Category Archives: family

The Bubble Pot

John and JoannaI met him quite by accident, although later
I’d concede that it was Fate, that tripartite
goddess alert to put a twist in things.
Spoke in the wheel. Bird in the bush.

Round about the caldron go;
in the poison’d entrails throw.

As if they cared tuppence what would
become of us. Those Weird Sisters.
Harsh Spinners. Maiden, mother, crone.
Witches, stirring at the bubble pot.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
in the caldron boil and bake.

He wrote to me, you see. That piece
out of my novel in the paper, the cat
in the next cell whose mother
looked up my address. All that.

Eye of newt, and toe of frog.
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog.

He asked me to come see him, and I came.
Lamb to the slaughter, peat to the flame.
It was, he told me later,
as though it had been planned.

Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing.

I had never been inside a prison
in my life. He had barely been outside.
So it was up to me to take that giant
leap across the tracks.

For a charm of powerful trouble,
like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

One small step, the spaceman said.
Moonwalker. Moontalker.
The moon is cold.
The witches’ brew is hot.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
then the charm is firm and good.

How a Penpal is Like Gold, A Visitor Like Diamonds . . .

John and JoannaPeople were horrified John Lee had my address. They said he’d send someone to rob my house, or kidnap me and make me empty out my bank account, maybe even shoot me. Or he’d hand my address around for other men to put a hit on me.

When I told John Lee this, he clasped his hands and turned his head down. A few moments passed, and then he took hold of the bars and brought himself up close behind the glass.

“You know how precious a penpal is? A penpal is like gold in here. And someone who comes visit is like diamonds. I’m a rich man on account of you, so you can always trust me to protect you. Soon’s I open one of your letters I tear the address off into little bits and flush it down the toilet. It makes me nervous, though, when they bring the mail, because they put it all out on a table. I try to get there fast, but some guy could see your address on the envelope before I get to it, so if anyone does write you, don’t answer, because you don’t know who they are. There’s some real bad guys in here. I don’t mean put a hit on you. They’d try to steal you. That’s about the worst thing you can do to a prisoner, steal his people.”

“Don’t worry, no one’s going to steal me.”

“Well, I know you’re a kind person so I have to warn you. Don’t let your kind heart run away with you. You write to any other prisoner, I will cut you off.”

That shocked me. John was supposed to be the needy one, the one reaching out, but now it seemed to be the other way around.

“Don’t think that’s on account of jealousy,” he said. “It’s not jealousy, it’s self-protection. I’ve seen it happen to other guys. There was one guy in here had a penpal, and another guy had a different penpal, both college students, but it turned out the two girls were roommates and they talked about their guys to each other, and then one of them wrote her penpal and told him something about the other one, something private, and it turned into a real bad situation between the two guys.

“You’ve got to understand these guys lived on the same block, they couldn’t get away from each other, and this guy is telling stuff on the other guy. So the other guy writes to his penpal and tells her the problem he’s having, and what does she do? She drops him. Never writes to him again.

That was a real loss for him because he didn’t have anybody else out in the world. He’s only young and he got depressed, sat on his bed staring at the wall for weeks. And actually, he was lucky, he could have had it worse. A guy gets something on you and who knows what he’ll use it for. Could end up someone getting hurt. That’s why there’s not much trust in this place. You have to watch yourself because everyone is watching you, looking for a weak spot.

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Joanna Receives Advice from a Gentle Nun

Sister AnnShortly after meeting John Lee, a letter came for me addressed in the shaky handwriting of the very old:

“Dear Joanna Catherine Scott,

“I am a Dominican Sister who is retired and living at our Mother House in Adrian, Michigan. I am able to write to John Lee but I am not able to travel to visit him. John Lee has been wishing to have a friend who lives close enough to visit him. He wrote to me saying that now he does, and he is very happy about it. It is an answer to much prayer by both of us. Over the years he has told me about his life and he may be doing that with you also. He is now waiting to hear from the judge about his case. We have been praying for a good judgment. I have been having the Sisters here and my family praying too.”

Sister Ann gave me her email address and phone number so I emailed her telling her I’d call her in the morning.

To which she replied: “Before you call me I want you to know that all during the time I have known John Lee, I have been sending him a little money and books. I told him recently that I will not be able to continue doing that because of my situation here. When I met him, John Lee  had no one to give him any help and he was very sad and lonely. I do not want him to be in that same state if there is someone who can give him a little help. If you are able to do that I would be happy for him and grateful to you.”

