Spoon recently wrote the introduction for Fury Young's debut poetry book, "Meat & Milk." Young is the producer of "Die Jim Crow," a concept album about racism in the U.S. prison system, which Spoon is a contributing artist to. Read Spoon's introduction below and buy a copy of "Meat & Milk" here.
I met this cat, this poet Fury Young, through my poetry mentor Judith Tannenbaum. I'd met Judith decades ago in a basement classroom at San Quentin State Prison. Judith taught poetry and inspired a whole new world and dimension to my doing time. Until then I was a prisoner who was beginning my journey as a student in life. I read, pondered, and studied books on almost every subject. I had come from the heart of the high desert and had only known small town desert life. I could leave the confines of incarceration for hours, even days, exploring the worlds that books had opened up to me.
I could have continued my journey in silence, with the love of knowledge and growth. I thought poetry was beyond me. The philosophies I read of Emerson, Spinoza, Plato, and Aristotle would quote and refer to poets, but I had never really read or studied poetry until I found my niche in Judith's class as a bard. I thought poems must come from some hidden, magical place, a place heavy with knowledge and wisdom.
Some spirit, muse, or magic moved me to create my first poem one Christmas Eve. Somehow I let go of my pre-conceived notions of what should and should not be. Some force, some sweet realness, engulfed me. The next Monday, I caught Judith in the hallway of the education building and handed her my poem. I had been in Judith's class, shades on day and night, in silence, for over a year. When she read the poem, all she could say – with tear-filled eyes – was “outrageous.”
After I began to write, I gradually realized that all my letters back home had been poetry too, that all along I had been writing poems. My life was the melody that flowed like free verse.
Poetry must touch the heart and soul, and later the mind. It takes you to a universal place – a spot inside that is personal and true. It must move the waters of your soul and travel to the mountaintop of your heart. Just like waves in the sea, and clouds in the sky. If poetry does not agitate or make you cry, mad, or warm your insides on a frosty day, then it must go deeper.
Do enjoy the journey of “Meat and Milk” – it takes you deep down into the dumpsters, down staircases, dark alleys, lighted subways, and warm beaches. I close with this poem inspired by Fury's work.
you had to have death
in your eyes.
must not crack
but sound with fury.
You had to have death
in your walk
Even if you didn't
Swag that showed
what you were doing,
was like breathing.
I just saw an ad on TV by supporters of Proposition 62 (Repeal of the Death Penalty).*
Mike Farrell, president of Death Penalty Focus, claimed that a yes vote on Prop. 62 saves innocent lives on Death Row, by giving them all a Life Without the possibility Of Parole death sentence instead. What a myth and twist in thinking.
Would Mr Farrell be willing to debate any LWOP prisoners he has demonized? Or is he afraid of the truth?
Prop. 62 does not save any innocent lives on Death Row by re-condemning already condemned prisoners on Death Row to a LWOP death sentence.
A yes vote would garnish more tax payers funds with no returns. Mr Farrell stated in his bill that he will charge prisoners and their families and friends and take the pennies from prisoners slave wages.
Listen to the absurdity of this claim. He wants Prop. 62 to pass to save innocent lives on Death Row, when in fact innocent prisoners are better off on Death Row, where a poor person of color can get a real lawyer! Under Farrell’s bill, innocent LWOP’s will die in prison because they will get no legal representation.
Prop. 62 does nothing to save money, but gives more money to politicians, the prison industry, lobbyists and other companies that survive like maggots on the victims and their families, prisoners and their families and loved ones. A yes vote on Prop. 62 is a vote to continue on an endless LWOP path equally as hideous as Death Row.
In civilized countries around the world LWOP and the Death Penalty are considered barbaric, inhumane, cruel and unusual punishment. So why does Mike Farrell and the Death Penalty Focus push so hard to keep prisoners in limbo, and leave innocent, young, old, and first term offenders with LWOP sentences without any hope or road to freedom? At least on Death Row, death can free you from the fate of a LWOP sentence… I cannot grasp how anyone who cares about humanity can support LWOP or DP sentences.
Has Mike Farrell ever sat in a group with LWOP or DP prisoners to discuss the ramifications of LWOP sentences or discussed the human aspects of the penal system of justice and reform. Claiming that innocent lives will be spared by unbreakable, no hope LWOP sentences is myopic and absurd.
