by Gary L. Settle
History seems to indicate that stereotyping and mistaken perceptions have led to many of the problems people have faced – and many we have not. When someone or even something is manipulated to seem to be an accurate or truthful representation of the whole category, then dishonest, unjust treatment can thrive. This is a particular problem for advocates of criminal and social justice reform and especially for incarcerated individuals.
During the three plus decades I have been incarcerated, in just about every instance where the entertainment industry or the media portrays criminals, prisoners or correctional facilities, they usually follow this pattern: The recently released criminals are savages who have no other thought than to rampage across the community. The prisoners are violent, virulent racists who can’t decide whether to kill or rape each other. And the prisons are all simmering cauldrons of rage and racial tension.
Unfortunately, there are true examples in all of those categories that fit that narrative, but a cursory look at the percentages will show that those scenarios are outliers. With that image so prominent, it is no surprise that the public perception of criminals and prisoners is what it is. It is also why getting real, fundamental change and reform can never seem to gain traction.
I have been housed in some of the most violent and high security prisons in the country and I will tell you now that those things have happened. People have been released and been convicted of horrific new charges, and people have been killed, and racial tensions have boiled over. But those things are so outside the norm that the stories and myths of them reverberate down through the years.
The reason the vast majority of released prisoners are sent back to prison is because of technical violations of the conditions of their supervised release, not murderous rampages. As for homicidal tendencies and racial animosity, as I said, it happens and it exists. But in my experience in federal prisons, even in the high security prisons, a sense of balance or equilibrium usually prevails. Prisoners generally have more problems dealing with the conditions of their confinement and the separation from their family and friends and from society as a whole than to be seeking conflict and controversy with other prisoners.
More often than not, we get along. But that type of narrative is not deemed titillating or engaging enough and so it does not get the coverage the outliers do. Here I want to submit another type of narrative, one that goes against the stereotypes and perceptions I have been railing against and one that more closely follows my experiences.
This is the story of the seemingly unlikely friendship that has developed between two of my friends. Some of the details of their particular situations should also be viewed as indictments of the criminal justice system and can be used as examples of how and why this system is so flawed.
To begin, in 2018 I was transferred from a maximum security prison to a prison hospital. I had been diagnosed with cancer and was sent there for treatment. I was housed on the oncology ward on the fourth floor, where I began my treatment. It is there I met both halves of this odd couple, which is only accurate as a surface perception. Using age to determine the order, I begin here.
Mr. Robert Day was only 83 when we first became acquainted and he was undergoing cancer treatment when I arrived. Someone introduced us and we quickly learned we had several important similarities. We both were sentenced to very long sentences for bank robberies and both believe that Louis L’Amour is one of the finest writers in American history. Even then Bobby had a difficult time getting around, so when I made my biweekly journey to the prison library, I would pick up a few examples of Mr. L’Amour’s literary genius for him. Our friendship progressed from there.
During my own cancer treatment, it was also determined that I required double knee replacement. After having my right knee replaced, I had to go to the third floor for physical therapy sessions. It was there that I met Mr.Veronza Bowers or, as he is known, Daoud. He was only 73 when we first became acquainted and I cannot speak for how discerning he is about literature masterpieces because it has never come up.
What I can speak about is how striking his presence is. He was at the prison hospital for a hip replacement and when we ran across each other, I felt like I already knew him. We struck up a conversation that revealed many mutual friends and acquaintances. I have also mentioned situations that have engendered stories and myths or even legends in here.
Daoud and I became fast friends. He was and is a sympathetic ear, an understanding soul and a fountain of calm. If I skimp on a description of myself here, it’s because this is their story; all the information you need is that I require all three very badly. I was adjusting poorly to, among other things, the new environment and my diagnosis.
We spoke as often as we could and I benefited from it every time. When I began my activities that have been written about before, he was one of my biggest supporters. Besides moral support, he contributed viewpoints and opinions that helped tremendously as I became more involved in that work.
