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Transformation: More Than a Convict

Concrete Garden Issue No 4

“I always tell people about this night where it was me, you and your mom in the car. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and she was the first person that made me think about stop doing everything. [My uncles] did the ‘tough’ [talk] like you gotta stop doing this but they never sat down and listened to me. Your mom, and I know she was sincere, I was at that point in my life where I didn’t have no hope, I had no plan, I had no goals, but it was at that moment she was like Kee, you gotta stop this, you’re going to kill somebody or you’re going to die, but as much as I wanted to listen to her, I didn’t have any other avenue…”

-Keeshond Cole Sr., Rose Intro (Listen to the song here: )

Jay Z and Beanie Segal has a song called “This Can’t Be Life,” in it he raps, “it’s like ‘93, ‘94...Everybody doin ‘em/I’m still scratchin on the block like damn; I’ma be a failure/Surrounded by thugs, drugs, and drug paraphernalia.” That was my life in ‘94. I was 19 with five kids, a three-time felon, no job, selling drugs and a high school dropout. There was nothing glamorous about it. Truth be told, I hated selling drugs. The day I gave my mother the same poison that was killing me in ways I couldn’t see, I was changed forever. It is said there’s more than one way that cocaine numbs the brain, and I was not thinking clearly. After that, I hated myself and everyone that created and continued to distribute crack.

Mom, if you are reading this, I am deeply sorry for contributing to your illness. I’ve always wished I said no and have been drowning in guilt since that day. It brings me joy to know you survived and with all that you survived, such as overcoming your crack addiction, you are a woman with a heart of gold, and I’m humbled to call you, my mother. I know this cannot make up for the distance, but I hope these words hug you and comfort you as I continue to learn from my mistakes and look at our survival from a different lens. Looking back, I realized those were some dark times and all that existed to me was the intersecting blocks of Green and Pershing Ave; I didn’t know what surviving or thriving looked like outside of those blocks. Our family presence was heavy on that block, most of us lived there. That was my world and the only world I knew existed.

A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation with my counselor about transformation and the possibility of it. As we all know, transformation is an act or a process. During our conversation, my counselor asked me, “how do you do it”? He wanted to know how I stay so positive in an environment that is built on depression, repression and hopelessness. Usually whenever I’m asked this I always give an honest answer, but I always add a little machismo because prison is a macho place. Everything in prison is a power play from the administration down to the convicts, who can out-survive who, both physically and mentally.

I responded, “How do I do it? Love”. Love is how I do it. If I have time, I’ll explain more later about what I mean by love. But for now, I want to explain how I’ve arrived at this place of transformation. First, my own history demanded that I become more than a convict CT-4720 because what I’m incarcerated for doesn’t define who I am as a man. When I received my life sentence 27 years ago, I was told I have no redeemable qualities. They said there is no good in me and that I could not change. Again, I was 19 years old, and the system was telling me that there is no hope for me. How could they come to that conclusion? Easy, just go back to the 1994 Crime Bill and how they gave young Black & brown males the label, Super Predators. We were made examples; I was convicted in 1994.

My transformation hasn’t always been an easy journey. Six years ago, I lost my son DeVonte. He was a basketball player, a father, my son; he was 23 years old. Even today it’s hard for me to say my son’s name. When I lost him, I immediately thought about the man’s life I took, his family and how I took him from them. I also think about his mother and how she found the strength to forgive me at a time her emotions were still raw. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” I credit her for teaching me the true meaning of forgiveness. There are many things I still have to forgive myself for. I’ve always carried shame and guilt for the ways my actions affected the lives of others; taking someone’s life and enabling my mother’s addiction by giving in and giving her crack when she asked. I was 19 when I received this life sentence, today, I’m 46; add it up. So far, I’ve spent 27 years incarcerated. I spend my time today trying to build up my community here by encouraging and empowering the youth. As an elder, it is my duty to not just hold the youth and my peers accountable, but myself as well; I would never ask for something that I don’t demand of myself. I have a saying whenever I see someone doing something stupid in here, “is this how you’re going to do your time?”

Transformation is an act, an action. Real men aren’t afraid to lead or ask for help. I like to call myself a success story because I’m changing lives in a good way even from where I am.

Editor Note: Keeshond applied for commutation in 2019. According to the PA Board of Pardons website, a commutation is for the reduction of a prison or parole sentence currently being served by an applicant. Those serving life sentences must apply for commutation of their life sentence as their only means of release since there is no such thing as parole for lifers in Pennsylvania. In 2021, his application passed the beginning stages of the commutation process; it looked hopeful. He eventually was denied commutation by a unanimous vote from the Board of Pardons in April. Keeshond mentors new lifers to aid them in coping with their sentences, facilitates and attends self-development activities and has received many character letters of support from business owners, community leaders and family. Administration told him they have never seen any lifer as supported as him, yet he was denied a second chance. How many more Keeshonds are there out there? Failed by the system, product of the system, trapped in the system. We live in a society that throws Black people away for reacting to or surviving in the environments we were not meant to thrive in. The prison industrial complex is their answer; ours, awareness and our collective voice.

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