Maximum Security: A Visit with David Gilbert

W. J. T. Mitchell

On 22 July 2016, I paid a visit to David Gilbert in Wende Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison not far from Buffalo, New York. The visit, arranged by one of David’s legal counselors, Cynthia Bowman, consisted of five hours of nonstop conversation on personal, political, and what can only be described as philosophical topics. From the moment we met, David impressed me with his marvelous sense of calm self-possession. He has a radiant smile, a resolute gaze, and an unbroken stream of humor, intelligence, ethical and political clarity without a trace of resentment. When he speaks, David has a habit of raising his hands above his head like an orator addressing an audience. But there is not a trace of pomposity in this gesture. It’s as if he is framing whatever he has to say (often modest and self-critical) in a moment of intense, deeply considered communication that is almost as arresting as his ideas and opinions.

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David is serving a life sentence for “felony murder,” a uniquely American legal nicety that makes a person guilty of any murder committed during a felony (like robbery), regardless of whether one actually killed anyone, intended to hurt anyone, or was even carrying a weapon. David was involved in the famous robbery of a Brinks truck in Nyack, New York on 21 October 1981, an act of what he called “revolutionary expropriation” aimed at supplying financial support for the Black Revolutionary Army, a militant spin-off from the Black Panther Party. At his trial, David insisted on representing himself, refusing to recognize the authority of the court, and presenting himself as a political prisoner who should have been tried by an international court.   As a result, he received the harshest possible sentence and (barring a pardon)[1] is unlikely to leave prison in his lifetime.

At one point I asked David if there was anything good about being incarcerated in a maximum-security prison. He was able to think of two things. First, “you meet a lot of interesting people in here that you would never meet on the outside.” Second, being a convicted felon means that you don’t have to participate in the joyless decision of voting for Hillary Clinton instead of the awful Donald Trump. A third thing, which he didn’t mention, is that a life sentence is a very effective way of finding out who your true friends are, who will stick by you and work hard to make your life bearable by visiting as often as possible and keeping your existence visible to the outside world. Certainly Gilbert is a very unusual “lifer,” sustained by a network of friends, centrally the former leaders of the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who have raised David’s son, Chesa Boudin, since he was a baby.

When I asked David how he has learned to cope with the miserable conditions of imprisonment without hope for parole, he made a point of emphasizing this environment of love, loyalty, and friendship that has sustained him now for thirty-three years of prison life. In this respect, he is certainly not typical of the prison population, many of whom feel abandoned to a living death. Is this just because he is such a remarkable individual? Or because he has an unusually energetic group of friends, which now includes young political activists from Black Lives Matter and other groups who come to seek his counsel. Most surely it is the interplay between his personality, his political principles, and his excellent choice of friends. Inside Wende prison, which is all too typical in having a black male population of about 90 percent, he relies on the long-standing network of racial solidarity engendered by his work with the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 70s and his subsequent work inside prison. These comrades protect him from what could otherwise be a very dangerous environment for a slender Jewish guy who is now becoming a somewhat frail senior citizen. In 33 years in maximum security, David has never experienced a physical assault.

Another factor in David’s remarkable endurance has been his self-definition as a political prisoner, an identity that gives incarceration itself a meaning quite different from the usual self-image of criminals as losers and/or victims. There is no trace of self-pity in his conversation.   And right alongside his relentlessly thorough self-criticism and acknowledgment of the terrible results of the crime he was involved in, there is a quiet, reflective sense of mindfulness, both in his relation to present circumstances and the conditions of everyday life, as well as the long arc of history to which he feels connected.

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Perhaps the most interesting moment in our five-hour conversation was at the moment of parting. As the loudspeaker rang out orders to leave, David took a moment to give me some advice. “As a first time visitor to a maximum security prison, you will probably feel a kind of melancholy as you depart. This is a common reaction, and you should be prepared for it.” This made me want to stay for another hour, because I was already starting to feel exactly the emotion he was describing, which only grew stronger as we made our way through the numerous gates out to the car. But what is this feeling really about? Could it be the sense of massive injustice that weighs down on this gentle, wise soul in every moment of his waking life, and must haunt his dreams? Is it a version of “survivors guilt” at the contrast between my own freedom and his probably endless imprisonment? Could it be my own sense that I could never endure the kind of conditions he has not merely suffered but also transformed into the setting for a meaningful life? Whenever I try to imagine what it would mean to be locked up for so long in this ludicrously misnamed “correctional facility,” my heart sinks into a certainty that I would never be able to stand the daily humiliations amid a system that seems designed only to induce despair and a breaking of the spirit. A kind of blackness opens up in my imagination that only seems deeper and darker when I contrast it to the wonderful life, freedom, and work that I have been so lucky to have, and appreciate even more having met David. Or maybe it was just the strangeness of feeling that David Gilbert, a man who maintains his moral equipoise, political vision, and modest cheerfulness amidst conditions whose thought utterly terrifies me, was taking out a moment to comfort me.

 

[1] Since Gilbert is in a state prison, he cannot be pardoned by President Obama, but must depend upon the mercy of Governor Andrew Cuomo, an unlikely possibility.

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