans and Democrats have to understand that they both have different agendas, but that main agenda should be: the people, to better the people…to better this country, not to tear it down, not divide it.”
Asked if he sees the country being torn down already, X replies, “Absolutely. Look. Ay – come on, man. Look. How can you tell me…listen, bro: how can you sit up here, choke someone out – to death – and not get fired? There’s no consequence to it.”
Additionally, “How can you shoot someone,” asks X, “17 times, who don’t have a gun, and it ain’t no consequences?…How can you do that? You can’t agree with that. That stuff have nothing to do with God.”
He goes on, “You know what I tell my brothers?…I say, ‘Let me tell you something: If I see you doing something wrong, I’m gonna correct you. If you see me doing something wrong, you correct me, period.”
He notes: “Nobody done supposed to get shot 17, 18 times, and they ain’t got no gun. That’s crazy, man. I don’t care what color they is – that is crazy – and nobody done supposed to get choked out, choked to death. That don’t supposed to happen, man. That do not supposed to happen.”
But “it is happening,” X says, “because of the evil that’s getting stirred up in between the division. When anything’s this divided, Matthew, you best believe: evil is gonna be there.”
X believes “the only way” for American politicians to learn “to have understanding” is “to get in the word of God, and let God renew your mind toward understanding other people – period, pinpoint – because you are going to meet all different types of people in life.”
X continues, when “they put these officers out here on the street, they’re already telling them, ‘Hey, this is a bad person,’ ‘Don’t trust this person,’ ‘He’ll do this,’ ‘This group’ll do that.’ [Police officers] have bad ideas put in their head.'”
X explains that “some [officers] are already scared” before they become police officers. “Some of them are already prejudiced. Some of them became police officers because they got bullied, but ain’t ever deal with that problem.”
X asks: “When you go and put them out in the world, with a gun, in authority, then what did you think was going to happen? What did you really think was going to happen?”
Asked if there are aspects of American society that those who have been in its prisons understand, which those who have not lived in American prison do not understand, X takes a long pause before answering.
“The only thing I can say, bro, is the injustice. I’m not just talking about the innocent people being in prison. I’m talkin’ people who get a ridiculous sentence, 40, 50, 70 years, life without [parole], life sentences,” he responds.
Once a person “is in the system,” X notes, “it’s very, very hard to get out. Everybody keeps thinking it’s easy to get out of here. Matthew, once they got you in here, it’s hard to get out. It takes almost 20, 30 years to get out.”
He pauses, then adds: “That’s a lot of time, bro. That’s a lot of time, straight up,” and “that’s what society don’t know.”
Furthermore, “sometimes officers plant evidence…sometimes the prosecutor do prosecutor misconduct, pay witnesses to lie.”
(Many sources refer to being imprisoned as a result of lack of resources and/or fair trial as getting “railroaded.”)
X says there’s “a lot of stuff that society don’t know about, because – see – this is what they’re saying out there: ‘The police is good, and if you got arrested, you had to be doing something.’ That’s the mindset people got out there.”
But “that’s a lie,” says X. “That’s not true, not true at all, period.”
X notes that “they got [a] law – I think they call it a ‘three strike law’ – where, if you get three felonies, you get life without parole. So, that’s messed up. Then, in Louisiana, if you got a life sentence, then you can’t ever get out of prison.” (See here and here.)
X says “there’s all types of this little stuff that people don’t even know nothing about, man.”
He adds that many Americans also “don’t even know nothing about the mental illness stuff in prison, don’t know nothin’ about that. They don’t know about the segregation part of the prison.”
X “ain’t talking about Black and White” segregation, he clarifies. “I’m just talking about ‘segregated’ [from all people], period.” (Holman’s solitary confinement.)
“I know somebody who stayed 10 years straight in segregation,” says X. “What do you think that did to him?”
X pauses, then reflects on another aspect of American life with which prisoners are more familiar than other Americans: lack of intimacy.
“Think about this right here,” he begins. “During the coronavirus, everybody couldn’t be around each other, have to be socially distant, right? And look how people act. Now think about that right there in a prison.”
