A letter from a friend showed up unexpectedly.
I had been concerned about my friend Ron Kurtz, an outgoing playwright who resides off Florida’s northern coast. Ron had disappeared from my life for months. I had feared he was dead from hurricanes, sharks or frenzied Ron DeSantis supporters.
My friend Ron’s correspondence was brief and contained a Feb. 20 article by the Washington Post’s Cathy Free, headlined, “A raven was shot, left for dead. Here’s how a bird-loving lawyer saved it.”
The article recounted how Catherine Sevcenko, a civil rights attorney, who is also a licensed bird rehabilitator, helped treat a wounded 2-foot-tall crow named King Kong after it was shot in its shoulder with a pellet. One veterinarian advised euthanizing the bird, but Sevcenko chose to rehabilitate it.
While King Kong will never be able to fly again, Sevcenko kept the crow alive. He was transferred to a New York nature center, where he appeared to be thriving.
But why did Ron send me this Washington Post article out of the blue? Was it to compare me to the damaged, physically incapacitated crow that mistrusts its captors and needed to be rehabbed?
If so, I understand. I can relate. I’ve been incarcerated for 30 years, the last 25 as a paraplegic after I suffered a 60-foot fall in 1998 during an escape attempt from the roof of the Los Angeles County Jail.
When I arrived in state prison, newly disabled, the future looked bleak. In prison, might is right and the weak are prey for gangs. At that time, I had no tangible support, no paid job. Hope was in short supply.
But I did have legal skills after training as a jailhouse lawyer for years and litigating disabilities issues. In that time, I was able to get shower benches installed, Americans with Disabilities Act caregivers appointed and assigned, and make a case for a representative for people with disabilities appointed to the Inmate Advisory Council.
The IAC rep was supposed to be a paid position, something to advance the disabled community and support oneself. I had hoped to take that role, but at the last minute, the spot was given to a non-disabled inmate. I decided then to ditch the legal books and start a cell-published yard newspaper, The Corcoran Sun.
I also began writing my first novel, “Icicle Bill,” and included excerpts in the yard paper. I sold the newspaper on the tier and around the yard for ramen soup, and began selling ads to every prison publication advertiser I could get. Before long, I was selling 6-month and full-year ads in The Corcoran Sun to attorneys, pen pal sites and magazine publishers, as well as trading advertisements with other prison publications. Within a year, the paper was distributed to prisons across the country.
It took much longer — almost three years — to complete my novel. A second novel, “Goodbye Natalie,” followed. I began to have dreams of screenplays and movie deals, which included me writing my way out of prison. But 20 years after starting The Corcoran Sun — and founding two more prison newspapers, two prison publishing houses and writing 14 books — I’m still here without a movie credit to my name.
My current prison newspaper, the Mule Creek Post, is in its fifth year. I’m still writing essays, memoirs, books, journalism articles, novels, plays and screenplays. While the writing hasn’t made me rich or famous, it has helped me endure a lengthy prison sentence.
Over the years, I have worked to overcome the thinking patterns and behavior that led to criminal conduct. My journey has gone from denial to a recognition of deeply embedded character flaws. I had to understand addiction, recognize triggers and learn coping skills. I had to understand my trauma, develop empathy and learn to be my authentic self.
I now believe in the unlimited potential of the human spirit and the interconnectedness of all souls. So when Ron’s mail arrived, it felt like the universe had reached out and was knocking at the door. But what was Ron trying to tell me?
Searching for an answer
On the surface, the answer seemed simple enough. Here I am. A wounded jailbird with more than a broken wing to mend, overcoming adversity to find a path that is navigable by wheelchair.
However, the quote in the newspaper that described the crow King Kong — “never be free — threw me off. It doesn’t align with my beliefs in the unlimited potential of the human spirit or the possibility of improving your circumstances.
Or maybe the article’s last line provided a clue as to why Ron sent the newspaper article to me.
Sevcenko says of the crow: “After all he’s been through, he now has the home that he deserves.”
While I don’t know why Ron sent me the article, his mail reawakened memories, stirred my imagination and tickled my intuition — which had been dormant for a long time. It wasn’t only a random letter from a long-lost correspondent, but also the universe reminding me of the boundless freedom writing provides.
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.