July 25, 2018 10:25:43 AM
I arrived a little early at the Columbus Rotary Club meeting at Lion Hills Center Tuesday and struck up a conversation with the guest speaker.
There we were, two gray-headed men, sharing our memories of a fraternity, the kind of fraternity nobody really wants to join.
Like me, George Malvaney is an ex-convict.
For a few minutes, we reflected on experiences common to all prisoners even though our prison stories were separated by 25 years and much different circumstances.
For George, the call of "cups up" alerting prisoners that coffee was being delivered through his cellblock stuck with him. For him, it was something of a metaphor for his experience, although he's still not quite sure why it would be so.
For me, it was something I heard soon after arriving in prison. I was napping in my cell when another prisoner walked by and yelled, "Hey, you! Wake up and do your time!"
I asked George if he ever heard that. He smiled knowingly.
When a man goes to prison, he develops all sorts of coping mechanism. For me -- and apparently for many others -- one of those tricks is to sleep as much as you can. After all, when you are asleep you aren't in any specific place aside from wherever your dreams may carry you.
The more you sleep, the less aware you are that you are in prison. In a way, it's like cheating the prison officials.
George and I have prison and its aftermath in common. I served six months, George served 18 months. I was in state prison for felony DUI. George, a former Klan member, did time in federal prison for a white supremacist conspiracy to overthrow a country. That's a far more interesting story and, in a odd way, I envy him for that. There's nothing especially compelling about getting thrown in jail for drinking and driving.
George has another advantage over me, too. What he has achieved since leaving prison makes me feel like a slacker.
George got out, got educated, got ambitious and got a job that would lead him to playing key role in cleaning up one of the greatest environmental disasters in US history.
I write newspaper stories.
But I'll admit, at some risk of sounding self-satisfied, that both of us made out pretty well and both of us realize that, for all of the obstacles we threw in our own paths, we both had common advantages that many of our fellow inmates didn't have.
George and I were both white children from two-parent middle class homes.
Unless you go to prison, you will likely never understand how important that is.
George said he got to know men in prison whose whole lives were spent the worst kind of poverty, exposed to chaos and violence almost from the start. For them, there was no alternative reality, no real knowledge of a life that could be safe, nurturing, hopeful.
In prison, the guards, counselors and staff I encountered were almost always white, so I never had to wonder if the white guard had it out for white prisoners. Likewise, I understood white guards. I knew how to talk to them, how to deal with them.
I saw a lot of brown guys get thrown in "the hole" mainly because communication between guard and prisoners broke down.
That advantage follows you out the prison doors, too.
When I got out of prison, I had the support of my family and friends, many of whom had the financial means to help.
The day I got out of prison, flat broke and jobless, a white businessman I got to know through my work as a journalist provided me with a job that paid $10 per hour and a mother-in-law apartment (first month free) that he rented to me for $300 per month (he had been charging $500). I could stay as long as I wanted, he said.
Also on the day I got out of prison, six other inmates rolled out with me with nothing more than $50 in gate money and no idea of where they would go, what they would do.
Studies show that black prisoners are 43.6 percent more likely to return to prison than white prisoners. Unless you are white supremacist and believe that those statistics indicate a profound difference in character between the races, there is something far larger at play here. I'll point out that during my prison stay, the majority of the illegal activity -- drugs, violence, shake-downs -- were instigated by the white prison population. So much for the superior character of white folks.
When you go to prison -- and especially when you get out -- you learn pretty quick that white privilege is a real thing.
We love to hear stories like George Malvney's. They are an example of how a person can turn his life around if he is willing to change his way of thinking, work hard and do the right thing.
But sometimes I think people like me and George are the lucky ones.
We had somebody on the outside who gave a damn and was in a position to do something about it.
Unless you've been to prison, you'll never understand how important that is.
But don't take my word for it.
Ask George Malvaney, the ex-Klansman.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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