Dawud Lee on Mental Liberation, Social Education, and Change

Letter from Dawud on June 11, 2014

Interview #1

Please tell us something about yourself. Feel free to include whatever you feel comfortable or interested in sharing.

My name is David Lee and I am referred to as Dawud inside of the prisons I’ve done time in. I have been in prison now for 26 years for an act which I have always maintained that I did not commit. I am a victim of not turning into a state informant; had I done so, I would have been home long ago. I was offered a deal of 12½ to 25 years to testify against my codefendent, but I refused. Thus, I was given a life sentence. On June 13th, I’ll turn 51 and I’ve been in prison since the age of 24. I have a daughter whom I have not seen since she was 17, and she is now 31. I have a grandson whom I have never seen in person, and he’s 9 years old now. I am a prison activist who is involved with all types of projects to bring about awareness on various levels – whether it be cultural or political awareness, or some sort of youth development. I have two sisters left in my immediate family. My brother Darryl Lee and mother Edna Lee both passed away while I’ve been in prison. My father Henry Lee died in 1986 while I was still on the streets, but his passing had a devastating effect on me. Thus, Wanda Bush and Zenobia Johnson are all who are left in my immediate family, and Zenobia is very ill. I have a host of nieces and nephews whom I love very much and do the best I can to aid in their growth and development.

What’s one thing that you think people would be surprised to know about you (be it a particular experience, a part of your daily activities, an interest, a skill/talent, a lived reality, a personality trait, etc.)?

This is sort of a tough question for me, but I guess one thing that would surprise people is that I work very hard to learn the things I’ve been able to gain an understanding of. Many people are under the impression that I’ve been able to reach a certain degree of understanding without making great sacrifices, however, nothing could be further from the truth.

What’s one thing that you think the public needs to know about either life sentences or the individuals who have been sentenced to life sentences?

First is that in Pennsylvania a life sentence is tantamount to a death sentence because there are no parole possibilities for human beings serving life sentences. We will die slow and agonizing deaths inside of PA prisons. Many, like myself, did not even commit the crimes that we’ve been convicted of, but simply lacked the monetary, legal and other resources to properly defend ourselves. Many of us just want to make it back home to live some sort of a decent life. We also want the world to know that we’re not animals; we are human beings deserving of an opportunity to be treated as such. Even for those of us who are guilty of committing the crimes for which he or she is in prison, when is enough enough? I know people who have been in prison for 50 years! Is that not enough?! People change for the better and serve as an asset to our communities if given an opportunity.

What do you think it will take to end the use of Life Without Parole sentences here in Pennsylvania?

It will require massive amounts of organizing and education. People must understand the facts surrounding our imprisonment. People in society are fed a heavy diet of propaganda regarding how dangerous we are, and how we never deserve to be back on the outside again. We must find ways to pressure legislators into doing the right thing – not the politically expedient thing! This level of organizing cannot just focus on people with life sentences though, because people with numbers which are equivalent to life sentences should not be forgotten in this process. Ergo some sort of good time bill ought to be discussed as well. Not to mention the elimination of the death penalty as well. Our issues are intertwined with other prison-related issues and we cannot forget those germane issues.

What are some of the strategies, tactics or practices that you and people you know use to support one another and to challenge the conditions/realities that you experience?

There are all types of things done to assist one another. Those things range from us reaching out to people on the outside with our story, to encouraging each other to stay strong. We write essays, build prison programs, and work with younger prisoners in attempts to assist in their development. We also build genuine bonds with one another. True brotherhoods are developed in such positions and under such conditions.

What do genuine justice and healing look like in your ideal vision of each?

Justice is a process where people truly understand what reciprocity and righteousness are – a process where we learn to treat each other with decency, respect, and care. Healing is a process of us being able to forgive, and to love. Healing is about being able to move beyond your pain, and allowing yourself to experience joy and love!

How does the vision that you’ve just described differ from the current criminal justice system?

The criminal justice system is not about healing and certainly is not about love. This is a very exploitative system which takes advantage of prisoners and our families for economic and political gains. This system destroys lives every single day, and pretends to be about the business of assisting in our development. Unfortunately, there is usually only one side of the story being told in regard to prisoners and prison. Our side of the story is suppressed.

If you could have dinner with any person (living or dead) who would it be and why?  What would you most want to discuss, learn from, or tell them?

This is another tough question because there is more than one person I want to have dinner with. But, outside of my immediate family members no longer with us, I’d like to have dinner with Malcolm X. I would like to pick his brain regarding the condition of the African American community, and ask about possible solutions to our current problems. I would like to share my political and cultural perspectives with him to see what he thought of my direction. I would let him know exactly how much he has impacted my life. I’ve studied his life and learned a great deal about myself through observing his life and seeing his continuous growth and development.

These final two questions are fill-in-the-blanks, but we hope that you will also take some time in your response to expand upon your answer and speak to why it is important to you. Feel free to treat these two questions either on a personal/small scale or to respond to them at the larger generational scale (i.e. as in something that you hope either begins or ends within our collective lifetimes). 

I want ______________ to begin with me (or with my generation).

I want the mental liberation to begin with me (or with my generation). We must begin to wake up and understand how we are harming ourselves with the warped mentalities which we’ve been operating with. It is time for us to work toward saving our communities and providing safe places for our children to grow up in. This is only possible if we all begin to wake up and understand what role we each play in this process.

I want ______________ to end with me (or with my generation).

I want the criminal mentality to end with me (or with my generation). I have worked very hard over the years to transform myself out of the criminal frame of thinking and I know that many more of us are capable of doing the same. However, this must be encouraged from the outside as well as from the inside of these prisons. We need the assistance of the outside in order to make such transformations a reality. If we truly want to change how our children think then we must collectively work toward this goal.