So to start off, I would love if you could just introduce yourself and just say a little bit about what you do and what the things you care about are.
My name is Ian Manuel. I am a poet activist and the things I care about is juvenile solitary confinement, any solitary confinement period, but particularly for juveniles and changing the way juveniles are sentenced to hard sentences particularly life imprisonment and term abuse sentences that equal life.
Great. Thank you. I mean, there’s really so much I could ask about you’ve gone through so much in your life I don’t think we could fit it in, but first I think I just kind of want to dive further into your career as an author and as a poet. Obviously you decided to write this book, My Time Will Come, and I just wanted to ask how you got into writing and how you made the decision to share your story with the public?
Writing has always been a part of me. It is my belief that God gives each and every one of us a gift. Some of us are good nurturers, some of us are good with numbers, some of us are good problem solvers. It just happens that one of my gifts is the ability to compose words in ways that move people. I remember when I was going to Catholic school as a child, I talk about it in the book, where they was handing out awards at the end of the year. And my name hadn’t been called and the ceremony was almost over. The teacher Ms. Fort, a black lady, finally called my name and she said “for reading and for writing I present these certificates, awards and achievement to Ian Manuel.” And I got up there and I got my certificates and I came back to my seat. I remember my mother’s friend, Linda, Linda White saying, “Ian let me see those certificates.” And I gave them to her. She said, “Reading and writing. Baby. That’s all you will ever need in this world and you could be anything you want to be.”
That’s so great. On the topic of your book, in your book, you do talk a lot about Debbie and the relationship that you formed with her, which was kind of a constant throughout your time in confinement. For those who don’t know, how were you able to reach out to her and why did you decide to reach out to her? Also, because it’s kind of like an “unconventional” relationship how did it impact your experience?
First of all, the crime I committed, I wasn’t raised like that by my grandmother or my mother to hurt people , and it was only due to peer pressure and just being caught up in the moment and that one bullet changed both of our lives. I had always wanted to apologize for what I did and the opportunity never presented itself or I never had the opportunity to quite do it. Then one day I received some legal documents in the mail and it had Debbie’s address and phone number in the police report. This is something I want to say because, every human being on this earth , I believe this, I don’t know this, but I believe this, we all get these strong urges that compels us to do something, whether it’s to talk to the pretty girl in the classroom or take a chance on this job interview. We usually push those ideas aside and say, she won’t ever give you a number or she’ll never accept my call, we come up with these excuses, these stumbling blocks, these obstacles, and we put them in our own way. I’ve learned that every time I’ve listened to that little voice inside of me some great things have happened. This particular day, it was around Christmas of 1999, and something was compelling me to call Debbie. I listened to the rotor voice went out there in the open compound and we had live operators. You could just press zero and it would come on. I don’t know if that’s still available these days , I haven’t tried it . I told the operator, I have a collect call from Ian and Debbie, the operator press the call, placed the call through, and a woman answered the phone and on the other end she said, “can you ask him his last name?” and I just remember being stuck, but then saying, Ian, if you really want this to work, you just got to tell the truth. And I just said Manuel, my last name’s Manuel. And Debbie said, yes, and we talked and I just remember the first thing I said was Debbie, I called to wish you and your family, a Merry Christmas, and to apologize for shooting you in the face. Then she asked me a question that no 14 year old should ever have to answer. She said, “why did you shoot me?” And I just said, it all happened so fast. It was a mistake. And we talked for like 15 minutes. Then the phone call was over and I asked, could I call back? And she said, yes. I called back. And I don’t remember much about that second phone call, except one thing I asked her, could I write? And she said, yes. And that’s how our correspondence started.
Thank you so much for sharing, it’s so great hearing that you were able to form this relationship with her after everything. The things you went through in there were truly insane, especially for a child . I’m about to be a senior in high school, and I know we never learn about any of this stuff. So I was just wondering if there’s anything you think young people like me can do to educate ourselves on incarceration laws and become advocates and learn kind of just what we can do to raise awareness about this topic .
I would say follow organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative, the law firm that got me out of prison with Brian Stevenson, read his book, Just Mercy, I don’t know if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, but if it wasn’t for Brian Stevenson, Ian Manuel, wouldn’t exist inside of society. He was fighting my case all the way to the United States Supreme court, convincing five of nine justices to overturn juvenile life sentences was a heroic act. And another thing is, even though it’s not taught you can get involved several ways. One way is to not give into peer pressure, to get involved with crime in the first place. Peer pressure is real. That’s how I ended up in a situation with a life sentence at 13. I would also say study and re-read articles about the incarceration, like my op ed in the New York times. I wrote an op ed that came out on my birthday this year, March 29th , in the New York Times about solitary confinement and about how the treatment of juveniles in prison is just horrendous. So those are some of the things I would say.
