Autobiography of a righteous barber
Friday, March 16, 2001
The folks who come and go at the Success Barber Shop just off Market Square call him Brother Ron. His full name, Ronald E. Smith, is surprisingly nondescript. One expects a barber with his erudition and flair to answer to Rahim or some other name befitting a poetic storyteller.
"Brother Ron" is what you'd call the head usher at the Baptist Church, not a man who's spent the last six years of his life in as many jails and prisons.
To see Brother Ron poised, electric razor in hand, studying a client's head is to see a young man exuding gratitude for second chances. Mercy isn't something most felons can take for granted. Like Saint Augustine recalling his pagan youth or a man who puts inordinate emphasis on the word "wretch" while singing "Amazing Grace," Brother Ron smiles even when reciting the debauchery that preceded his enlightenment.
"I know what it's like to have lived in a murky, black hole," he says while trimming a client's sideburns. "I know what it's like beneath muddy waters where it's dark, lonely and isolated. Life in prison," he says with a lilt in his voice, "is cruel and unusual."
Ever since his epiphany at the Federal Correctional Institution at Morgantown, W.Va., on July 14, 1995, Brother Ron has been inclined toward flights of lyricism. Usually locked in his cell with one other prisoner for 23 hours a day, he experienced a rare stretch of solitude when his bunkmate was called away for several hours.
"I began reflecting on my life," he says. "I'd been going to clubs, drinking brew, selling drugs." He was then a 21-year-old East Liberty resident facing federal and state charges for intent to distribute cocaine and resisting arrest. "I sold drugs. When I got caught, I fought the police," he says.
But thinking back, he admits he was a tough guy in a lot of pain. Because he came from a good family, he drew on an ever present reservoir of guilt and shame. One day he picked up a pencil and wrote a poem expressing his feelings: "Sometimes one must undergo/ pain and suffering before developing the proper understanding in and about life/ true understanding goes beyond knowing what is wrong from what is right."
As a first effort, it was preachy, esoteric, vaguely biblical and the most truthful thing he'd ever written. Twenty-five verses later, Brother Ron had completed "Pain," the first of hundreds of poems with spiritual themes he'd write during his six years and one month in prison.
Scribbled on sheets of yellow legal paper, they were Brother Ron's version of "A Pilgrim's Progress," cautionary tales of love and regret with titles like "A Life and Death Situation," "Tears of a Man" and "Addiction" that left little to the imagination, but much to think about.
He discovered just how appealing his poems could be when he was sent to the federal penitentiary in Camp Hill, Pa. "I was spittin' (reciting) in the weight yard when I looked up and saw the other prisoners listening," he says.
"No one moved when the whistle blew. Everyone wanted to hear the poetry. Christians, Muslims, blacks and whites came together in love," he says, reciting several poems from the dozens he's committed to memory.
Brother Ron's mission is to remind those on the outside of the often forgotten humanity of those locked away. "There are a lot of stereotypes about people there, that somehow they're the lowest human beings around," he says.
"But I met extremely intelligent, humble and talented people behind bars: architects, artists, scholars, writers, singers, people who could draw whole cities from their imaginations. We only hear about guys who get out and commit more crimes, not folks who are committed to developing themselves spiritually and mentally.
"Prison isn't geared toward rehabilitation," he says. "The lackadaisical environment [kills] ambition. There's more money being spent on cable television and recreation than on education. If you don't already have it in you to change, it won't happen [there]."
Brother Ron earned his barber's license in prison once he decided the life of a narcotics trafficker wasn't for him. The Success Barber Shop hired him days after his release from a half-way house in January. He's now a trusted and valued employee.
As painful as his prison years were, especially the separation from his now 7-year-old daughter, he considers it time well spent. Having returned to his Jehovah's Witness faith, he's now a goodwill ambassador for those still wallowing in prison. "Daylight cometh through the window," he wrote once, "[but] the walls are providing a shadow of darkness." Brother Ron wants to tear down the walls.
I need more BOE letters, KMs and other material. Those who can send it to me - please do! The new section will be interesting!!
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