There is no humanity or reform in any of the statues of the Prop. 62 bill, no savings. In fact, in the long run it will cost more, because the racist implementing of LWOP sentences mainly target people of color and the poor and will keep prisons full of inmates without hope.
Getting rid of the Death Penalty for its twin; Life Without The Possibility Of Parole is not justice. There must be a path for redemption and second chances - for the young, for the old, for first term offenders, for the repented who messed up their lives and lost sight of what it is to be human, only to discover their humanity while incarcerated.
We are all human and nothing human is alien to any of us. Even those who have made huge mistakes, but have reformed. Some countries embrace change and humanity and see prisoners in their society as their brothers and sisters to one day be welcomed back to the society.
In Germany, Scandinavia, Jamaica and some countries in Africa, in their prison system, even for life sentences, there are paths to second chances, forgiveness and reform. American journalists have asked prison officials in Germany; why do you allow such reform programs in your prisons? The German officials said; these people in our penal system are our sisters and brothers and fellow citizens, and must be welcomed back to the society when reformed.
For your family and fellow citizens, vote no on Proposition 62, because it is the human and healing thing to do.
Nothing human is alien to anyone of us, someone said. As human beings, we all walk one foot in darkness, and one foot in light. Some people incarcerated strive for a balance of shadow and sun, and sublimate the thoughts or actions of darkness into transformation, awareness, and light—something positive.
When I came to the California Department of Corrections in the late 1970’s, there were actually good trades, self-help and educational programs. There was no point system, and transfers and programs you were involved in were based on your in-prison behavior. Your residence was determined by your choices. One was not as much punished over and over again, just because you were a prisoner. There were programs open to choices and change. Incarceration is inherently revenge and punishment—if you don’t believe it, spend some hours or a night in a prison or jail.
As punishment increased and became more politically attractive, most politicians abandoned the efforts, and the cause of restorative justice. They piled onto the penal system of punishment and inmate economics to win elections and line their pockets. They wanted a prison in every county when they should have been abolishing penal systems.
Politicians tightened the noose of taking away any working programs in prisons throughout the 80’s, 90’s and most of the 2000’s. They paused in 2006 and brought the word “rehabilitation” into the picture— California Department of Corrections and “rehabilitation.” But, they have barely started to live up to that word. Politicians feasted on the emotions and money of the public, victims on all sides, and treated prisoners like prunes. No programs of change for decades. In 2006, when the state brought the word “rehabilitation” back, I had an op/ed piece on self-rehabilitation published in the San Francisco Chronicle alongside a text by the current Honorable State Attorney General Kamala Harris. Both essays focused on rehabilitation.
When I came into California prison system, there were only 12 prisons. In 1980 the state brought in a point system based on some illusionary facts. A point system used to enhance the punishment of all prisoners and particularly LWOPs and other lifers. Although prisoners may not have broken any rules for years, their punishment were enhanced.
I was in Soledad prison at the time and they took me to classification committee and told me that based on their point system, I can go only to Folsom or San Quentin. Back then, both prisons were the last-stop prisons, before hell. I was under 21 years old, first time in prison and away from the heart of the high desert.
However, I wanted to create or make amends for the social contract I had broken in this land. I continuously strived to do and be the best, despite the lack of programs or incentives. Not because I owed the state or penal system anything, but because of love, truth, transformations inside myself that inspired me, and because it was the realness thing to do.
I took full advantage of any self-rehabilitative and educational programs available. It was a tragedy that led to my incarceration—tragic on all levels. I wanted to make amends, because my heart, soul and spirit were wounded by my actions, and had wounded others. Only forgiveness, growth, restoration and love could heal the tear I caused in the universe.
Tragedies sometimes opens and blows out one’s heart and soul to do and be better. It awakens you…why? I don’t know. I hope we all can continue to come together, instead of looking at prisoners as the enemies, but as brothers and sisters in society who have lost their way, humans who need to be restored and welcomed home. Restorative justice and prison reform and sentencing reforms need to happen. It has worked for the better in many countries, why not here? We all are human, and of the same species, as long as we come from Mother Earth or this planet. We are one collectively and we must embrace the endless pool of love inside all of us.
