Shackled from head to toe, I peered out the bars of the 4′ x 6′ cell at the top floor of the Alameda County Court house. The thoughts had and happenings carried about in this building had been etched on the walls: “Tick” 2/14/89-20 years; “Raybo” E.S.O. (Eastside Oakland) 25-to-life; My balls smell like rotten fruit and my armpits like cat piss!; Give ‘em crack, make ‘em lose their monkey minds. Put gun & liquor stores on every corner-just keep on killing yourselves. The whole white power structure-feel it in your bones; Murder Dubs; Asian Crip; M.O.B.; and so on and so forth the names and profanity read. Looking back on that day, superstition forbid I add to the graffiti my fate. For I have always been led to believe that the man who writes his name on prison walls will always be captive to them. Believe me you, when I was later found guilty of first-degree murder and the judge pronounced my fate with the use of letters instead of numbers, I damned to hell very cat who ever wrote my name on a jailhouse wall or otherwise.  

Prior to my trial in Oakland, there were a many a days I shifted about with one hand cuffed to a belly-chain foolishly hoping to find one name-Huey P. Newton.. He had also resided in this hellhole during the 1970s for killing an Oakland police officer. During the two years he spent fighting the system before eventually being acquitted of all charges, a volume of Black Panther history would be scripted from within these very walls-if not the very cell I was in. History forever held time as Huey fought and gazed out of those very windows, as I, to see a world of ants in motion surrounding the Lake Merit area. The account he wrote told of his criminal keepers attempts to break him-mentally, spiritually, and struggle wise. Though never in all his accounts or any for that matter which detail the horrors of incarceration could one compare to the madness ever etched into my mind as I awaited court that dreaded day.  

Three years into many frivolous court appearances and the accompanying bull-pen therapy, it was within the last few months of 2003. The exact day I cannot recall. Yet as I stood there, caged and chained like Kunta Kinta fresh off a slave ship, an approaching voice helplessly cried out: “Help!” “Help!” “Someone please help, I’ve been kidnapped!” I began to laugh believing that a fellow prisoner was cracking jokes. “They’ve chained me up,” he continued to shout. “Help!” “Help!” “I’ve been molested.” “Help….” His voice got louder and louder as it drew near. I sat there laughing as he carried on. Eventually, I  began to think: “Enough is enough, that the joke was funny, but come on man, enough said.” About that time I could see who it was making all the fuss. The deputies had under their escort a mentally ill prisoner from the J-cat dorm at Santa Rita. He was giving them the blues as he struggled and kicked at the officers who drug him, each with an arm hooked under his. “I’ve been kidnapped, please help,” he continued to cry out frantically as they threw him in the cell next to mine. He went on and on as if a broad screaming rape….  

Today, I sit in this prison cell wondering who really was crazy-him or me-for not acting out as he given the stark reality of our situation being in essence a kidnapping. This often forces me to put in context this shadow of content that attempts with each passing year to extinguish the light at the end of the tunnel. Better yet, I struggle with this beast that attempts to cast this subhuman veal upon me as a criminal. It seems as if an uphill battle. For its one I’ve yet to defeat petition after petition.  

For most, being incarcerated for any extensive period of time retards the will to fight for freedom. And that’s taking in account they understand what “fighting” for freedom entails. Many have simply been defeated by circumstances from Projects-2-Prison. Needless to say, they have suffered a loss of vision early on in life, if ever they had a chance to develop one. Circumstances simply stripped them of all hope and willpower to face adversity. So they willfully accept plea deals for life in prison. Having found themselves up against the powers that be, most prisoners know little, if anything, about how to challenge these powers. All they have been accustomed to is fighting with their fist and guns. They have no mental fight in them-that is, endurance, tact, confidence, etc. For them the proverbial saying, “The mind is a potent weapon,” is mere rhetoric without understanding or action. Again, I find this largely attributed to the fact that circumstances as they have been manipulated in their early life has not wired them to be confident and optimistic, rather doubtful and pessimistic as to their ability to challenge this system.  

Considerably, our backgrounds and experiences have given us opposing convictions about our capacity to overcome adversity. Though we all bring our life experiences to bear upon our predicaments, our differing perceptions about ourselves shapes our fate. For those of us who have been hard-wired for optimism ever strive to kindle hope despite it being emotionally taxing and seemingly impossible given our plight. Hope for us serves to displace fear and insecurity and thus inspires us to work towards our survival, our freedom, our success. And with each success we witness where a life sentence is overturned, for example, our physical and emotional vigor renews. As for those amongst us who are hard-wired pessimist? Their hopeless resignation paralyzes them causing less and less participation in the struggle for freedom. And this just does not apply to prisoners. It applies to people in the world as well when it comes to life and living.

 Considering the fact that optimism and hopelessness are self-fulfilling, the form of action or inaction one may adopt is to a large extent a function of their attitude. This, needless to say, can result in the difference between living a life without limitation or living it in incarceration. For it is a common saying that prison is a state of mind-that is, a mental trap that operates as if a physical constraint. In the case of the pessimist, his hopelessness works to confine his worldview. The manipulation of which creates his social isolation and failure filled reality. His vision has been debilitated. He’s been dumb-downed.  

Too often this distortion facilitates the aims and ambitions of another. Everyday, I see men and women in prison (both on the bricks and behind brick walls) who have accepted life on the terms put to them by others simply on account of the legal and moral postulations society at large has accepted and therefore forced upon others out of some need of conformity. Here, I must digress to reiterate on a topic of the previous chapter that discussed the affects of the law. Considering the fact that it is ever changing and thus changing society’s take on what is criminal or not, this in turn has a profound affect on society’s conscience, needless to say. Here, we must acknowledge the “reality” the law in itself creates. Without question, the manipulation of which comes of it is simply profound in its affect to restrict and thus control human behavior.

Seldom do either society or convicted persons ever put in context the fact that the law (as well as our sense of morality) is a tenuous form of contemporary political institutionalization. Of which, we commonly come to view what’s right or wrong based solely on the manipulation we have been subject to. Further, to acknowledge such manipulation unavoidably places into context the fact that majority of people in society and convicted persons lack understanding as to the nature and function of the law and its aims to define crime for all purposes and intent to make it functional for society. This has been demonstrated with the aforementioned history of Black Codes, Jim Crow, etc.  

While the law is considerably one of the most effective means by which our social and moral reality is constructed, the subject is more complicated and illusive than the mere affects of legislation. This is a given, especially were we to begin to evaluate and distinguish what is real, moral, or simply capitalist culture from an objective point of view. But is this even possible considering the likelihood of such an effort being tainted by the perspective product of our socio-political indoctrination? Again, it is our social, political, and cultural experiences that, for many of us, are too often definitive, unchallenged, and thus limiting on our worldview. This, in itself, is incarcerating. And while I have primarily focused on the manipulation that operates within the ghetto, or in the instant case-prison, it is the fundamental aspects of such manipulation that is of chief importance for us to recognize here. For just as people in the ghetto and prison are institutionalized, manipulated, and confined to circumstances which oppress and exploit them, so too are people in larger society. Heru’s poem speaks to this where it reads: “The science in the script you’ll see one electrical fence with prisoners on both sides of it.”  

That said, is prison simply a state of mind? Are we living in an illusion of freedom when in all reality we are imprisoned by mere belief? If so, then reality is often the prison of another’s making which controls the social and political development of our respective environments which in turn shapes us as criminals, squares, etc.

Chapter 8 Excerpt of Ivan Kilgore’s recently published book Domestic Genocide: The Institutionalization of Society. NOW AVAILABLE ON AMAZON.COM. READ more excerpts at

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