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Killing the I in Pr[i]son, If Only for a Moment

Randall Horton

The need for a funeral or homegoing for my [self] constructed as the [ex] has been evident for quite some time.

I can honestly say this now, without regret, without feelings of guilt that someone might mourn this death not understanding its necessity. Death must become reality in order for evolution of thought, for the advancement of ideas to occur. This paradox of prison language, within an inescapable box, is too paradoxical to escape without some form of radical departure. If society is to advance and rethink the criminal justice system, the rethinking of language as action must be at the forefront of this cause. I’ve been calling myself an ex-convict, ex-felon, ex-prisoner, ex-inmate because in advocacy an example is better than a hypothesis. I’m not guessing or relying on secondhand information or a series of interviews or in-depth journalism to get a sense of what the inside looks, smells, or feels like long after some volunteer staffer has left the constructed cage, and the eternal silence begins. I know that silence and can recreate it upon command. The unconverted will always want me to retell my transgressions in great detail, explain these misgivings in a language I do not believe in, nor want to. Above all else, the high and mighty must be convinced I am one of the good now, that my life is full of redeemable qualities. I need to share in lecture-form or causal conversation the many escapades, like the one on 14th & Park Road in Washington, DC where my man Dirty Red’s left testicle got blown off in a robbery attempt, or how I once used to operate a crack house one block away from the now famous Busboys & Poets on 14th & V Street.

I need to assure them I am not that person anymore to keep the construction of morality intact.  

However, the exchange is never mutual, as in I will never know the secrets hidden in the dark recesses of their minds. The presentation of this forever flawed self comes in the form of an opposing polemic structure of good and evil, a context I outline for moral audiences as I state my case: to gain and garner empathy for those locked up or entangled in the systemic nightmare of incarceration. Rhetoric and rhetorical strategies that come with the criminal justice system’s language ensure that once a person is released from custody, the stigma and the lie linger long after as a veil through which one looks when negotiating the society they are returning to. The lie begins with one having paid their debt to a morally bankrupt system that will never allow a zero balance, let alone issue credit within the scales of justice. This imbalance ensures and reifies the need for systems of control, creates a higher morality at the expense of the subject who will always be in the red, justifying corrective measures to keep the citizens safe.

The performance of myself as the ex-convict with seven felony convictions who managed to overcome these measures sounds great and awe-inspiring on the surface.

I say performance because I know I am not an ex-anything. It took time, but I eventually realized my thinking was a setup, the way the narrative was supposed to write itself out, that even my greatest achievements would echo and reaffirm the criminal justice system. The con is actually the system, itself—manipulating language to denote deviant behavior. Ex as a label plays tricks on people returning to society and makes a formerly detained person unsure of their self-worth. They are duped into believing that in order to achieve social normalcy, all repentance must be juxtaposed against the mark, the stain, or the felony that is more of a cattle brand, a signage of identification and ownership, thus any advancement comes at the expense of the self and celebration of the criminal justice system that contained that self. Ultimately, the question then becomes how can one be worthy with such a derogatory stain? For example, after a five-year bid and two years of a rehabilitation program, sitting in a college class with a room full of strangers at the University of the District of Columbia was terrifying, though one could surmise I should have been lucky to be in a college class, period. Early on I constantly felt eyes judging me as I sat taking notes, that no matter how hard I tried to hide the mark of the ex, people knew and were criticizing me behind my back, labeling me as something bad, even if I tried to represent good. I wasn’t that dude on Park Road anymore, but they didn’t care. I could sense the interior dialogues of: you know he been to prison, keep an eye of that guy, he might steal something and did you hear about the guy in your class that’s been locked-up? The uncomfortable posture when addressing the felony convictions became dehumanizing to the point I would get angry at people who inquired about my past as if their house stood spotless, that something from their childhood or days in college or some other dastardly moment in time had been suppressed, or was not real; and yet, I was the one being put on a witness stand on a consistent basis to explain myself.

I needed to be humble to a fault, careful to straddle the line between confident and arrogant. I struggled to find value in this new self, independent of the ex, that I was trying to create.

Then there were the dinner parties and get-togethers with upwardly mobile people who, on the surface, presented the illusion their lives were perfect as the morally good, they had never done a wrong thing, and it was I, the ex, who didn’t quite fit the prescriptive molds. Oftentimes, the questions of what do you do? Where did you go to school? What are you working on now? What career path did you take? created a deer in headlights moment, as in all questions ultimately led back to the inside. The best piece of advice I received after release came from Big Fred, an old hustling buddy, who was very familiar with the inside. Big Fred had completed a two-year Fed bid and was out doing real estate and mortgage lending in Washington, DC. One night after a cookout at his house, we talked about this weight one carries after prison. Big Fred, no stranger to doing time, told me that everybody got a little clutter in their closet, that the people you think are doing okay are, at times, living in their own form of hell. He then went through a list of men and women we knew without felony convictions but were known to be evil, rotten, nasty, with malice, and yet, society treats them as if they were angelic, incapable of a wrong thing, ever. This imbalance in moral judgment is why the ex must die.

I’m not going to chase my own tail nor will I continue this language that resides in the master’s toolbox to deconstruct and define my own existence.

This thinking is a cancerous tumor, it must be extracted, destroyed and replaced by a new philosophical intent. Why strengthen the prison industrial complex image as protector through my own personal narrative? I prefer to create my own toolbox. So, to the person who carried that old toolbox: death will not be by the blade, a slash across the wrist or throat, bleeding out in night silence. It will not be an entry and exit wound, torn flesh or bullet to the temple splattering bone and brain matter. This death will be merely a brushstroke across the canvas of life, blotting out the current image to get to a new, more viable image in the eye of the beholder. This will be a narrative death for the sake of the narrative, because, in the end, all that matters is truth. Erasing a stereotypical life drawn without permission, correcting a wrong for the sake of right, or righteousness. This death will be swift, quick, instantaneous, a snap of the fingers—just like that.


Originally Published: October 1st, 2018

Randall Horton is the author of the poetry collections Pitch Dark Anarchy (Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2013), The Definition of Place (Main Street Rag, 2010), and The Lingua France of Ninth Street (Main Street Rag, 2009). His honors include the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in...