Kind of going off of that, you were so young. I have a brother who’s about to turn 13 and I just can’t even imagine how he would handle this. How were you able , if you were at all, to comprehend what was happening at such a young age? And kind of with your activism now why do you think it makes zero sense that children at this young age should be sentenced for life?
Well, a couple of things I want to say, the way I survived that was, I didn’t comprehend what was happening to me, but the way I survived it was by diving within the depths of my imagination. My imagination sustained me for a long periods of time. Especially a solitary man, there’s a thin line between imagination and schizophrenia in solitary. The way I want to explain that is: imagine a fish on the water, even if a fish comes up for air every now and then when you dive into the depths of your imagination, which people do to survive solitary confinement, some people get so comfortable under water that they never come up for that breath of air. That’s where that develops and translates into schizophrenia. On the other hand, reality was too painful for some people and just imagine oxygen as reality coming up for that little breath of oxygen was too painful for people to bear and so they just stayed submerged minds and never returned to reality and sadly developed schizophrenia. One of the greatest thinkers of our time, Albert Einstein, said imagination is more important than knowledge. I totally believe that. As far as why it’s important that children don’t be treated in a similar fashion. It’s because a child’s mind isn’t developed yet; he shouldn’t be treated as an adult. You can’t drive until you’re a certain age. You can’t drink or smoke cigarettes until you’re a certain age, but you could be sentenced to life and sentenced to an adult prison, as a child. Florida has a law that’s on the books that I want to fight so bad to get it overturned. It’s a law that says a child of any age that’s indicted for a life or death felony shall be treated in every respect as if he were an adult. That law needs to be changed because you can’t make a child and adult just because you say so he has to fully grow up and become a fully formed, evolved human beings.
So kind of the opposite side to that question is when you came back into the world after 18 years, and obviously share only as much as you’re comfortable with, but what was it like to kind of adjust to that? And did you have a support system that really got you through that period? sentenced for life?
So, great question. I’d been in 26 years of prison, 18 years in solitary. Yeah. 18 was in solitary. And I’m still adjusting believe it or not. I’ve been out going on five years now, in a little bit it will be five years. And again, I have to give all the credit to Bryan Stevenson. and the equal justice initiative because they had a reentry program set up for me to reenter society, to teach me how to open a bank account, teach me how to apply for apartments, teach me how to wash and dry clothes, teach me how to cook, even though I still don’t know how to cook , they tried to teach me the everyday learning. I grew up around hardened criminals for 26 years. See, some of the things I’ve heard in prison are helpful in society, you can assess where a person is coming from, you have to make split second decisions because your life is literally on the line every day of the week in there. So some of that comes in handy out here but also just not thinking everyone’s trying to run a game on you is also helpful, you know what I’m saying? Relearning, rewiring your brain because I had been conditioned, growing up in prison as a child, conditioned me a certain way. So I had de-conditioned myself, so to speak in order to learn how to behave in society, even learning how to cross the street again, I wasn’t used to moving objects coming at me like cars. When I first got out, I was terrified of crossing the street cause I thought I was going to be hit by a car. I had to relearn how to ride a bicycle. It was, it was crazy, man.
I mean, I can imagine this might take a toll on your mental health afterwards. What are the ways that you were able to cope with that?
I wrote poetry, man. Poetry became my therapy , cause the therapy programs other counselors they have in prison, they’re not adequate. It’s very inadequate mental and medical health inside the prison. So I had to develop my own therapeutic techniques and one of them was putting my pain on paper. I wrote poems about things that I was experiencing: the loss of my mother, the loss of my dad, I lost my entire immediate family during my incarceration. In prison, you couldn’t cry because you weren’t supposed to. I cried every now and then, but mostly I kept my pain pushed down inside and wouldn’t bring it to the forefront. So I cried through the ink of my pen and I wrote poems like My Time Will Come , Every Time I Breathe, Bloody Mirror. Things that I felt would actually get the pain out of me a little bit and put it in paper. Then I’d share with my fellow prisoners and they started asking me to write poems about them and their situations then, write poems to their girlfriends. And it made me feel something of value that I had to offer the world and they started paying me to do it. And so that’s how I cope. I cope through my poetry.
Thank you so much for sharing that. That’s beautiful. Actually, this is the last question, just to wrap up and it’s kind of a broader one, but I was wondering if there’s anything you want people to take away; either from your poetry or just from your story as a whole and anything you wish people knew?
How difficult my life was to live. And how much of a miracle it is for me to have survived what I went through. Most people don’t make it out of their lives; I seen a lot of people ki** themselves. I seen a lot of people be killed by guards, the correctional officers, or other inmates. Just how improbable my story is . And I don’t think I’d get enough credit for surviving it, man. And not to toot my own horn or whatever, because it’s all by the grace of God that I made it, but I just really wish people would recognize how improbable me being alive in society today with my sanity, humanity, and talent intact, because you can survive but if you don’t have one of those two things. That means you didn’t survive whole. I kind of wholeheartedly survived my circumstances with my sanity, talent and humanity intact.