Behind Bars

Twenty-five to Life, What Does it Mean to Me?

By Herman Bell

Herman Bell has been incarcerated for more than 30 years, sentenced to 25 years to life. Despite an exemplary prison record he is regularly turned down for parole because of “the seriousness of the crime” for which he was convicted: the killing of a policeman. A mentor to many of the younger brothers at Sullivan where Herman is incarcerated, he recently spoke at a “Lifers” event where he gave this presentation. The Prisoner Justice Network of New York State is fighting for the change of such inhuman parole regulations that keep thousands of sisters and brothers incarcerated for decades despite having served their terms and having excellent prison records.

Although I have served more than 37 years in prison, I am still unable to wrap my mind around what that means; years of locking in-and-out of cells, letters from home and the occasional family photo; one letter telling that the new baby has arrived, another telling that my niece or nephew is doing well in school and that the neighbor next door died in his sleep; the photo shows Ma-dear and Dad looking good but are noticeably older. Twenty-five to life, what does that mean to me?

If you were a family man, like I was, with a young wife and two rambunctious boys, the separation had to have been heart-wrenching. It was for me. My boys, Johnes and Keith, had thoroughly broken me into domesticity: feeding them, changing and washing their diapers, dressing them, consoling them, taking them for their shots. Hoping the family dog wouldn’t bite me for reprimanding them. Their mother, high-spirited and the love of my life, was no less challenging; a borderline red-bone, with a delightful spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks, almond-shaped eyes and pouty lips. During our feuds, rather than talk, we wrote notes to each other and the children handed them to us.

What does doing twenty-five to life mean to me? As I mull over this question, I am reminded of the Elmina Castle, the Portuguese slave fortress, located on the West coast of Ghana from which enchained Afrikans were led through its infamous “door-of-no-return” to the holds of waiting slave ships that would take them to the New World. I too feel as though I’ve walked through a “door-of-no-return.”

Imprisonment: a modern plantation

If one knew nothing about the geography of a town in upstate New York where one is imprisoned, then one can readily imagine what the Afrikan slave must have felt on a southern plantation—not knowing where to run or how to get there. For me, getting from Attica or Clinton Dannemora, to my hood, seemed no different than for the Afrikan on a slave plantation in Georgia getting from there back to Afrika. Across the country, I have been held in many jails, and my family has had to travel thousands of miles to see me at considerable expense.

You know how families are received at these places: standing in the elements to get in; suffering the indignities of disparaging remarks; seating arrangements; frustrating package rules. Prison is where spiteful, petty, contemptible, morally unkind acts find free expression at the whim of those who have authority over us. The keepers are vigilant and they instinctively ferret out unguarded self-esteem, courage, and strength. Prison is designed to break you down, not build you up. It casually destroys the weak and unwary (as though they were an afterthought), and turns the spiritually debased into beasts. What’s not so strange about this is that the spiritually debased elicits no particular attention from the keepers. Twenty-five to life, what does that mean to me?

As the years go by

Time, faces, and relationships change, and like sand cascading down the funnel of an hourglass, nothing can resist this change. One day, you look in the mirror and see gray hair and a face that tells you you’ve aged; your body tells you that too. Some of your old friends have moved on and new ones have come to take their place.

Your mother and father may have passed away, as have mine, and I was unable to see them buried. You may have contemplated numerous possible scenarios, should you be imprisoned, but never that; and neither did I. The years take their toll, the people you believed in, the certainties you once embraced might have led you to realize that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. With luck, we come to understand that humility and wisdom come with age and experience, and that death is often merciful.

Release time and its uncertainty

In doing 25-life, you never know when your release time will come; as it is with death, you can never foretell the day it will knock on your door. Yet, in both instances, you better be prepared.

Make time work for you

The old-timers in here will tell you: make time work for you, not against you. 


I earned a dual Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and sociology and a master’s in sociology. It was hard work and could not have been accomplished without discipline, commitment, and sacrifice. Through the self-help projects I’ve developed on the outside while imprisoned, e.g., Calendar, Community Gardens, I have built remarkable relationships inside and outside these walls. And I have managed to keep a good name (which is all one can rightly claim as one’s own in here). Because of that, I have managed to make it through the day, one day at a time. Twenty-five to life, what does that mean to me?

The parole board

Parole is discretionary, we are told, not a right. When one’s freedom is withheld by another, be it a state institution or a private individual, it’s tantamount to slavery and is a poignant reminder that slavery was never abolished in the U.S.—the 13th Amendment preserved it.

State parole commissioners have guidelines to aid them in their parole decision; that decision, nevertheless, is still subjective. A host of variables weigh in on this process, including the kind of day a commissioner is having, societal stereotypes, the crime that one committed 30 years ago. As a parole candidate, one has to be impressed by what I’ve accomplished inside and on the outside; and my disciplinary is exemplary. Yet my next Board appearance will mark ten years beyond my minimum sentence. And I am not alone in this experience. Because of consistent denials, one is led to conclude that more is involved in these parole denials than meets the eye. One is led to conclude that power, politics, and economics are driving them. And that this triumvirate serves special interests. Yet those invested in this practice, and who profit handsomely from it, still argue that the mission of prisons is and always shall be about corrections and rehabilitation. They argue that prisons are not used as an employment agency or as a tool of social repression. But if that were true, then surely fewer people would be in prison today.


This is just a tiny piece of the picture. The point is that we remain in the grips of an economic order and culture that’s as formidable and treacherous as the recent quake, tsunami, and meltdown in Japan, and I wish it were not so.

Think about it. What do you or I produce in prison? Okay, there is the Corcraft Industry, which generates a few million dollars a year, yet it’s a pittance compared to the bigger picture relating to you and me. Billions are made just by keeping us in a cell. Our very presence is the raw product that sustains the prison industry. It did the same during chattel slavery for almost 400 years, and, like today, we’ve benefited none from it. Today, our people spend well over 500 billion in the U.S. economy, and we control practically none of it. The only institution of any consequence we control today is the Black church.

Today, the sons and daughters of the people employed to keep us here have begun to keep watch over us and our children, who now are finding themselves in here. We have to get out of these places, stay out of them and keep others out. And while still in here, it is our duty to use this time constructively, and thus be an asset to our communities when we get out. That way, we turn this thing on its head, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, which in this instance is what is meant by “falling in a shithouse and coming out smelling like a rose.”

For more info: or call 518-434-4037

March 26, 2011