Transformative Justice Behind the Wall

November 20, 2020
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There are perhaps millions of folks currently incarcerated carrying the pain of some form of violence, either as a survivor of violence or as an harm doer, or both. In addition to this pain, they’re also suffering from other traumas associated with childhoods or with living inside of these cages. All of this without a space to heal, be accountable or achieve justice. The programs that are offered by the state are rooted in mistrust and misunderstanding. The persistent use of violence and pain as a tool for healing undermines any chance of meaningful transformation and accountability. Thankfully, there are some folks inside of these cages that understand the kind of love and patience that is required to help others make the transformation from living a life of perpetual pain and violence to living a life of healing and accountability. This is a short story and brief Q&A about how David “Dawud” Lee led Nyako Pippen through a transformative process.

In telling this story we want to demonstrate how the Transformative Justice (TJ) process is connected to this moment in our lives. We think that many important lessons can be learned from our experiences and we want to provide a concrete example of how TJ works on this side of the wall. This story is deeply personal and emotional; and full of pain and healing.

DAWUD: In the winter months of 2014, I was out in the East Year of SCI Coal Township with a younger brother named Maurice when he introduced me to a friend of his named Nyako Pippen. Early in our relationship our conversations consisted of (DBI) Death by Incarceration related issues, because we both have DBI sentences, along with family, and community-oriented topics. We talked about politics too, but Nyako was very early in his political understanding at that moment.

I took a liken to Nyako, because he was intelligent and honest, and he possessed a powerful desire to learn history and politics. We used to walk the yard and discuss various topics, he would also come to the library where I worked and we would engage in many moving conversations. I would loan him books, which he would devour as if his life literally depended on reading those books; and he kept coming back for more information.

In 2016, a situation came up involving Nyako’s past , and people who really did not care about either one of us were running around the prison speaking badly about him and also me for continuing to deal with him. I want to allow Nyako to give more details about the situation and how it felt for him to be in that position.

NYAKO: Entering prison at twenty years old with a death sentence, I carried a lot of pain. Not only pain from being sentenced to death, but also pain from my childhood. In addition to this pain, I also carried two burdens that I was afraid to confront. These two burdens were frowned upon in both prison and in the street culture that ensnared me at young age. One was considered more egregious by my peers than the other but both were considered a weakness nonetheless.

At the time when I met Dawud I had recently landed in the prison through a disciplinary transfer and I had recently gotten out of the RHU (restricted housing unit) for getting caught with drugs and cell phones. During my stint in the RHU I done a lot of soul searching and I felt deeply within that I wanted something different for my life. So when I met Dawud I immediately detected his sincerity, he spoke of nothing but positive things. However, my reservations would not allow me to fully embrace his guidance. Up until that point in my life, most of my experiences with people inside and outside of prison were predicated on manipulation and illicit behavior, thus I did not know how to engage in a relationship predicated exclusively on positivity and brotherhood. Ultimately I reverted back to my old ways of coping.

Throughout my entire life, my idea of love was one of transaction — what can I provide for you materialistically and what can you provide for me. I had always felt that if I had money and materialistic items, I would be beloved amongst friends and family, and this mentality did not stop when I came to prison. So I continued to sell drugs within the prison but I also continued to build with Dawud, he remained patient with me. He never abandoned me for my actions, but he stated explicitly that he did not want anything to do with what I had going on, including any of the earnings. This made me look at him differently, I had never met anyone, aside from my father, with such unwavering conviction. Especially in prison where the access to resources is scarce. For a person to turn down free money is admirable, and his example made me gravitate toward him even more.

The first burden that I carried and will continue to carry, is one of remorse; the feeling of remorse cause by the loss of life. Although I never directly killed anyone, the pain of not preventing death weighed heavily on my heart, and I struggled for a long time with how to hold myself accountable for the pain that my non-action caused. Furthermore, my distorted thinking led me to believe that if I ever exposed this remorse, or if I ever truly held myself accountable, I would expose my vulnerabilities. So much of my life had taught me that to expose my vulnerabilities meant admitting I was weak — something I spent practically my entire short life trying to prove I wasn’t.

The second burden that I carried was the burden of testifying on my co-defendant. While the pain of evading accountability ate at me emotionally and spiritually, this pain ate at me mentally. It prevented me from growing. I withheld parts of myself out of shame and fear of being ostracized. However, in 2016, in spite of all of the so-called social capital and love that came along with selling drugs, when my truth was exposed everyone turned their backs on me, except Dawud and a good friend of mine named Maurice “Rebound” Jackson.

I was at a crossroad in my life, I could either physically harm the person that was responsible for exposing my truth and perpetuate pain and violence, or I could confront my truth and finally hold myself accountable for the pain and damage I caused. My immediate decision was the former.