I emailed back and told her I would be happy to take care of him any way I could.

To which Sister Ann replied: “Dear Joanna, I just read your email. It made me cry. I am so happy you have found him. I have been loving him for all these years that I have known him. I will keep in touch with him all I can even when I can no longer support him. I am looking forward to talking with you tomorrow. John Lee and I have been praying for so long for this that I am sure it is a real gift from God. Please tell him that when you see him. I love you also, Ann.”

Next morning we talked. Sister Ann was a gracious and wise woman who had worked with children in the Los Angeles ghetto and understood the problems of the poor.

“I believe,” she said, “God puts people in my way who need my help and for six years now that’s been John Lee. I’ve been a teacher all my life and I know there’s always one or two who need special help. John Lee only has a little formal education, sixth grade I believe, but he’s been working to improve himself and trying to help the younger men, so I take care of his needs by sending him books to help him do that. And we write back and forth all the time. Sometimes I write him every day, but at least two or three times a week. I’m eighty-one and too old to teach anymore, so I spend my time talking back and forth.

“He really loves you and I am happy you have so many children (I have seven now, including John Lee) because it shows you have learned how to nurture. The way I see it, he needs nurturing more than anything, and I think God has sent you to him so he can have that.”

I hung up the phone and sat a long time contemplating that word “nurture.” A gentle word from a gentle lady.


Justice for John Lee: How It All Began Chapter 3

John and JoannaJohn Lee is now housed in a medium security facility in Burgaw, NC – Pender Correctional Institution.[1] However, 8 years ago when Joanna first knew of John Lee, he was on death row in Central Prison in Raleigh, awaiting an appeal. That is where Joanna first visited him.

“As I turned into the doorway of the visitation booth at Central Prison, I could see John Lee waiting on the other side of a glass partition. Intensity came off him like an arm reaching out to drag me in.

“Shut the door,” he said, so I shut it and sat down, my first experience with a prison stool.

Up close I could only see my own reflection. Then I saw my own reflection with what appeared to be a head inside it. After a little experimenting with position, I was looking at a young man in a blood red jumpsuit.

The visitation booth was small and double, like a pair of telephone booths set one behind the other and separated by a thick, wire-crises-crossed window. Cream-painted metal rods ran vertically behind the glass. A narrow ledge ran below the window, and between the window and the ledge was a fine-holed rectangular grille for speaking through. A matching grille, I came to understand, was on the other side, the two separated by several inches of dead air. This arrangement made for a curious intimacy, since it was necessary to lean in close to be clearly heard.

At first we just sat there looking at each other. Then I said, “Hello, I’m Joanna,” and he said, “I’m John Lee. Thank you for coming.”

He turned his head aside, looking down. “I’m nervous,” he said in a small voice.

“I’m nervous too,” I said, and we began to talk.

Despite the photo, I had expected John Lee to be a thuggish sort of person, someone ignorant and inarticulate, a murderer no less. But this young man had kind eyes and a gentle manner. He was honey-skinned, carefully spoken, remarkably well read. It was a strange conversation. In his letter he’d seemed intent on telling me about his life, but here we were talking about the effect of ancient Egypt on modern culture. There were other topics too, all as esoteric, and it was not until years later that he told me he had crib notes on the ledge below the window and was desperately trying to make me think he was intelligent enough to be worthwhile.

Eventually silence fell, at which point I said, “Well, I guess I’ll be going now.”

He looked at his watch. “We’ve got four minutes left.”

That’s when I learned visitation at Central Prison is an hour and a half and nobody leaves early. They want every second of their loved ones they can get.

“Oh,” I said, and tossing around for something else to say, asked if there was anything I could do for him.

He hesitated. “Will you come again?”

Up till then I’d thought this visit was a one-off, not consciously, but now I knew I had. Oh dear, I thought, I’m into something here. At which point a guard thumped back the door behind me and John began to say goodbye.”


[1] We will tell the story of this situation as soon as the lawyers working on John Lee’s behalf approve the text. It is somewhat sensitive due to the on-going nature of the case.

How I Became John Lee’s Mother – 3

John and JoannaAfter much struggling with my soul, I had accepted John’s plea that I accept him as a son. He said very little at the time, as though if he spoke the prospect of a family to love him and stand by him might fade away as his own blood family had faded.

A few days later, though, I got this letter:

“Dear Mom,

“It makes me very, very proud to write that. After you left, I went back to my cell and I sat on the bed and I felt this warm feeling all over my body, and I said to myself, Is this what true love feels like?

