[Pnews] 43 Years and Still In - Herman Bell

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Mar 1 10:37:06 EST 2017




By Herman Bell

I’ve lived in this cell longer than I’ve lived on the streets. Its metal 
locker where I keep my food from the mice, the toilet and face bowl, the 
bed, the floor, the cell bars and metal clothes rack all have come to 
know some part of me. I want to talk about me today.

Through and beyond the iron-framed windows before me, I see blue sky and 
the free world where I yearn to rejoin my family and community, wherein 
with just a single click serrated metal handcuffs produce extreme pain, 
and rattling gate keys may at any moment echo chain-like rushing down 
prison corridors often resulting in broken bones, bruised bodies, and 
affronted dignity. Prison is a dangerous place. And in a courtroom, 
whose words bear more weight -- the prisoner’s or the prison 
guard’s? Here, you may live or you may die; a prisoner awakens, a prison 
guard leaves home for work, both may never do so again. At the edge of 
some distant tomorrow, I may walk free out the front gate. I am 69 years 
old and my youthful and optimistic heart and good intentions have not 
gone unchallenged.

I remember back-in-the-day when I was a small boy in my old neighborhood 
in Brooklyn. The neighborhood boys and I used to hang out at the local 
grocery store on Saturday morning helping mothers carry their groceries 
so that we could earn movie money. I recall helping one mother lug her 
bags up tall flights of stairs to her apartment, and when she got them 
all in she smiled, thanked me, and closed the door in my face. For her, 
that was perfectly fine – after all, my face is black.

Throughout the ensuing years, I have occasionally wondered about 
that. Racial abuse, stereotyping and bigotry are deeply rooted in u.s. 
society. Even as an adolescent, I’ve felt like a stranger in my own 
country, and I’ve not been given reason to feel much different 
today. I’ve often been made to feel invisible, uncomfortable, out of 
place. A black face, especially a male black face, automatically prompts 

While blacks and Native Americans in particular have long been excluded 
in u.s. society, they are inextricably linked to its origins and know 
too well its violence and bigotry. No amount of native blood could 
quench the white settler’s thirst for native land, and the Afrikan whose 
slave labor largely built north america fared no better. Wealth 
generated from this enforced labor profoundly transformed the u.s. and 
sowed the seeds of the modern world. Slave owners drove their slaves 
from dawn to dusk into the tobacco and cotton fields, the mines, the 
rice paddies, the woods, sawmills and brick kilns. This back-breaking 
labor, therefore, is what bind u.s. blacks to this land, and in a way, I 
believe, Native Americans can understand. Not forgetting what the 
Buffalo Soldiers were ordered to do to them out West.

Yet despite this, slavery’s legacy endures. It prevails not only in the 
U.S. Constitution as regards U.S. prisons, providing for “involuntary 
servitude,” where a disproportionate number of Afrikan-Americans now 
find themselves on “modern plantations,” but also in u.s. institutions 
and culture. The ravages of slavery transformed the Afrikan into a 
nameless, stateless being bereft of tongue and cultural memory, and of 
some means to cut through the agony of his desolation and despair. This 
bode ill for his descendants. I am one of them.

As a young man, my thinking changed when I discovered my people in 
history. Their significant contribution to the advance of human 
civilization amazed me. This and their historic struggle to reclaim 
their rightful place under the sun affected me profoundly. It changed 
the course of my life as well as that of many young people of my 
generation cognizant of this history. Accordingly, we became advocates 
in the long-denied and unrecognized black struggle for social justice in 
the u.s. The white power structure felt threatened by this advocacy, by 
its assertiveness and growing confidence. Rather than with reason and 
fair treatment as its response, it chose a stick disguised as law 
enforcement. Unfortunately, violence ensued and some of us went 
underground, some of us were subsequently murdered, imprisoned, or 
both. As time passed, a few among us were released and have gone 
home. But I and those left are still in after over 43 years.

Imprisonment exacts an incalculable toll on the body and mind and is the 
closest descent into Hell as one can imagine. The warders aim to impress 
that every part of your being belongs to them. If not now, then soon or 
soon enough, that time is on their side. Whether you do or don’t know 
how to hate, they will teach you. If God does not exist, in here, you 
may wish that he or somebody like him did exist to intercede and comfort 
you. For you will presently discover that you and you alone are all 
there is in here. Enduring prison is one thing, surviving it is another.