I had not yet run into my intended victim but I secured a weapon and was prepared to act as soon as I saw him. Before I could catch him, I went to the law library and had a conversation with Dawud that would prove to be a pivotal moment in my life.

It didn’t matter that I tried to play it cool, Dawud sensed something in me, he sensed the amount of pain I was experiencing, he sensed my lack of direction, and he sensed the despair that came from my lack of accountability and the continuation of folks abandoning me at my lowest moments. He pulled me to the side and for the first time in my life, I witnessed in someone’s eyes that they truly believed in me; believed in me with passion not to throw my life away. For a man with as much dignity as Dawud, I knew that my life had to mean something. Ultimately, I decided to trust Dawud when he told me to begin working with him and I decided to confront my truth and embrace my responsibilities. I began the process of healing.

* * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * *

The following are a series of questions and answers to help the readers understand what transpired in 2016.

Q: During the most difficult period of this situation in 2016, what kept you going in a positive direction?

A- DAWUD: First I wanted to be a big brother to Nyako, because we had an emotional conversation about what people were saying. I did not want to see him throw his life completely away. We were already dealing with enough traumas in our lives, so it’s important to understand this moment will pass. But we cannot hide from the truth. Nyako told me he felt bad about the mistake he had made, and he realized that he had to face it. I could look into his eyes and see the pain and honesty. I, too, was hurt, because incarcerated people have a tendency of throwing good people away based on mistakes made years ago. We have a tendency of only looking at the mistake rather than the person.

A- NYAKO: After that situation, life was very difficult for me. I had understood the horrible mistake I made, but I was being reminded of it everyday. I continued to work toward changing my life, however you just don’t change overnight after operating a certain way for most of your life. So there were moments when I reversed course, but Dawud was patient with me and continued to guide me. Furthermore, whenever I could contemplate fully returning to my old self, I would reflect on the moment Dawud and I shared in the Library.

Something else was happening as well, I began to understand what it meant to be accountable. I began to make the connection between me living a positive active life, which consists of me helping others heal, and my obligation to those I harmed. This created the sense of purpose I lacked.

Q — When you think about the meaning of TJ, how does it relate to this situation?

A- DAWUD: TJ is about addressing harm, or potential harm without including the state. We had a situation where my little brother felt pressured to prove himself to people who didn’t care about his well being in the first place. It was important for him to understand that point, and I wanted him to know that I would be there for him. So we prevented further harm from taking place while at the same time strengthening our relationship. He had to trust me, and believe that his life was worth more than putting on a show for people with a warped understanding of manhood. Through some very emotional, passionate conversations, I was able to get him to see the importance of getting past the pain of the moment. I felt a lot of his pain and I felt his commitment to change his life. The process did not happen overnight, because it was a process of learning for Nyako but he was very honest about this process.

A- NYAKO: When I think about TJ, I think about resolving conflicts without involving the state and without perpetuating pain and violence, I think about a cultural shift and how we see the world; how we see each other’s humanity. Ultimately seeing each other with love, compassion and empathy.

When Dawud intervened in my life, he helped transform the way I felt justice should be administered, which I thought should be done through violence. But he prevented any violence from taking place through a process of love, compassion and patience. A lot of patience. (LOL)

Q — What important lessons did you learn from the situation that you now take with you through life?

A- DAWUD: I saw the power of brotherly love, and how that love and true concern can help our loved ones through difficult situations. The power of belief can go a long way, and sometimes our youth need to know that we believe in them. I believed that Nyako could eventually move away from the street mentality and toward something greater, and he done that and much more. Now he is one of our best facilitators for our program called Dare-2-Care. He is a prolific writer and a fantastic political thinker, so the belief paid off! We must provide people with the opportunity to change and stay with them along the way.

A- NYAKO: Wow, there are so many lessons that I extracted from this experience that there is no way I would be able to list them all. But broadly speaking, I learned an entire new way of living. I now understand true brotherhood and community. I learned to forgive myself for some of the horrible mistakes I made in the past. And I learned what it means to be accountable. I would probably never know whether or not my commitment to positivity and the work I do to help others navigate a process of healing will bring those people I harmed any justice. However, I understand that it is my obligation to continue to work and deliver justice, which is a lifelong journey. This transformative approach to life is the result of one person believing in me, being patient with me and nurturing me in ways I never experienced.

Transformative Justice is practice. It’s brotherhood and sisterhood, it’s fatherhood and motherhood — it’s family. It’s community, it’s culture, it’s healing…It’s not healing, it’s having the courage to attempt to address the ills of this complex society with love, empathy, and compassion. And for those of us who are trapped in these cages immersed in violence and pain, it’s a path to redemption!