It didn’t go away and I lay awake all night just feeling good. I am not always an emotional person as far as letting my feelings show, as my present situation here requires that I never let anybody know what I am feeling.

I’ve been looking for love all my life, and meeting you have been a dream come true!! I was shocked when you said you love me. No one in my life before ever said they loved me, not just flat out like that.

And no one ever did love me except my grandmother. She loved me hard. She never said so, but I judge love by actions not by words.

I have never had a mother who loved me through actions and fought for me when I was in trouble. I only can recall my mother saying she did not want me, she wished I was dead.

It has been a long time since I was able to let my heart open up and let myself really love and trust again. What can I say but thank you and you have my undying love and friendship.

This certificate is a gift of my undying love for you. I have all of your children’s names on it. I used only the initial of their first name. JL -John Lee; A-Andrea; K-Katy; L-Samuel; S-Sean; M-Michael; A-Ashley. Yes, I have included my own name, that’s how close I feel to you.”

Enclosed was a handmade document with an ornate purple border and Old English lettering in black.

Certificate of Appreciation
presented to
Joanna Catherine Scott

In recognition of of your faithfulness, endurance, perseverance
and patience in this journey with me, I thank you
from the bottom of my heart. Traveling this road
can get mighty lonely at times, but your companionship
has made the miles that much easier to bear. I will
forever treasure your companionship.
– Love expressed in action
is priceless––J,A,K,L,S,M,A

 I sat there looking at it for a long, long time, and then I took it to the frame shop.

How I Became John Lee’s Mother – 2

John and JoannaThe night after John Lee offered himself to me as a son, I could not sleep. I heaved and humped and kicked until Joe moaned, “What on earth’s the matter?”

So I took my pillow and crept out of the room. My Korean daughter Ashley was sleeping in the spare bedroom, the pull-out couch in the family room was cumbersome and heavy, so I got a spare quilt from the hallway closet and lay down on my office floor and tried to sleep, but I could not. I was thinking about execution.

What if John’s appeal should fail? What if the executioner should get him after all? Could I bear it? Could I bear to go and watch him die a cruel death? And what would happen afterwards? What would they do with his body? Bury him in the prison yard so that he spent eternity locked up? So I could not even take flowers to his grave. Could I bear that? And if he didn’t die, if he spent his life in prison, could I bear that?

The door cracked open and Joe’s voice said, “What are you doing on the floor?” “I can’t sleep.”

Joe knows me well. I did not need to explain. He crept into the room and sat down on my ergonomic office chair. “You’re not going to be any good to him if you’re hospitalized for exhaustion.”

“But what if they execute him after all?”

“That’s out of your hands. You can only do what you can do for him.”

“But I’m not doing anything to help. I’m just this person loving him and being kind to him. What good is that?” Joe was silent.

“He says he wants to be my son. He says he wants me to be his mother.”

“Then be his mother. Come back to bed.” “It means I can’t ever change my mind. I have to stick with him. I have to go and watch him executed.”

“If they execute him, then they execute him. Worry about that when it happens. In the meantime, if you want to be his mother, be his mother. What harm can it do? I’m going back to bed.”

But still I agonized and could not sleep. Each night that week I lay there on the floor and thought and thought. By Friday I must give John an answer, but I could not come to a conclusion. For the first time I asked myself if I would have been better off never to have met him. If I had ignored that letter, never taken that rainy drive to Raleigh, never gone to see his lawyer, if I’d been scared off, or decided after all I didn’t want to get involved, I would by now have finished maybe two new novels, advancing my career. So why, I asked myself, why should I do this? Why make such a big commitment?

By now it was Thursday night and I must have fallen off to sleep because I woke to Joe saying, “Aren’t you prisoning today? It’s almost ten o’clock.” I didn’t shower, just leaped into my clothes, grabbed a hairbrush, lip gloss and mascara and ran for the front door with Joe’s voice behind me, “Hey, hey, slow down there.” He grabbed me from behind and held me for a brief, tight moment. “I think you’re wonderful, I want you to know that. I admire you. You’re doing a wonderful thing.”

Then I was racing for my car, backing up so fast I scratched along the hedge, stuck the mascara brush into my eye at the corner stoplight, and set out one-eyed and lipstickless along the highway. I marched into that visitation booth and plonked myself down on the stool.

“About me being your mother.” John Lee came alert. I could almost feel it physically.

“The answer’s yes, I’d be proud to be your mother.” Nothing still, just that alert watching. “Because I love you, baby, you know that.”