X notes that even though, on the one hand, safe social distancing is impossible in any Alabama prison, which the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed in an email for comment on a different article, and on the other hand, prisoners feel “no human touch” in their lives, “none of that.” It is impossible to socially distance, but they are not allowed to touch.
X has been hearing that people in the free world are already eager to see their friends and families, and “that’s just after [social distancing] for a couple months,” he points out. “Think about doing that for years, where you don’t touch nobody.”
He adds: “Come on, man. Human touch is powerful, man. People [outside of prison] don’t know that human touch is powerful.”
He says “being alone” is “dangerous, because you’re just going to think of your ideas, and your situation.”
Here, the interview shifts back to the country’s ongoing political struggles against racism and police brutality.
“I don’t like the breaking into stores,” says X, but “I love the protests.”
X recently heard it rumored that a shoe store was looted amid demonstrations. He carefully notes he is not excusing or condoning the rioting and violence by police, stipulating, “I don’t agree with all that either” – but he reminds protestors and other movement participants: “Do not lose your focus. You are out there for one cause.”
Asked if he’d like to comment on anything else before the end of the interview, X pauses and reflects.
“I’ll say this right here,” X begins. “I think a lot of people need to understand – I’m not gonna even talk about prison. I’m just gonna talk about being a human, period: We need to start seeing with our heart. Know what I mean by that?”
He explains: “When you see someone that you can change, that you can help, that you can mentor, that you can change their facial feature – because a lot of times we walk past people, and we got what they need, but we’re so busy looking with our natural eyes that we don’t start looking with our heart. When you look with your heart, you can be able to help someone, even in their worstest circumstances.”
X is “able to do what I do in here, able to live the life I have, able to go on in peace, because of people who have looked at me with their heart, not their eyes,” he says.
(Part 3) “B” – “It’s a People Thing”
“Politically,” says B, President Trump “is in a bad situation. He put the whole country into a whole uproar.”
B has been incarcerated in Ventress Prison for around a decade.
“With all the stuff going on right now,” B continues, Trump “should go ahead and be impeached” again, and removed from office. “For real,” he adds, “he should’ve been already.”
Asked which actions are Trump’s most impeachable based on B’s own feelings of right and wrong, rather than what is realistic politically, B answers, “Basically, everything he’s done,” and wonders if there’s anything for which Trump should not be impeached.
“He’s not doing right as far as the country goes right now,” B continues. “He is authorizing [police] to kill folks.”
B has noticed from “watching Trump on television, making his statements, and what he says – it shows that he is not as intelligent as everybody thought. He’s not intelligent. He’s not the person for the people’s President.”
B adds: “I mean, I wouldn’t select him for a President.”
B “already knew” in 2016 when Trump was elected, “that it was gonna be some type of – it’s like…when the people voted in Trump, they didn’t know what they was getting into.”
It is Trump’s “arrogance,” says B, “that takes me away.”
Asked which issues Trump is most arrogant about, “You name it,” he replies, then offers examples.
“Getting people back across the border like that, the messed up border stuff – he is being arrogant about it.”
B feels Trump is “slowing the economy down,” that he “don’t really give a damn” in general, “and the way he’s dealing with this riot situation…arrogant.”
Not limited to Trump, B suspects “the Republican Party is in for a treat. That’s all I’ve got to say: They are in for a treat, because look who they got running the show.”
He pauses, then repeats: “So – you know – they’re in for a treat, and however they want to look at it, it ain’t gonna come nice.”
In B’s estimation, “The Republican Party got theirself cut out. You’re dealing with Trump – they should’ve never put him in office.” Again, he says both parties “should have impeached” the President.
“I think [Trump] is either trying to set things up to be a disaster before he leaves office,” B continues, “or trying to stay in office. And this ain’t the way to [get re-elected], because you’re causing a mass of people to get killed and hurt.”
Even though “I don’t know [Trump] as a human being,” B says, “from what I do know of him, he’s a bunch of BS.”
B notes that in addition to Trump’s lack of political savvy, lack of intelligence, and the constant BS, all of which defy 2016 campaign promises, Trump is also “not [the] very good businessman” he’s claimed.