I support the efforts of Geri Silva, Fair Chance Project, Anti Recidivism Coalition and Barbara Brooks, Sentencing and Justice Reform Advocacy. It’s about restorative justice, forgiveness, love, peace and realness. We all are human, and as such we must share our journeys.
First published in The Advocate, Volume 8 issue 3, Sentencing and Justice Reform Advocacy
This is parts of a documentary made at the set up of a theater production at San Quentin State Prison in California. The play was open to the public and premiered 1988.
Director John Reilly
Produced by John Reilly and Global Village for the Beckett Project
Theater director Jan Jonson
"Godot in San Quentin" (1987) documents the production of "Waiting for Godot" by a cast of inmates from San Quentin Prison. Producer and director John Reilly and a crew spent four weeks at the maximum-security facility; rehearsal and performance sequences are intercut with footage of daily prison life and discussions with the principal characters.
Reilly has said that the inmates "do not `act' because they are not trained actors, but they feel the parts because they have lived the lives of Beckett's characters."
The Chicago Tribune http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1994-06-19/entertainment/9406190331_1_godot-samuel-beckett-marx-brothers
Read the story about the theater production from the point of view of one of the actors Spoon Jackson in: "By Heart, Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives" by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson
Get it here: http://www.newvillagepress.net/book/?GCOI=97660100959910
When I came to prison in 1978, ten days into 20 years old, a naive kid from the heart of the high desert, I wanted to pay for the wrong I had done. I was given Life Without the Possibility of Parole. I thought that could not mean forever and there must be a route to a second chance.
I started to grow up and know myself and evolve into a full human being with an understanding that all life mattered. I was on my self-rehabilitation journey. In 1990 the Deputy Commissioner of the Board of Prison Terms complimented me my writing accomplishments. He said I should write my way out of prison.
The present situation: Spoon and his attorney have appealed the Habeas Corpus petition to the Federal court, the fact that the State Courts refused to uphold the mandatory State law. At the time they did the State petitions they had no way of knowing the State courts were not going to uphold the mandatory law - because Spoon’s federal Due process rights hadn't been violated until that moment.
Spoon’s attorney says “this would be a horrific abuse of justice if Stanley (Spoon) isn't allowed his legal right to have his LWOP (Life Without Parole sentence) reassessed simply because of a ridiculous catch-22 situation in the state court system”.
I received your letter and Traverse petition in response to the Attorney General’s petition a few days ago.
I already had a sinking feeling that something had happened; that the Attorney General had come up with some trick to stall and forbid justice. A way to bar justice based on some technicality or rule. When I did not hear back from you in your timely manner I knew something had gone amiss.
The deadline of April 22 passed and my heart sunk. The Attorney General’s response and their ability to change colors and deny justice because a law favored the appellant was like looking at the sun and deny it is shining. The courts and the Attorney General get away with such injustice. This seems wrong and illegal.
Yet, I know they abolished slavery but continue to enslave for hundreds of years.
I am heartbroken. I hate that I must have forces like courts and Attorney Generals decide my physical fate.
I put hope on hold for a while and go deep and dive and be in the moment. Read, ponder and heal my injured spirit. I will rise again. If not in this life, then in another.
How was I supposed to know the State Courts, on all three levels, would deny me a hearing and due process before it happened? As a poet perhaps I should have known. Nevertheless, the injustice is happening again, now on a Federal level.
I know it must be common practice for the Attorney General’s office and the courts to lie, cheat and hide rules and tricks to get out of applying the law. The courts sadly, turn a blind eye because they are a part of the tricks and hidden agreements. They say ignorance of the law is no excuse. But, when the court system and justice system have secret rules and laws that only they have access to, they say, well you were ignorant.
Heartbroken, but blessed. Bless the courts, Attorney Generals, prosecutors, lawyers and politicians.
May you never know the pain of having hope stolen over and over again.
May you never know the pain of having your life defined by one bad act.
May all of your lives be blessed and fat on holidays and other special occasions.
May you never know the pain of having an ocean, lake or trees only one hundred yards away for nearly forty years and not be able to climb, smell, taste and dip.
