This essay appears in Life Sentences: Writings from Inside an American Prison, available now from Belt Publishing.
My name is Ralph, but most call me Malakki. I am presently doing a prison sentence of natural life plus thirty to sixty years running consecutively. People often ask me what it feels like to serve a life sentence. The best way that I can describe it is that every day, I feel a piece of me die inside. It is a silent steady subtraction of a me that I used to be: a concept of myself that I easily held and comprehended that I now can no longer grasp.
After twenty years, it feels like I was born in prison, and have always been in prison. And it feels like all of my memories of a life prior to incarceration are just some shit I made up in my mind to seem relevant or a little more human.
When arrested, I went through various stages in regards to the crime I committed and my perception of it. At first, I lied and blamed some unknown assailant and totally denied any association with what took place. Next, I accepted my actions but blamed them on “the devil.” I argued that it was the Prince of Darkness’ enticement that led me to commit such a horrible act.
Then I finally accepted full responsibility and blamed it on the gravity of “the streets” that lulled me into an anti-social mode of being. But none of these excuses are adequate descriptions of what actually took place with me so many years ago. In my mind back then, I saw a greater good in a path that was paved with aggression, violence and, as my actions proved, death.
It is difficult, twenty years later, to offer any currency to the mindset of the confused and angry young man I used to be. No resonance exists between whatever motivated my youthful act and my older self. It’s impossible to try to recapture. With that said, I know that my intentions even then were to bring something good from the destruction I caused. I wish I had someone I could have trusted, someone who I could have laid out my purpose to and who would have told me that there was a different way, a better way, not paved in blood.
It took time before I was able to have remorse for what I had done. At first, it was just wishing that I hadn’t gotten caught. Then it was regret that I would have to serve the ultimate penalty. But in time, I began to experience a contrition that was unconnected to me or my feelings: sincere remorse was beginning to take place. I’m not where I should be as far as putting myself in the shoes of the victims, but I’m better than I used to be.
I say this because, without doubt, even if I had the perfect plan to do the robbery again—a way in which I couldn’t possibly be caught—I wouldn’t do it. And in this way, I would avoid shooting those two men.
I say this without fear of being considered “soft” or weak. In the past, even if I had felt like this, I would have never been brave enough to express it. But I know now that it is the strong one who is willing to face criticism for their point of view. And it is also the strong one who can control their impulses and the weak one who fails to scrutinize their whims and just simply follows their compulsion.
I wish I would have known things like this before I shot those two men in the robbery of a gun store, killing one of them. I wish I had a higher concept of how to be on the earth. But I didn’t.
What you are about to read is my journey from war head to a peace of mind. If you are presently suffering from inner turmoil, trust me; it is better to not do something and feel like a loser or a coward, than to actually do it and become a loser and a coward for not standing up for the better part of yourself. I hope this gives you insight in regards to the severity of the consequences you could possibly face if you follow my footsteps. Please, think twice.
Prison is an American reality for people like me. Either we would end up inside of one, or a family member or friend would. For us, prison is part of the human condition.
But there are those who would consider us less than human. From their point of view, how much humanity can exist in the heart of people who willfully break the law, especially for someone like me: a convicted killer? According to the media, especially the movies, prison life is filled with sub-human perverts who live a craven, bottom-feeding existence, continually stabbing, raping, and abusing one another, hungry for carnage and forcing others into submission.
When first led into a Pittsburgh jail, wrists squeezed in handcuffs behind me, I prepared myself to be offered at the altar of a nihilistic existence. Instead, I found in the old Allegheny County jail the same environment I had just left. The only thing different was the bars. After I was transferred out of intake, I was sent to the infamous “Murder Range,” Tier 22, reserved for those accused of harsher crimes.
I noticed how cramped the cell was, about seven by five feet, with a fold-down cot, toilet, sink, and a small fold-out desk, then I took a walk down the tier. I saw men who I could probably click with, and others who I would avoid. I walked past three men who were looking for a fourth to play spades. I joined them. The only place there was to sit was on the floor. Other men had to walk around us and excuse themselves to get past.
Of the men I was playing cards with, the one who had the longest time in, Detroit, had been in county over a year waiting to be taken into Federal custody. The other two men had only been incarcerated a few months. In the middle of the game, the three men excused themselves and said that they would be back. I assumed that they were going to smoke or get high, but when they returned, there was no trace of any foreign substances.
We got locked in the cells for dinner and after they finished feeding us, the guards led us back out. We met up to play cards again and this time when the men asked to be excused, I sneakily followed. Detroit’s cell was the closest, and when I peeped inside, which was a violation in all regards, I saw him standing with his arms folded across his chest. Then he said something in a low tone and bowed. Next, he stood up straight again, then went to the floor and put his head on the towel he used as a prayer rug.
After a couple of days of playing cards, going to meals together and talking, Detroit and I got cool. He invited me to the Islamic service of Jumah that Friday and I accepted. I spent the nights rewinding my mind back to the life I killed. Everything I was had died when I pulled that trigger, and it was hard to accept my social demise. As my mind traveled through my thoughts, I felt like a tortured spirit still trying to haunt my past life, too afraid or just unable to accept my present reality. I worked vigorously to ignore the loud pounding of my chiseling of my own tombstone. How can you still be alive when everything you were no longer exists? But there I was, like other ghosts in that prison, striving for existence.
