Oct/Nov 2023  •   Nonfiction

Pen Pals

by Eve Goldberg

Public domain image

Rain beat down on our rental car as we drove south from Tuscaloosa towards the prison. The sky was gray, a low-hanging fog shrouding the tall pines lining Highway 82. We turned off the highway and wound our way through the hilly countryside. Now and then we passed a church, or what looked like an abandoned wood shack. We turned right at a Piggy Wiggly, then left onto the prison road.

My partner Linda and I trudged across the parking lot through the slashing rain, showed our IDs at the front desk. We were then ushered through a metal detector and into a small office. A young, Black, uniformed prison official looked us up and down.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," he said to me. "No sweatpants allowed in visiting."

"Oh, I didn't know."

"It's in the regulations, ma'am."

"We came from California, and we've got our suitcases in the car, but I only brought sweats. But she," I pointed to Linda who was wearing Levi's, "has more jeans in the car. I guess I could wear hers."

The young guard looked at me, a small person. He looked at Linda, who is not small. He looked out the window at the rain. He looked at me again and sighed.

"Well... we'll let it go this time. But no sweats in the future, ma'am."

I nodded vigorously. "Thank you so much. I promise: no sweats in the future."

The visiting room was a large, cavernous, high-ceilinged hall, sort of like a school gymnasium. A couple dozen round tables, bolted to the floor and spaced generously far apart from each other, took up the center of the room. Vending machines lined one wall. There was a guard station near the visitor entrance, another across the room near the inmate entrance. Most of the tables were already in use. Our guard led us to an empty table where we waited on hard plastic chairs. I wondered whether I'd recognize Sekou.

Sekou and I had been pen pals for 15 years. Back in 1999, I'd wanted to correspond with a political prisoner, so I asked my friend Claude (who knows about such things) to whom I should write. He suggested Sekou Kambui. He told me Sekou had been incarcerated since 1975, and that he was isolated in a rural Alabama state prison. Unlike some of the other political prisoners in New York or California who had family, friends, or allies nearby, Sekou had few visitors or outside support. Claude told me that as a teenager Sekou had been involved in the civil rights movement, then later joined the Black Panther Party. He had been convicted of the double murder of a Ku Klux Klan official and a millionaire oil magnate. Sekou had declared his innocence from the start. He claimed Alabama police, eager to frame a radical Black activist—especially one with a white girlfriend—planted a gun in his car.

I never asked Sekou whether he was guilty or innocent of the crime.

For 15 years we wrote letters back and forth. His were long, each page crammed from edge to edge with hand-written stories of his experiences behind bars and his drive to live a life of value—wherever he resided. I learned about the Social Consciousness class he organized and led at the prison. Ditto about the Music Appreciation class. I learned about his job in the chaplain's office, and the legal actions he pursued to end overcrowding and medical misconduct in Alabama prisons. I learned of his futile parole hearings and his never-ending attempts to overturn his conviction.

Sekou was also unfailingly interested in my life. He learned about Linda, about our move from Los Angeles to Santa Rosa, about our cats and kayak adventures and vacations and work. He went through my leukemia and my recovery. He especially liked the photos I would send him—photos of me and my cats, Linda and I in our garden or at the beach—pictures of the world beyond the razor wire.

In all our years of correspondence, the only visual I had seen of Sekou was an old, over-xeroxed photo in a book about US political prisoners. Linda and I had occasionally talked with him by phone, but we came to slightly dread his calls. Unlike his letters, which were full of energy and information, on the phone his affect was flat, his words were slow and few. Simply put: he seemed depressed. Add to that the lousy audio reception, and trying to have a phone conversation with Sekou was a struggle.

Today, on this rainy April afternoon in 2014, was the first time we were to meet Sekou in person. We waited at our table until he emerged from the inmate entrance, heading straight towards us. He was taller than I'd imagined and walked with a slight limp. His hair was gray now, but other than that he looked just like he did in that old photo—wire-rimmed glasses framing dark, serious, penetrating eyes.

I went to the vending machines, bought Sekou the burrito and grape soda he'd asked for, and carried them back to our table. He carefully sprinkled hot sauce on his burrito, then we settled down to talk. What a relief to actually hear his voice clearly. The life force often missing in our phone conversations surfaced right away. He asked about our trip and our cats and how Linda was coping with retirement. He told us about his health and his job. Then he leaned across the table and lowered his voice.

"I've got another parole hearing coming up," he said. "I have an idea about a good lawyer who might help this time. Her name is Faya Touré and she lives in Selma. I knew her back in the civil rights days in Birmingham. I was wondering if you might go talk with her, see if she'll work on my parole."

We happily agreed. Lucky for us, Selma was the next stop on our driving tour of the South. But of course we would have gone anyway.

