After six years in isolation, including two years in solitary confinement, in 2014 Judge Janet Hall ordered the US authorities to immediately take me out of the Supermax prison in which I had been held since my extradition, and to let me spend my last 12 months in prison in general population. And so, this time last year I was in a federal prison at the top of a mountain in eastern Pennsylvania.
Unlike the ten other prisons in both the UK and US that I had been detained in since 2004, this was the first time I was brought to a prison where I was given some semblance of freedom. From being locked in my cell for 23-24 hours a day, I was now allowed out of my cell for 17 hours a day. From pacing up and down in a tiny underground “dog cage” for an hour, I was now able to spend the whole day walking around a vast, open field of grass. And from having my human contact limited to speaking with neighbouring prisoners through washbasin plug-holes, I was now able to freely mix with 1200 other prisoners.
From pacing up and down in a tiny underground “dog cage” for an hour, I was now able to spend the whole day walking around a vast, open field of grass.
Prisoners at American federal prisons have to share cells, two to a cell in a small cell barely suitable for a single person. As a newcomer, you either find a prisoner willing to accept you to be his cellmate (“cellie” in American prison slang), or you endure the sights, smells and sounds of living in 10-man cells known as “common areas.” Within weeks of my arrival I found an excellent cellie, a Mexican doing time for trafficking cocaine. And six months later, when time came for me to transfer to another unit, he introduced me to another cellie, this time a Colombian drug lord.
The Colombian drug lord has been in prison since 1987 – yes, nearly 30 years. He is serving life. In the American federal prison system, life means life. There is no chance of parole as in the UK. I once heard a Hispanic prisoner refer to my Colombian cellie as El-Padrino “The Godfather.” I soon came to learn why. If you have seen the famous movie “Scarface” starring Al Pacino, you will see my cellie in there. The film was partly based on his real-life story. You will read more about him in the book which I am currently writing about my experience (sorry, I had to slip that in).
Living with my Colombian cellmate, I not only learned how to speak Spanish (he barely speaks English), I also learned about a new country, culture and people. I also lived with Colombian drug barons while in prison in the UK; I found them to be extremely respectful and with impeccable manners. Even though we don’t like to admit it, we are all sometimes guilty of stereotyping. This also means that we are the best ambassadors for our race, religion or country. Today, based on my experiences of living with Colombians in prison, I have the utmost respect for Colombia and Colombians.
Anyway, my cellie used to receive Spanish newspapers and magazines from Colombia. He would frequently share items of interest with me. One day last year he showed me an article from the Colombian El Tiempo daily newspaper, dated 4 February 2015. It told the fascinating, heart-warming story of a bird that was caged in 2007, the same year that I wrote the following poem while I was imprisoned in HM Prison Manchester in the UK:
The Cry of the Caged Bird
Beyond the mask and beyond the front.
Beyond the name and beyond the image.
Beyond the rhyme and beyond the prose.
Beyond the metaphors and beyond the rhetoric.
Beyond the campaign and beyond the publicity.
Beyond the words and beyond the speeches…
There is a caged bird.
There is a caged bird whose only wish is to be a bird again.
There is a caged bird that yearns to fly free again
And soar over the mountain tops and glide through the valleys.
There is a caged bird that is no better than any other bird
And no different to any other bird.
There is a caged bird whose wings have been cut and voice has been muted
Whose only desire is to be a bird again.
That’s why the caged bird sings.
Babar Ahmad, HMP Manchester, May 2007
In 2007, a retired Colombian civil servant named Guillermo Gutierrez was living in Bogota, the capital of Colombia. Since his retirement, the 60 year old had been raising doves and entering them into dove-racing competitions. In 2007 he entered 100 of his doves in a 170-mile race from Boyaca state to Bogota. All of the doves had GPS tracker devices attached to their legs.
So, all the thousands of competing doves were released in Boyaca to see which of them arrived first in Bogota. At the end of the race, all of Guillermo’s 100 doves returned. Except one. He waited all day for it. Then the next. Then the next. It didn’t come back. After a few weeks, he concluded that it must have either forgotten its way home, or injured itself and died somewhere.
Then, one day last year, in January 2015, 8 years after the race, the dove returned home. Guillermo, now 67, couldn’t believe it. He checked the GPS tracker on the bird’s leg, which confirmed that it was the missing dove. But as Guillermo looked more closely, he saw that there was a piece of paper attached to the dove’s leg. On it was handwritten a message:
“This dove was found here in the Santa Rosa de Viterbo prison in Boyaca.”
The dove had lost its way and landed in Santa Rosa prison. Someone had chosen to keep it as a pet by clipping its wings so that it could not fly. One day last year, eight years after the dove went missing, it was found by some prisoners. They decided to release it. Even though its wings had been clipped, the dove survived and somehow managed to fly home. As Guillermo read on, the message gave the reason for why the prisoners released the dove:
“We released this dove because we, more than anyone, understand the true value of freedom.”
Guillermo Gutierrez with the dove of Santa Rosa prison at his home in Bogota, Colombia, January 2015
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