The first visit I had with my mother was awkward. We sat in different rooms separated by a small, scratched window and I could only hear her comforting voice through a telephone line.
She said something like, “I don’t want to hear about what’s going on. Not right now. Just tell me what you need.” I told her that I hadn’t changed clothes in a couple of days and I needed underwear and socks, and a couple changes of clothes that I could wash and alternate until I went to trial. She talked about trying to find a way to get my one million dollar straight bail reduced, and I told her that probably wasn’t going to happen. I asked about my little brother and my grandparents, who I knew were devastated about the news of me murdering someone.
As she talked, I thought about how many times I had ignored her feelings. All she wanted was for me to live a good life, and she did whatever she could to make that possible. I thought about how many times she had asked me to stop by and visit, even cooking for me when I said I would come, and then I’d get a phone call from a so-called friend and totally burn her. But where were those friends? I held out hope that some of them might show up or at least support my family. They never did.
The next visit came from my ex-fiancée a few days later. As soon as I saw her tear-soaked face staring back at me through the small, damaged window that separated us, I felt the heaviness of my own tears. She picked up the phone and as I put the receiver to my ear, she said, “How could you do this to us?” Her words scrambled my brain and I opened my mouth to respond but no words appeared. I thought, “What did she mean by ‘us’? I’m the one in prison going through all of this; me not ‘us’.” Not sure what the subject actually was, I changed the subject and asked about her and her mother. I loved my fiancée, according to my definition and understanding of love, and I loved her mother so much that she was the only woman besides my own mother that I ever called “Ma.” Of course, they were both hurt. She said, “How could you do this? It’s like there’s a side of you I don’t know . . . it’s like I don’t know you.”
That Friday, I attended the Islamic Service. The imam gave an arousing presentation that gave me the impression that he sincerely cared about all of us. The main theme was that we, as men, had a responsibility to not only our families but also to the greater community at large. He gave examples of his premise taken from the life of the Prophet Muhammad and verses he recited from the Qur’an. I was instantly impressed and saw his attempt to sway us away from criminality as part of a larger sphere.
What the imam said was basically the same message I had heard from people of different faiths or no faith in particular. All of these people shared space in the same focal continuum and despite how they offered examples of what they were trying to say, it all amounted to being good on the earth instead of bad. But for some reason, the way the imam explained it reached me better than any other ways. I took to his message wholeheartedly and began to study Islam in the cell at night instead of replaying in my mind all of the mistakes and circumstances I had no ability to alter.
Detroit introduced me to his small circle of like-minded men, and they shared books and other material with me. I made the decision that, no matter what the outcome of the trial would be, I was going to be a better man. The material I absorbed at night gave me an impetus to correct my mode of being. But it was still jail, and I had a few altercations—some physical— mostly because there were so many men in such a small space. The number one thing that changed when there was a conflict was that unlike when I was still on the streets, where I had a circle of men who would cajole me into self-destructive behavior, I now had a circle that sought to keep me out of trouble and admonished me about my aggression.
Shortly after the fasting during the month of Ramadan, I received legal mail from the District Attorney’s Office. I was standing on the range talking to someone while I opened it. I scanned through it and realized that the Commonwealth was seeking the death penalty. I made a statement like, “Look at this! These devils are just trying to scare me. There ain’t no death penalty. That’s some shit from the cowboy days.”
An older gentleman who lived on the range and who had just happened to walk by stopped, came back to me, and said, “Young brother, you better take a look at that carefully ’cause they do still have a death penalty. I’d take that seriously if I was you.” I said, “All right old head,” and when he walked away, I waved my hand disrespectfully in his direction and said, “Ain’t no God damn death penalty. They just trying to scare me.” But I did go to the law library the next time they opened it up for our range. It was so cramped with limited space that it felt like being in the bottom of a slave ship, but instead of being surrounded by the creaky boards of the vessel we were encapsulated by piles of thick books. After two hours of reading and researching, I was more lost than when I started. Detrimentally, I decided to just use my wits and try to figure out my next step.
One day shortly after dinner, a guard came to the tier with a clipboard. He stood by the front gate and called a few names and mine was one of them. He explained that the new county jail was finished, and we were to be some of the first transfers because of the severity of our cases.
He said that after the final count, we would be called to the dining hall for a meeting that would explain the move procedure, and that we should bring all of our legal work to better process us.
After the final count, a guard came around and opened the cell gate. I started to just wear my shower shoes but he insisted I wear my boots. And I was just going to bring the paper that listed my charges, but he stressed that I bring every piece of legal work I had. Once in the dining hall, all of the guards came in and they locked the door. A captain told us that we were not returning to our cells and that we were being shipped out ASAP.
Groans and curses filled the room. We were forced to leave behind not only pictures that could not be replaced, religious books, letters, and addresses, we also lost every article of clothing and all the things we used to clean our bodies and take care of ourselves; everything.