Why not now, choose one good thing in life I have done and define me by that.
Then you might see love.
The case is still not closed.
I must speak loud quietly, so that the entire tier does not hear my conversation. I stand in the prison day room right next to the bone-crushing metal door, speaking on an old black-handed phone from the 1960s. This one is embedded in cement and steel.
I ask, “Judith, what makes a poem classic?” I am soaked in sweat from a non-desert sticky heat that bubbles up on the skin – and off the windowless foot-thick concrete walls – like moss. “No Beauty in Cell Bars” and “Beauty in Cell Bars” have been published and republished for over twenty years. Are my poems classics?
Silence fills the phone lines. Silence like watching the great Bill Irwin do one of his wordless skits on Broadway. Silence like the late Richard Pryor smiling after one of his jokes that shocked an audience at the Apollo Theatre.
Then I hear Judith's voice, one of the few voices that causes me to pause, ponder, listen, and sniff the air like a big cat. ”Spoon...” Judith's stuttering speech searches for the most lucid and wise words to impart her vision. I imagine the tickled look on her face. She's probably turning her head to the sky, eyes bright with drama, there in her apartment.
“I mean” I say “who decides what makes a piece of writing a classic? Is there a board or something?”
“Spoon...” Still giddy, Judith's voice flows up and down like a brook.
“Judith, I'm serious. You know I've been nowhere but Barstow and prison.”
More silence and then “Wow!” which caught me off guard. I was waiting for Judith's answer to my question about classics but instead she says, “Man, that would make a great country song title.”
“Nowhere but Barstow and prison.”
And there she goes again, sending me down another path that eventually only brings more questions. I put the phone down and stroll back to the cell, pondering how Judith seem able to inspire magic phrases that have me creating poems, essays, and songs.
My life had no meaning, no pulse, before prison. I was ignorant about all prison ways. I came from Barstow California, the heart of the high desert, the natural world – purple and red clay mountains, open spaces – and found nothing natural about cells. Even the air was tainted and twisted with unrealness, fleeting hope, and violent unrest. I was naïve and also unconnected to any inner spirit.
During my trial, my mom and dad came to visit me. I was twenty years old and sat across the table looking at my parents. The environment did not fit them any more than it suited cattle to live in trees. My dad said one of the longest sentences I'd ever heard him speak: “Boy, you better pray!”
My trial was quick for a death penalty trial and I was sentenced to life in prison. Trying to grasp a life without parole sentence at age twenty was like trying to hold a forest fire in my hands or an ocean in a tea cup.
Pre-prison, my life had never been one of words. I could barely read, add or subtract, and I spoke as my father did to me, in one word sentences. I sat stunned during my trial by all the words the DA, my lawyer, and the judge used. I had no idea what those words meant. I told myself then that I would never again let unknown words trap me and I started studying the dictionary.
Once at San Quentin, I checked out all the books I could get from the prison library and education department. In one notebook I wrote down definitions. I used my favorite words in sentences in another notebook. I became enraptured with words and reading. I said certain words aloud many times and pondered a word in the way I thought of the garden in front of the prison chapel, or a sparrow singing in the tree by the captain's porch. I learned a few words each day and each one brought a geyser erupting inside my mind and soul. The more words I read and studied, the clearer life became.
I became richer and deeper inside. I could see, taste, feel and touch the growth taking shape inside me and understood things I had never understood before. It was like I walked down an endless hallway full of dark rooms and each room I passed, a light came on and I learned something new. I had to choose to grow, which meant to get to know myself and find my niche, bliss, and myth in life. I had to till the endless gardens in my mind, heart and soul.
On a whim, I signed up for a poetry class. Judith was the teacher and her patience and belief in me, even before she knew me, inspired me. I sat for a year in her class in silence. Judith's trust in me, along with the power of art to heal, brought my silent desert life and world to paper like fresh rains in Death Valley.
Judith had known as a child that she would be a writer. I had no indication of my fate when I was a boy. As a kid, I failed all my classes. I did not believe I could learn anything. I had accepted that I would dwell and die in the heart of the high desert, on Crooks Street, surrounded by those purple and red clay mountains that appeared to be the whole world.