As it turned out, all three of us would wind up here at this prison down the road from the prison hospital. Before I get to the crux of this story, a little history is in order. Mr. Robert Day was born in East Texas, he thinks around 1935. It sounds like his upbringing and background was typical for rural Texas in those years for a churchgoing, God fearing, working class family. Segregation, government mandated and otherwise, was the way things were and, as with many people, Bobby was never of the mindset or situation for that to change. Bobby is basically a career criminal.
On this case, when he was sentenced to 50 years at 67 years of age, he was labeled the Grandpa Bank Robber. There is much conversation these days about the opioid epidemic and it is terrible. What is not often discussed is that even prior to the Vietnam era opioid crisis, opioids had been abused for years. Bobby first began using heroin when he was 16 and that addiction fueled his criminal behavior. He has spent close to 50 years in prison on and off, mostly on.
A good part of that time was spent in the Texas state prison system of many years ago, where there was also, administratively mandated and otherwise, racial segregation. When Bobby talks of his past, in prison and out, he will simply say, “I stayed with my own. I just never had no call to fool with any Blacks.” As I discussed telling this story with Bobby and received that answer and the information I am sharing, I asked him, “So, essentially you are a redneck peckerwood from East Texas?” His response was, “Pretty much.”
The other half of this unlikely pairing, Daoud, was born in Oklahoma in 1946. For purposes of this story, I asked his heritage. His description was that he is of “African, Cherokee and Panamanian descent.” Daoud, a member of the Black Panther Party, was arrested in 1973. He was convicted in the shooting death of a National Security Park Services Ranger, to which he has consistently and to this day maintained his innocence.That he is still incarcerated after all these years is a tragedy and farce, the details and exhibits of which have been well documented. Thankfully, there is a dedicated group of people who work tirelessly on his behalf.
Having spent a number of years with Daoud, I have been fortunate to have his explanation of the founding, intent and focus of the Black Panther Party, a perspective I would not have had otherwise. Without it, I would have continued with the perception and stereotype that I thought I knew. To be fair, there might have been outliers within there as well, but I must reconcile my beliefs with what I have personally observed. I write of his background in that way in order to contrast it with the background of Bobby.
I could write much more about these friends of mine, Bobby’s sense of humor, his picky eating, his one desire to see his sick “baby sister” one more time before he dies, Daoud’s skill with the bamboo flute called a Shakuhachi, his willingness to give therapeutic musical treatments, how he sings traditional Lakota sweat lodge songs at the Native American ceremonies.
Mainly, I could write so much more about how, despite every concept of common sense and decency, they do not want to release these elderly men from prison, both in debilitated health, both years past any risk or threat to society. In fact as far as I know Bobby is one of the oldest prisoners in the federal prison system and Daoud might be the longest serving prisoner in the entire history of the federal prison system.
I moved to this particular unit several months ago and quickly learned that my friends Bobby and Daoud had become friends. It was in my first few hours in the unit that Bobby approached me and told me the story of how they met. Either his memory is not great or he is so moved by the friendship, he repeats the story to me at least once a week. Maybe it is a little of both. After my description of him and his background, you can understand the grammar and supply the accent.
“Well, when I first moved to this unit, I had this deal that needed to be copied and I asked around and someone said, ask that black fella over there, he’s good at that sorta thing. Now you know me, Gary; I generally don’t cross that line or mess with the Blacks. I just never did. Anyhow, I needed that deal taken care of, so I asked him. He just looked at me and said, “OK,” and just like that, he took care of it. And from there we just sorta clicked and now he has become the best friend I have ever had.”
The years have weighed heavily on both men. Bobby needs a cane and Daoud uses a walker. Bobby is essentially blind and his hearing is going and to be frank, so are his faculties. He often loses track of time and tires easily. Daoud sees more than most and his mind is sharp. But from speaking to both men, they are both just worn out from all the years. From personal experience, from walking that ground, I understand. From also having no realistic or foreseeable off ramp to this sentence, I understand.
To see these two men together throughout the course of a day brings a smile to my face. Here I will just give you snapshots of those moments. By any standard of decency, Bobby would be in hospice or at the minimum, an assisted living community. Here his caregiver and assistance at living is Daoud. I sometimes just sit in my wheelchair and listen to the negotiations as they debate what and when Mr. Robert Day should take for his lunch. His position is that a handful of Cheetos constitutes a balanced meal. Daoud usually convinces him to eat at least a little something substantial.