“If he’s a businessman – true enough: With a very good businessman, it’s evident that he’s a very good business man,” B explains, but Trump “is not showing a business leadership. He’s not showing that he is a good businessman, because a good businessman would know how to weave around these decisions that he’s makin’ or has made in the Presidential seat.”
Further, “I think he’s racial,” B adds. “I do think he’s racial, because of the statements he’s making, and how he’s handling situations.”
Contextualizing Trump’s “racial” thinking in the recent demonstrations against police brutality, “Really,” B continues, “if it had been all Black protests, I think we would’ve been killed, a lot of people. But being that it’s a lot of people, Hispanics, Blacks – you know – everybody’s just participating” (more on this below).
B comments on the political leadership of two-party politics in America more broadly.
The Democratic Party leadership strikes him as “more positive,” he says, elaborating that the Democrats “would be more positive than what Trump’s got going on, way more positive than what he’s got going on, for real.”
Asked his biggest criticisms of both political parties, B reflects, “Well, I’m going to be biased on both of those ends.”
He explains: “It’s their world anyway. We’re just part of it, for real. They’re running it. And what we are doing is just being caught up in it. And we are voicing our opinions on certain things that – you know – probably will never be heard. But – you know…”
B pauses, then continues, “But with [Trump], and what’s going on right now, there is a lot of stuff going on in the world that everybody’s missing.”
Both parties “could be better” about those things, says B, adding, “It doesn’t really matter to me, though, because I already know how this Presidential thing is running. It’s: Our opinions, the people’s opinions, don’t always get up there.”
Asked why the opinions of everyday people don’t matter more, “Ay,” B answers, “I guess that’s politics.”
Asked if there are any political issues he is particularly interested in or concerned about, he answers neither yes nor no. Instead, he repeats that “it don’t really matter, just don’t. Sometimes, like I said, it just don’t really matter.”
Asked if he can think of any exceptions, he replies, “not for real.”
Asked if he would feel differently about political issues if he had more of a say in the democratic process, “Yeah, I probably would,” he answers.
He adds: “I done voted before. I was voting when I left the street,” and says he would still vote if he was not incarcerated.
Asked his thoughts on why prisoners are not allowed to vote, “Good question,” he answers.
He notes that prisoners “can still get the right to vote here…You’ve got to go through the process of it, then you can get voting rights.” (See here.)
Asked which realities prisoners understand about America that Americans who have not been to prison cannot understand, “A lot of guys in prison are very intelligent, and have a lot of insights,” B answers.
“Just because they’re in prison – that’s just a mild setback for a major comeback,” he says.
“It’s just because we’re in prison [that] society pushes us and blackballs us, as if we are not part of the people that can think…There’s a lot of guys in prison that have way more intelligence than a lot of people in society.”
He adds: “You’ve got to read, first. All you’ve got to do is read. If you’re reading, and understanding what’s going on, it’ll be better, but you have to take the time to understand what’s going on [in the text].” If you don’t take the time, “then you can’t understand it,” he says.
B further discusses the free world mindset that stereotypes prisoners as unintelligent.
“To be honest with you,” he begins, “people think that once a person goes to prison, they are real thugs. But [prisoners] are everyday people, just choosed on the wrong side.”
However, he notes, the widespread assumption by free world people that prisoners are less intelligent “has not overpowered us…We will go beyond to be happy, and keep those around us happy.”
He reiterates: “People feel, once a person is convicted of a crime, that person doesn’t need another chance at a new life, or to enjoy life again.”
The June interview with B concludes by returning to the subject of uprisings for Black lives and against police brutality.
The problem is “not racism,” B explains.
Rather, “the cops think they can do whatever they want, and kill people. Right. But they are cowards in a suit, hiding from one end of the law.”
B adds: “I will say this: No Justice, No Peace. This [movement] has been long overdue. The people need to stand up for what is right.”
One reason the “cops are crazy,” B explains, “is that they are a part of the movement, and they don’t even realize it. How could you hurt someone who is protesting for a cause?”
