Jefferson County Memorial Project
by Ronald McKeithen
When the realization of having to serve an agonizingly slow death sentence of life without the possibility of parole finally hit home, the pursuit of education became a mild sedative for hopelessness and despair, and the classroom a haven from the constant chaos of prison life. Over the decades I’ve taken more courses than I can recall, yet only a few were able to tap into potential within me that were laying dormant and awaken a sense of worth that I had never experienced and changed how I viewed myself as a Black man as opposed to how the world viewed me.
For five years I’ve been a part of a class that addressed specific public health issues within the Alabama prison system and the health illiteracy that has played a major part in the cause of most of these ailments. Each of us was assigned a health condition, researched it and created a dialogue surrounding a character which revealed the struggles he endures to manage it while serving time, then combined the dialogue into a podcast drama – a process that none of us had any experience in doing. We named it “Corrections”.
Because of the material we produced and the attention it generated, we were approached by Abigail Schneider, director of the Jefferson County Memorial Project, and asked if we would be interested in contributing our thoughts through essays, poetry and art on slavery, lynching and mass incarceration. Ninety five percent of the class are Black, serving a LWOP sentence and have served over a decade. We were eager to participate. But when our group discussions turned from health conditions in prison to the barbaric treatment Blacks have suffered, a mist of sadness and sorrow began to drift among us as we pulled scabs off wounds while sharing our encounters with racism and the justice system. None of us had actually seen a lynched man, other than the occasional suicide by hanging within a prison cell, but we have seen the picture of black men being lynched and roasted alive as white mobs gleefully watched, and have the description of how Black pregnant women were carved open for sport, tied to horses and pulled apart, whipped and raped.
But these weren’t images that we often contemplated on, a sinister past that would fuel the madness that we were constantly trying to contain within the madhouse we were presently in. Because we have witnessed the same mentality in prison guards, wardens and Montgomery legislators seen in plantation owners, overseers and slave catchers, we’ve felt the shackles painfully clutching our wrists and ankles, the beating, the de-humanizing comments that pierce and benumb our manhood over time, causing too many of us to contemplate death as better than this.
Each of us differed in our experiences. Some more harsh than others. Even our instructor, one of the most compassionate white women I’ve ever met, was often teary eyed. Unaware of the horrendous treatment that men she’d come to respect and admire had to endure because of the color of their skin. But the one thing we all agreed on is that the institution of slavery still exists. That the United States prisons are nothing more than modern day plantations where people of color are still being used as commodities to be bought, sold, evaluated and managed for profit, and that the courtroom has replaced the auction blocks. And that regardless of how expensive it becomes to house us, or how overcrowded the cages become, or how much pressure the Department of Justice places on them for the inhumane conditions they’ve created, Alabama lawmakers still refuse to let their slaves go.
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We are grieved by Jacob’s attempted murder and outraged that even after the global watershed of protest following the death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Jayne Thompson in close succession, we have found ourselves here, again, demanding justice for the excessive use of force by law enforcement against a Black life.