Our friend Percy died in June. Percy participated in our group at Tucker Maximum Security Prison but he also has given so much to so many over the 42 years that he was incarcerated. As he was coming closer to death, I told him that even though he might not
Here is Percy’s story.
Percy lived in the poverty belt of south Arkansas in the small town of El Dorado. His story is tragically similar to many of the Delta’s African Americans and share-cropping whites; destitute and disenfranchised from society in every way.
Percy was born into a fractured family with many children. He had quit high school and was unprepared to do any work other than labor jobs. He was devoted to his mother and his siblings and did all that he could to help them survive on the meager monies the family received with far too many bellies to fill. His mom went through many relationships, and then a new man entered her life when Percy was in his early twenties. He still lived at home and this new man issued an ultimatum – either Percy goes or he goes. My. Much too often I have heard this story of competition over the Mom in families that already have enormous stress and limited resources.
It broke Percy’s heart to be kicked out to live in the streets. He had no job, no money, and no life direction. He was reeling with feelings of abandonment and rejection. He was enraged. His only purpose had been to help his mom with the family and she had chosen everyone else over him.
Percy did have a cousin that he had always looked up to like a big brother. The cousin was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was not taking medicine or getting regular treatment. They hung out together a lot. Both were homeless and in the streets doing nothing. They were both feeling like rejects, angry and bitter, and confused beyond reason about how to make it in the world. There was no guidance or support. But the cousin had dreams of easy money in a community where petty crime was a way of life. He began grooming Percy to be his crime partner and had modeled his illegal behaviors for many years. They talked about robbing someone. Inept thieves, they were hungry and chose two equally hungry and poverty-stricken targets to hit up for money. There wasn’t a penny to be had and Percy’s cousin was mad. In a flash, two men lay dead, shot by the irrational cousin.
Percy had not planned a shooting or participated in that impulsive killings during the robbery of these two others. At that time in our Arkansas justice system, guilt by association often meant that the one who did the murder received a life sentence without parole, and all participants, active or passive, received the same sentence equally. So, in 1973, both Percy and his cousin went away to maximum security prisons for the rest of their lives. The cousin died in prison many years ago. Percy spent 42 years behind bars. He died in June 2015.
During his time in prison, Percy finally found a little direction in those very difficult early years. He was a bit caught up in prison culture as he attempted learning how to survive. But, he tried to follow the rules and to please others. There was some prison structure around assigned jobs and getting his GED. Because he was basically a bright, cooperative, sweet natured and kind young man, he tried to do his assigned jobs well. Over the years, he worked his way up to jobs that drew the positive attention of security, free-world employees, chaplains, and administrators. Eventually, he worked in the prison infirmary and later in the chaplains’ offices as a porter.
He was luckily exposed to others who amazingly turned into his mentors. One of Percy’s good friends was Omar Muhammad, whom some of you who have shared our Compassion Works for All history may remember. Omar was an inmate himself and a beloved teacher by many in prison. He too was one who died much too early and who died of cancer. He led a compassionate life teaching others about love and healing. Omar was Islamic and Percy was Christian, but their hearts met on this pathway of loving kindness. Omar’s beautiful wisdom teachings planted seeds in Percy and Percy grew to plant those same seeds in others as he would emphasize living a life of service to all. In a prison, both of these men lived a mission as though divined to find those who needed them most in the darkest of black holes. Both were the saviors and guardian angels of the lost. Both took lost boys into their hearts and turned them into wise men.
When our friend, Renie, took on the challenge to build a multi-faith chapel at Tucker Max prison, she had to work closely with, and often navigate precariously with, the Department of Correction. Many chaplains passed through their tenure at the Max unit during the seven years that it took to finish the chapel construction. Percy was the stable link in the chaplaincy department and was Renie’s right hand man. He helped her make that chapel happen.
During the 42 years in prison, Percy had serious health issues. At some point earlier in his life, he had picked up HIV and Hepatitis C. It is likely, there were some other health issues due to poverty and living life in a prison. Health treatment in prisons, perhaps almost everywhere in the US, is often an issue that desperately needs to be improved. We need to advocate for better health care in our prisons. These diseases should not be death sentences in today’s developed world. They often are in prisons. Through the years, Percy experienced many worsening symptoms and received little feedback about his deteriorating health. Records were variously lost, doctors’ visits did not offer diagnosis or treatment plans, treatment plans were not followed, he knew he was not getting required treatments, and often Percy worriedly related that he knew he was going to die. He prayed fervently for freedom before he died so that he could fulfill a passionate wish to help kids.
In 2014, Percy prepared a packet for a parole appeal; parole never offered to those with ‘life without’. The parole board member who interviewed him recommended that the ‘life without’ status be lifted and parole granted. The rest of the board concurred. His health was a factor but primarily this recommendation was made for his exemplary history in prison. His packet went to Arkansas Governor Beebe’s desk with hope for his signature. Many, many prison volunteers and others who loved Percy prayed for that signature, too. Everyone also thought that he would have a chance to get the medical care that he desperately needed. All who had been touched by his goodness took care of setting up a home, a job, and places for him to speak and serve others. Everyone who loved Percy waited and waited. The governor seemed to imply that he was waiting for the appropriate time. Now, a year later, we know that he had signed those papers with a “denied” shortly after having received them. Had it been known that he had signed them in March of 2014, Percy could have immediately begun a new request for Medical Release. In waiting a year to find out that he had been turned down, doors to that application had closed and left him with an 8 year restriction before he could submit a new application of any kind.
Meanwhile, Percy was rapidly getting sicker and he was not receiving the treatment that he needed to survive. He never gave up on miracles for healing, but he was realistic about his approaching death.
He often said, “It is not in my hands. I have faith in whatever happens.”
While in the hospital’s palliative care unit sustained by transfusions, security guards brought young ‘short hairs’ (newly imprisoned teens) to sit with Percy. They let him counsel with them about finding a new and healing path for their lives. His friends came to visit. He tried to pursue the completion of his Medical Release documents, but now his hands shook so badly that he could barely write a legible word. He was always so exhausted that it took all his effort to fill out a page. Leaving this task incomplete, he made one last trip to the very expert University Medical Center. There, he was told that there was nothing more that could be done, except to keep him alive artificially.
Percy talked openly about being ready to go and not wanting anything more to be done. He was on his journey home. He was calm and relaxed. Prison authorities took him back to the prison hospital, which meant, of course, to die in prison.
We celebrate all the gifts that Percy gave to all of us at Compassion Works for All. At our last meditation group at the prison, we held a short memorial for Percy. Each man shared how Percy had blessed his life. The tributes were deeply touching and many lives had been changed into lives of great faith by Percy’s kindness.
But now you too know who Percy was. You can celebrate his words along with those who held his hand on his path. A life of such early struggle turned into a life of a prison saint who lived out a destiny that seemed pretty perfect when you measure love and kindness as the great fruits of his existence.
Thank you, Percy, for coming to this world to share your life with us all.