03.13.09

How I Fell in Love in Prison

After seven years in captivity, musician John Forte was freed last year when George Bush commuted his sentence. In a Daily Beast exclusive, he writes about the painful humiliations of prison life, gratitude toward Bush—and what made him fall in love with the world. Plus, WATCH A VIDEO of his new song, Running Up That Hill.

Which came first – the chicken or the egg? Well, in this case the question is more like: Which came first – the blog or the song? A couple of weeks ago, a friend invited a few others and me over to his apartment for a small dinner party. I walked into the apartment and immediately inquired about the song that was playing. Melody. Lyrics. Lasers! I was wholly transfixed.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Somebody introduced me to them the other night,” he responded. “Running Up That Hill, by the Chromatics.”

Over the course of the evening, we ate, talked, and laughed, but that song continued to haunt me. When an opportunity appropriately presented itself, I asked our host to play it again. He went above and beyond his call of duty. He not only played the song, he looked up the lyrics and the song’s history. We learned that the Chromatics were not the authors of the song; Kate Bush wrote Running Up That Hill and released it in the UK in 1985. The chorus sparked something deep inside of me:

And if I only could make a deal with God
And get him to swap our places
Be running up that road
Be running up that hill
Be running up that building

I thought about the opportunities that had been given me. I thought about the critics who condemned President Bush’s decision to commute my prison sentence (after having served more than seven years into a 14-year sentence). I thought about some of the men I had met over the years – good men, who made terrible mistakes. Some of them were inside long before I showed up and still had many more years remaining on their respective sentences following my release.

I am grateful and humbled by President Bush’s forgiveness of my stupid and reckless behavior.

Some of the men became friends and were very candid with me. One friend in particular admitted to being a “horrible” parent when he was home – a so-called disinterested donor to the gene pool. Like so many of us, it was not until he went away that he realized the true gift of family. It was amazing to see how he interacted with his children in the visiting room. They were toddlers when he entered the system. By the time I met his children they were teenagers – bright, compassionate, and respectful. His motivation was clear. Having experienced the longing of forced separation for so many days and nights, his babies would not repeat his footsteps. He would recount the grisly sights he had seen over the years and scare his children more effectively than any Hollywood chiller. I saw the fear in their eyes. He was stern but never oppressive – we knew abuse of power and would not propagate it in our personal lives.

There was a feeling among the inmate population that some of the men and women who worked within the system – as corrections officers, counselors, administrative staff, et al – considered themselves purveyors of justice. They reminded us of where we were, as if we could have ever forgotten. They taunted us, jangled the keys around their waists, and threw the exploits of their liberty in our faces. These were the types of guards who emasculated an inmate in front of his family – how can a child respect a father who is spoken to like a child himself? Some would even make remarks to the wives and girlfriends before the inmates arrived to the visiting room.

“Why do you drive three hours every Saturday to come visit inmate [so and so]? Doesn’t he have ten years to do?”

Once, during the primary season for the recent presidential campaign, I asked an officer to open the educational area so that those of us who were interested could watch the debates. She looked at me with a contorted expression.

“You can’t vote,” she said.

“Does that fact disqualify me from wanting to know about what takes place in my country?”

Like any plantation in the past or present, we were all susceptible to the “soft bigotry of low expectations” – from others and from ourselves. A felony conviction burns through the skin deeper than any white-hot branding iron. It wraps you up in a blanket of nails and gasoline, lowers your head until memorizing your steps becomes an acceptable way of life; and walking through the days requires neither eye contact nor self-esteem. Escapism ossifies into a cold, hard reality. Television pacifies the soul and provides a perverse and voyeuristic window into a world that might never know your face again. Some thought little of us. And we sometimes thought even less of ourselves.

My friend, the delinquent-cum-remarkable-parent, made sure his sons pulled their pants up and his daughter recognized herself as beautiful (regardless of what the magazines and the music videos would have her and her peers believe was the standard of beauty).

