Scott Walker, 42, was sentenced to life in prison in 1999 for dealing drugs. He’s one of about 3,000 federal inmates serving life for nonviolent offenses. This is his story, in his own words.
It’s Wednesday night, my favorite night of the week. From 5:30 to 8 p.m. I play music with my band, which I've aptly named Ball and Chain. I’ve been playing and writing music since I was 15 years old. To an extent, it’s been a gift and a curse.
I grew up with the glorified belief that music was meant to be “sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.” So I got involved in trying to live a rock 'n' roll lifestyle and turned to selling drugs to finance this lifestyle. I'm serving a life sentence for a drug conspiracy. I've been clean and sober for over 17 years.
My band consists of three other members. We play songs by the Misfits, the Ramones and Iggy Pop, and lots of originals. My drummer, Karl Roberts, goes home in March, after having served 17 years for conspiracy to manufacture meth. We plan to get together and record someday soon -- when I'm released. He has a penchant for poking fun at me and taunting me. We've definitely developed the common drummer/singer relationship.
In the course of my incarceration I’ve developed an affinity for books. I’m in a medium-security prison now, but during my years in county jails and high-security penitentiaries there were a lot of 24-hour lockdowns. You learn to prepare for these institutional lockdowns by visiting the prison libraries and loading up on books. You develop friendships with other inmates who gravitate to the same book selections as yourself, and you trade books.
I've read over 1,000 books during my downtime, mainly historical fiction, the classics, with a few true crime and biographies thrown in here and there. I've read The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, Jane Eyre by Bronte, A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer, and many other classics. Steven Pressman has written some historical novels of high quality.
Although I’m surrounded by people, I've experienced periods of immense loneliness, and my books have been my friends and escape.
I work in the Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR. We make BDU's (battle dress uniforms) for the troops, our troops. I work in maintenance, cleaning and fixing sewing machines. As I make my rounds, I exchange greetings with my fellow inmates and we swap any info or news regarding legal issues or the institution. It’s what I refer to as our "Inmate Hope Network.”
We congregate to discuss bills and legislation. In recent months, there's been a group of inmates involved in the discussion of clemencies being granted by President Barack Obama.
Last month, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight people who had been convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, including my friend Reynolds "B-Zo" Wintersmith. I saw him as he left the warden's complex and was told his news. I gave him a hug and told him, “You're free, B-Zo, make us proud."
But that day was difficult for me, too. When I first heard that Obama had commuted my friend’s sentence, I thought I was going, too. But it was not to be.
A black cloud descended over me for a couple of days. I stayed to myself, in my cell, and slept. I was devastated.
After a couple of days, my friend and fellow lifer, Leon Smallwood-Bey, came to my cell. He said, “You’ve stayed away long enough." He proceeded to tell me that I’m going soon, that he was sure of it. We talked for a couple of hours. I'll forever be in debt to him for that talk.
I recently came upon a quote from Lara, the female heroine from Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago: “An individual will only play one role all their lives, and will only occupy one place in society, and always stand for the same thing."
I don’t agree with that line of thinking. I’ve now served over 17 years for the crimes I committed as a very young man. I regret my actions, and I take responsibility for what I’ve done. But I don’t feel that I should have to pay with my life.
This story was drawn from a series of emails and phone calls, and edited for length and clarity. Listen to some of Walker’s music here.