How I Became John Lee’s Mother – 1

John and JoannaOne of the most frequent questions Joanna gets is: How did you become John Lee’s mother?

It does seem a little unusual.  A British/Australian woman with six kids, three of them adopted, suddenly adopts a grown African-American guest of Death Row.


Here’s the story in three parts:

I became John Lee’s de facto mother before I ever thought of adopting him. I had recently confided in him my grief over how a youthful divorce had hurt my three Australian children growing up.

He had spent many hours telling me about his life, all the good, all the bad, all the stumbles and failures and successes. One day I asked him, “Why do you tell me all this stuff?”

“Because,” he said, “I want you to truly know me. Most people don’t know me. They don’t understand me. They judge me by my mistakes. But I think you’re different. I think you know how to look at the real person.”

“Oh,” I said. “I see.”

“No, I don’t think you do. Joanna, I hope one day to be free from this hell-hole. You know how I got here better than anyone. You know I am having a very difficult time coping with this injustice. I need someone to fight for me.

“Lawyers are lawyers and fight accordingly. A mother is a mother and fights accordingly. A friend is a friend and fights accordingly. And family is family and fights accordingly.

“I am in prison and the question is, who is going to fight for me the most? I don’t believe in the words weak and can’t. For me, it’s no picnic. It’s a lot of daily suffering, but I don’t complain when you come to visit.

I have no right to ask you to fight for me when my own blood family won’t fight for me, but the guys who went home from Death Row in the past had people fighting for them, and this is one of the hardest things for a person on Death Row to have in his life.

“Oh,” I said again. “I see.”

“I believe that sometimes good things happen when we are humble and seek to live a good and gentle life. I do believe that, yes. And when you look at you and me, even though we’re from different sides of the tracks, even though we’re different from each other in everything––race, education, experience in life, it seems to me we can help each other.

“Because you have a burden and I have a burden too. I have the burden of being innocent in prison. You have the burden about how divorce hurt your children. I need family to fight for me and love me. You need a son to love and fight for.”

He stopped and took a breath. “Joanna, I give myself to you as a son. Will you accept me?”

And then the door banged back, the guard called, “Time!” and he was gone.


Learning to Forsee Consequences

cropped-sc0038927a2.jpgOne day John Lee called me from the prison. “You know,” he said, and I reached to click on my recorder. “I think,” he said, “my cousin might feel bad about what he done to me. He came up here to Central Prison for medical just before he was released, maybe around two thousand.”

“One of the guys on Death Row was sitting up there in the cages at the hospital and this dude started talking to him, asked him if he knew me. Said, give my love to my cousin, tell him I got him in my heart, tell him I’m thinking of him, hope he’s holding up.”

“The Death Row guy, he came back and told me about this dude but he didn’t know his name. I said what’s he look like, and then I knew who it was sitting up there still calling me cousin.”

“I told the Death Row guy who he was, what that boy had done to me, and he said, ‘Damn! I wish I’d known that. I’d a tried to talk some sense into that guy. Told him to confess.’”

“So I think my cousin feels bad. They say he’s gone running to the church. Maybe that’s why. He wants Jesus to forgive him.”

“You know, my grandmother warned me about him when I first came down to Rockingham. He came to her house one day to take me somewhere, him and a couple of guys I didn’t know.”

“Grandma came out on the front porch. She said, ‘Baby, don’t get in that car, don’t get in that car. Baby, them boys ain’t your friends.’”

“But I got in anyway. I was a stupid, ignorant young boy back then and I said, ‘It’s just Kelly, Grandma.’ And I got in the car.”

“That was bad judgement on my part, trusting a cousin I hadn’t seen in thirteen years. If I’d paid attention to Grandma I wouldn’t be in this predicament today.”

“You know, when you’re forced to sit and think and can’t go anywhere, just sit and think about your life, you see things differently, and I know now that was part of my downfall, always moving, never sitting back to really think.”

“Not that I could have back then, I still had a street mentality back then. It’s not that I was a bad person, I just couldn’t see into the future, I didn’t have the right frame of mind to see what consequences might come down the road.”

“I had to come here and be forced, just forced into a different frame of mind. I can look into the future now, and I can look at past stuff and apply it to the future.”

“A shame you couldn’t do that back then.”

“Yeah, yeah. If I’d taken Grandma’s advice . . . but, you know, when I first moved down there to Rockingham, I went to see Kelly’s family and they were, ‘Johnny Lee! Johnny Lee!’ Hugging me, happy to see me. I liked that, I felt wanted. Kelly was my cousin. I held him in my arms when he was a baby in DC.”