B points out, “To be honest, it’s going to impact their asses as well, when [protests] are for the rights of the people. It’s not a Black thing. It’s a people thing.”
If B was in the free world, he says, he would “for sure” be participating in nonviolent civil disobedience.
If prisoners attempted to demonstrate in the prison, he says, the prison officers (commonly called Corrections Officers) “would make it out [to be] something else.”
Regarding officers, B continues, “I already know how they’re going to act, like it’s a riot or a security hazard.”
(Part 4) “Z” – “If They Ain’t Dead”
“It starts with the police force, the racial profiling, stereotyping, of a lot of Black males,” says Z, who’s been incarcerated in Ventress on nonviolent charges for around two years.
In late June, Z interviews about the current state of the country, its future, President Trump, and, most pressingly, the need for movements against racism and police brutality to articulate and protest the larger system of mass incarceration.
“It could just be a certain kind of car you’re drivin’ – if you’ve got a car with rims on it or something, they automatically assume you sell drugs, or [that] there’s hard drugs in the car.”
He continues, “Or, if you’re ridin with somebody White, [police] automatically feel like y’all don’t have no business together. Just seeing a White female or White male with a Black male, they’re going to try to pull you over, figuring y’all ain’t got no business being together, must be drugs involved…As opposed to if it’s two Whites, they figure a White female don’t have no business being in a car with a Black male.”
Next, Z says, “You go from there to them pulling you over, and the police, now they want to treat you any type of way. Then, once they arrest you, you’re facing the judicial system, which is the DAs and the judges. Now, they’re going to be biased against you nine times out of 10, because the…majority of them is White.”
Z has been incarcerated twice, once in his late teens and early 20s, and once now, closer to middle age, both times on nonviolent charges. He maintains his innocence regarding his most recent conviction.
In Z’s experience, he continues, “When you do get incarcerated, you pretty much see nothing but Black males. Maybe 85 percent are Black and Hispanic, and maybe 15 percent” are not.
“Now, I feel like, [is] the time for them to start really making a change,” Z continues, “and it seems like they’re really trying to make a change now. So, that’s a good thing, as far as the protests. It’s a little change.”
Some other little changes, he notes, “with the NASCAR, the NFL – I’ve seen – they’re talking about letting Colin Kaepernick come back, the Aunt Jemima thing… Serena Williams’ husband stepped down…There’s a lot more examples, which I just can’t think of right now.”
There are still “a few Caucasian people who are against” Black Lives Matter and other protestors, Z says, “especially with the Confederate stuff, talkin’ bout’ how it’s part of their history. But if you know your history was with slavery, and killing Blacks, and hanging Blacks, then you actually shouldn’t even want to be a part of it. For real, that’s how I look at it.”
He elaborates: “So, on their side, they’re protesting about the statues and stuff like that, and the things that they change in colleges, stuff like that, talkin’ bout’ how It’s part of their history, or, It’s part of the city, with the statues and stuff. But, if you know they were negative people, and the stuff they were doing wasn’t right – right is right, wrong is wrong – that’s how I look at it.”
Z pauses, then explains that “if it was my people, back in the day, doing something wrong, I’d be like, ‘Ay, well, if they were killing White people, and hanging them, and having White slavery, I wouldn’t want to be a part of that now. I’d be like, ‘Yeah, ok, that [protest] is good. Get rid of that.'” White Confederates “be like, ‘Oh, nah, keep it. My great-great-great-great-great-granddaddy was born back in the day.'”
Whites using their “history” to identify with the Confederacy, Z suspects, must “know it is wrong. You’re saying you ain’t racist, but you’re saying the only reason you stand up for it’s because of your heritage? That don’t make no sense.”
Unlike the examples of “some changes” and public figures speaking out against police brutality and racism generally, Z “ain’t really seen” the same type of actions, change, and attention toward the issue of mass incarceration.
The movement “ain’t really started in that area yet,” he observes. “It just started with the police harassing, but it ain’t gotten to the prisons and judicial system yet. Now, if you don’t know, they’re killing young Black males and stuff like that, and arresting them left and right, for no reason. So, where’d they end up at? If they ain’t dead, in prison.”
