Category Archives: Uncategorized

Pals for the Cats

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

When John Lee first made know his intention to try to make a friend of me, the reaction of the other men on Death Row was pretty much unanimous:

“Damn man, that woman’s white, man. That woman could be trouble.”

“Man, all right man, you know she’s a writer, man. That woman might be using you.”

“Man, you crazy, man. You done lost your mind.”

Even one of the correctional officers got into it. “Boy, you keep away from those white people. Those white people, they going lynch you, ain’t going do nothing for you, just leave you standing on the corner like a fool.”

However, as time went along and it became apparent that I was not going to hike up my skirts and run, that I was a faithful weekly visitor, a faithful correspondent, and a provider of books and funds for needful things, a gradual change took place.

On my way past visitation booths to number nine or twenty-one or -two, I found myself greeted by waves and smiling faces of other men waiting for a visit. A little longer and I would stop a moment in the doorway of this one or that for a few words of greeting, occasionally even going right up to the glass to whisper something or be whispered to. One Christmas I almost got thrown out for bearing Christmas spirit right into someone else’s booth and being merry.

With me suitably checked out, next came requests for pen pals. Ask Miss Joanna if. Does Miss Joanna know? I had a penal once, but then . . .

John Lee took things in hand. If I would find pen pals on the outside, he would give me names of men he knew were good respectful people and worthy of a friend. I would find the friend.

My good friend Beth Browne came up with a name for our little enterprise: PALS FOR THE CATS. And it went well. Some of those palships faded over time. Some are still strong today. The strongest ones ongoing are with local people who can go see their cat in person.

The ladies who work visitation see visitors come and go. They see men disappointed. So at first they were about as dubious of me as the men on the Row. Then they got used to me. They became friendly. They became kind.

One declared herself my fan. “You stick with Miss Joanna,” she would tell John Lee when she saw him about the prison. “You do what she tells you. She’s good for you.”

That lady is rooting for John Lee to get his freedom and not afraid to tell him so. It pained her when things went wrong for him through no fault of his own. She will be one of the first on our invitation list when we finally bring our beloved John Lee home.

An Offering of Thanks

Christmas 2013 Pender Correctional Institution Burgaw, NC

Christmas 2013
Pender Correctional Institution
Burgaw, NC

Today I am offering up thanks for my family and all my friends, in the flesh and in cyberspace, who are supporting me in this arduous journey toward justice with John Lee.

For your donations, thank you. For your constancy, thank you. For your understanding when I am exhausted from the long weekly drive back and forth to Burgaw, NC, where John Lee is now, thank you so very much.

Despite whatever concerns my friends may have had––and for all I know may still have privately––when I first began to visit John Lee at Central Prison, it did not take them long to come around. When they came to understand that I was serious and that John was not a menace to society, or me, or even to himself, they stood beside me.

Many of my friends are poets, so there’s something to be said for poetry! I will not tell their stories, they are not mine to tell, but one by one they came to visit or began to write, or rooted from the sidelines.

Every single person I have taken to see John has come out of the prison with a desire to help him in some way, and a gratifying number have become part of what he calls his supporting cast. And whatever any of these folks may have told John in letters or in visits, whatever secrets they have shared, not once has he breached confidence to me, not once.

John Lee says to tell you this:

“I do not think about myself no more now. I think about all of those who have shown me that they care. Getting my freedom is so important to so many others that I want to do something for them to show they have been helping a worthwhile man.

I am proud of myself because I have not allowed prison to shape me like most other cats have allowed it to do to them. I have done the best I can or could in this situation. Still, I hope to do a lot better with myself when I am free of this hell-hole, and able to better myself with the help of all my friends and loved ones.”

A Letter from Safekeeping – Part 2

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

You know, Joanna, a lot of my past is what motivates me to become successful in life one day. My past makes me hunger for lots of knowledge and deeper wisdom so I can one day go back to all of those in my past and teach and speak to them about what they helped me do in life.

I thought about you and the family on Thanksgiving Day, but it was not hard on me. Every year I think about you and the family, but I think that Christmas is the hardest for me.

I have never been a part of a family for Christmas, and have never had a Christmas gift except the bike my grandmother bought for me in 1980. (That bike got stolen after just one week!)

I ran away from home every Christmas. I think the only Christmas I didn’t run away was when I was with my grandmother. I even slept under the house one Christmas while it was snowing outside.

My life was a hard one all because of my white blood and light skin as a child. But it have made me a stronger person and a better human being. Lots of mix-blooded children went through this.