“You think one day he’ll confess?”

“Not if he thinks they’ll put a murder charge on him.”

Fourteen Years to Get the Affidavits the Courts Kept Asking For

Innocent CoverOnce John Lee was transferred from Death Row to Safekeeping, he had access to a telephone. This was a great advantage to me as his potential biographer because now, instead of furtively scribbled shorthand on bits of paper smuggled into the visitation booth, I simply had to click on my little tape recorder.

One day I was remarking on how long it had taken for him to find a lawyer who would do what was needed to file an appeal that would hold up in court.

“Yep,” he said, fourteen years it took before I got a lawyer who just went out and got the affidavits the courts kept asking for. I’m grateful to him for that.

“You know,” he said, “one of the interns early on in my case told me I’d be executed by nineteen ninety-eight, so I’d be dead now, I never would have met you if I hadn’t got rid of my old lawyer and got a new one. My old lawyer, she wouldn’t go away and I knew she was going to get me killed. I had to do something to get rid of her.”

“What did you do?”

“Threatened to drop my appeals and let the state go ahead and execute me. I knew that would work because other prisoners had done that to get a new lawyer. I feel bad about doing that to her, but I had to do what I had to do.”

“That’s another reason why I find it hard to trust today. You have to know someone really well, you have to have a history with them, you have to have seen them in all sorts of circumstances, you have to go through stuff with them before you can really trust them.”

“It’s sad to say, but I’m in this predicament today because I trusted where I shouldn’t. I trusted my cousin because he was family, but I hadn’t seen him for thirteen years and didn’t know what sort of man he’d grown up to be.”

“When I came into wisdom and knowledge I would sit back in my cell and think about those two boys from the Pantry store, what got done to them. I wish I could get out of here and help bring the true killer to justice.”

“So who do you think that was, who do you think was the triggerman?”

“I won’t speculate about that.”

“Go on, speculate. Everybody speculates about you.”

“I’m not judging someone else when I don’t know the truth. Not after what got done to me. Joanna, I’m guilty only of bad judgement, not of anything to lose my life over. I’ve always been a good person. I’ve made some mistakes in life, but everybody has made them and I’m still learning and working hard to overcome my mistakes. I just want the chance to be the person I know I can be in this world.”

Your Donation Will Help John Lee Achieve His Dream

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

“You know,” John Lee said to me one day, “when I was a child I used to steal out of stores because my blood family was so poor. A lot of times there was no food to eat and my little sister and brothers would be crying to me. My little brother Clarence got so hungry he ate the paint off the wall and got lead poisoning.

“When I got older I didn’t do that stealing any more. I’d walk in stores and wouldn’t steal. Not even broke as hell.

“My Aunt Ree, she had a bunch of children, but when she had to take her rent money and her bills money to the place Western Union, sometimes she would ask me to do it over her own children! She didn’t trust any of them with her rent money, only me.

“The guys on Death Row used to trust me too. They would give me their money––this was back when Death Row had cash money––and I would take their orders and go get canteen for them. I never had a problem. No one ever challenged me. I always gave right change.sc0038927a

“Maybe this is why, when I got off death row and they put me in the population, the warden asked me to run a canteen.” He shrugged. “Or maybe he thought I’d mess up, I don’t know.”

John Lee did not mess up. He agreed to take the job on condition he could run the canteen as he saw fit. He was assigned to the most difficult canteen in the prison, the one that serves the Safekeeping and Diagnostics population.

Here, in a store he kept assiduously spic and span, he refused to engage in hustling, for which canteen men are routinely fired, developed a relationship of trust with the staff, and skillfully managed a very difficult group of inmate customers, especially the young ones, who are the most dangerous and constantly on the alert for weaknesses in others of which to take advantage.

He did so well, achieving the first zero deficit at canteen stocktaking in the history of Central Prison, that he was taken up before the warden for congratulation.

I tell you all this because John Lee dreams of starting his own business when he gets out of prison. He is currently at Pender Correctional, a medium custody prison in Burgaw, NC, but has applied to take a plumbing course at another prison so he will have a skill when he gets out.

If he is accepted to the course he will move north to Pamlico Correctional, east of New Bern. Classes start on May 19, and he will not know if he has been accepted until he’s called to get on the bus.

We are all waiting with bated breath, hoping he gets this opportunity. As he said to me, “If I can manage a big canteen at a close custody prison, I can start my own business and make it a success when I am free.”