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Prison cell block, Old Idaho State Penitentiary
Photo by Meesh (CC BY 2.0)

One of the worst fears of men and women who are incarcerated is dying in prison.

It was 4:45 a.m. on an eerie fall morning when a jolt of strange energy went through my body. I woke up from a beautiful dream of freedom to the nightmarish reality of incarceration. 

I struggled to gain my focus as my vision was somewhat blurry. When I opened my eyes, my vision was filled with the sight of a dingy wall that had enclosed many men before me. A sharp pain shot through my lower back, reminding me of the toll that sleeping on a hard steel bunk for 20-plus years takes on a body. The older I get, the more the pain seems to intensify. 

Unfortunately, this is what death by incarceration, or life without the possibility of parole, looks like.

Although I was hesitant to get out of my bunk that morning, I reminded myself of the Michigan Supreme Court ruling in the 2022 People v. Parks case. The court’s decision declared it unconstitutional to automatically sentence a person 18 years old to life without the possibility of parole. 

I was 18 at the time of my crime. After 23 years, five months and 20 days, the ruling gave me hope of regaining my physical freedom. It’s not for certain, but at times the feeling that it could be gave me the energy to push through the most difficult days.

Moved by thoughts of freedom, I performed my daily 10-minute meditation and then climbed out of my bunk. When my feet touched the ground, I looked around the 12-by-18-foot cube I shared with seven other men. To my left there were two steel bunks and two 6-foot wall lockers. To my right, four steel bunks and four 6-foot wall lockers. In front of me I saw the eight steel wall lockers and eight bunks. The only sound I could hear was a man in the cube across from me snoring. 

It’s disheartening, the sight of so many men packed on top of each other in such a small space.

As I made my way to the bathroom to take care of my hygiene, I thought about my ancestors who were shackled and packed into slave ships. The dehumanizing nature of incarceration is comparable to that of slavery. A lot of days, I draw strength from my ancestors who were forced to endure the worst atrocities known to humankind. 

People often push back on my saying that today’s mass incarceration is modern-day slavery. But many of those people haven’t walked a day in the shoes of those of us who are being held captive on these modern-day plantations. Especially those of us living death by incarceration.

I completed my hygiene, made my way back to my cube and climbed back on my bunk. I grabbed my headphones and tablet so I could listen to music while reflecting on my journey and waiting for the unit to open at 6 a.m. Music is therapeutic for me. That morning I chose “Survivor’s Guilt” by California rap artist Mozzy. 

The architects of this cruel and unforgiving system would like for the public to believe that incarcerating people for 20, 30, 40, even 50-plus years makes them safe. With nearly 2 million people incarcerated, this should be the safest nation in the world. 

After a couple hours of reflection, I went to the JPay kiosk to see if I had mail. There was a message from my friend Sudana. I opened the message and began to read. He informed me that a dear friend had died.

My body went numb from the pain of losing another friend to death by incarceration. Grandman, as we called him, was one of the elders who was beloved and respected by many. We developed a bond while I was housed at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Michigan, a few years ago. He took a liking to me because of my thirst for knowledge and my revolutionary spirit. I took a liking to him because he didn’t hesitate to share his knowledge, wisdom and understanding with me. He became one of my mentors.

Grandman had been incarcerated for over 40 years. He was a good man. In recent years, he had become a shell of himself. He had been battling cancer for some time, and it was evident in his appearance that he was losing. He was a man who deserved a second chance. 

I was frozen at the JPay kiosk for the entire 15 minutes I was allotted. When it automatically logged me off, I headed back to my bunk. All I could think about was one of my last conversations with Grandman. He told me, “I’m cool with dying, but I don’t want to die on these plantations.” 

As much as we don’t want to die while incarcerated, the sad reality is that most of us who are serving death by incarceration or long indeterminate sentences will die in custody.

I tucked my face in my pillow to hide the pain of this thought. Normally, I wouldn’t allow myself to be this vulnerable in an environment that’s predicated on false ideas of what masculinity is and isn’t. However, I couldn’t help but think about all the brothers I’ve lost to death by incarceration. Grandman was the seventh person in the last three years.

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.

Quentin Jones is a writer incarcerated in Michigan.