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A man flies over a staircase made of books
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi

For 30 long, harrowing years, I languished on Pennsylvania’s death row. The darkness and quietude were immense. And yet frequently, I was jolted awake at night by the horrific, ear-piercing screams of fellow death row prisoners descending into madness. I knew guys who were broken. I knew guys who hanged themselves.

For many trapped in the vast emptiness and gloom of prison life, it felt as though there was nowhere to go, no place to be, nothing at all to do but wait and die.

But I was determined not to be among the cats who cracked under pressure. To me, the confinement presented itself as a challenge, a precious gift and a golden key that could unlock passageways to self-examination and reflection. I longed to reinvent myself as a writer — and so on death row I read, ceaselessly. Books were a winged chariot of escape from the drab monotony and the sedentary boredom of total isolation. Books taught me to fly. 

One of the most awe-inspiring books that sustained me during those decades was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” written with Alex Haley. While at Charlestown State Prison, Malcolm requested to be transferred to Norfolk State Prison Colony, in Massachusetts, a progressive, college-like facility that focused on the less restrictive and punitive and more rehabilitative and restorative aspects of imprisonment. It was a daring new experiment unheard of at the time.

Prisoners at Norfolk were allowed to operate a radio station. They published a newspaper. Talented incarcerated musicians formed a jazz orchestra. In his petition for a transfer to Norfolk, young Malcolm wrote that he’d like to utilize “the educational facilities that aren’t in these other institutions.” He assured the warden that, if his request was granted, “there are many things that I would like to learn that would be of use to me when I regain my freedom.”

Keeping to his promise, he spent endless hours reading every book in the extensive library at Norfolk. He joined the renowned Norfolk Debate Society, where he commingled with professors and students from Boston University, Emerson University and Harvard University.

I was around the same age Malcolm was then — mid-20s — when I was sentenced to die in the electric chair. Sitting on death row, I was deeply struck by young Malcolm’s polymathic pursuit and his wise use of the educational tools available to him.

I used this inspiration to fuel my own work. During my time on death row, I earned a first prize for poetry from PEN America’s Prison Writing Awards. I was churning out articles and essays and plays for publications across the United States. Editors from the Philadelphia Daily News invited me to pen guest columns and encouraged me to write without restrictions or fear of censorship. I seized the opportunity to write critically of the prison administration’s mistreatment of prisoners on death row and the blatant injustices of capital punishment.

At one point in my sentence, I came within 48 hours of never being able to write again. Twenty-four hours earlier, a guard had visited my death-watch cell to take the measurements for the suit I was to be buried in — and to find out where I wanted my body shipped after I died. I almost didn’t make it.

In 2005, I requested a transfer to the capital case unit that housed death row inmates at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, near Philadelphia, my hometown. Graterford was a progressive prison with an extensive higher education program. Then, in 2012, my death sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole, and I was placed into general population.

In general population, after years practically alone on death row, I felt like an alien dropped from the moon. Each cellblock spanned the length of over two football fields. I went from being confined in a small, cloistered cell to being housed with over 500 prisoners on a single block.

All day long my nostrils were assaulted by putrid body odors, as well as thick, gray-blanched clouds of marijuana and tobacco smoke swirling skyward. I watched brain-addled zombies stumble about the cellblock, perpetually lost in a crack-haze. There were frequent fights and stabbings that prompted drug sweeps and lockdowns.

But I couldn’t get caught up in all of that. I knew I needed to extricate myself from the criminal ecology of the prison underworld and continue pursuing the life of the mind.

Fortunately, Graterford also nurtured a vibrant arts community. I enrolled in several innovative and mind-altering programs. I joined the Prison Literacy Project, which hosted a book club. I performed roles in several elaborate prison stage plays through a drama class taught by local theater directors. And, in the amply stocked library, I read voraciously, including the beautiful, evangelical prose of James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois and “The Poetry of Robert Frost.”

Old Graterford prison was shuttered in 2018. We were moved nearby to the massive, new state prison at SCI Phoenix, where I now reside. Most of the programs and inmate organizations that freely operated at SCI Graterford were dismantled.

But I was undeterred.

Today, as I write, dust motes fall delicately from the paint-cracked ceiling. Against the back wall of my cluttered cell are stacks of literary magazines. Two small, brown cardboard boxes are crammed with manuscripts, notes and reams of tattered legal folders. Those contain cases, statutes and thick volumes of my legal briefs attached to a litany of spirit-crushing court opinions denying my hapless pro se appeals, many of which are still winding through the interminable shuttle of state and federal courts.

My old, battered Swintec 2416 electronic typewriter sits atop my shiny metal desk. An embroidered Prussian blue-and-gold prayer rug hangs loosely like a curtain above my bunk. And a shelf fastened to the side of the wall bulges with books. There, among others, rest titles by Shakespeare and Baldwin, the letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, and work by Sidney Sheldon, Frantz Fanon, Barack Obama and Zora Neale Hurston.

At night, in my cramped cell, beneath the glow of my portable night-light and surrounded by books, guards often find me with my head bowed in contemplation as I prepare to take flight.

I don’t need much room to fly.

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

Reginald Lewis is a writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania.