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Voices from the inside: By the grace of God

People with banner reading "End Solitary Confinement" at a rally to support Corcoran Prison hunger strikers, California, 2013.
Photo: Tudor Stanley / AFSC

Note: This piece is in a series of stories about spiritual journeys in prison, written by incarcerated people. Read more here and here

"Good morning ladies and gentlemen, my name is Lester Shakil Alford and I am the Plaintiff in this civil matter. I am a Pro-se Plaintiff which means I will be representing myself throughout this entire trial, acting as my own attorney. I am proceeding pro-se because I am unable to afford and or retain a personal attorney to represent me in this case and the State is not required by Law to appoint me on in a civil matter. "

The above is just a small portion of my thirteen-page opening statement from a civil trial, deriving from the most traumatic experience I've ever went through in my life. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that the same traumatic experience is what led me to repent and seek God.

Here is my story. My name is Lester Shakil Alford. I'm 44 years old. I was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey to a single widowed mother (my father was murdered a couple of months before I was born so I never knew him). I have two siblings, an older sister and younger brother, we were raised in the projects between the cities of Elizabeth and Newark. I guess I can say that life began for me at the young age of twelve at my first arrest and thirteen when I left home to be on my own. I'm pretty sure in hind sight, that decision is what landed me in prison seven years later as an adult.

I am now a convicted felon serving a 50-year sentence with a 30-year stipulation for murder. I have been incarcerated for a little over 23 years of my sentence this time, not including the time I spent in prison as a juvenile. I can sadly say that I've spend more time on this earth as a prisoner than I've spent as a free man. Why? In the past, at times, I was the best at making a bad situation worse, and this time was no different. I just didn't know how drastically my life would change or why for that matter.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia. Lucy Dunce / AFSC.

On the date of June 16th, in the year of 2006, I was placed in a specially designed steel caged cell, something similar to a huge dog kennel. I remained this way for three years until July 19th, 2009. At this time, there was no other caged cell like this in the State of New Jersey and I was the only inmate to have been subjected to this treatment. For the three years I spent in this caged cell, I was completely isolated from any human contact and prohibited from even talking to anyone who may have passed by the caged cell, included inmates and staff alike.

I was forced to live under extremely harsh, atypical condition as compared to any other prisoner in New Jersey. I remained this way without being told why I was being treated like this, other than from time to time being told that my placement came from the Big Boys who run the Department of Corrections. What bewildered me about my placement in that caged cell was the fact that, although I was not a model prisoner by any means, I was not amongst the worst of the worst. In my 23 years of incarceration, I have never harmed, attempted to harm, threaten, or used abusive language toward any officer, staff, or employee of the Department of Corrections. In 23 years of incarceration, I have only had two physical altercations with another prisoner. So I have no clue as to why someone felt the need to place me in a caged cell like an animal and treat me the way they did.

As I began earlier, on June 16th, 2006 while housed at Northern State Prison in a cell under normal conditions, in the wee hours of the morning I was awakened from my sleep by several officers dressed in riot gear and operating a hand-held video camcorder. I was ordered by one of the officers to get off my bunk and strip naked for a cavity search, then ordered to turn and face the wall and get on my knees and place my hands on my head with my fingers interlocked. (I complied.) After several minutes in this position I was told to get dressed, then handcuffed and shackled and placed in an armored truck, with no windows, lights, or ventilation. When asked where was I going, I was told to shut up! (I did as was told.) Anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour later, I was dragged out of the armored truck with the realization that I was then at East Jersey State Prison's intake unit. I was then escorted by officers dressed in riot gear operating a hand-held video camcorder to Alpha unit of the Administrative Segregation Unit (ad-seg) and placed in a caged cell known as 126 with NOTHING but the boxer underwear I had on. The rest of my clothes were withheld from me for almost 2 months.

There were 176 prisoners on this unit but I was the only one to be placed inside a specially built caged cell.

