Dawud Lee on Organizing and Mentoring on the Inside

Letter from Dawud on June 28, 2014

Interview #2

You mention that you have done a lot of work over the years mentoring youth and providing guidance to them. Would you describe in a little more detail what shapes that work has taken – whether formal or informal in nature?

In regards to mentoring the youth, it has been both formal and informal. It is something that I naturally do. I’ve been able to work with other conscious prisoners to build youth development programs, beginning in Huntingdon. The program ran for a few years, and we were allowed to meet once a month. It was difficult to get the process off the ground because the administration initially told me that no one would be interested in such a program. They were flooded with request slips from the “non-interested prisoners” the very next day. They ended up giving us one day a month which in reality was not enough time, but it turned out to be a successful program which a lot of young men in the prison benefited from. Even here at this institution, SCI Coal Township, we’re trying to erect such a program. We successfully ran a pilot program which started at the end of April and went on for about five weeks. All the men spoke highly of the program and are awaiting a response from the administration in regards to the proposal we submitted to have the program extended. The program centered around discussions about family, community, relationships, respect, love, and much more.

What strategies have you used in your organizing/advocacy work over the years (whether as an advocate for youth, prisoners, or human rights generally) that felt most effective and why?

Writing and trying to reach the outside for assistance is one of our main goals because we realize that if these people are allowed to isolate us and turn us into incorrigible villains that we cannot win. We are in a fight for our lives, for the right to live and be treated as human beings; thus, we need the help of people on the outside. Yes, we must organize ourselves on this side of the barricade as well, but without outside support our efforts will fall on deaf ears. Thus, creating outlets for our voices to be heard is essential in this struggle. We sacrifice our limited money to accomplish these goals, and possible retaliation from prison administrations. We’ve all given up something of great value to engage in this level of struggle. There have been many hungry days as a result of this fight. But this is our lives at stake.

Are there any strategies you have used that in hindsight you feel were not effective in the ways that you had hoped? Why do you think that was the case?

One thing I can say in this regard is that you cannot change people who are not interested in changing. It is a big waste of your time, so I’ve learned not to waste my time on such people. Some people are too me-oriented to see the bigger picture, and you will waste a bunch of time and energy trying to turn around their thinking if they’re not interested in changing.

In your response to the question of what people would be surprised to learn about you, you noted: “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.” What are two things that you’ve had to either work particularly hard or make distinct sacrifices for, in order to cone to a clearer understanding of them? What made that process either difficult or personally costly and/or what did you gain from achieving it?

The first and most difficult thing was to look inside of myself and understand what type of things needed to change in my own life. That initial look in the mirror was horrifying for me because there was so much that needed to change. My level of underdevelopment was unspeakable. There were many flaws. For one, I had to stop smoking and getting high. I was functionally illiterate so I had to begin to educate myself. I used to spend 8 or more hours a day just studying and trying to make up for lost time. History, politics, social science, culture, legal issues, and just life in general were all issues I studied. Of course with different degrees of success. I wanted to know all the things which were never taught to me in school. I learned about the true meaning of capitalism, socialism, and other concepts which play a major role in our lives. For the first time in my life, I felt empowered, so I wanted to test myself and went to take the G.E.D. test. I was able to pass the test the first time around. The prison administration at Dallas thought that I cheated on the test because I never went to any of their classes. Also just one year earlier I was told during my pre-sentence diagnostic test that I had the mentality of a fourth grader and that I was incapable of learning. That lit a fire inside of me that still burns to this day. They ended up having my counselor interview me to determine if I was mentally capable of passing the test. She was impressed with the hour-long conversation we had and stated that I was mentally capable.

How would you respond to those individuals who argue that highlighting the voices of those who have been convicted of crimes harms victims?

I want to first state that we too have been victimized by this government and her corporate allies, but unfortunately no one hears our complaints. I have compassion in my heart for all the innocent victims of crime. However, we must understand that, unless you belong to the privileged class in this country, you are being victimized in some shape or form. Ultimately we must learn to work together to heal ourselves and to change this reality.

How has your own incarceration impacted your family and community? Or, if this feels too personal to go into, how have high incarceration rates (more generally) impacted your community?

My imprisonment has had a major impact on my family and I. First, there is my 31 year old daughter who has had to grow up without her father there to protect her. The agony of missing out on that relationship with her is beyond words. I missed out on valuable time with my mother Edna Lee who passed in 2010, and my brother Darryl Lee who passed in 2001. I have one remaining aunt alive, as well as two sisters, and one of my sisters is very ill. Wanda Bush, my oldest sister, is burdened with not only trying to keep my family together, but also with assisting me. Zenobia Johnson, my other sister, is in need of a lung transplant. Ergo I’ve missed out on some precious moments with them, and all my nieces and nephews. This is very painful for those who love you, but do not know how to help you in such a situation. It is stressful for them.

What song would you want to be the soundtrack to your story?

“Joy and Pain” by Maze – featuring Frankie Beverly. I’ve endured much pain in my life, and I wish to turn this pain into some joy. Also, it is true that the very same things that can make you laugh can make you cry – love being one of those things. Today you can laugh and joke with a person and tomorrow be crying over that person. My life has been more down than up, but I’ve learned to laugh at some of the things which used to make me cry. For instance, being in love with a woman and losing that love used to make me cry. However, in time you learn to live with things, and laugh with joy about the good times you had with that person.

If your voice could be heard anywhere, where would you want it to be heard? (Note: Use your imagination – be creative – but please keep this within 200 miles of Philadelphia if possible!)

I want my voice to be heard somewhere you have young people searching for identity, and experiencing peer pressure and about to enter into the world of the street life. I want them to think about the ramifications of their decisions, both good and bad. I want them to hear my pain and understand exactly how easy it is to be trapped within a cycle of anguish. Also, how difficult it is to extract yourself from this misery. All it takes is one bad decision! Or being with the wrong people at the wrong time can forever change your life!

Do we have your permission to publicly display/publish both your written and audio answers to these questions? 

Yes, you have my permission to use whatever I send to you. I trust that you’ll do what is in my best interest. If you cannot trust your comrades, then who can you trust! Also my real name can be used – I have nothing to hide.