by Robert Saleem Holbrook
Editor’s Note: The following piece is a combination of two pieces that were written during Saleem’s incarceration. One was first published with the title “From Public Enemy To Enemy of The State” on 4StruggleMag.com on March 2, 2010; the other was written as a Statement for Decarcerate PA Action Day, April 5, 2013. He has included a post-script at the end of this piece with further developments and more information about his work.
Children are the most vulnerable segment of any society because their lives and rights are entrusted to the society they belong to. Children are also the most preyed-upon segment of the so-called criminal justice system by both those claiming to uphold the law and by those who break the law, especially in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, there are more prisoners serving Life Without Parole sentences for crimes they committed or participated in as child offenders than in any other state in the United States. According to Human Rights Watch and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections statistics, the number has well exceeded 400. In the United States, there are over 2,000 prisoners serving Life Without Parole sentences for crimes they committed or participated in as child offenders while in all the other countries of the world there are ZERO. Consider the absurdity of that for a moment. A child offender in Pennsylvania who makes a terrible decision that tragically results in a homicide would receive a more balanced sense of justice and leniency in an authoritarian regime; such regimes are habitually cited for human rights abuses by the United States, and yet they extend more compassion to child offenders than the world’s self-proclaimed defender of human rights and democracy.
Sentencing a child offender to Life Without Parole is a violation of a child’s human rights. No matter what language the state employs, often the language of vengeance, a child does not cease being a child because of a terrible decision she or he makes that runs afoul of the law. We also must ask ourselves what type of society needs protection from its own children to the extent that they must be locked away for life? The fact that Pennsylvania, and the United States as a whole, sentences more of its children to Life Without Parole than the rest of the world combined speaks volumes about the nature of our society, because in the end children are reflections of their societies.
There are many who question why child offenders sentenced to Life Without Parole should ever be considered for release. For a moment, try and put yourself in an offender’s shoes. Just imagine what it is like to be a 35-year-old man or woman condemned to die in prison for a terrible decision you made as a child. Imagine being denied the opportunity to demonstrate that the person you are at 35 is not the child you were at 16. A life under a cloud of hopelessness perpetually drifts over the head of a prisoner serving Life Without Parole for a crime they committed or participated in as a child. They are forever condemned to their past despite the accomplishments and maturity they have developed as an adult. Only a justice system predicated on vengeance could justify such a sentence that holds children to the same accountability standards as adults.
It is always healthier for a society to incline towards justice and away from vengeance. The state of Pennsylvania and the United States in general must dispense with and abolish this draconian sentence that rests in vengeance as opposed to justice. Undertaking this measure would provide child offenders sentenced to Life Without Parole the ability to demonstrate that despite the mistakes of our pasts we will not be defined by the past and are human beings worthy of redemption who can contribute to society and help mentor and work with at-risk children, to help prevent them from making the same mistakes we made. Otherwise, to continue this practice of sentencing children to die in prison not only constitutes a travesty of justice but also encapsulates the inhumanity of a system that sacrifices its children on the altar of vengeance.
Now envision me as a child, growing up in Philadelphia, my brain and my body still immature and growing: I used to often walk past the old Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue in North Philadelphia and stare in awe at its high walls and ramparts seemingly towering into the sky, believing naively that the old prison was an ancient castle from the days of knights and kings. There were times other kids my age and I used to try and scale the walls to get a glimpse of what was inside; how ironic it is that now for the past 18 years I’ve been trying to figure out how to scale out of the numerous prisons I’ve been imprisoned in since the age of 16.
I’ve often sat in my cell in total isolation and solitude attempting to figure out what brought me to this point in my life, where at the age of 34 I’ve been imprisoned for 18 years with the rest of my life destined for the same thing -- I’m one of those 400+ children in Pennsylvania who was sentenced to Life Without Parole. During 3 years of confinement in the state’s control unit (Special Management Unit) at SCI-Greene I had the unique opportunity to actually backtrack practically every poor decision I made in my life that eventually culminated in my imprisonment. When you are locked down for 23 hours a day 7 days a week, you have the ability to engage in such personal adventures in discovery.
The pivotal decision that culminated in my imprisonment occurred when I was 14 years old, hanging out with some friends on the corner, admiring a car an older guy from the neighborhood had.