After having the handcuffs and shackles removed I was told to strip naked yet again, grab my genitals and lift them up then bend over and spread myself for inspection and this occurred not only in front of the officers who escorted me to this caged cell with the video camcorder, but in front of all 176 prisoners as well. (And for the next three years I was forced to strip naked in front of 176 other inmates and compelled to expose myself and open my orifice for all to see whenever I was asked or ordered to exit and enter this caged cell.)

After the strip search I was placed inside the cell and the door was secured and locked, then the cage door was secured and locked with a padlock. It was ordered that I remain this way indefinitely and that under no circumstances was I to have any human contact with officers, staff, civilian, or inmates. NO HUMAN contact period. I was to be video recorded at all times. It was also ordered that a special log book be kept of all my actions and interactions.

Old Penitentiary, Idaho. Emily Cohane-Mann / AFSC.

The caged cell that I was placed in was not fit for an animal, let alone a human being. The caged cell was video monitored 24 hours a day, documenting my every move, including whenever I used the bathroom. The cell contained no light switch or no fire sprinkler. The cell leaked from the ceiling. The walls were infested with mold, and fecal matter. No shelves, no locker, or anything needed for a person to live in the cell. The toilet backed up with feces and urine whenever other prisoners flushed their toilets, and the smell was horrible.

There was no ventilation, so in the summer I was so hot that I could barely breathe and in the winter I thought I would freeze to death, it was so cold in there.

Now with all that I have just described to you, I was still denied for three years air in the summer and heat in the winter, the right to clean or sanitize this caged cell. I was denied the right to wash my personal clothes or my sheets and forced to live in unsanitary conditions.

The caged cell also had its own shower which was to only be occupied by me and no one else. For three years I was denied the right to clean or sanitize this shower and forced to shower in the accumulated stench and mold around the floor. I was denied the right to receive a haircut, to shave or be shaven or groomed by someone else. I was denied a comb, brush, pick and even a toothbrush.

I was denied the right to religious access and materials and to practice my religion. I was denied the right to speak with a chaplain, an Iman, or any persons in any faith or religion.

On occasions I was denied recreation for whatever reasons they could come up with. And to further humiliate me and add insult to injury, sometime they would send a female Special Investigator to film and record me being strip searched, totally naked, exposing my genitals and orifices. This was done even as I expressed the wish not to be filmed by anyone, let alone a female in front of 176 other prisoners and have to bend over and spread myself for all to see. This process occurred whenever I was removed from this cell and again when I returned. I had to repeat the exact same process of the strip search, although I had never been in contact with anyone or out of anyone's sight and filmed the whole time. Yet I was compelled to strip again, and again.

Old Penitentiary, Idaho. Emily Cohane-Mann / AFSC.

For three years, 90% of the time, I ate cold meals, because I was locked in a caged cell which had a padlock securing it and no one had access to the key except a high ranking supervisor, so whenever meals were served I had to wait for a supervisor to arrive with a key to open the cage to feed me. For whatever reason they always took their time coming with the key, which meant I either ate a cold meal or I didn't eat at all.  

Whenever I was served my meals, my tray and trash was left inside my cell until it was time to feed me again, which meant my breakfast tray was left inside my cell until lunch, my lunch tray and trash were left until dinner, and my dinner tray and trash were left in my cell until breakfast the next morning, leaving my cell to smell foul from the uneaten food in the trays. Again I was denied the right to clean or sanitize my cell.

I was denied any type of contact with my family, friends, and loved ones. My family was denied visitation. I was denied the right to correspond with anyone via mail. My mail was taken and read, then discarded.

Everything that other prisoners were afforded I was denied; every privilege or right that other prisoners received, I had taken away from me. I have experienced the true definitions of loneliness and abandonment and I wish that feeling on no-one else in this world. I believe that it was by the grace of God that I survived this cruel and unusual punishment and that I didn't go crazy in that caged cell. I am and have always been, since the day of my birth, a sane person. Never have I had to take any type of medication to subdue me, nor have I ever acted insanely towards another human being. Nevertheless I was placed in a caged cell like a rabid animal and stripped literally of my humanity, manhood, and every right and privilege that I was entitled to as a human being.