Both David “ Dawud” Lee and Nyako Pippen are currently serving DBI sentences (life without parole) at SCI Coal Township and can be reached at:

David Lee AS-3041
Smart Communications/ PADOC
SCI Coal Township
PO Box 33028
St Petersburg, FL 33733

Nyako Pippen HQ-6180
Smart Communications/ PADOC
SCI Coal Township
PO Box 33028
St Petersburg, FL 33733

or via email:


Imprisoned soul

Writings from David Lee, currently serving a Life Without Parole (Death by Incarceration) sentence.

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David “Dawud” Lee wearing a DOC issue jumpsuit and smiling during a visit, 2018

(written June 6th 2020)
All around the country we can witness people out in the streets protesting the vicious murder of George Floyd on a street corner in Minnesota. However, I think that it is vital for people to keep in mind that the protests taking place in all 50 states travel beyond the murder of George Floyd. There are many people out on the streets protesting about other important issues regarding social injustice like mass incarceration, and other people are connecting issues like police brutality to the economic injustices, which so many working class and poor people are dealing with in this country. Some people are fighting for political changes to take place, starting with the removal of Donald Trump for the seat of power. Many people understand that a social, political, and economic knee has been planted deep within the necks of the Black Community for over two centuries. But without any doubt George Floyd’s murder served as the tipping point for an already traumatized Black community. However, we cannot lose sight of all the other oppressive issues, which we must address if freedom is the objective.

Now I would like to direct the reader’s attention to Amy Cooper, who attempted to have an Africa American man subjected to possible death or incarceration in Central Park. Christian Cooper was in the park bird watching and took notice that Amy did not have her dog on a leash, so he kindly asked Amy to follow the park rules and place her dog on a leash. Amy responded by suggesting that she was going to call the police and tell them that she and her dog were being treated by an African American man, which was an obvious lie. Amy’s apparent mindset was, how dare you ask me to follow the rules. , Black person + Amy Cooper clearly understood her White privilege and power, furthermore she was willing to use them to cause harm to an innocent man. Amy also seems to have had a comprehensive knowledge at the history of the destruction of Black bodies when they encounter the police, especially under such circumstances. Not to mention her awareness of White male chauvinism in regard to protecting, not-so-innocent white women in distress, chiefly from Black men who supposedly crave White women with an indescribable lust. Amy also appeared to be aware of the connections between her white privilege and power to a tyrannical white supremacist mentality, which is responsible for enormous amounts of pain and suffering for Black, Brown, and other people in this country.

The web that connects these events like George Floyd’s murder and Amy Cooper’s attempt to destroy a Black body is a sick belief in white superiority, which along with White privilege allows White people to ignore Black humanity. The centuries of collective Black trauma has been largely ignored by White people, and this in no way is to suggest that all White people subscribe to beliefs of White superiority, or do not understand and support efforts of Black people seeking justice. However, there are enough White people who continue to ignore Black suffering to allow it to continue, because the sort of suffering experienced by Black people in America does not happen to White people. Rather it is a conscious understanding of White privilege or unconscious, it has devastating consequences for people of color. Furthermore, when White people and others tell protestors that they must obey the law while protesting deadly injustices, they must not be aware of how laws in America have historically oppressed Black, Brown, and poor people. If the police are willing to use the cover of law to openly murder and violate Black people, what are Black people supposed to do? Should Black folks continue to follow the directions of the people who are causing harm to Black people on unspeakable levels?

If people peacefully protest for decades, and people in power continue to ignore their peaceful pleas for justice, while continuously being traumatized by a system claiming to be democratic, what are people supposed to do? Please do not forget that slavery was once legal and based on the 13th Amendment of the U.S Constitution slavery still is legal once you have been convicted of committing a felony. Jim Crow segregation, the Black Codes, and systemic racism in the form of mass incarceration all were, and some still are, legal forms of oppression. The recent corporate bailouts transferred trillions of dollars to private businesspeople, and we are talking about large corporations receiving the bulk of the money, and that massive thief of tax payers money was legal. Prosecutors all around the country have used their legal authority to overcharge and even falsely charge poor defendants for decades, and the vast majority of those defendants are people of color. Their abuse of the law has contributed a great deal to mass incarceration. Laws in this country protect corporate owners who produce harmful products, which often destroy and kill innocent people. These corporations produce many harmful pollutants, which are disrupting the ecosystems around the world. But poor people are told to obey the law!

Martin Luther King and many other people who participated in the Civil Rights Movement had to break racist laws in order to change them, and keep in mind that violence was present in that process. …

October 13, 2015