He sold drugs and seemed to have it all, and that’s what I wanted: the girls, the clothes, the respect, etc. It wasn’t until years later while in my early 20s that I came to understand the distinction between my wants and my needs, but at that moment I suffered from “reckless youth” and could only see the benefits that selling drugs provided. That admiration led me to compliment his car and we struck up a conversation that culminated in me agreeing to sell drugs for him. It was that decision, combined with a series of other poor decisions and circumstances that resulted in a LWOP (Life Without Parole) sentence 2 years later for being an alleged lookout to a drug-related murder.
There was a time in this country when it was said that “youth were generally allowed mistakes.” However that is not the case anymore, unless we’re talking about President George W. Bush, who could blame his early cocaine addiction on “being young and a little irresponsible.”
Little did I know that that decision to become involved in gangs and the drug trade put me on a collision course not only with other gang members and law enforcement but also with the federal government’s war on drugs. Overnight I had unknowingly transformed from a “kid” to a “public enemy” in the eyes and perception of the public and government. For in order for the government to wage a war on drugs, it must define someone as the enemy. It must identify and create public enemies for the people to vilify and fear in order to justify its war and multi-billion dollar budgets to Congress. The enemies were identified. The government had declared war on a substantial segment of its citizenry, in particular youth of color, so-called gang bangers.
Since I was a “public enemy” it was easy for the state to impose a Life Without Parole sentence on me and on countless other juvenile offenders caught up in the street wars. Despite our age, we were the expendable casualties of the war on drugs. From my arrest, conviction, and sentencing, I was a statistic on the policy charts of briefings to the media, politicians, government committees, and others, in which law enforcement demonstrated its “imminent” victory against street gangs and drug lords. Like the “body count” tallies in Vietnam and now Iraq, my imprisonment was a slogan or prop for public consumption, demonstrating that the war is being won and the “bad” guys are losing.
Initially content with the government-imposed “public enemy” label, I unwittingly played into the stereotype while imprisoned, accepting and conforming to the dog-eat-dog environment of prison. I didn’t care about anything and sought to adopt, hone, and sharpen the criminal and predatory traits that dominate the prison system and contribute to the criminality of its inhabitants. I saw no need to change or evolve beyond my perception. This was part of the game, and on another level beyond my perception, part of the government’s script for young public enemies.
In the controlled environment of prison, the script is even more predictable. Act out, break the rules, be “disciplined” via the hole, be released, and replay script. Like the script on the streets, both sides pretty much accepted their roles in the script of prison. Those of us who were incarcerated were society’s “public enemies,” and in the eyes of the guards it was their patriotic duty to imprison, since they had been conditioned to believe they were/are manning the walls in the nation’s war on drugs. The institution of justice in this country, from the police to the courts to the Department of Corrections, is built on a war model and its target is youth of color, i.e “gangbangers.”
Somewhere in or around the 10th year of my imprisonment, at the age of 26, I decided to stop playing out the script. No one single event or incident brought about this decision; instead, it was a culmination of events, maturity, and experiences. For one, I started to question why the white kid received 5 to 10 years for the same role in a murder for which I received a Life Without Parole sentence. Why did the white man that murdered a childhood friend of mine in 1989 by penetrating his skull with a tire iron receive only 5 years probation? There were a million other “whys” that started to bombard my mind and subconscious that I could not escape by falling back into the script. I started to read to satisfy my questions. I had always read during my imprisonment, but now I started to take what I read seriously. I became angry as I became more aware of the injustice around me, and the feelings of anger and rage that at one time had been directed at opposing neighborhoods and prisoners were now directed at the injustices of the state that imprisoned me.
It became impossible for me to play the script once aware of the injustice of my imprisonment and of the criminal justice system in general. I also could not just sit still and rage and condemn the system. I had to challenge and confront it as best I could from within the confines of the prison. I decided to become involved in activism against imprisonment and against the government’s “war on drugs.” My politics and activism sprang forth from an oppositional perspective. The state and I were opponents and the script was tossed out the window. This decision gave me a firsthand experience of the response of the institution of government when its legitimacy is challenged and questioned by those it attempts to marginalize, define, or ignore. Once again, I embarked on a transformation based on a decision that set me on a collision course with a government campaign or policy. Overnight I went from “public enemy” to “Enemy of The State” in the eyes of the Department of Corrections.
