By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
In many ways, it’s a completely ordinary interview, with some ice-breaking talk about the Steelers’ most recent loss, his basketball playing injuries, Pittsburgh’s intimate neighborhoods and our shared love of the glory days of Big East hoops.
But in 1975, Robert Wideman was an unfocused young guy, a wild man to hear him tell it; a heroin addict. During a robbery in which he and some friends tried to steal a truckload of stolen TVs, a man named Nicholas Morena was shot and killed. Though he didn’t pull the trigger, Wideman was convicted of second-degree murder, sometimes referred to as felony murder (a killing that happens while the defendant was involved in committing a felony) and sentenced to life in prison.
On July 1, Gov. Tom Wolf commuted Wideman’s sentence. On July 5th, after spending 44 years behind bars, he walked out of the State Correctional Institution at Mercer. As part of the commutation, he will remain on parole for the remainder of his life.
Though he was released from SCI Mercer, he spent most of his time inside at the Western Penitentiary on the Northside until it closed in 2017. While at Western Pen, Wideman got himself together: he got an education, took up meditation and yoga, and became a mentor. Within those harsh walls, he found new purposes. Getting clean was a huge part of it.
“I was truly on the verge of suicide. I couldn’t stand myself,” Wideman says. “I couldn’t stand that I kept doing things — hurting myself and hurting all the folks who cared about me and loved me. When you’re in the throes of addiction … obsession and compulsion are a mean master.”
He also became part of the Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for restorative justice at its inception in 2013.
“Restorative justice is not an exact idea. But when you’re talking about restoring justice, you are talking about ending mass incarceration, which I think is the legacy of slavery. It’s all of our legacy,” Wideman says with regard to the current criminal justice system. The idea behind restorative justice is not to merely punish the person who committed a crime but to address the needs of the victim, of the larger society, and the perpetrators, too. Justice is meted out with the goal of rebuilding rather than retribution.
Elsinore Bennu takes its name from Hamlet’s forlorn and gloomy castle (Elsinore — a fitting name for the old prison built in 1886) and the Egyptian symbol of rebirth (Bennu.)
The think tank is a collaboration between faculty members from a few colleges, a licensed social worker and several incarcerated men. As they met, the men started to write about their experiences. They brought their work to the group where they shared and explored their thoughts about life in prison, guilt, regret, facing their mistakes, and the possibility of healing.
Out this month from Belt Publishing, Life Sentences: Writings from Inside an American Prison, is a collection written by these six incarcerated men: Ralph (Malakki) Bolden, Oscar Brown, Richard (Khalifa) Diggs, James (Fly) Martin, Shawn (Clarence) Robinson and Robert (Faruq) Wideman.
The collection takes the reader through their lives outside, their journeys through the criminal justice system, and how each moves forward to make their lives matter and help repair communities from the inside of a prison.
There are essays and manifestos, confessionals and poetry. The men explore contrition and remorse with honesty and humanity. They describe life on the inside in grainy detail. Ralph Bolden’s description of being strip-searched forces the reader to confront the grim reality of prison life — for both the prisoners and also the corrections officers. Wideman’s portrait of his claustrophobic cell puts the reader right there with him in his welded-in-place-bed.
“Those were the smallest cells of any place in the country,” Wideman says, now able to laugh about it. “My feet could touch the sink when I was in bed. Teeny tiny cells.”
Robert Wideman’s story is better known than the others because of Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman’s stunning 1984 memoir about Robert, the pain of having a brother in prison and the dehumanizing engine that is mass incarceration, long before the term mass incarceration entered the common lexicon.
John Edgar Wideman also penned the afterword to Life Sentences, and it is a battle cry toward our shared humanity and a call to end mass incarceration. The book opens with a preface by Amber Epps, a professor of communication and the founder of the hip hop collective, LOCAL 412. She is also the sister of Oscar Brown, one of the contributors to the book.
One of the most moving pieces is “Lost and Gain,” Wideman’s chapter about the death of his son, Omar, who was murdered in 1993.
“That story about Omar came,” Wideman says, pausing a long time before continuing to speak about the deaths of both his mother and of his son. “Those were hard times because I wanted to be there. It was difficult. My son. It was just like a bomb exploded inside me. I don’t know how else to say it except that a bomb exploded inside me.”
They close that cell door behind you and it’s just you there, alone, with all your feelings and fears. Facing a life sentence, it can be hard to find the motivation to do anything. Some men give up. But you can grow, even in prison.
“I knew a guy named Shoes,” Wideman said. “And he said, ‘You got to know when to make your own change.’ I never forgot that. I knew I wanted to create some positive things that I did. I saw what happened to the guys that really didn’t care. Shoes said, you gotta know when to make your own change. He didn’t say you got to change, you got to follow some rules, or you need to go to school, or anything like that. Make your own change. I had to figure it out. I had to think about it and that’s what I did.”
The think tank is an idea made flesh, a choice by each member to make their own change. With Life Sentences, these men are all choosing to be involved in the community, even as they are removed from it.