Z notes: “A lot of people’ve been in here for a long time.”
Z “just read that Just Mercy book, man, and he’s talkin’ bout’…He’s really doing the numbers, for real. I just can’t memorize them, but he’s talking about a lot of statistics with Blacks and Whites, far as that go.”
Interrupting himself, “But everybody knows that,” Z continues. “They know! It’s in the [World] Almanac, the numbers, yeah, about how many Blacks populate a prison over Whites – Blacks and Hispanics.”
Z’s advice about mass incarceration to the protest movement for Black lives, as well as to people becoming educated about and involved in struggles against institutional racism for the first time, is, “Basically, just speak the facts, don’t lie, and keep it nonviolent, as far as the protests go.”
Z encourages “media, legislators, lawmakers,” and others to “actually put more emphasis on the people that’s being locked up, a lot of times, with excess punishments on their time, [which] they don’t see, a lot of petty crimes, compared to…if they did investigations with Blacks and Whites with the same case, they would see, if they just did the numbers.”
Among other prisoners, Z observes, “You can just see, [Blacks and Whites] be down here [in Ventress] talking to each other, like, ‘Damn, how’d you get that much time and I got this?'”
Z says that in county jail, before he was transferred to Ventress, a White cellmate had similar charges, but worse, and they were both confused about the differences in their sentences.
Z comments on the current state of the country, its President, and its future.
“Trump ain’t really handlin’ either one of those situations,” Z begins, referring to the pandemic and the widespread rebellion.
“He’s already behind on the coronavirus by like three or four months,” Z continues, “and – I seen – he was telling this guy in Brazil, that guy who want to be just like Trump [Jair Bolsonaro] – I seen how [Bolsonaro] was talkin’ last night, that he ain’t really care about his people, and I guess he look up to Trump so much, the way Trump’s doin’ us over here, that he’s doin’ his people over there like that.”
In Brazil, Z notes, “they’re saying [Bolsonaro] don’t even care about his people – period – because, if he did [care], he would do more to try to make sure they are safe at a time like this.”
In addition, in Z’s view, “with the China thing, Trump won’t swallow his pride with them, and…everybody should come together at a time like this, and get all the science and stuff like that together, and come up with a cure, but still, he’s saying he’s not wanting to talk with China, ‘ain’t got nothin’ to say to China,’ this and that.”
Meanwhile, everyday Chinese and American people are “saying, ‘We got different problems than y’all,'” says Z.
In America and China, Z points out, “Man, we have people dying, and you still up here talkin’ bout’ how you don’t wanna deal with China? There’s people dying. Oh, but you ain’t got to worry about dying, because you’re the President, and you got all the safety.”
Z adds: “Then, with the police shooting Blacks, [Trump] knows that’s wrong. Be he’s afraid to lose all his votes, for one. And, even when the people was up there in [Charlottesville,] Virginia, when that guy done ran over all those people, [Trump] didn’t say [the murderer] was wrong, he said, Oh, well, the other side was protesting too. So, that wasn’t the right thing to say in a situation like that.”
An example of Trump’s racism and insincerity simultaneously at play is “when Colin Kaepernick took a knee when a few Black guys got killed, [Trump] was talkin’ bout’, Well, anybody take a knee, they need to fire their ass,” says Z.
“That’s how he was talking then. So, now, you’re seeing everybody is on the right side of the board, and he don’t want to feel left out, so now he’s trying to change up to, Oh, I want the NFL to sell Kaepernick back in. I’m 100 percent behind him. Man, [Trump] is just the fakest person ever, for real.”
Z adds: “Actually, they should’ve left him where he was at” before he became President.
“That’s how I feel about Trump,” Z concludes, “because ain’t nothing going to go the right way. Like I said, he should’ve never been President. He might be equipped to run a billion-dollar business, but he ain’t equipped to run no nation of the United States.”
Commenting on the next one to two years of America’s future, “Psshh,” Z begins, “if he be President again, I don’t know. I’m afraid to even say, tell you the truth. I don’t even know.”