I can’t wait to meet Joe! Just knowing that your husband supports me means a lot to me! All my life I have been without strong support, and I have always known that I was and still am a very good person, and to have this chance means a lot to me.

Tell Joe I love him! (I don’t care if men don’t suppose to say this to other men.) I love him for caring!

I can’t wait to get away from this place, and live in a clean place that smells good. You know it will all be new to me, right? Having my own place and car and bills to pay.

I have never had these kind of responsibilities before, and I look forward to it, smile! I understand a lot more about the world than I did years ago, and the more I educate myself about the world, the more responsibilities I will be able to take on, right?

Prison is a very dangerous place. Every day I wake up and step out of this cell I must keep my eyes open and my ears open for the first sign of trouble. I need to be able to relax for once in my life, mentally, physically, and emotionally.


Joanna, I do not think about myself no more now. I think about you, Andy, Katy, Ashley, Lil-man, Joe, and all of those who have shown me that they care, and getting my freedom is so important to so many others.


I am just glad that I have a chance to get away from here!

A Letter from Safekeeping

John and JoannaWhen John Lee’s sentence was overturned, the court stipulated “Retry or release within 120 days.” He was then moved off Death Row to the Safekeeping section of the prison. Sixteen months later, he wrote this to Joanna:

I do not know what is going on throughout the universe, but I have been walking around this hell-hole with a very funny feeling, and I do not like it.

It is like I am not sure of anything any more, like waking up for the very first time in a long time, and seeing everything around me for the very first time in years. I am afraid!!

One cat here on the block with me, about two cells down from mine, have hanged himself. They cut his body down this morning.  Can you believe this? Why would someone hang themself?

I have been here too long, I need to get away from here. I talk with this cat every day and he goes and hangs himself! Just shows you never know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. The cat did not have a big charge or anything, and had a chance to go home again. So sad.

A lot of these new cats here on Safekeeping who have never been locked up before and never saw a person hang himself is messed up by this deeply, mentally and emotionally.

Joanna, I am doing all I can to keep this cat off my mind. I can’t believe I was just talking to him the other day, and after my visit with you he asked, “How was your visit?”

I said, “It was a very good one.”

He said, “That’s good.”

Now he is dead.

When I am free, I want to go to the woods and just sit down and hold your hand for hours, OK?

Off Death Row

sc0038927aIn 2008, when the Middle District vacated John Lee’s sentence and granted him habeas corpus, I was privileged to be the bearer of the good news.

His appellate lawyer had sent me the Decision, so I printed out the critical sentence, enlarging it so John Lee could read it through the dim window of the visitation booth, and carried it triumphantly with me to the prison.

I wanted to make the most of the surprise so I said mildly, “I’ve got a thing here you might like to read.”

He said, “Okay,” then took hold of the bars and pulled himself up close to the window. I pressed the page against it and watched his face. First puzzled curiosity, then concentration. He read it twice and I could almost see the words dropping through the layers of his mind.

He looked up at me as if to satisfy himself this was not a joke, then flung out his arms, hands thrusting at the wall like Samson bring down the pillars of the temple.

What he had just read was:

Conaway’s Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 must be and hereby is GRANTED. Respondent is directed to retry or release Petitioner from custody within 120 days of the entry of this Order.

Two days later he was moved off Death Row to Safekeeping. This is a cell block where men who have not yet been convicted are housed. It is not a delightful place, but John was looking freedom in the face and it was as though his entire body glowed.

He wrote to me: “Been watching the cats cut grass in front of the prison, and thinking how blessed they are to be able to cut grass in front of the prison. Even small things like this is a big blessing for a person in my shoes.

“I saw a big grasshopper jump up on the window, and I think the cutting of the grass chased the grasshopper away. The grasshopper stayed on the window for a few hours, and I was able to look at it as if I was looking through a microscope! I have never seen the underside of one of these grasshoppers before. It was a new experience for me.

“I know when I am free I am going to have to modulate slowly back into society. There is so much I do not know, and so much I will be afraid of, smile! You will have to hold my hand for a while, OK?”

Starting to Write John Lee’s Story

John and JoannaIn my middle-class white arrogance I had thought at first I’d teach John Lee something. Now week after week I sat with my head close to the speaker grille and listened while he spoke about a world of which I was ignorant, about his reading and his pondering, his philosophy of life. And I was humbled. I longed for a tape recorder, but no luck there, no tape recorders in the prison. And only whatever paper I could fit into a pocket with a plastic pen.