The next morning, we arrived at the offices of Chestnut, Sanders, and Sanders, LLC., on Union Street in Selma. No appointment, we just showed up. We explained to the receptionist why we had come. She told us to take a seat. The waiting room was comfortable and spacious, the walls decorated with African masks and baskets. Muted sunlight poured in through floor-to-ceiling windows. I looked around at the other people waiting. They were all Black. They all looked poor. We waited for about an hour as those with appointments were ushered in and out.

At one point an older Black woman with gray dreads, wearing a dress of Afro-centric fabric, hurried into the waiting room from an inner office. She was carrying a stack of signs on wood posts. She held up one of the signs. It read Re-elect Sanders for Senate.

"Does anybody live in the 23rd?" the woman asked loudly.

A few people raised their hands.

"Well, if you do, or if you know somebody who does, please pick up one of these signs on your way out to put in your front yard."

She placed the stack of signs by the door. "Every vote counts," she added emphatically. Then she turned and disappeared down a hallway.

Twenty minutes later, the woman appeared again. After conferring with the receptionist for a while, she came out from behind the desk and walked over to me and Linda.

"I'm Faya Touré," she said. "So, who exactly are you? And why are you here?"

When we told her, she broke into a grin. "Oh! So that's why I've been getting those letters. Come on back with me."

We followed her into a large office and sat across from her at a desk cluttered with papers. A stack of Re-elect Sanders signs leaned against one wall. She noticed me looking at the signs. "My husband," she said.

Then Ms. Touré held up a folder and slapped it down onto the desk in front of us. "I've been saving these," she said. "Letters from all over the world calling for the release of Sekou Kambui from prison. I didn't know why I was getting them."

"He says he knew you during the civil rights days," I said. "His given name is William Turk. He might have gone by that name back then."

"Hmmm... maybe. It does sound familiar. I'm not sure, but we probably did know each other. It's been a long time. Now, when is his hearing?"

"June," I said. "You mean you'll do it?"

She nodded. "Send me all the paperwork you have on him. Any previous hearings, whatever you know. I'll get in touch with him soon. You said he's at Bibb, right?"

"Yes. Wow! Thank you so much!" I gushed.

Then reality set in. I had been part of a group that had hired an attorney for Sekou's previous parole hearing several years earlier. That attorney wasn't cheap.

"Uh, one thing," I said. "What do you charge?"

Faya Touré smiled. "This one's on me."

When we returned to California, I wrote Ms. Touré a heart-felt thank you note. I enclosed whatever information I thought might be helpful for Sekou's upcoming parole hearing. A few weeks later, Sekou called. He also had written to Ms. Touré. But he was worried; he hadn't heard back from her. I called her office. An assistant assured me Ms. Touré was very busy, but that she would contact Sekou as soon as she could. More weeks passed. I left several messages at Chestnut, Sanders & Sanders. No word from Touré.

June arrived. Still nothing from Touré. With Sekou's hearing only a week away, we finally had to admit to ourselves that despite her good intentions back in April, Faya Touré would not be helping Sekou with his parole. She had never contacted him, never taken a statement from him, never requested "good behavior" reports from prison officials. She had never responded to my many phone calls, letters, and emails. Nothing.

In Alabama, prisoners are not allowed to attend their own parole hearing. Presumably, the state wants to save the expense of transporting parole applicants to Montgomery where the hearings take place. Instead, each applicant is allowed a single individual to represent him or her at their hearing. It can be a lawyer, friend, relative, whomever. With Faya Touré missing in action, Sekou's friend Jennifer, an environmental activist whom he befriended through letters and phone calls, flew out from Colorado to attend his hearing and speak on his behalf. Immediately after the hearing, Jennifer called us and told us what happened.

At the start of the hearing, Jennifer sat quietly, nervously going over in her mind what she was going to say.

"William Turk, ADOC inmate #113058A," the parole board chairman finally announced.

Jennifer stood up. But before she took a step, another person stood up also. He was a large Black man in his 60s wearing an expensive suit. The man approached the dais where the three parole board members sat.

"Hank Sanders, gentlemen. I think you all know me. I'm representing Mr. Turk today. What I have to say is brief. I don't know what happened 40 years ago in Birmingham. What I do know is that Mr. Turk has served enough time. He has been incarcerated for nearly 40 years. That's enough. You must do the right thing and let him out on parole now."

The parole board members were silent for a moment. Then the chairman spoke.

"Thank you, Mr. Sanders. We will adjourn briefly to discuss the case. Please stand by."

Ten minutes later the three Parole Board members returned to the hearing room. The chairman banged his gavel.

"In the case of William Turk, #113058A, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends immediate conditional release from custody. Date of release to be 14 days from today."

Hank Sanders nodded. "Thank you, gentlemen."

"Thank you, Senator," the chairman replied.

And with that, Hank Sanders, husband of Faya Touré and senior ranking member of the Alabama State legislature, exited the building and drove back to Selma.

Fourteen days later, Sekou Kambui walked out the gate of Bibb County Correctional Facility and into the rest of his life.