This is a story about friendship, a deep and improbable friendship that defied all odds. I look back on it today as a kind of miracle, given the disparities in age, race, background and culture.
The friendship is between myself, a resident of the upper west side in NYC, retired white woman, engaged primarily with family and the League of Women Voters and a young man, half my age, African American, who left school after 7th grade, was arrested at 15 and imprisoned for 24 years.
It came about through Project Solidarity, a program coordinated by Prison Writes in order to support and comfort prisoners and to educate volunteers on criminal justice. At the Orientation Executive Director, Jessica Hall, outlined the vision of the program and reinforced the value of the correspondence. Jessica became my friend, ally and mentor. I signed on and was given Javon as my pen pal.
I sent him an introductory letter with my background and personal detail in May 2017. At the very end, I added my work with the non-partisan League of Women Voters, which lobbies on issues of public policy.
Once the letter was sent, I worried about the reference to the League of Women Voters. What was I thinking? How would a guy who’d been in prison for 22 years relate to the League of Women Voters? Did I send too much personal detail, not enough detail? What to expect??
Javon‘s reply came in a week. He wrote, (among other things) “What issues is the League studying”? That came as a shock. I answered fast. “Campaign Finance”.
He wrote back, “I have researched your issue and determined that it was the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that had exacerbated the problem."
This was mind blowing. He had “researched my issue”? How? Where? When? It was also a shock to read that he had paid money for a phone bank so that we could talk together about issues.
We were off to a fast start.
For the next year we wrote and talked and exchanged ideas on everything under the sun... family, criminal justice, education meditation politics. It was as if we had been talking together for years. What was astonishing was not only the ease with which we communicated, but the fact that we were “of a mind” on most everything.
Javon called prison “the abyss of nothingness” in contrast, after twenty-two years in prison, he was intelligent, informed, articulate, caring. He talked of his struggles to maintain focus and stave off depression. We talked about meditation as remedy but he described the chaos of dorm life, which precluded peace and quiet and any kind of self-reflection. We talked of his dream to be anti violence counselor to teens-at-risk. He talked about 4 years of solitary confinement and his fight to come back to normalcy. He talked about legislation as the only real solution to the criminal justice system which inspired my pursuit of reform legislation with my State Senator.
He said on one call that the only way our friendship would last is if I shared my problems so that he could support me as I was supporting him. When I shared with him my grief at the loss of my beloved brother, Charlie, Javon asked me to tell him about him.
By March we had become the best of friends, impossible by any measure. We discussed, we argued and we laughed together. For whatever reason and/or chemistry, that is what happened. We now focused on his petition for parole, scheduled for May. This would be his 9th petition. Javon was hopeful. The word among prisoners was that the parole Board had a new attitude. Jessica and I wrote recommendations to the Parole Board. We tried to adopt Javon’s optimism. We started counting the days.
Parole day came. I literally stood by the phone waiting for his call. Would he know right away? What if it was refused for the 10th time? We would hire a lawyer immediately, the one he had hoped to get for his 8th hearing. Late in the day he called. I held my breath. He would be informed of the decision in 3 days. His fellow prisoners came to him after the hearing and said they were praying for him. So were we.
Three more days to wait. It seemed like a year. The phone rang. My heart stopped. He said, “Robin, I got it. I got it. Parole has been approved.” I think that I shouted, “What? Are you sure? Did they say that? When? Tell me exactly what was said!” He was laughing. He had to tell me again. He couldn’t talk long, many other calls to make. He would receive a formal letter with the parole date within a week.
The letter came. The date for parole would be July 3. We eagerly set the date for our first meeting and celebration on July 7 at a restaurant on the lower east side.
Javon said he would take the bus home to NYC where he was moving in with an Aunt in Harlem. He had hoped to fly, but there was no money for the plane. Bus memories were bad. He had been taken by bus with hands and feet shackled as he was moved to new prisons over the years. But he accepted the reality of the bus, just as he had learned to accept realities of prison life.
Javon called the next day with a cell phone given to him by the family. He reported on the homecoming. The family was at the bus station, waiting in full force: his mother, six Aunts, dozens of cousins, nieces, nephews, and friends. A tremendous, jubilant time. They brought him home in triumph.
Four days to go for our celebration!
The meeting day finally came. I paced the apartment until it was time to leave. I was excited, nervous, agitated. Would we connect in person as we had by letter and phone? Would we remain Best Friends? Would he be disappointed? Would I? What to think? I called Javon on my bus ride to the restaurant. He said he had a big surprise for me.
