“The Jailhouse Lawyer,” by James Patterson and Nancy Allen

As I was working on my collection of short stories, “One Day in the Life of a Jailhouse Lawyer,” I got a notification that James Patterson, along with Nancy Allen, had released a novel, The Jailhouse Lawyer.  Patterson is a master storyteller, and has created a cottage industry of best sellers, on his own and collaborating with various authors, even former president Bill Clinton.

The title of the “new” Patterson novel, published in 2021, piqued by interest.  Would the novel truly be about a jailhouse lawyer?  I have met amazing jailhouse lawyers who could hold their own in any court against prosecutors with the vast resources of the State behind them.  In fact, I know a jailhouse lawyer, now a practicing attorney, who scored high on the LSAT while he was still in prison.  There are two other formerly incarcerated individuals I know who went on to law school, passed the Bar, and are practicing attorneys.

I have read almost everything by Patterson, and I believe that a good writer can write on almost any subject, despite the fact that when people take up pens to write, they are almost always instructed to, “write about what you know.” I wondered if Patterson was in a lane he should not have been.

Most of us have heard that saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover, which basically means, “Don’t judge a book by its title.”  So, I kept an open mind, as any good juror or reviewer should, and suspended judgment until I finished The Jailhouse Lawyer.

The main character, Martha Foster, does not become a member of the jailhouse lawyer profession in any way resembling the typical path: arrested, tried, convicted and given a lengthy sentence, and later learning about all the legal niceties, including the U.S. Constitution, that was not followed in one’s case, and setting out on a quest for justice, studying the law like one’s life depended on it, and in many ways one’s life itself is at stake.  Foster, like a good jailhouse lawyer, takes on a  criminal legal system in Erva, Alabama, that’s corrupt to the core, and is similar to most court systems in the United States, where the main characters are zealous career prosecutors, indifferent if not incompetent defense counsel in cahoots with the prosecution and the court, and judges that fancy themselves “king makers” and boast about their conviction rate, a sure sign that justice is not being administered in that judge’s court.

Foster, not indifferent nor incompetent, becomes the public defender in Erva, Alabama, and she quickly realizes that if she does not get with Judge Pickens’ program, who says from the bench, “We have our own system in Douglas County,” then she’s going to have a hard time in Douglas County Court with Judge Pickens presiding.  And you can bet, if a jailhouse lawyer is involved, then the system more than likely failed people at every stage of the process.

In law school, Foster earned the nickname, “Jailhouse Lawyer.”  She “was arrested at a civil rights protest in Selma for getting mouthy with a cop, and was held overnight in the local jail.” No charges were filed against Foster, but she spent that night in jail listening to stories of injustice and dispensing legal advice.

Later in the story, because Foster does not get with the program of Judge Pickens, she is held in contempt of court and sent to the local lockup.  There, the jailer, Jesse Robertson, as complicit as the court, raises his voice in the common area for all the incarcerated women to hear, as he introduces Foster, “You bunch of skanks got y’all a genuine jailhouse lawyer in here.”  Of course, Foster helps a woman or two.

During her short stint in the county jail, Foster experiences the psychological and physical torment of incarceration, what criminologists euphemistically call “the pains of imprisonment,” which only strengthens her resolve not to get with the program of Judge Pickens, and to bring him down.

Far too many members of the Bar, prosecutors and defense counsel, simply get with the program, prosecutors seeking convictions at any costs, including knowingly using false testimony, over that sacrosanct role of seeking justice; and defense counsel are almost as overwhelmed by the criminal legal system as are the people charged with crimes; and judges, for the most part, turn a blind eye to injustice, or knowingly and willingly allow injustice to prevail in their court.

Foster, practically through a trial of ordeal, experiences firsthand what happens when injustice goes unchecked.  She is better positioned than most jailhouse lawyers to do something about this corrupt court.