The alchemy of a prison sentence transforms a person into an “alien” or 
social outcast, which exempts him from the rights, privileges, and 
tender mercies that are commonly accorded to the non-sentenced 
person. He is inventory on a shelf, color-coded, numbered, thrown in a 
cell and counted several times a day. His mail is delivered with neither 
a smile nor eye contact. He’s a blank face to be treated with studied 

All sentenced prisoners have experienced this. Though our black faces 
abound inordinately in here, each prisoner is viewed up close as he 
steps inside the prison. And while the government seem never to run out 
of money for guns, bombs and planes, prisons seem never to run out of 
cells to put somebody in. Like shaking hands with the Devil, I found 
coming to terms with being in a cell to be quite the experience. It 
bears a distinct quality with which one has to reconcile. When you’re 
engaged in constructive activity in the cell, it seems less confining 
than it actually is. Yet its distinct mind-squeezing quality applies 
especially when you brood, do nothing, indulge in self-pity, and see the 
space as having no possibilities.

Visualize a cell wall with a poster of an old tree-lined street, a 
bustling flower garden, a towering bridge and cityscape lighting up the 
night -- those are portals through which I can be elsewhere whenever my 
mind falls upon them. And when they are packed away for a cell move, the 
cell reverts to its dead, steely, cavernous state, echoing what it 
hears, and maybe could use a little paint.

Emerging from the cell heading own the tier and stairway out into the 
corridor towards the mess hall, an interview room or an assigned program 
area, regardless what jail I happen to be in, it’s “just another day at 
Flat Rock.” This contrived routine often leaves me feeling like a mouse 
running a maze. Often enough, I’ve had to re mind myself that in this 
maze, I can become lost to family and friends and the outside world, 
that as I navigate this space of endless tomorrows, continuous close 
contact with them is imperative. Their presence in my life is what keeps 
me grounded, keeps my mind and hope alive.

I’ve been in a lot of prisons. The older ones where I’ve been held most 
– Clinton, Attica, Comstock – their worn-down stone steps stand out, and 
if they could speak, I’ve often wondered what would they say about the 
men who trod on them, about what they dreamed, their life’s ambition, 
what went wrong. One can but assume that their crimes were mostly 
economic ones. If poverty generates obesity in that people eat what they 
can afford, the same may be said of certain crimes, because the vast 
majority of people in prison are poor and marginally educated. Poverty, 
ignorance, and desperation are no strangers to crime. It’s not uncommon 
for people in dire circumstances to commit illegal acts that they might 
otherwise refrain from committing. When all else fails, people will 
desperately resort to doing whatever it takes, including crime, to 
support themselves and their families. For taking a crust of bread, the 
police will pursue a poor man to the ends of the earth and turn a blind 
eye to a rich man’s theft of millions. In the aftermath of the 2008 
financial ruin of countless u.s. citizens, none of the Wall Street 
bankers and traders rushed for the exit doors. Rich people, educated 
people, seldom go to prison or go to prison for very long. And as the 
“race card” plays out, whites in general who do land in here get better 
job assignments than do people who look like me.

The box (solitary confinement) is another nasty lil spot to avoid in 
here if you can. Rich people are seldom found in these places, because 
they are so good at escaping. I’ve been in the box more than a time or 
two, though less so lately. It’s a cheerless, unpleasant place, and it 
smells bad. It brims with the sins and crimes committed against helpless 
men that can never be atoned for. In this world I live in, you have to 
make the best of what’s before you. Laughter, for example, is “on the 
house,” and no laughter is quite like the laughter you encounter in 
prison, often because we have little else. Sometimes, when we’re feeling 
up to it and “on the down low,” we talk so bad about a guard’s momma, 
his fat kids, his big-nose wife with one eye, til if he knew, we’d never 
make it out the box alive.

One time I was in the box, they gave me a blanket that covered only half 
my body. The guards were amused. I was pissed! But after several days, 
they gave me a full one, just to keep me quiet. Each time in the box, 
its cold, gray, cheerless atmosphere packs me down inside myself, 
affording no relief except what I create for myself. So I would save my 
dry breakfast cereal and seek a trade with the guys. The haggling 
excited some – how many tiny boxes of cereal to trade for a piece of 
fruit, a chicken leg, or for something else? Others never saved and 
therefore had nothing to trade. From a sheet of writing paper, I would 
create a chessboard, write numbers on the squares, and fashion chess 
pieces with sliced bread. Push-ups and sit-ups, jogging in place, and 
taking naps were a fixed part of my daily routine.

During the night and early morning, I would sometimes lie awake, feeling 
the silence and its peace wash over me. Throughout the day, one can 
write but so long with a pen the length of my middle finger, read but so 
much “piss-poor” material that’s almost like not reading at all, do but 
so many exercises. And my naps had to be sparing, otherwise my nights 
would be restless. Our rations were meager, and our hunger the day long.