I ran into the restaurant looking for him, although I didn't know what to look for. Javon had sent me one picture but it was taken from afar and was very dark, so I really had no idea of what he looked like. Javon saw me first. He shouted my name and came running and lifted Jessica and me to the skies with gigantic hugs.
The surprise turned out to be Javon’s mother, Cheryl, who was seated at our table waiting for us, the happiest woman on the face of the earth. She jumped up and opened her arms to Jessica and me and made us part of her family on the spot. She was exhilarated as we all were and told of visits to Javon in various prisons. She said that she never cried in front of Javon. She cried instead on the long bus rides home. Javon was at peace, supremely happy, listening and reveling in the stories and in our togetherness.
The cell phone was a breakthrough. Now I could do the calling. I found in his first week home that he was besieged with calls and invitations and visits from an army of family and friends and neighbors. Everyone wanted to take a selfie with him. He was both gratified and unsettled by his celebrity. The other big news was about Angel, a beautiful young woman whom he met at a friend’s wedding his first weekend home. They fell in love and became a couple. More rejoicing. He had love in his life.
We talked almost daily after that and set up various breakfasts, lunches, and dinner outings with Jessica. One was with my daughters who had been waiting their turn to meet Javon. They bonded like my son had on the phone with Javon.
I called frequently. Javon sounded down. His mother had just had major back surgery and he was spending nights in the hospital with her. He was also being called by everyone in his family to help with altercations that arose. That included help for a brother who had fled the city to escape a gang vendetta. He wanted his brother to live with him once he got his own apartment. In the meantime, Javon felt responsible for everyone because he had not been there for them for twenty-four years.
I kept talking of the overriding need for a steady job to bring stability and discipline into his life. Javon agreed but was struggling to meet all the new demands on his time. He finally said, “Robin, I have all the resources and support I need. The problem lies now within. I have to get my act together and take control of things.”
That woke me up. Javon had been free for four months after twenty-four years in prison. The reentry process is long and hard. I had to back off and support Javon in finding a job in his own time frame, not mine.
Ten days later Javon called in a state of euphoria! He had a “A REAL JOB”. UPS had just hired him as a driver’s helper. Angel helped him fill out an application on line. He was called to an interview on the next day and was hired on the spot. He said, “I couldn’t wait to tell you.”
A Saturday dinner was scheduled in celebration. This was to be our introduction to Angel as well. We were excited. Javon called late Friday afternoon to say he had to work on Saturday and might be late.
Angel called Saturday afternoon. I knew by her voice something was very wrong. She said that Javon had collapsed on the train into the city and was rushed by EMS to a hospital in Jersey City. Jessica and I went to the hospital and met with the family gathered together in disbelief and despair. Javon had suffered a massive heart attack. He was unconscious and in a coma.
Javon never regained consciousness.
The family withdrew life support on Wednesday, November 14th, the very day Jessica and I had met with Senator Benjamin’s Chief of Staff. The meeting with Senator Benjamin’s Chief of Staff had come about because of Javon. And Javon was gone.
The funeral was held on November 30 in Astoria. Jessica, my daughters and I attended the viewing, the funeral service, the burial in New Jersey and the repast back at the church. We clung to each other and to his family.
I had long planned to write the story of this friendship with Javon’s approval. It was to have been a story of his triumph over adversity. It was to have been a story of his new life of purpose and service. It was to have been a story of the fulfillment that comes with human interaction and friendship. It was to have been a happy story.
Instead it is a story of loss, an irreconcilable loss.
But I have to remind myself of the good that has come from Javon.
Jessica and I remain in contact with Cheryl and Angel. We will have a dinner together at the end of the month and keep connected.
Twenty some prisoners from Javon’s dorm sent a card to Cheryl expressing their grief. This was testimony to the impact he had on lives in prison. Their note brought honor to his life.
Senator Benjamin has spoke to the League of Women Voters and their co-host the Society of Ethical Culture about Criminal Justice reform.
I will continue to work with Jessica for funding for Project Solidarity and Prison Writes writing workshops.
These things happened because of Javon. I have his picture on my refrigerator along with all the rest of my family. I see him there and know that he opened my heart and mind to worlds and ideas and needs and courage I had never known. He has made me a better person.
(Updated Sept. 10, 2019)