Already, says Z, “You’ve got people’s businesses getting blown up, people runnin’ out of their homes, hungry, not knowing where their next meal is gonna come from, already got all these unemployed people right now. You know. And, like I said, the coronavirus is steadily getting worse, and he’s started talkin’ bout’ I’m taking everybody off lockdown.“
The week of this interview, Alabama reported record numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases several days in a row.
In China, Z notes, “Beijing, they done went back on lockdown over there. Again, Dr. Fauci, at the time, was talkin’ bout’ how everything’s gonna be if you open everything. Americans ain’t getting no healthcare, and Americans ain’t getting no money. But [Trump’s] talkin’ bout’, People need to be making money. Well, how are people going to be making money when everyone’s still unemployed? You’re making money! How’s that? Ain’t nobody else making money. He’s the one making some money. He’s talkin’ bout’ himself. Yeah.”
If Trump “is not re-elected,” says Z, presumably meaning a Biden administration takes the White House, the country “might get better,” but “I got no control over that.”
He adds: “It’s just whoever’s in there. I could talk about what should happen, and what shouldn’t happen. But, at the end of the day, I ain’t got no control over it, so…”
He pauses, then reiterates he “ain’t got not control,” adding, ” I actually don’t worry about all that, for real. I just pray about it.”
Like most prisoners, he worries most about his loved ones, and freedom.
In a hypothetical message to the President, “the first thing” Z would say, “if I said anything, is just, ‘Come in and just treat everybody equal. That’ll be the main thing. Don’t be bias against no race.'”
Z wonders, “If this is America, ‘home of the free’ – you know – like all the racists told us, then why is it that every time you turn around in a high position, there’s always Caucasians, Whites over everything?”
Z notes that “Whites will pick their friends and buddies over others, just because. And over any other nationalities, not just Blacks, but Chinese, Puerto Rican, Mexican, just like [Trump] is doing the Mexicans, and stuff like that.”
Commenting on America’s southern border and immigration policies, Z continues, “I don’t feel like that’s right, the way they’re doing them [immigrants]. Again, I ain’t got no say so over it. But, hey, that’s how I feel, just my opinion.”
In Z’s opinion, “This land – nobody made this land, man. This is God’s land. So, first of all, you should be free to go anywhere you want to go in this whole world. I don’t feel like you should be able to tell nobody they can’t come over here. You know? This ain’t your land. Period.”
Z points out, “Actually, you came over here! You wasn’t here first either! And you came over here, and just took the land. So, why are you gonna tell somebody else that they can’t come over here, and just to live on this land? You came over here and took the land yourself. You ain’t even supposed to be here!”
He adds: “Actually, if they were acting like that back then, you wouldn’t even be over here now, if they had the same strategy. Yeah, so, it’s just crazy.”
Asked about the role of big money in American politics, “That plays a major role,” says Z.
“With the Trump thing,” for example, Trump “got the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nation, and he’s got a lot of people behind him with sponsor money who are with them on that also. So, that’s why, a lot of times, he don’t even speak up on the racism that be going on, with the police and stuff, because he knows he’s going to get backlash from them organizations, because they invest so much money in him that they feel like he’s on their side.”
Z feels most of Trump’s racist ties and worldviews were made clear before Trump was President, “especially when he came out with that saying – what is it? ‘Let’s make America great again,’ taking the country back and all that, talkin’ like that. It’s just racist. It wouldn’t be racist if he wouldn’t make it racist. If he was saying it for a good way, a good reason, people would know, like, ‘Ah, nah, he don’t mean it that way,’ but everybody know how he mean it.”
Matthew Vernon Whalan’s writings on mass incarceration have appeared in the Alabama Political Reporter, Red Crow News (MA), and elsewhere. His oral histories on homelessness have been published in The Brattleboro Reformer, The Commons, and elsewhere. He has also been published in the New York Journal of Books, Spin Education, The Berkshire Record, the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, and other journals and newspapers. He is a writer and contributing editor at the fledgling blog, The Hard Times Review.