They lined us up a few at a time, strip searched us, then we got dressed and shackled. As we hobbled out of the side door, we saw a large commuter bus—the same buses people ride to work in, here in Pittsburgh we call them PAT buses—that had a giant- size police light attached to the top of it. We piled in and were driven a few blocks to the new county jail. When we got there, we were herded out and inside we rode the elevator to the top floor in groups. Once on 8D, we were given a cell and stripped out and given a red uniform. Then we were given packages that had travel size bars of soap, deodorant, etc. We stayed locked in the cells for three days and only came out to eat on the new blocks. The new jail was drastically different than the old county jail; the cells were a lot bigger, there was central air, and the block had carpet.
Once they let us come out of the cells for day room, we realized that there was no outside yard, just a large room with an open gate that had a basketball hoop. I asked my mother for a Qur’an and a Bible and when she sent them, I read and studied with the other Muslims on the block. We began meeting together to pray and eventually the imam we met in the old county came to the block and held the Friday service.
After about five months, I was transferred down to the sixth floor where it was easier to go to the law library a couple of times a week. I tried again to understand what was going on, and I got better. Also, once I was sent downstairs, I knew more about Islam than anyone else on the pod so they nominated me to give the sermon on Fridays since the imam was only visiting upstairs. I continued to get visits mostly from my mother and ex- fiancée, but it was like they were suffering from my situation more than I was.
It was over a year until I finally went to trial. I tried to remain tough and unemotional in court, but near the end of trial something happened. What helped me see things from a different point of view, which set me on the path to change, was what the wife of the man I murdered said in her victim impact statement at the trial. Although she was white, she reminded me a lot of my mother, and they probably had more similarities than differences. I didn’t hear or feel an ounce of hate from her as she spoke; just pain for her loss. And, a kind of pity for me . . . it was like she was talking to someone who was void of any feelings or human compassion, and it was as if she felt sorry for me. (Again, this is how I perceived it.)
She explained to me and to the judge and the other people in the courtroom that I didn’t murder just one person; this man was her husband but also her best friend, her children’s father, someone’s son, etc. As she spoke, the severity of what I had done became real to me. I felt my heart physically breaking because it was me who caused so much hurt and pain to this nice lady and her family. There were no justifications I could tell myself because the people I shot didn’t do anything to hurt me or mine. Her husband just had something I wanted.
On a deeper note, after studying history, I now know that my past behavior was not only disrespectful of what my ancestors stood for, but that by choosing crime, I was part of the problem of what was happening in black communities.
It was hard for me to hold my composure. Back in the cell, the whole tough guy, hard-as-a-brick image broke down when the tears came.
I was found guilty of all counts and sentenced to death row. I was placed into solitary confinement and had to wait about three months in the county jail before I was sent to state prison. It was then that I began to suffer from what I call the “whys”: “Why didn’t God stop me?” “Why did God let all this happen?” And many more questions with no clear answers.
I was transferred to SCI-Camp Hill where they process inmates who transfer from county jails into the state system. I was put on AC (Administrative Custody) status, which is basically a fancy way of saying solitary confinement. I was sent to Camp Hill’s RHU (Restricted Housing Unit or “the hole”), and it was the worst hole I have ever been in. Not only are the cells painfully small, the conditions and the treatment resembled what you might hear about in a third-world country.
As part of the classification process, they brought me to this office one day while I was wearing an RHU jumpsuit, handcuffs, and shackles. I was given what I found out later were IQ tests. About a half hour after I returned to the cell, I saw guards forming around the cell door. They opened the cuff slot, and I stuck my hands through. When they had put the handcuffs on, they opened the door, pulled me out and pushed me up against the wall. Two of them patted me down like four times while a bunch of them tore apart the cell. Then the COs threatened me and said that if I had cheated on that test, there was going to be a problem.
I was totally confused because, not only did I not cheat, I had no idea what that weird test was for, anyway.
They took me back to the office and this time they gave me the test orally. They took me back to the cell, and about twenty minutes later, the staff member who tested me showed up in front of the cell door. That’s when he explained what kind of test it was, and that I had done better than expected. I asked him how well I did, and he said that he couldn’t go into detail but I should have been in a “university instead of a penitentiary.” ■
Malakki (Ralph Bolden) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is an Army veteran. After his honorable discharge, he worked several jobs: during nights and days off he gained some notoriety as a DJ and spoken word artist. He performed in Pittsburgh and in several other states until he lost control of the severe anxiety he began suffering from while in the military. It was in this state that he made the tragic choices that led to his incarceration. He’s currently serving his twenty-fifth year of a life sentence; his incarceration began with five years on death row before his sentence was overturned by the State Supreme Court. Malakki self-educated himself during the years spent in solitary confinement. When released from death row, he became a tutor/teacher’s aide for fifteen years and helped hundreds of men receive their GEDs. He recently received training to become a certified peer support specialist and now works to support prisoners with mental health challenges. He is also a published poet and author. In the 2016 PEN Writer’s Awards for prisoners, he won the Dawson Prize in Fiction & Honorable Mention in Non-Fiction.
Cover image from Life Sentences: Writings from Inside an American Prison. Illustration by Christine Lorenz.
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