A poem by Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara) - written in 2006 when he was transferred back to the County jail after a courtroom appearance.
The black and white Orange County Sheriff bus
transports men and women returning
from a tiresome day of courtroom drama
They speak about being detained, being released;
about the tough prison sentence the judges imposed on them.
They are lonesome people,
separated by plexi glass, gates, mesh wire, fear
and a thousand secrets,
bonding with each other,
exchanging booking numbers, smiles, stories
and making connections as quick as speed dating.
The black paint shadows the outer bus windows,
concealing and depriving prisoners of the urban landscape
and bustling social world, within reach.
Seated inches behind me, on the dimly lit bus,
her illumated smile masks a deep sadness
as she freely chats with the other women in her company.
Eager guys hungry for attention of the opposite sex, court her.
Politely dismissing them with the skills of a diplomat,
She keeps quiet.
Our eyes search and meet on dying ground,
transixed into a karma sutra gaze,
and instantly see through her.
She’s translucent, like crystal.
Every word I emit unfurls a layer of her skin,
like daggers piercing a lifetime of lies,
bringing truth to the foreground to be viewed with fresh eyes.
As the rickety bus surges ahead and the unruly captors clamour,
her eyes begin to swell the more I speak,
unleashing a tsunamai of pain
as tears cascade down her courageous cheeks,
unearthing years of struggle, pain and sacrifice.
Her tale is an ancient one,
rooted in the history of women,
past, present and future
who battle to beat back the discrimination and steorotpes
that sought to deny and define them.
Our conversation is transit as a shooting star
but timeless as a work of art.
Part of her has become free
after meeting her other self,
validating her inner core.
I am whisked away from the bus,
with the clinking sounds of leg chains,
tight restraints girding my wrists and waist,
the remembrance of her etched in my mind.
We say our goodbyes.
She promises to write.
Fate gives no assurances of reproducing itself.
But language unites us in a temporal encounter,
And we share an eternal moment.
by Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara), Craig A. Ross (Ajani Kamara) and Stanley "Tookie Williams (Ajamu Kamara)
The Ninth Ground, a term derived from the ancient military text the Art of War, refers to the last of the nine grounds – the dying ground.
If someone were trying to kill you, would you use every means at your disposal to defend yourself? And if someone took everything you owned, would you start the process of rebuilding? Well, your response to being sentenced to a long prison term, life, or even death should be the same as your response to defending yourself from attack or great loss; you should fight.
We view the prison environment as dying ground and “fighting” as a metaphor for self-determination. One of the biggest mistakes many people make when coming to prison is that they do not initially comprehend the extremity of their circumstances. Instead, they jump into the flow of the environment, and thus fail productively to utilize those first crucial three to five years in prison for acquiring knowledge and building the necessary foundation that will sustain them for years to come. Self-determination should never be relegated to “just getting by”. Self-determination should always be a priority, and anything less should be unacceptable.
“Plan for difficulty when it is still easy, do the great when it is still small”. – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
From the moment we step into the prison system, we need to begin a program that organizes our energy toward productive goals. We have to kick-start the growth process. In prison, your back is even more up against the wall than ever, so it is imperative immediately, to see the place for what it is – dying ground. Since prison culture is a gross extension of the street culture most prisoners come from, there is a tendency to merge with it even though the pitfalls are obvious. You must begin to think strategically, as if you are always on the battlefield. When you take this approach to your situation, you will not squander time but rather move with a profound sense of mission.
“If they are to die there, what can they not achieve?” - Sun Tzu, The Art of War
When on dying ground, you have no fear because you are already in hell. With this philosophy, you can only go forward. For many prisoners a life or death sentence means: “It’s too late to change” or “What’s the point? I’m not ever getting out.” But survival does not mean merely existing from day to day, going from one hustle to the next. Even the most veteran prisoner will admit that the ”play it by ear” lifestyle gets old. Our life in prison doesn’t have to rotate around waking up and hanging out. It should involve the total employment of all of our faculties geared toward enriching our lives. It doesn’t matter where we are, be it in prison or free, we should engage life, not retreat from it. Just because we suffer a defeat or come to prison doesn’t mean we should give up our aspirations, goals and the desire to better ourselves.