The jailhouse lawyers I know who became practicing attorneys can speak to the book’s ending: “Sometimes the best education a lawyer can have is a…stretch of hard time.”  Now imagine a criminal legal system where prosecutors, defense counsel, and even judges are held accountable for not seeing evenhanded justice done.  Now imagine them behind bars.

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A Time to Live

Today our baby brother, Whitney, NOT Houston, turns 55 in Paradise.  Although Whitney is no longer with us on this physical plane, he lives on in our hearts and minds.

If you know my brother, then you know he’s a comedian.  Every couple of days, I smile or chuckle or laugh out loud thinking about something by brother said.  Right now he’s visiting  Coolio in Gangsta’s Paradise, and they’re having a good laugh.

I try not to think of shuffling off my mortal coil, but when you reach a certain age you know sooner rather than later you’re going to meet your Maker.  I almost always imagined that my baby brother would speak at my Homecoming, and I imagined him saying something funny and people laughing, because we should live our lives like Comedy, knowing that there will be tragic moments, but that, in the final analysis, life is for living, and laughing.

As it was, on behalf of our family, I spoke at our brother’s Homecoming, concluding with a lyric from the signature song of my junior high school chorus, from Diana Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning”:

Wasn’t it me who said that

Nothing good’s gonna last forever?

And wasn’t it me who said

Let’s just be glad for the time together?

We are glad for the time we shared together with our baby brother.

When it’s my time to join my brother, if you attend my Homecoming service, then please share a time I made you smile, chuckle or laugh out loud.

Amen!

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Emmett Till — On this day in history, August 28, 195…

…Emmett till was kidnapped and murdered.

In my latest collection of poetry, “The Black Blood of Poetry,” which I am shopping around, the title poem begins with the murder of Emmett Till. For those not familiar with poetic forms, “The Black Blood of Poetry” utilizes the Pantoum, a Malay form, which lends itself to eulogies:

His beaten and bloated corpse for the world to see.

Look what white folk did to this little Black Boy!

“No way I could describe what was in that box!”

Mamie Till Bradley said of what had been her son.

Look what white folk did to that little Black Boy,

This “’Chicago boy,’ stirring up trouble” in Ole Miss.

Mamie Till Bradley said of what had been her son,

Beaten beyond recognition, pistol-whipped with a gun.

This “’Chicago boy,’ stirring up trouble” in Ole Miss,

White Citizens’ Council of America members declare.

Beaten beyond recognition, pistol-whipped with a gun –

Lynched as an example for which white folks do stand.

White Citizens’ Council of America members declare,

Violence as a tool to keep Black folk in their place –

Lynching as an example for which white folks do stand.

His beaten and bloated corpse for the world to see.

In the Blood Cotton Fields of Ole Miss,

Perhaps a clue to Till’s kidnapping unearthed.
The Association’s Field Secretary, disguised as a cotton picker,

Makes his way through red soil fecund with Black blood.

A clue to Till’s kidnapping unearthed in the Blood Cotton fields of Ole Miss?

The River, his penultimate resting place, his beaten and bloated body buoyed,

Floating, not wading in the water – not found in the soil fecund with Black blood.

Look what white folk did to that little Black Boy!

The River, his penultimate resting place, his beaten and bloated body buoyed,

Revealed, a Testament of white Southern violence writ large on Black bodies.

Look what white folk did to that little Black Boy!

An Apocalyptic American Nightmare, foreshadowing the fire next time.

A Testament of white Southern violence writ large on Black Bodies –

Burn, baby, burn, white folk sing as beaten Black bodies burn on bonfires of hate,

An Apocalyptic American Nightmare, foreshadowing the fire next time,

War in the Blood Cotton fields of Ole Miss.

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The Nineteen Sixties

I have written elsewhere about the “Decisive Decade,” a phrase coined by Samuel Yette, about the 1960s.  I found this poem, “SOS,” by Imamu Amiri Baraka, in The Black Poets, edited by Dudley Randall, in the section about poetry of the 1960s.  Given the mass murder in Buffalo by a white supremacist, and the “replacement theory” crap espoused by these white supremacists, I thought this poem by Baraka is as relevant today as it was when he wrote and published it.