Indeed, a routine in the box is imperative – making a way out of no way 
– and is as basic and urgent as a desperate gasp for air around 
something lodged in your throat. Some days I feel my blood racing to the 
stout beat of my heart; my thoughts refuse to be still. I want to shut 
down, but there’s no off-switch. My years in the box were long, hurtful, 
mentally exhausting, and they may put me there again. What happens to 
men confined this way, for decades, often without feeling or seeing 
sunlight and devoid of meaningful human contact? When retribution 
becomes torment, prison conditions often teach men to hate. I ponder 
this in general population as I walk lock-step down prison corridors 
with other men.

As these years trickled by, photos of family and friends show that they 
have aged. My own face, hair, declining agility, show that I, too, have 
aged. A new world is out there now. It’s as though I’ve hibernated these 
past 40+ years. So much has changed; so much to learn anew. The guards 
and prisoners I see now were not even born when I started this 
sentence. I was brave and brash back then. I was bold and presumed to 
know more about life and people than I had a right to. My aging journey 
has taught me that youth and ignorance often pave a thorny path. It’s 
just as thorny as the one laid out for those who fight for social 
justice and what they believe is right.

Forty-three years in prison? Someone may wonder do I ask myself, “What 
am I doing here?” Or ask, “What’s this prolonged imprisonment all 
about?” Save the occasional visit and phone call, my children, and now 
my grandchildren, have spent only a bit of time with me. Holding 
everything together while I’m away, my wife has suffered throughout all 
this. Family pressure, prolonged separation, all too often break up 
families. Thus, new relationships may form, and the prisoner may find 
himself even further removed from his family than he was before. A harsh 
penalty on top of his sentence. He himself may sometimes wonder: “Does 
anyone care?” His children, his grandchildren might sometimes ask, as do 
mine, “Why you, Dad; why you, Grampa?” Or wonder to themselves, “Why 
couldn’t someone else take his place?” Questions born of love and 
earnest desire to have me home, not out of selfishness.

I serve an indefinite prison sentence and hope to survive it, but the 
parole board or you, my supporters, will decide my fate. Sensitive to 
both political pressure and “special interest groups,” the Board’s 
decisions are widely regarded as arbitrary and capricious. Because I’m a 
political prisoner, the Parole Board is far more predisposed to 
releasing an apolitical (or social) prisoner on parole than it is to 
releasing me. Otherwise, I would have been home years ago.

It maintains that its decisions are impartially made after an 
interview. Myself and others are persuaded that their decision is made 
prior to the parole interview. Before commencing the interview, Board 
commissioners rifle through their papers, which I think is mostly 
theater. But it’s the only time you get to size them up; and they in 
turn take a quick peek at you. Though now most interviews are done by 
teleconference, seldom in person. They talk to you and you to them on 
video-screen. A panel of three usually conduct the interview, though 
sometimes two does it. They are ex-prosecutors, state investigators, and 
retired police. They will interpret and even twist every explanation of 
insight and expression of remorse offered by a prisoner. They ignore 
favorable psychological evaluations, rob prisoners of hope, promote 
despair, discourage personal growth, and strip us of incentives. They 
are well practiced in manipulating human emotions. They open with 
pummeling questions about your offense, rake up your “criminal history,” 
pick and pause over reports on your prison activity. They then make you 
wait five to six days before sending you their decision, which almost 
always is a denial.

“If the envelope bearing your decision is thick,” guys used to say, 
“you’ve been denied, and if it’s thin, you’ve made it.” And there are 
those who say theirs were “thin” and they were still denied 
parole. Obviously, size doesn’t matter. You simply know when you 
know! As the guard callously opened the envelope from my last Board 
appearance, “the appeal form” fell out before I could read the 
decision. I had only waited 40 years for it. Still, I read it, looking 
for some sign of hope. Accordingly, guys are reluctant to open a parole 
board decision. Having complied with all the rules and satisfied all 
structural requirements, how would you feel having to tell your mother, 
wife, and children that you’ve failed them!? You smother your 
disappointment and wish that you could shield them from that feeling, too.

The thought of spending the rest of my days in prison is 
despairing. I’ve not begun to think that yet and hope I never 
shall. Nowadays, people my age say, “Due to terminal illness or 
incapacitation, write a will and tell how you wish your remains disposed 
of.” Talk like that makes me nervous. Before and during these 43 years 
in prison, I’ve lived according to my beliefs, fought for 
myself-respect, my community, and for social justice; along the way I’ve 
helped people where I could and have striven to make myself a better 
human being. I’ve kept faith with the belief that we humans are 
responsible for each other and for the welfare of all. So what to make 
of these long years in prison, I cannot say, I’m still here.

All Power To The People!


Herman Bell
Great Meadow Correctional Facility
11739 State Route 22, PO Box 51
Comstock, NY 12821-0051

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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