Winston was 68 years old, 5’6”, slightly hunched, with pale skin and a rapid fire manner of delivery. I first met him when he was transferred to Marion from Butner Medical Center after having surprised (and disappointed) many people in the Bureau of Prisons by surviving his third round of cancer.
He was not the type of person to suffer fools, and would respond to any inquiry about him or his past by asking a series of questions designed to determine, in his mind, whether the subject of his interrogation was worth spending time with. As he would later explain to me, after 20 years in federal prison, he didn’t think he had time to waste on inmates who placed no value on time simply because it was in such supply.
Winston was the founder and CEO of a hugely successful property and casualty insurance company in Illinois. He built his company by specializing in hard to insure properties and businesses and collecting what was then an enormous amount of data about his clients so he could both better design policies and help them to reduce losses. The combination of his insuring higher-risk (and thus, higher premium paying), clients and diligent underwriting made him wealthy by the time he was 40.
As often happens to successful men, he grew bored and decided to tackle new challenges. Some state laws at the time prohibited companies like his from competing across multiple jurisdictions. There were also other laws in the state of … Read the rest
He called to me from across the enormous, open bay at the bottom of the stairs where the blacks would gather to cook, laugh, scheme and taunt one another and where he would sit by one of the few working radiators to keep his feet and hands warm. He was 71, obese, illiterate and suffered from diabetes, prostate cancer, recurring heart attacks, arthritis and the insolence of the young blacks whom he said “don’t know no better”.
Johnnie was from a poor farming town in central western Mississippi on the river with a population smaller than the prison camp in which he now lived. He had innumerable brothers and sisters that I imagined all ran barefoot around the cotton plantation on which they were, essentially, sharecroppers. He was 12 when Emmit Till was murdered in nearby Money, Mississippi, and quickly joined the ranks of many of the peaceful protesters and activists of that generation. He knew Medgar Evars and marched with Martin Luther King, which as far as I can tell, every American black and most whites living in the United States, did at some point. He couldn’t understand my disdain for Sharpton and Jackson, although he granted they seemed to be more interested in politics and making money than helping “poor folk”.
He eventually moved to Memphis, married his childhood sweetheart, had a bunch of children and was active in his church, community and Democratic politics. I enjoyed his company immensely because I felt like I was in the … Read the rest
On my first day in federal prison, I was offered sex, drugs, alcohol and a cell phone, but it would be months before I had the opportunity to see a Catholic priest.
I had already spent nearly a year in a county jail, waiting to be sentenced and shipped to a federal prison, sharing a 15’x18’ concrete cell with 12 violent, career criminals, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During that 11 months, I believe I saw a Catholic priest on three occasions. It might have been four, but it’s tough to remember those kinds of details when so much of that time was spent in adrenaline fueled survival mode, a bag of batteries in a sock in one hand for defense and a sharpened toothbrush in the other. The Priest, pastor of the local Catholic church, came after tiring of my mother’s calls begging for him to visit me. Or perhaps it was her prayers and not calls that were efficacious.
I was glad to see him. His liturgy was not exactly the Missa Cantata I had frequented with my family prior to my arrest, but he brought with him forgiveness and compassion-as rare in prison as in the world.
Over the course of my 40 months in federal custody, Catholic services were rare. In contrast, evangelical protestants had frequent-as often as daily-services. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nation of Islam were also very active, both in their evangelization and their activities. It was not at all … Read the rest