SOS

Calling black people

Calling all black people, man woman child

Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in

Black people, come in, wherever you are, urgent, calling

you, calling all black people

calling all black people, come in, black people, come

on in.

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My Friend Kathy Boudin

News of Kathy Boudin’s demise quickly spread, as quickly as news spreads through the prison grapevine, and I had hoped that it was greatly exaggerated!  When I Googled “death of Kathy Boudin,” many articles popped up on my screen, far too many from the Crass Media.  I chose not to read any of them beyond the headlines.  I also glanced at the pictures.  In one of them: Kathy as a mother in prison in Bedford Hills Correctional facility, her son, Chesa, on her lap. I stopped at that picture.  That’s how I want to remember Kathy, not from a mug shot.

I met Kathy shortly after she was released from prison in 2003.  We became fast friends.  We both shared a passion for justice, and a love of poetry.  Poetry is everything: it’s philosophical; it’s political; it’s prophetic; it’s probing; it’s penetrating.  Poetry is also about love, a love that burns so bright it sets the world on fire, and it’s revolutionary.

I’m often taken aback how in a country that has its roots in a revolution, how almost any talk of revolution is thought subversive.  One of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, said, “Every generation needs a new revolution.”

Kathy spent a generation in prison.  When she was released, immediately she thought of the women she left behind at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, far too many with lengthy sentences, far too many the survivors of abuse and exploitation, on the outside, which often led them to prison, only to continue inside.  The passion for justice, and the love Kathy possessed for the women she left behind, led Kathy to continuing her education and earning a PhD at Columbia University, and to found a justice organization at Columbia.  While pursuing her education, Kathy was involved in advocacy for justice, specifically around executive clemency and parole., for the women she left behind at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Kathy and I shared many stages, and although our parole advocacy is one thing I’m most proud of, there were other platforms where we got to be poets and read poetry.  We supported the work of PEN America’s Prison Writing Program (PWP), and showed up at PWP ceremonies honoring people writing from prisons and jails, reading their award-winning works.  When Kathy and I last talked, we talked about getting together for a “poetry night,” to read our works to each other, as well as other poets.

When I was teaching at York College, I invited Kathy to speak at my class, “The Psychological Impact of Mass Incarceration on Society and Families.”  The students often Googled the guest speakers I was bringing.  One student, whose father was in law enforcement, after Googling Kathy, said, “You’re bring her to speak at our class!”  Or course Kathy showed up.  She won over that student as well as all the other students who couldn’t help but feel her burning passion for justice.

One event with Kathy stands out.  Her son, Chesa Boudin, invited me and his mother to the Rebellious Lawyers’ Conference at Yale Law School, where he was a student, to talk about our parole advocacy work.  I could see how he was so proud of his mother, and she, of course, was very proud of her son.  Years later, Chesa would introduce his mother when she delivered the 19th Annual Rose Sheinberg Lecture on the politics of parole and reentry at New York University Law School.  It was a great introduction.  Just having Kathy at that lectern was revolutionary.  We both knew about the insidious intrusion of politics in the criminal legal and punishment system, and specifically how it was impacting parole determinations which, to this day, are arbitrary and capricious.

Kathy, in her legacy, leaves us a blueprint on how to “do justice.”  People in the Crass Media who would simply reduce this remarkable woman to a crime – shame on you!  If you look at some of the body of work of Kathy, you’ll see that she was big on “accepting responsibility.”  She didn’t make excuses.  She didn’t pick up and throw stones at people. Like the chronicler in one of my poems, “Chronicling Sing Sing Prison,” Kathy looked to dismantle an unjust criminal legal system built with stones of law, stone by stone, stone by stone.

