By Ivan Kilgore
One day I was standing on the tier in the housing unit at Cimarron City Correctional Facility in Cushing, Oklahoma when a Muslim brother named Mohammed approached me. We had known one another for quite some time so, after greeting each other and making small talk, he asked, “I see you’re building your body well, but what about your mind?” By now I had been in prison for about ten months after spending two years in the Seminole County Jail. I had become what we call in prison a “yard ape”. In just that short period of time, some ten months, I had gained over 50 lbs. of muscle on a 5’9” frame, weighing in at 197 lbs. and was bench pressing 315 lbs. I was a beast!
That was some 23 years ago and yet the conversation with Brother Mohammad still resonates with me to this day. After taking a moment to reflect, I responded by informing him of my plans to attend college after I was released. I will never forget the look on his face after telling him this. It was a look of disappointment. For there were plenty of brothers in prison making penitentiary promises to attend college. Disappointed with my response, he calmly leaned on the rail of the tier, looked out across the dayroom and stated, “You’re in a university now! Why aren’t you studying?” Stubborn, I took a position that college would suffice; that it would provide me with an edge to succeed in the real world.
Needless to say, that conversation with Brother Mohammed would forever be etched into my memory because it forced me to acknowledge the fact that I had neglected to spend my time in prison wisely developing my conscious. Simply put, I had failed to study that which he was attempting to expose me to which was readily available right there amongst those brothers who, like himself, had spent decades behind the walls and concertina wire studying and analyzing the world before us.
Still and yet, I would eventually discharge my sentence and set out on a journey in search of knowledge and wisdom. Unknowingly, it would be a journey that was to send me into Oakland’s ghettos, college hallways, and, eventually, land me back at square one. Whereas, after being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, I would be forced to attack my ignorance head-on.
Some two decades later, I am on the eve of my 47th birthday and to great pains, struggle with the fact that I have spent the majority of my adult years in prison. When I look back on my life—my humble beginnings, school days, trappin’, murder trials, etc.—there is now a sense of urgency and consciousness that has compelled me to embrace a higher calling to be part of the solution instead of the problem. My motivation to do so I attribute to my roots which, when you rot in a prison cell for decades, at some point, if not often, will force you to think about your core values.
Naturally, all the above brought me to a point in life where I was compelled to reflect on my legacy—that is, what I wanted to be remembered for when the etchings set on my gravestone. I began to realize that my footprints were going to be washed away in the tide of life because I had not gave due consideration to how I was living it. In fact, I was not living at all. I existed and was struggling to survive. What prison did was gave me time to take inventory, a hard look, at the fact that I had become a statistic, a number with little value amongst my community and peers. It was then that I became determined to change not only my plight but those of others.
A magnificent discovery indeed, this in and of itself would instantly change my focus. No longer was I chiefly concerned with the material things in life. I realized that they were a carrot on a stick controlling and driving me down a path of destruction.
Often, I tell people about this moment, this time and space, when it finally “clicked” and the light shined on me. It was the summer of 2006. I was six years in on a life sentence. There I was lying on my bunk at New Folsom, Facility-B, Housing Unit 4, cell 101. Staring at the ceiling, I began thinking about where I was in life, how I had arrived there, and more importantly, what I was doing to change my predicament.
My cellie and I were what we call in prison “penitentiary rich”. We had accumulated all those things that made for a comfortable living arrangement: 20 cases of Top Ramen soups, 50 to 75 pouches of meat products and other foodstuffs, a kitchen detail, 150 CDs, a boom box, a runner (I.e., a female who visited regularly and took care of our business on the outside), drugs, a knife, and of course, a cell phone. In terms of prison, we had it all figured out and were at the top of our game. So we thought.
Then, one day, as I was laying on my bunk, I begin to think about all I had accomplished while attending college and the work I had put into becoming a legitimate business man prior to this jolt. Instantly, I was struck with the reality of our situation, which then forced me to ask myself: If I left prison that day, what would I have to show for my efforts while incarcerated? Twenty cases of Top Ramen soups? Fuck!
Indeed, it was a moment of truth that, from that day forth, forced me to begin the long process of figuring out how I could, from a prison cell, get back on track to becoming a successful businessman. Of the many things I would have to do first, I had to readjust my focus by disciplining myself to reject much of the values that the streets and prison had put to me in terms of culture and limitations.
Next, I would begin a study of my childhood, adulthood and environment so as to better understand not only how I had allowed it to shape my values but more so my limitations. Lastly, and this would result from my studies, I had to comb through all those bright ideas and experiences I had or had tried so that I could benefit from the insight and experience they had afforded me. That’s when I struck gold!
Realizing there had been a plan all along that I had been developing, I now began to see clearly how it was I almost lost it in the chaos of my bad decisions. It was a plan born just weeks prior to me incidentally killing William.
I had just returned from visiting with my family in Oklahoma. While there, I had had a conversation with my uncle regarding how it was we had so much talent and resource in our family and community. Yet, in my opinion, it was not organized. That conversation would begin a long process that would eventually lead to me founding the United Black Family Scholarship Foundation (UBF).
The idea of starting a organization, a 501c3 nonprofit organization, from behind prison walls was not met with much fanfare. When I initially begin to look into what it would take to get it off the ground, my cellie, Shorty, flat-out said, “You cannot do it!” When I approached friends and family, many were encouraging and supporting of the idea. Yet they were not willing to assist with the work that it was involved in making an idea into a reality. Before long, I would realize I was not in an environment of possibilities and that I had quite a bit to learn in terms of surrounding myself with the right people and inspiring them to take action.
Of the first of many observations I was to make, was the ability of my story to inspire people. This, I would learn in time, provided me with a certain type of currency—a resource—that far exceeded the value of money in and of itself. Yeah life had dealt me a shitty hand. I was in prison sentenced to spend the rest of my days on earth locked in a cell. Still and yet, I possessed the ability to make a conscious decision to not allow these circumstances to define me or deter me from accomplishing my goals. Indeed, this was my gold!
In telling my story I was to learn in time that I was providing hope where there was none for many people. Seeing my ability to change and acknowledging the fact that change started with making a different choice, was powerful! With this I soon learned that in all my thinking, thinking I was without resource or the ability to influence people outside prison walls was a product of my ignorance that had hindered me from taking what the world had put before me and, as the adage goes, making lemonade.
This is when I realized that, in establishing the UBF, I would be creating not only my own opportunities, but so too those for others. So there I was lying on my bunk staring at the ceiling envisioning what this would look like. I had read somewhere that I would have to define what success would look like for me. Realizing I had but one value that had made all the difference in my ability to change, my experiences had taught me that that value was in the power of education. Success then would be defined in this organization’s ability to educate people. Education not in the strict sense of credentialism, but rather education as it pertained to empowering people to deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.
That I was able to make this discovery and then create such an opportunity for myself and others has indeed been a humbling experience. For me personally, it has allowed for an experience to gain invaluable insight on everything from obtaining corporate funding to working with universities to establishing an internship program—all from a prison cell.
Where prison had once limited me in so many ways, I now had discovered a significant, no magnificent, ability to break the mental chains and debunk the myth that opportunities only come once in a lifetime. No! The truth is, we have to create our own opportunities by turning the key to release ourselves and our minds from the prisons that we construct between our own two ears.
The foregoing is an excerpt from Ivan’s recently published book Mayhem, Murder & Magnificence.