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THE JAIL-HOUSE LAWYER
I will never forget the fear I felt when I was cornered in that long prison hallway with a large black man standing in front of me holding a shank (prison-made knife) threatening to cut my throat.
"You lied to me! You lied to me!" he yelled as loud as he could.
The sound echoed back and forth off the large steel walls and down the long hallway for more than 1,000 yards. Hundreds of prisoners stopped to watch the killing, while pretending to mind their own business.
"What in the hell are you talking about?" I screamed.
I continued to back up slowly, wrapping my clean pants and shirt around my arm to shield myself from the knife blade.
"You'se bastard! You told me you could get me back to see my wife and children in Phoenix and it was all bull shit” he screamed, as he turned and slammed his fist against the steel wall as hard as he could.
"You are dead. Does you'se hear me, white boy? You'se good as dead.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. All I knew was that I had filed a petition 2255 on his behalf in the Federal District Court of Appeals and was waiting to see if they would remand his case back for retrial. We knew he was guilty and even if a retrial was granted, he did not have a chance in hell of ever beating the rap. I told him that before I even took the case. This case was filed so he could return to jail in Phoenix Arizona in hopes of seeing his wife and children, which he had not laid eyes on for several years. That was the total agreement and he understood there were no guarantees, whatsoever.
I told him I would return his box (carton of cigarettes) and that we would forget the entire matter. However, that was not good enough for him and he walked towards me with the knife. About that time, several hacks (guards) noticed everyone stopping in that area of the hallway; they came running to see what was happening. Ernest dropped the knife on the cement floor and said he would get me in the movie, later that evening.
The theater was where most of the inmates were stabbed and killed, as it was a very dark area. Everyone closed in together so the guards would not know who was who and then started to disperse in different directions. One of the guards looked at me standing against the wall, saw the clothes wrapped around my arm and asked who was trying to shank me.
"No shanking here," I said. "Just a wasp flying at me and I used my clothing to shield myself."
I returned to my cell, watching my back at all times and put my clean clothes on the steel bed. Then I walked to the prison yard and gathered with the white group of men in the weight area. The yard was always divided into three or four groups: the whites, the African Americans, the Mexican-Americans and the hommies (people from the same hometown or area). About half an hour later, the loud speaker came on and we heard "ERNEST DAVENPORT, please report to the Captain's Office immediately." I looked around and saw all the blacks looking at me, wondering if I had ratted on their brother. I raised my hands and tilted my head in their direction giving the impression of, “I don't know what the hell they are talking about.” Within minutes, everything was back to normal and the hundreds of inmates in the yard started doing their “own thing.”
"THE YARD IS NOW CLOSED. RETURN TO YOUR CELLBLOCKS," sounded the loud speaker.
Everyone in the yard started walking back toward the main prison door. I lagged behind to make sure no one could get behind me or take me by surprise with a knife. As I entered the main prison hallway and headed toward my cellblock, I heard a voice scream at me "Kiser, you did it, you son-of-a-bitch! You did it!"
I turned, looked down the quarter-mile hallway and saw Ernest M. Davenport running full speed toward me. All the prisoners were moving out of his way and had placed their backs against the wall; they all wanted a good view of the killing. It happened so fast that I did not have time to react or prepare. Before I knew it, he was on top of me, grabbing me around the waist, slinging me around and around, with my feet off the ground. Then he sat me back down on the ground and put a bear hug on me I will never forget.
"Thank you my man. You won my appeal," he yelled.
He quickly released me and turned toward the hundreds of inmates standing along the giant hallway. He raised his arms into the air and hollered, "I AM GOING HOME! PRAISE JESUS! I AM GOING HOME!"
Ernest M. Davenport was one of the meanest and toughest fellows I ever knew in prison. Even though I almost died that day because of that one incident, I became the most respected jailhouse lawyer in the federal prison system for more than three years. I filed more than 2,500 petitions and appeals during that time, with positive results in 90 per cent of those cases.
Never again did I ever have a problem with a black, white or Mexican inmate. In fact, within 90 days, I had established an office within the prison system and had 11 inmates working for me as legal clerks. My second in charge was Wendall Leroy Archer. He handled the collection of boxes (cigarettes), zoo-zoos and wham-whams (candy and foodstuffs). He distributed these goodies to any inmate without parents or family to send them these types of things.
For the first time in my life, I had finally become somebody important and it felt damn good. However, more important than that was the fact I used my position to do good for the community in which I lived. I am very proud to say that I educated myself, I learned to be smart, I learned to be good, I learned to be kind and I did it all while in prison. This all came about because someone, though all criminals cared about what I knew, gave me credit for my talent and respected me, giving me a chance to become an honest person.
That was more of a chance than the orphanage, the court system or the state of Florida ever gave me.