On one level John Lee’s story upset me, an appalling life of horror I could barely comprehend, but on another level the writer’s mind was working. Eventually, like a body rising to the surface of a lake transformed into a carp, what came floating up was poetry, his story in a nutshell. It would become the title poem of the collection An Innocent in the House of the Dead that John and I eventually wrote together.

At the time North Carolina was in an uproar about the death penalty, so I sent it to the News & Observer and they ran it in the Sunday book section. To my surprise, they paid me for it, a hundred dollars. I bought a money order for fifty and sent it off to John with a yellow sticky note on it saying, “Here’s your half of the payment for the N&O piece.”

A few days later it came back with a stern letter from the warden telling me that getting paid for anything was a banned activity for inmates and he trusted that I understood the need of his enforcing this policy. Oh dear! I told myself. You screwed up there. So I took the yellow sticker off the money order, mailed the money order back to John, and thought no more about it.

No so with John. His letter from the warden, which he included with his own to me, had been more forceful. Failure to abide by this policy would result in disciplinary action, not of me, the perpetrator of this dreadful crime, but of him.

I read John Lee’s letter with amazement. “Please don’t let this destroy our friendship. This is just a bump in the road for us. Something was bound to happen because everything has been going so well with our friendship. You have put too much work and time into building something with me. Just don’t give up on me. Joanna, I have never been so afraid of losing someone like I am of losing you. Stay strong. I know you can stay strong. Look at me. I make it every day through hell in here.”

“Goodness gracious!” I said next time I saw him. “What on earth would make you think I’d walk away because of this?”

But he was discombobulated and upset. “If you’re going to leave, tell me, don’t just walk away.” He pulled out a tissue, blew his nose, screwed the tissue into a ball, threw it up against the wall and caught it. “Just don’t leave me, please don’t leave me.”

“Okay, I said. “I won’t.” I spoke lightly, but I was shaken.

John Lee’s Journey Toward Self-Improvement

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

When I look back, even though I did not do the dreadful things I was accused of, I was still a very ignorant young man with no wisdom at all. But because of Gorman helping me, I was able to occupy my time with reading and learning.

Having someone out there in the world who can uplift you a little bit with funds and books, it makes a big difference in here . . . yeah, it’s a big BIG difference, you just don’t know.

You might have eighteen guys at the poker table trying to make a dime so they can go get themselves a soda, and while they’re at that table it causes all sorts of other negative problems. Next thing they get to cussing, they’re fighting.

I’d been out there doing all that stupid stuff, trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. But now I didn’t have to.

Every book I read, I could feel myself changing and elevating. It excited me and I wanted other people to start learning and elevating too. But all I knew to do was preach at them, try to make them read books they didn’t want. I never took time to find out why people did the things they did. I just judged them.

Even when I tried to help people I was still being judgmental. And when you’re judgmental, that means you’re putting yourself on a higher level. You’re saying, I’m better than you. I’m a better person.

Guys accused me of being a sell-out, guys tried to fight me, because they didn’t understand that a person needs to think for himself and follow his own path and not think and act like everybody around him.

It’s a hard thing to do, not worry about what other prisoners say. I had to do that, though, so I could go forward.

As I came to reflect more, it finally started to click on me that the man who is going to do most good in the world, is the one who can step back and sit up on the mountain and see everybody down in the valley clearly.

When you’re living in that valley and you’re caught up in all the stuff that goes on in the day rooms, it’s controlling everything about you, the way you perceive and everything, and you can’t see what the man sitting on the mountaintop can see. What affects them, what guides them, what controls them.

When you can see that, you’re in a position where you can truly help people.

Fond Memories of the Special Ed School

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

“What’s the happiest memory you have about your childhood?” I asked John on one visit. “I mean aside from Grandma?”

He set his elbows on the ledge below the visitation booth window, folded his hands beneath his chin, and turned his eyes aside and downward in the way of a man thinking hard about a problem.

“There was this lady used to drive the school bus when I was a little boy and I used to go to a special school for children with problems. In the regular school they said I was slow, so they put me in this special school and the bus driver actually made me the favorite child on the bus. Me out of all the white kids.

“Back then I didn’t realize what she was doing, but when I sat up in these cells and pondered on my past I began to realize that lady cared and she knew my mother was abusing me. If I didn’t go to school that day because I didn’t have the clothes or my mother wanted me to stay home and babysit, I’d hear her bus pull up in the yard.

“She’d pull right off the road, all the way up to the door, nearly hitting the door with the bus, and she’d blow that horn, keep blowing it––bom! bom! bom! bom! bom!––until somebody came to the door and told her what the deal was with me.