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National Superhero Day

Today is National Superhero Day. Over the years I’ve written a series of poems about “heroes.” In my last collection, “The Black Blood of Poetry,” which I am shopping around, is this poem:

In Search of a Black Hero

Coming of age in a world without heroes,

Though try as we might to create them:

Batman, Tarzan, Superman –

From comic books, literature, and an insane philosopher.

Tabloids creating latter-day heroes,

From people deputized to serve and protect

To people who have taken the law into their own hands.

Fed a constant staple of bloody news,

Vigilantism as the main course.

Coming of age in a world without heroes,

Though try as we might to create them:

Athletes, entertainers, and even politicians –

From people blessed with power, speed, and height

To dreamers dreaming seemingly impossible dreams.

Madison Avenue magicians conjuring up images

     Of heroes to worship.

Sports pages praising latter-day heroes,

From sluggers to hoopsters

To the all-American Golden White Boy.

Coming of age in a world without heroes,

Though try as we might to create them.

Coming of age in a world without heroes,

Though try as we might to create them.

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The King is Dead — Long Live the King!

I can’t let this day pass without saying something about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr!

In the Decisive Decade (the 1960s), Black leader after Black leader was assassinated, but this is the assassination that made it into my 7-year-old consciousness.  I felt the pain through the adults, through a form of osmosis, and the collective unconscious.  Then, I didn’t understand the ramifications of King’s assassination, but I knew that the world had changed for the worst – it was a seismic shift in the universe.  It was then that I remembered the refrain from my youth: “They (white folk, of course), killed another good Black man.”  Now I understood it.

If you ever wonder why a good Black man is hard to find, look at the Decisive Decade and its legacy.  The assassination of Dr. King, and so many Black leaders, left a void that we haven’t been able to fill.  When my father wouldn’t take me on his annual trip down South around the Fourth of July, I didn’t know that the world wasn’t even safe for a 7-year-old Black Boy.  My father knew that he had to return to his ancestral roots, but that he would not take his first-born son, because he couldn’t protect me from the malevolence in Southern air.

Benjamin Mays, President of Morehouse College, Dr. King’s alma mater, gave his eulogy.  The two had an agreement that whoever passed first, then the other would give the eulogy.  Dr. Mays didn’t think that he, a much older man, would give Dr. King’s eulogy.  But as “fate” would have it, and the assassin’s bullet, Dr. Mays gave Dr. King’s eulogy.  It is such a heartfelt eulogy.  One thing, though, resonates with me.  Dr. Mays said that no one is ahead of his time.  We find ourselves at a particular time and place in history, and we either respond, or we don’t.  Frantz Fanon wrote that each generation must find its calling, fulfill or betray it.

We know that people in the Movement were betrayed by their own.  It seems to be part of the human condition.  When Machiavelli advises the Prince that it is better to be feared than loved, he only states this because his belief system was that man could not be trusted, and that love would be betrayed quicker than fear.

In the final analysis, we know that Dr. King loved us, and he gave his life for us.  I will forever be haunted by that refrain: “They killed another good Black man.” 

Posted in Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass, ezwwaters, Martin Luther King, Politics, race, Religion, Revolution, Streets of Rage | Leave a comment

National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month. Purchase and read one of my three books of poetry.

My first, award-winning book, Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass:

Co-winner of the Edwin Mellen Poetry Prize

. . . this poem is a powerful expression of black anger and despair. Waters clearly knows his history. . .I’m impressed that Waters is able to relate slavery back to historic and current African practices, which were in fact aggravated and exploited but not originated by Europeans. . . The poem has some excellent material on the sexual exploitation of blacks by whites during slavery, and on the artificial color categories that emerged from this and that were used to buttress segregation and racism. Stylistically, the poem is strong when it uses repetition to support its angers and ironies… One might say that Waters’ poem celebrates the heroism of black survival.

— Normal Leer

A National Poetry Series Finalist

This collection began by writing one poem on police misconduct reported in the news. After this, at least once a week, there were more and more reports on police misconduct in the news, resulting in me writing more and more poems on law enforcement misconduct. Within a year, I had more than enough poems for a collection.

A Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award Finalist

Just a tribute to Black women in history, in literature, and in my life, dedicated to my sisters.

Posted in Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass, crime, ezwwaters, Justice Chronicles, Mother's Messages, Murder, NYPD, Poetry, police involved shooting, police-involved killing, Politics, race, raising black boys, Sometimes Blue Knights Wear Black Hats | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mommy

Some people have a fear of growing old.  Some people die young.  Those who fear growing old, methinks they wouldn’t want the alternative, dying young.  Dying young shortens the timeline to fulfill dreams, to see the world, to see your children grow, to see your legacy realized. The theme of immortality plays on the fear of growing old, of not growing old, to be forever young.  Dying young, you are forever young.  Mommy was forty-four when she died, so young, but she lives on in my sisters, and in our hearts and minds (memories).   In my mind, she is forever young.

Mommy was the youngest of her siblings.  When she was a teenager, she was already an aunt.  My older cousins have told me that Mommy was the cool aunt.  She was their chaperone, took them to the West Indian Day Parade in Harlem, before it moved to Brooklyn in 1964, the year my sister Wanda was born.  (Here it is important to note that both of my mother’s parents were born in Barbados.)

Earlier today Wanda reminded us of a memory.  Mommy was taking all of us to the circus.  (Wanda said Mommy had her hands full when we were all together.)  My brother and I, if we saw something funny, it didn’t matter where we were, on the train, or in church, we would laugh, and I would avoid Mommy’s fingers that would pinch me.  When my sisters saw a comedic moment in the making, they would not look at their brothers, because they knew we would laugh, and make them laugh.  Later, my brother, “Whitney, not Houston,” would keep us laughing.  We miss his giving spirit, but we mostly miss the laughter he brought into our lives.

Mothers not only bring their children into this world, but they give us something else: the wisdom of Mother Wit.  I remember things my mother said, but one thing stuck with me more than others.  Mommy highly valued education.  She said, when you are educated, you have something that no one can take away from you.  I liked that idea.  To this day, that recording plays in my mind, and I’m a lifelong learner.  Mommy also loved reading, and two of my sisters and I, we say we got Mommy’s reading gene.  We absolutely love reading.  My love of reading led me to writing, and I think my mother would be proud that her firstborn son is an award-winning writer.  My first book, Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass: Remembrance of Things Past and Present, is dedicated to Mommy.

In my dedication in Black Shadows, I quote Proverbs 31: “Her children rise up and call her happy.”  I think she was happy with us.

Posted in being a teenager, Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass, ezwwaters, Family, Lest We Forget, Mother's Messages, raising black boys, Relationships | 3 Comments

Aunt Willie

Aunt Willie

My Aunt Willie is the cool aunt, the cultured aunt. When my mother passed away when I was seventeen, Aunt Willie became the closest thing to a mother I had. She never forgot my birthday, to this very day. I can, at the very least, expect a call from her on my Born Day.

My Aunt Willie married my mother’s brother. In thinking about this penultimate post for Women’s History Month, I thought about my Uncle Mike (Micah). I was 10 years of age when he passed away. I don’t remember his death, but I remember him taking me and his son Jeffrey “crabbing” at Coney Island. We didn’t catch anything but seaweed, but it was still a memorable occasion. From this simple outing, I learned a lifelong lesson about “presence,” about being present in the life of your children, of young people, of the people with whom you are connected. This lesson informs how I move in the world, personally and professionally, which I call “the ministry of presence.”

It seems like my Aunt Willie has always been present, in one way or another, in my life, in the life of her family, in the life of our family. She is the true Matriarch of our larger family.

At 91, my aunt is still sharp, as sharp as when she was a public school teacher and had to deal with the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and she has an incredible sense of humor.

Aunt Willie has been blessed with a long life, and we have been blessed by having her in our life.

Aunt Willie and her Daughters

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