As a boy and a young man I mainly saw the destructive aspect of myself, but for eight years after I came to prison I read, studied, debunked, and peeled off layers of false history propaganda that had clogged my vision and dreams – those misguided histories I had been force-fed like a motherless lamb. For eight years I stayed to myself at San Quentin and avoided crowds. Although my heart, mind, and soul burned with thoughts, vibes and feelings, I let none surface and stepped over wounded, dying or dead bodies as everyone else did.
In the poetry class, I began to see the unconditional beauty and love in myself that mothers see in their sons. Judith inspired me to reach into the empty pockets inside myself to bring forth treasures of realness. She validated what I did not know I believed in: the magic of words to heal and free, like the sun validates a seed.
I began to see this magic shape my fate as my poems began to be published, as doors opened to other arts when I played Pozzo in the 1988 San Quentin production of Waiting for Godot, as I heard of miracles like Samuel Beckett reading my poems. Despite the fact that I'd been in prison for a decade at that point, this magic gave my life a purpose.
Now I've been behind bars for over three decades and I know all too well making a life of meaning can make being in prison harder or easier. Living with meaning is harder when I don't get to travel, meet people, sit out in nature, give poetry readings, promote the books or CD's I've been part of creating, or meet with other artists and publishers. A life of meaning is easier when I get to mentor young people, give back, and be of service to people. It is especially pleasing to be able to detour and inspire a youngster to stop and ponder a bad choice and not stroll down a dark path to prison. We always have choices and it's just that often we are not conscious of that fact. I think that being a bard allows me to touch young people in the way only poets can. I can relate to failing, being unloved, abused, lost, violent and biased on so many levels because I lived that life. I can assure youngsters that we are all eating from the same bowl of soup.
I know how sometimes, the older kids become, the more life can seem like a prison. Friendships that were once free, kind, fun and real become cruel, complicated, empty and heavy. All of a sudden reasons for not liking, and even hating, other people appear like new mountains. Color of skin issues arise. We find trouble outside and inside ourselves. It's like being chin deep in an endless pond, where you must keep your head up and not allow the water to seep into your nose and mouth.
But at some point in most of our journeys, we want to redeem or restore ourselves. Each of us must explore and restore our own inner heart and soul. Rehabilitation is always self-rehabilitation. My journey led me to Judith and her poetry class. I could have gone on serving this life sentence in silence, longing only for the deeper silence of a raindrop falling gently to earth, but Judith saved me from that fate. She helped introduce me to the voice inside me, wanting to come out. I learned how to poet and write mainly because Judith believed in me and trusted me, even in my silence. This is very important for teaching artists to understand: because Judith knew how to listen, the silent language of the soul gave my pen wings.
Yes, at first, I saw Judith as the good looking, splendidly weird woman coming into San Quentin. But after awhile, I saw the person, the poet, the teaching artist, the human, the brilliant light – a brave woman who came into our dungeon class room to teach poetry. A woman who became my mentor, my friend, and my big sis. I found out that I could share a relationship with a woman not based on sex, but on a deep, powerful, soulful, and enlightening friendship that can last lifetimes.
Despite the fact that Judith is a small, Jewish, white woman, and I am a sturdy black man over six feet tall and a decade younger than she is, some people may think: Oh Judith must be another one of those goody two-shoes liberal white women rescuing an ignorant black man from sinking further into the abyss of San Quentin. In fact, though, we both understood that human beings must rescue themselves. Still we can be there for each other and believe in each other, as Judith believed in me and I believed in her. Because we shared our two different lives and backgrounds – putting ourselves out there, heart first – we enriched each other and forged a friendship based on realness, respect, art, trust, uncommon and common ground, and love. My weakness may have been her strengths and my strengths her weaknesses. Like wolves that know they are howling at the moon in common, Judith and I have always known that we have humanity in common. This truth led me to my undiscovered self, to a heart of bonding with Judith, to finding that I am a writer and to the realness that can mend or heal all things wrong or wounded.
Ani DiFranco composed music to a poem by Spoon with the same name as this essay.
I imagine I’m the last person that should be speaking on politics in America. Because when I came of voting age I was already in prison.