“That young white woman, she treated me like I was her son, treated me like a little boyfriend. She really took an interest in me and I looked forward to getting on that bus with her.

“One of the songs she used to listen to, when I hear that song right today it reminds me of her. It’s an old song from the seventies by Conway Twitty called “Slow Hand.” They don’t play that song too often. I remember the words, though.”

And he began to sing.

He was halfway through the second verse when he trailed off, smiling sheepishly. “I’m not a good singer like my brother Clarence.”

“It was beautiful,” I said, “just beautiful.”

“I know it’s a love song about a man and a woman, but it’s more than that. It’s about taking time to really care about a person, and that’s the memory I have of that bus driver, she really cared about the little abused boy I was back then.

“That school bus only fit seven people. I was the only boy. There was a little crippled girl, and an older lady who took care of her. She used to get me to help lift the little girl up, put her on the platform that lifts the wheelchair up on the bus. That made me really feel important as a little boy.

“I was doing good in that school. I guess I felt like I was somebody. So there’s some fond memories I remember as a child. And that’s a shame, because who’s going to have fond memories of the special ed school?”

The Strange Way a Childhood Dream Came True

From John Lee:

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

When I was a child I wanted to be a state trooper, probably because I stayed in state troopers’ cars so much. When I would run away, the state troopers were always the ones who would find me and take me back to the group homes. They were always kind to me, and they got to drive around all day and help people. I know I don’t have to be a trooper to help people. That was just one of my past dreams. I always had one dream or another.

Back in the late seventies my best friend and I would sit back at the waterfront pier in Cambridge, Maryland, and watch time go by. If we saw an airplane we would say, ‘One of these days I want to be on an airplane,’ or if we saw a speedboat flying by, it would be, ‘One of these days I want to race one of those speedboats.’ Young minds full of hopes and dreams, we always found something we wanted to be.

Kids don’t grow up saying, ‘One of these days I want to spend my life in prison,’ or, ‘One of these days I want to be a criminal.’ As a child, prison was the farthest thing from my mind. Matter of fact, I never knew such a place existed. We always had the most innocent goals in life. Now, sitting in this prison, my mind sometimes drifts back to those days. I think of the times my friends and I filled water balloons on hot summer days and drenched each other and the girls we had crushes on. My friends and I never had much but we had each other. I remember my first kiss, my first date. All these memories began with, ‘One of these days.’

As the years pass, it gets harder and harder to make sense of what happened to the days when I sat and dreamed some of the most ridiculous dreams a child like me could dream. My hopes, mine, all mine. To have them snatched away is worse than ice water thrown in my face. Still, some people succeed in spite of hardships, others succeed because of them. The truth is our problems help to make us what we are and those who struggle can learn perseverance. Those who fall down can teach others how to rise again.

That is why I work so hard to make myself a better, stronger, wiser person who will be of very great value to society. Because I know that one day I will overcome this injustice. I know it because of the people who have come into my life and loved me and cherished me, the lawyers who believe in me and are fighting for my freedom, and the good people who are giving their money to help a stranger.

Waiting for the Judge

sc0038927aWhile we waited for the court’s decision on the appeal that would vacate John Lee’s sentence, he talked to me about his life. Not in any organized way, just a memory here, a memory there, in the patchwork way we all remember our lives.

He told me how he used to take a line of children to the playground holding to a rope, one behind the other with him in the lead. “To keep them safe crossing the roads,” he said. And how they played so hard and got so tired he’d have to bring the little ones back home cradled in his arms.

“What children?” I asked. “From one of the group homes?”

“Nah, nah, that was in ’91, just before I came down here to North Carolina. I was a grown up man when I was doing that. I was living in DC with a girl called Debra. Known that girl all my life. Wanted to marry that girl. If she’d married me I’d have stayed up in DC, never would have got into this predicament.”

“Why wouldn’t she marry you?”

“‘Cos she knew how much I wanted children of my own, make a family, you know, all of that, and she couldn’t have any.”

“It’s quite a responsibility, taking care of other people’s children. The mothers must have really trusted you.”

“O’course. All the mothers loved me. I used to do jobs for them, all sorts of jobs, clean the house, babysit, painted one old lady’s house. The young single mothers were always after me to babysit so they could go off to the clubs.”

“They paid you?”

“What you talking about, paid? They had no money, I just did it.” He shrugged. “I guess I just love little kids. So I took them to the playground. I’d love to have a child of my own,” he says, and then he sighs. “Maybe if I’m lucky with the judge . . .”