Photo by belchonock via Depositphotos

Freddie Cole dropped out of school in the 10th grade in 1958 and enlisted in the U.S. Army that same year. In 1961, while stationed in Italy, he earned his GED. This is where his love for learning started — but his duties in the Army prevented him from furthering his education.

Freddie was in charge of the base’s motor pool and was a weapons specialist. Before his honorable discharge in 1962, he said he was a driver, providing security for a colonel as well as then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He later attended Long Beach City College in 1968, studying auto mechanics, and he earned a certificate in supermarket operations and business management. 

Now, in his 80s, Freddie continues to be active as a peer literacy mentor at San Quentin State Prison (SQSP), where he is incarcerated. He also attends Mt. Tamalpais College, the first accredited college for students in prison.  

But I’m concerned for his health. SQSP was the site of one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in U.S. prisons, killing 30 incarcerated people, two officers and infecting thousands. It has been nearly impossible for older people with pre-existing medical conditions to stay healthy in the California prison system. 

Although he has never tested positive for the virus, Freddie likely has had COVID-19 because he exhibits classic symptoms of long-hauler syndrome. He also contracted the norovirus last June. He experiences continuous chest pain, hypertension, nerve damage on the left side of his body, sleep apnea, and has a cardiac pacemaker. 

He takes 20 medications and visits the prison’s health care services, but the staff is overwhelmed with patients because they have to deal with the coronavirus, two quarantine situations from norovirus outbreaks and an overcrowded prison. 

Before he went to prison, the Veterans Administration Hospital addressed all of Freddie’s medical needs. But now, without appropriate medical attention, he is at high risk. Yet he never complains, even as I watch with frustration. 

During the pandemic, Freddie has managed to walk from his housing unit down the stairs to his job assignment in the education department five days a week to work six hours a day. He has used his time tutoring and mentoring students who needed help passing their GED high school equivalency exam. He has overcome obstacles to acquire the rehabilitative experiences he needed throughout his imprisonment. 

Freddie presents no disciplinary concern to prison staff — nor, by extension, to society. He is universally admired, respected and even loved by fellow prisoners, by outside volunteers who come into the prison and by the unincarcerated staff and supervisors who work here. 

Through his dedication and commitment, Freddie has had a positive influence on young incarcerated people; and he continues to make an impact, changing lives for the better. Our greatest fear is seeing him needlessly die in prison. 

His presence in society can help disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, one group of students at a time. The youth will commit less crime and follow their dreams, thereby making society safer for everyone.

He is someone who should be considered for early release. 

It would be a shame if he died without ever being allowed to use his vast experience to serve the community outside.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Rodney Baylis

Rodney Baylis is a writer who is incarcerated in California.