An Insider's ViewBy Herman Bell

June 17, 2013

He plays the flute. I have neither seen nor heard him play, but I know because he's mentioned it. In his cell, when the noise of prison has died down and he can hear himself think, Herman Bell plays the flute. I imagine there are people for whom that image is simply too dissonant to believe. But that's only because they don't know him like I do. A couple of years ago, shortly after arriving in this prison, Herman was called to an office in which I worked - something about an error made in his program assignment. After he left, my boss - a competent, compassionate senior administrator - said, "Notice how he carries himself? That's a gentleman." My boss went on to say that he'd have offered him a job in the office, but security staff would be apoplectic, on account of Herman's past. So it goes with the System: we are only as good as the worst lines on our rap sheet.

Shortly after that exchange in the office, Herman moved to the same block as me, honor block, a place offering slightly more freedom of movement to those who have shown they can stay out of trouble. In our recreation area - a hectic place resembling, say, the tables and locker area of a public pool or skating rink constructed in the eighties - I would often notice Herman sitting next to a chess game in progress, waiting his turn to play. A quiet presence amidst our bustling and hustling peers, he sat, a hand supporting his chin, contemplating the skillfulness of moves made by the chess players.

He was treated with deference, and addressed as "Mr. Bell" - a rare honorific from men who normally hail their compatriots with a "Hey" or "Wassup." I knew next to nothing about him, but, in here, smart and reserved is hard to come by, so I reached out as a complete stranger, and asked his opinion on using a pseudonym for an essay I'd hoped to have published. (I'll confess: having already established my pseudonymity in print, the question was a pretext meant only to get my foot in the doorway of a man who chooses his friends carefully, and keeps a tight circle.) Herman listened to me talk, offered advice I lack the courage to take, then politely asked to read some of my work.

And so began a most rewarding relationship. Given the circumscribed nature of prison, the opportunities for connection with a fellow traveler are limited by the System's uncaring clockwork, and the mundane demands of peers who operate as if they were spoiled children. This to say, over the course of a year, he and I have been able to carve out maybe half an hour each week in which to discuss a book, news item, or an idea one of us has been chewing on. One of the first things I learned about him, something that I'm repeatedly struck by, is his skill as a conversationalist. As opposed to the competing monologues that pass for conversation in here, Herman and I enjoy true dialogue. Alone in my cell later, I will replay the discourse, revisiting and perhaps reshaping my position, marveling at how gently he guided the dynamic without ever exerting over control; Zen parables inevitably come to mind: a harmonious garden, meandering stream, or falling leaf. Haiku, that's something I bet he'd also be good at.

I know broad strokes about his past. On the surface, our differences are stark: when he went away, I wasn't even born; I grew up a white child of privilege on the opposite coast; my chai is his Che, and were he to say, "Jiap," I'd ask if he meant, "The Gap." But when we end a discussion and he earnestly says, "Right on," or "My man," and gives me a dap, I feel that he is my brother. And that clarifies for me the problem he faces when outsiders look in. Their precis of Herman comes courtesy of a rap sheet or Google results pointing to old newspaper articles. In our crime-obsessed culture, the sound-bite is stand-in for the sound. Though it's likely small comfort to him, I'm thankful for the unfettered access - rather than merely seeing a name attached to a political crime that took place forty years ago, I know Herman in the here and now, a thoughtful, family-focused man with admirable wit, a splendid sense of humor, and a keen eye for detail.

Some months ago, as winter drew to a close, Herman said to me, apropos of nothing, that when he looks out the window near his cell, the light gray prison wall is all he sees. Because the wall so closely resembles a gray winter sky, he can't tell if it's raining, and if he needs to wear a raincoat when he goes out to the yard. But more than that, it's disheartening to have that view, as if the cell bars weren't constraining enough. On that day, for whatever reason, he felt it more acutely. The sentiment gradually lessened for him, but I was left thinking how, of all the friends I've had who shared that same view, it was only he who registered the lack of sunlight enough to mention it. I think that's because people like Herman grow towards the sun.

It is my sincere hope that the System soon realizes it has gotten its pound of flesh from Herman, and releases him back into the arms of his loved ones. In the meantime, despite the crummy view - or perhaps because of it - he continues to play the flute. A humble man, he dismisses his efforts with the wave of a hand, but I bet he's halfway decent, and able to create a beautiful melody.

By A.R.

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