I long to be part of other countries like Sweden, Norway, Canada or France. Yet I have loved ones and family in USA that believe in this country. If the Republicans are elected I hope folks will heed Ani Di Franco’s tour to paint the Congress blue.
When I came to prison in 1978, ten days into 20 years old, a naïve kid from the heart of the high deseret, I wanted to pay for the wrong I had done. I was given Life Without the Possibility of Parole. I thought that could not mean forever and there must be a route to a second chance. My paperwork said I would go to the Board after 12 years, so that would be 1990, beause my time actually started in 1977. In the meantime, I started to grow up and know myself and evolve into a full human being with an understanding that all life mattered. I was on my selfrehabilitation journey. The year 1990 came around and I went to the Board and the Deputy Commissioner of the Board said the proceedings will be run like a regular board hearing. He complimented me on my art work and in particular, my writing accomplishments. He said the reason he is not recommending me for parole, pardon or clemency was because I did not have enough time in yet. He also said I should write my way out of prison. He said I would be summoned back to the Board oin 1993. The Board never called me and supposedly repealed that LWOP Board law taking effect in 1994. By my not being summoned back to the Board as contracted and by law, is a continuing violation of the 6th, 8th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Ex Post Facto laws. My crime happened in September, 1977, commencing July 1, 1977. During 1981-1982, all life prisoners were entitled to annual hearings. Watson,866F.2d@1094;p.c.§3041.5(b)(2). It should be duly noted that on July 1, 1977, the state legislature enacted the California Determinate Sentence Law (“DSL”). Under this enactment, prisoners serving Life Without Possibility of Parole (LWOP) were statutorily entitled t o p a r o l e c o n s i d e r a t i o n . C h a t m a n , 7 5 4 F 2 d 1 5 3 1 33,p.c.§2100etseq.,2245-2292,2300. I am a LWOP, and likewise, I am entitled (866F.2d1093,9thcir.1989). I therefore have a state created vested liberty interest same ascertains. Stanworth@786-787;p.c.§3041(a). CDCR continues to ascertain that parole law was repealed in 1994. There was no legislative action to repeal that law. Furthermore, it should be noted that in accordance to clearly established state and federal laws appertaining to this matter, notwithstanding the 1993 repealer Title15ccr§2817et.seq.,register93,no.52 or the revisions to BPT [BPH] rule2817,operative date January 19, 1994, eliminating the requirement of the Board to schedule and conduct LWOP reviews, I still have “a vested state created liberty interest” which entitles me to parole considerations. In re Stanworth, 187 Cal.Rptr. 783, 786-787 (1982); per C§3041 (a); Weaver v Graham, 450 US 24 (1981). My crime was committed in 1977, therefore under California Determinate Sentencing law (DSL). Under this enactment, prisoners serving LWOP were statutorily entitled to parole consideration. Chatman v Marquez, 754 F. 2d 1531-33 (9th Cir. 1985). To reduce prison population, sensible parole for prisoners who have been incarcerated for decades should be considered. Continuing violation of a prisoner’s 6th, 8th, and 14th amendments, U.S. Constitution and Ex Post Facto is not justice, but is injustice.
The honorable California Governor Jerry Brown pardoned 91 people just before Christmas. We hoped he would include commuting my sentence to “Life with Parole”. Still I doubt that his office and his people ever allowed my commutation papers and all the support letters to reach the Governor’s hands.
My friend and amazing artist Ani Di Franco sent the most recent support letter to the Governor in my behalf, which was splendid. I doubt he received the letter.
The Governor’s office says LWOP’s must apply to the Board of Prison Terms/Hearings for commutation, but the Board says LWOP’s must apply directly to the Governor. They cancel eachother out, not taking responsibility to hear or read commutation pleas.
I sit here with my heart and my art still full of realness. I will continue the realness struggles.
Still waiting to hear from Federal Court on the California Penal Code 1385 (Habeas Corpus) petition. I have awaited a yes or no answer from the court if the California State Attorney General will be ordered to proceed and respond to my petition to strike the special circumstances [of my sentence] based partly on my in-custody behaviour. We have been waiting for that issue since August 2015. Apparently, the court feels that a prisoner isn’t going anywhere, so they just set the appeal aside and have no time line. I have two other issues now in the State courts and hope an attorney will take over those issues.