I wish I could tell you that I remember the exact date and time of my transformation but I can't. I can't because I didn't realize it was happening until I noticed a pattern in my daily routine of sitting inside the empty caged cell with nothing but my own thoughts. I began to pray more than I ever did in my life. I began to ask God to help me because I felt like I was losing my mind and I was so afraid of that feeling. I felt lost and abandoned. I felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and I didn't know what to do. I felt like I had no one and nothing in the world, with nowhere to turn to for help. I've never felt so alone in my life. I started thinking to myself, "maybe this lonely feeling is why some people kill themselves." Years after my experience, while trying to explain to one of my family members what I went through, I told her that if she really wanted to know, all she had to do was wait until no one was in the house with her, then lock herself inside a closet and sit there for a couple hours and tell me how she felt when I called back. I felt bad that I asked her to do that because she cried like a baby the next time I talked to her.

Old Penitentiary, Idaho. Emily Cohane-Mann / AFSC.

While in the cell I began to pray more, getting on my knees and praying until I would find myself crying, begging God to help me. I could not rationalize to myself why this was happening to me. I tortured myself for a long time with thoughts of my past wrong doings in life, from my adolescent age until adulthood, thinking along with every thought, "Maybe that is what I'm paying for." I think I was trying to find justification for what was happening to me, as if that would have made things more bearable for me. As time went by I became more and more numb to my situation, what was going on around me and I towards life in general I guess.

My prayers were answered one day when I awoke to find a small, blue, pocket-size Bible sitting on top of my lunch tray. (I found out a few days later that one of the correctional officers, who happened to also be a pastor, felt sorry for me and ask the Sgt. to give it to me when he delivered my lunch tray.) You would have thought I hit the lottery that's how happy I was to have gotten something to read to occupy my time and take away the loneliness. I read that Bible back to front, not really understanding everything I was reading. But I understood enough. I understood that I had to change my life, and to do that I had to give my life to the Lord. I knew I had to repent and accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I also knew it would not be easy. I started telling myself that everything I read in the Bible that a real follower of Christ was suppose to do I was going to put a 100% effort into doing it. I started by getting on knees and telling God that in order for me to succeed in what I needed to do, I was going to need his help, and a lot of it. I told him that from that point on, everyday he blessed me with I would dedicate it to changing my life and I meant every word.

Things remained the same for me for awhile, but for some reason I didn't feel as lonely as I had before once I realized that I wasn't alone in that cell. I got to know God and myself a little more and it was an amazing learning experience. Then out of the blue, three years and three days after being placed inside the caged cell, the door opened and they told me that I was permitted to be amongst other people again. I cried and walked out of the cell feeling lost, not knowing what to do or who to talk to first.

A few days after being released, I began to learn the law so I could file a lawsuit for the wrong that was done to me. And I did, in fact I'm the only prisoner to ever succeed in suing the NJDOC pro-se.

That's just a little bit of my journey. There's so much more that transpired in between the three years spent in that caged cell. It's been 10 years since that happened to me and I'm still trying to keep my promise to God with every day he blesses me with.

In hindsight, here is how I know that although I felt alone in there I really wasn't. I was 33 years old when they placed me in the caged cell. I was released 3 years and 3 days after they put me there. I read in the bible that Jesus was 33 when he was persecuted. I can't wait to see what awaits me with my new life...

Related Content:

Voices from the inside: Never in a million years

Voices from the inside: Surely I am free

God is in this work: A sister's story of the Pelican Bay Prison hunger strike

About the Author

Lester is a 44-yr old African American male who has been incarcerated for 23 plus years. He is a God-fearing man who is seeking redemption and salvation from a dark and dysfunctional past. He is driven by the determination to have a brighter and flourishing future as a free man, with a career as a writer and business owner.

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