Although I was (and remain) childless, I had an analogous situation. It was not until I went away that I began to take a real interest in global affairs. I read four newspapers; twice that amount in weekly and monthly magazines; and books covering a broad spectrum of issues. I was not “in” the world, but I cared deeply for her, missed her so much that every now and again my spirit writhed with tension and I lost my appetite, my will to speak, or both. So I studied as much as I could, familiarized myself with the players on the world stage, analyzed the present –how it related to the past and might relate to the future – and, while I was away, I returned to school in order to study politics and international relations.

Despite what I though might be viewed as a good thing, a step toward “reform and rehabilitation,” the powers that be did not make my return a smooth endeavor. One afternoon, I returned to my bunk to find an officer “shaking down” my property locker. Some of my personal papers were scattered on the floor and my books were strewn across the bunk. He castigated me for having too many books. Too many books?

“Is this the message that you want to send to the inmate population?” I asked. “That we will be punished for trying to do the right thing? For becoming too literate?”

Ultimately, the matter was resolved, but only after I presented a syllabus listing the essential and suggested reading materials for my classes. By then, however, the point had already been made. Know your place!

Contrary to what people may think after hearing me recount prison episodes, I never wanted pity. I believe that is the case for most of the men I knew inside as well. We committed crimes and were punished for our poor choices. The deepest pain of any time spent in prison is the internal suffering one must endure, the state of constant longing for life, liberty, and loved ones. Some men and women learn their lessons long before they ever go to prison. For others, admittedly, it may take longer. Then again, some will never learn. If the world, as the great philosopher Spinoza espoused, is the manifestation of all thought, then perhaps we will learn to transcend the rhetoric of blind judgment and look to a person’s actions as the reflection of the content of his or her character. There is such a thing as reform and rehabilitation, even if it is achieved as a result of one person’s willingness to make and commit to a change for the better.

I am grateful and humbled by President Bush’s forgiveness of my stupid and reckless behavior. I thank Kate Bush for the impetus to my interpretation of her song, which preceded my blog. Are there men and women who deserve the second shot at life I was given on December 22, 2008, when I walked free from prison? Undoubtedly. Until they can run up roads, buildings, and hills, I will do it for them.

Running Up That Hill (Remix by John Forté)

Chorus

And if I only could
Make a deal with God
And get him to swap our places
Be running up that road
Be running up that hill
Be running up that building
If I only could

Verse 1

Light up the firmament
The only constant is impermanence
You could say there was a turn of events
Through some divine laughter
Should it stay awoken
A chapter closed when the gates opened
Resurrected on my 33rd
Seven years was sufficient; I memorized every word I heard
If my demise were for naught may I learn anew
Another language more wise and then return to you
The sum of parts makes us – so with God’s graces
If your burden gets too heavy may we swap places
I’ve been to hell and back, but never take it wrong
The fact remains – that some will never make it home
Until we sit again – do this, that, and this again
Hold your head – to remember is the discipline
Until we sit again – do this, that, and this again
Hold your head

Chorus

Verse 2

This is cost-risk analysis - think before your dalliances
Let us build upon what balance is
Take heed as if you’ve been warned
Talk less, listen more, and improve your form
Don’t get caught up in the cipher - the news is on
Pay attention to it - too many crews are gone
How many apes does it take to defuse a bomb?
That’s why so many right hand men lose an arm
When we see what we wanna see, sideways don’t perform for me  
So when you speak it’s in front me
Take me to your leader for the sake of Peter
Get it through your heads freedom doesn’t make you freer
Until we sit again – do this that and this again
Hold your head – to remember is the discipline
Until we sit again – do this that and this again
Hold your head

Chorus

John Forté is a Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and producer from Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, he is a classically trained violinist who is known for his work with The Fugees. Forté was granted a commutation by President George W. Bush in 2008 after having served more than seven years of a 14-year federal prison sentence for a drug offense.