On the contrary, we should become even more committed to learning, taking the initiative, building resources, and never giving up. A life without purpose and direction is the life of a walking corpse. There is no middle ground when it comes to surviving, so don’t settle for easy or comfortable little niches that offer not real substance. The harder you push yourself the more you learn how to put theory into practice; how to learn from your mistakes; and how to take optimal advantage of every opportunity. Everything you do must lead you forward not backward.
“Power is the ability to define your reality and then have others respond to your definition” – Dr Wade Nobles
Imagine standing at the base of a pyramid gazing up at the top. Right away, you get a rudimentary sense of the intelligence, the resources and energy that took to build it. You also understand that the pyramid symbolizes the ideas that anything is possible. All one has to do is take initiative. As when looking up at the pyramid, there comes a point in every prisoner’s time when they take a long and honest review of their life and it is at that moment they realize it is going to require a strong will and sincere effort to rebuild it. This fact often discourages many prisoners and they stagnate themselves with a lack of self-confidence, complacency, and mental inertia even before trying. Old patterns die hard and not every prisoner is willing (or ready) to let go of what they have become accustomed to. We will be the first to admit that transformation is neither a quick nor an easy process. It calls for the full investment of your mind and body. Anything not congruent with your mission will be a distraction and hindrance toward defining your reality.
“We cannot afford to waste time in dealing with insoluble problems under impossible conditions.” – Edward W. Blyden
The will deteriorates when the mind is not focused, and when your mind is not focused then your energy will be drained, and your response to your situation will be ineffective. Don’t’ invest time or energy into people who are unreliable. The revolutionary George Jackson once commented, “When someone does not judiciously (and effectively) execute my affairs then I have every right to remove my bosom interest from their hands”. In other words, you should not simply rely on the good intentions and benevolence of others. You should always be working toward self-sufficiency. The facts we need to come to terms with when we come to prison include these: people change, people face hardships, and people die.
Assessing your own abilities and strengthening them through education and discipline brings you closer to self-reliance. Action produces change, creates results, and eliminates obstacles. Inaction produces passivity, escapism, and excuses. Once you take the position that your life is being threatened, you psychologically prepare yourself to do battle. You get rid of your baggage. You become focused, and you strive without compromise to accomplish your objectives.
“One who fears tomorrow has already died today.” – Ajani Kamara
Prison is not the beginning of the end, but it can be the end of the mentality that got you there. You can build step-by-step a viable plan for success. How you play the end game is up to you, but the moment you forget or ignore that you are on dying ground, you have already lost. Take your stand now, right where you are and don’t let anything hold you back. Here are five changes you should make that will strengthen your character and resolve:
Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara), Craig A. Ross (Ajani Kamara), Stanley "Tookie" Williams (Ajamu Kamara)
,"Voices from the Row" is an exhibition taking place at the Poetry Society, London from 6th June to 7th July - and features poetry written and read by 5 death row inmates from San Quentin state prison. The men were recorded reading their poems over the prison phone. If you get a chance swing by and take a listen and a look, as there is also some wonderful artwork on display from San Quentin. And the Poetry Café does marvellous food and drink too!
It drives a wedge between my eyes like a double edged sword,
pulling me in motion like currents in the sea.
I cannot escape the pull of its gravity, no more than I can my shadow.
Im orbiting into new dimensions.
Like an object lost in space.
I imagine what it is like to be free from the bondage of pain.
Like splinters being plucked from swollen hands
the pain becomes numb.
Im in pain, from being free from pain
Like Siamese twins separated by surgery
I miss it like missing limbs, but it’s always present.
Steve Champion, San Quentin death row
L e a d M e
Michael S. Combs
From the unreal lead me to the real...
From the darkness lead me to the light...
From imprisonment lead me to justice and freedom...
From stationary lead me to mobility...
From ignorance lead me to self-knowledge...
From deficiency lead me to growth and empowerment...
From all that is evil and wrong lead me to the righteous and just...
From being alone and a follower of life lead me to become a true leader of change and the positive...
From the unknown lead me to be known in knowledge that matters...
From around my heart my these things lead me and give me drive to stay alive within and beyond this place...
Do You Believe
Do you believe
the revolutionary talk
the clenched fist
the right-on gestures
the power to the people campaign?
Do you believe
the rhetoric about unity?
Do you believe
prison walls are just walls
that can be torn down
and the mind is energy and matter
capable of moving mountains
reconstituting the universe?
