I have been to Kamiti Maximum Prison. Six times. Five times I have been there to visit friends who are guests of the state. The sixth time was to write a story.
I have taught myself to be observant. In my line of work, observation is a priceless skill. When I do interviews, I go behind what’s being said. I pick apart every word. I read facial expressions and intonations. I function like an operative trying to decode everything that surrounds a subject.
That’s what I did when I visited Kamiti. From the main gate to the large doors that keeps prisoners locked in, I saw things that can free a prisoner without shedding blood or digging a tunnel like El Chapo.
There is one crucial body part a man needs to work on if he wants to escape from the prison he is in. This is because this part has to slide through iron bars, barbed wires, crawl spaces and locked iron gates and perimeter walls. The said body part is a man’s head.
This breaking-free plan functions more like a cat’s strategy. If a cat can get its head through any space, however tight the space is, it will get the rest of its body out. Simple, yet complex.
An imprisoned man must try and get his head through walls and bars that are restricting his freedom. To do that, he must guard his head against harm, but at the same time, put it in harm’s way for a good cause. Author Piri Thomas, said, “The cruellest prison of all is the prison of the mind.”
In early 2000, I went to visit Yusuf*, a friend who was remanded at 44, as we popularly called Kamiti Maximum Prison. He was being held for handling stolen property. Talking to Yusuf through the wire mesh, I could tell this tough guy was broken. It was his first jail stint. The cold harsh realities of prison can either create a monk or a monster.
Here's what I learnt. Do not let prison – any prison, be it mental or physical – to get to you. If you make that blunder, you may be freed from your prison sentence, but, because incarceration has messed up your mind, you will live with a death sentence perpetually dangling above your head.
When Yusuf was released, he did not have Ja Rule’s mentality, who, faced with the same situation, had this to say: “I wanted to go into prison and come out a better person – mentally, physically. So, I read a lot of books, got my GED while I was in there, and worked out every day. Strong body, strong mind.”
Yusuf allowed prison to do a cruel number on his mind.
“They incarcerated me for a minor offence,” Yusuf swore. “It’s payback time. They must pay for my time and freedom.”
In Yusuf’s mind, this was “reverse justice”. He had served time, for, allegedly, an offence he had not committed. Now he was going to make it even. And he was going to do that by graduating to armed robbery.
“How can you be free and not have money?” Yusuf once challenged me.
“You mean to tell me being in 44 is better than being free?” I asked.
But I realised he was too far gone into that grave that claims ex-cons. Prison already had his head. He would either return to 44 or go six feet under.
Not long after, Yusuf died in a shootout with police. He did not use the cat strategy. His whole body was out of 44. But his head was not. What’s worse, unlike a cat, we only have one life.