The consequences of this shift in personal consciousness and institutional classification were substantial and were a lesson in the art of institutional self-preservation. Since tossing the script that prisoners are expected to conform to out the window, I have remained misconduct-free since 2001. In the 11 years preceding 2001 I had been kicked out of 7 different prisons, done 2 tours in the state’s Supermax Control Unit for incorrigible behavior, and incurred dozens of misconducts.
Normally the D.O.C would reward or encourage such a turn-around in behavior, but in the eyes of the D.O.C., the behavior I was engaging in was far more serious misconduct than if I was running wild in the system breaking every rule on the books. What was this serious misconduct I was engaging in? Networking with activists on the outside, challenging the injustice of the so-called criminal justice system, writing articles and pamphlets exposing the injustices of prison, and -- most serious in the eyes of the D.O.C -- articulating a perspective of prisoners and prisons that is in opposition to the false perception of prisoners and of the need for prisons that the D.O.C. is articulating to the public. I have seized control of my image from the D.O.C. and dared to define myself, fellow prisoners, and the D.O.C. itself. No longer can the D.O.C define me as a gangbanger, murderer, public enemy, etc. without a response.
The D.O.C’s reaction has been a lesson in the fact that you cannot challenge or protest government injustice, repression, etc. without suffering the foot of the state wherever you are. In the past couple years, my custody level has been upgraded to a “High Risk Prisoner” despite years of misconduct-free behavior. All my mail is monitored and read due to “radical beliefs” and involvement with “questionable” publications (i.e. publications critical of the government’s wars on drugs and terror). In 2002 I was placed in the hole for 14 months without charge because the prison thought that, because of my grievances / complaints challenging institutional racism, I expressed sympathy with the terrorists the United States is fighting.
How was a connection to the “war on terror” made with prison activism? In response to a question I posed to a D.O.C. Security Captain about the need to monitor my mail, I was candidly told “we live in a new world since 2001 and the government and the D.O.C. are concerned about this type of activity.” So, not content with being on the front lines of the “war on drugs,” the D.O.C. has found a way to muscle into the “war on terror hustle” by monitoring and containing prisoner activists and their supporters on the outside, just as the government has used the “War on Terror” to stifle anything outside of the “acceptable bounds of dissent” (e.g.,. writing or calling your congressman, writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, venting and getting over it,). The D.O.C. has manipulated the war on terror to suit its own ends of stifling internal dissent and criticism of its policies and practices.
Despite the repression and personal difficulties imposed by the D.O.C., in the end the transition from “public enemy” to “enemy of the state” has been worth it and I have no regrets other than that I wish I had made the connection between the drug trade, the government’s failed war on drugs, and these two commonly-accepted categories prior to coming to prison as a juvenile offender. Life is about transitions and transcending one’s limitations. Sooner or later, for better or worse, we all make or miss the transition that will define who we are and, most importantly, who we choose to be. No longer will the state define me. I will dare to define myself.
A lot has happened since I wrote “From Public Enemy to Enemy of the State” a little over ten years ago. The biggest thing is that I am now free. On February 20th, 2018 I was released from SCI-Greene in Western Pennsylvania after serving 27 years of a Life Without Parole sentence. My freedom came about as a result of two monumental United States Supreme Court decisions, Miller vs. Alabama in 2012 and Montgomery vs. Louisiana in 2016. The first case, Miller, ruled that child offenders cannot be sentenced to a mandatory Life Without Parole sentence, and the second case affirmed that the decision is retroactive and applies to all child offenders sentenced before 2012.
There is not enough space in this publication for me to write how great it is to be free or how freedom has impacted my life. Freedom is relative; what I mean is that what the average person takes advantage of in their day-to-day travels or lives has a completely different feeling for me. For me, to wake up in the middle of the night and take a walk under the stars to the nearest Wawa to grab a late-night snack is one of the greatest sensations. It is just that ability to walk under the sky unencumbered by barbed wire and gun towers that makes it so great.
Being free also has allowed me to transition to another phase of my life: being an Agent of Change. Since I was released, my work has revolved around ending Death By Incarceration Sentences, and around Restorative Justice, Criminal Justice Reform, and empowering communities disenfranchised by a racist and oppressive state. Having done this work on the inside, it was only natural that I would entrench myself in the work on the outside. For me, I have learned the hard way that when it comes to Life, Family and Politics there is no neutral ground, you either have to pick a side or get the f#@k out the way!!! I am choosing the side of justice, with no reservations.
This article originally appeared in Volume 7 Issue 2 of Life Matters Journal.