Do you believe a 15 minute phone call
an exchange of letters
a contact visit
could stir, evoke,
build & create
moments that change peoples' lives?
Do you believe
could change the world?
Do you believe
love is a transcendent
force - powerful enough
to build bridges
redeem humanity and
radically transform the world?
If you believe,
Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara) is a death row prisoner at San Quentin State Prison. A Crip Emeritus, he grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Champion has been incarcerated since 1981. you can contact Steve here:-
San Quentin State Prison
Artwork by Daniel Cervantes - death row San Quentin
by Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara)
What are you responsible for?
What do you take ownership of?
I can probably list a litany of things, but what most concerns me is being responsible and taking ownership of my spiritual growth. When I reflect on my life, spiritual growth is an area I can honestly say it’s on me either to squander or elevate it, depending on the choices I make.
No-one should rely solely on another person for spiritual growth. The truth is, as an adult, it is your responsibility and no-one else’s. No-one can do the work for you. You have to take ownership of it yourself.
What enables you to grow spiritually, whether it’s daily prayers, consistent meditation, reading self-help books, learning to forgive and let go of past transgressions, or opening your heart, you must see yourself as an engine and vessel that makes it happen. Because that’s exactly what you are.
Spiritual growth, like with most things, occurs with practice. But not just with practicing the mechanics of ritual. Don’t get me wrong. Ritual is important because it does reinforce and reaffirm in your spirit and consciousness what you believe.
However, spiritual growth happens not when there is serenity and calm, but during tumultuous and stormy times. When life tests and places you in crossroad situations and how you respond becomes a measure of where you are spiritually and how much work needs to be done. Every spiritual challenge you overcome increases your spiritual awareness and growth.
But the one thing you must remember is, no-one is in charge of your spiritual growth except you.
Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara)
San Quentin Death Row
by Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara) - San Quentin death row
Finding your Sacred Place
Finding your sacred place in a world where everything seems to happen instantaneously and where people are conditioned to expect results as fast as a microwave oven can cook food is a problem. People want a quick fix to problems, and when they don’t get it, they become frustrated and sometimes give up on life.
The creation of the internet is a wonderful thing. It continues to be instrumental in bridging the world, just like boats, trains and airplanes did when they were created. The internet offers a way to communicate and interact with people without the baggage, as some people would say, of physical contact. People can connect or disconnect from each other with the flick of a switch. It is a highly depersonalising and anti-spiritual way to live life. But in fast pace technological societies it’s becoming the norm.
Many great spiritual teachers of the past found sacred places to take refuge. What Akhenaton, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Jesus, Prophet Muhammad and many others taught humanity in the past, is the same message spiritual teachers are teaching humanity today, the sacred place lives within you.
To find your sacred place, it doesn’t matter where you live. I live at San Quentin prison, on death row, in a four-by-ten-foot cell that is smaller than your average bathroom. But when I close my eyes and meditate I am transported to another place, another time as if I am not here. Wherever you are, you must be an agent responsible for finding your sacred place. The Tao Te Ching say, “those who overcome their opponents are powerful; those who overcome themselves are strong.” Your sacred place is where you are standing. It is there you will find strength, solace and inner peace.
The self – an aspect of our being that defines our essence – is the vehicle for finding a sacred place in your life. No one can give or take it from you, because you were born with it.
In a sacred place, the hustle and bustle of life ceases to exist. There are no parents, no spouse, no children, no siblings, no relatives, and no friends. No boss, no job, no bills, no pain and no worries. No identity or responsibility, except oneness with universal consciousness. In a sacred place, you just are. You can just “be”.
Despite what your life is or isn’t, a sacred place is where you can bring forth what and who you are, or what you might be. You come to realise the unity of life and the real truth of your own life. You are able to nourish your creative imagination in your sacred place. When you find your sacred place, you will find tranquillity, just as the Buddha found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
Every person needs a sacred place. It requires space, both mental and physical space, and a time during the day to be alone, a time to heal the mind, body, and spirit, and to realise you must take ownership and be present in your daily life.
A sacred moment might last only a minute, but it will be a minute where you see and experience the whole world in a temporal moment.
a.k.a. Adisa Kamara
PO Box C58000
San Quentin State Prison
Poetry, writing & Lessons in Life from San Quentin death row