Bobby naps often, but briefly. When I see him leave his cell afterwards, he invariably is looking for Daoud. As I wrote, he is essentially blind. All he can see is shapes. He will navigate his way towards the shape of a walker and unfortunately there are too many in this unit. Everyone knows who he is looking for though, and he is given directions.
I also wrote about Daoud playing the Shakuhachi and there are examples out there of his ability. Every night around eight, he can be found in Bobby’s cell, playing his nightly musical treatment. I say treatment because Daoud’s playing is targeted and therapeutic in nature. Sometimes I slide in to listen and observe. Bobby is in bed by this time, teeth out, glasses off. When Daoud plays, Bobby is in a kind of trance. He appears at peace with the universe and he lets go of his worries about his sister and his mortality for just a little while.
I could on in this way for sometime and never truly portray what I have seen. Not only are these men great and true friends, they are friends to us all. Every night Bobby makes his rounds to say good night to his friends and I count myself fortunate to be on that list. Daoud is a friend, mentor and advisor to everyone, regardless of age or race and I count myself as one fortunate to have access to his presence.
The final image I will share is my favorite, and one I am watching in my peripheral vision as I write this: Bobby is sitting in a chair and Daoud is sitting close by on his walker so Bobby can see and hear him.
As I watch, their reverie is broken by one of Bobby’s unfortunately too frequent episodes. He calls them “spells.” Whatever they are, I get scared every time he has one. His hands shake uncontrollably, he has to hold on to something and as testament to what I am trying to get across here, his preferred handhold is Daoud’s strong grasp. Who knows what causes them – just old age? Blood sugar? High blood pressure?
He never has appointments at medical, is prescribed no medications, but to be fair, he is unable to properly explain or complain about his condition. But he is 87! All you have to do is look at him to see he is frail and does not have much time left. As always happens, when the spell subsides, Daoud loads him onto his walker and pushes him to his cell.
An obvious question would be, if they are such good friends, why doesn’t Daoud make the officials aware of Bobby’s condition. Bobby’s one wish is to live long enough to see his baby sister one more time. She is also very ill, too ill to travel here to North Carolina from Texas. He is scheduled to be transferred to Texas very soon. We hope he makes it and she is able to visit him. Actually, this story has been waiting to be told until he is on his way. My concern was that I would draw too late and too much attention to his situation and it would delay or cancel the transfer.
I have done my best to describe how special and wonderful their friendship is, to offer a contrast to the public perceptions. What I have not done is convey that this friendship is not unique in here, other than the extreme examples of age and the amount of time they have served. So there will be no myths or legends repeated about it. But maybe it is an example that we grow and change as we age, even in prison. And even if we have made mistakes and poor choices and harmed innocent people, and in all our cases, that applies to our families and loved ones especially, that does not signify the totality of our persons.
I cannot speak for anyone but me. I know I will always remember fondly and well the chances I had to see them together and take comfort and inspiration that even in this environment, something beautiful like that can exist.
Send our brother some love and light: Gary L. Settle, 19221-038, FCI-2, P.O. Box 1500, Butner, NC 27509. Veronza Bowers writes: “Even though I have a fairly good command of the English language, I find myself struggling mightily to find the words to give the honor, admiration and respect to the man who authored this piece. We often read and hear about people showing great courage in the face of great danger. They are called heroes and sheroes and rightly so. In the military, they are given medals of honor. In civilian life, they are exalted and become the talk of the town. They are the stuff legends are made of. But what of the quiet, unassuming, selfless and humble man Gary Settle, who worked day and night in the shadows doing the research and writing the motions that helped lead to the compassionate release of dozens of his fellow prisoners who were diagnosed with terminal cancers. With four or five months left to live himself, according to the doctors here, Gary Settle CHOSE to live them in service to others.” To reach Veronza, write: Veronza Bowers, 35316-136, FCI Butner Medium II, P.O. Box 1500, Butner NC 27509.