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Related Categories: California | Racial Justice
by Lupe
Sunday Jan 18th, 2004 12:24 PM
* UPDATE ON SHERMAN AUSTIN * (Personal experience, with some added info at the end)
Behind the Barbed-Wire with Sherman Austin
by Lupe

Approaching FCI Tucson from desert Wilmot Road, I immediately noticed the barbed-wire chains surrounding the facility that separate Sherman from the "free" world. I sighed at the thought that within minutes I would be able to see him, but within hours I would have to leave the facility without him. I pondered what our reactions would be. It had been 3 months since we had last seen each other. They have moved him over 500 miles away from his family and myself. Sherman has written to me about being homesick and wishing to be
transferred closer to home, but behind bars he doesn't get to choose.

I continued through the entranced door, and the metal detector caught my eye as well as the guards staring at me. I felt their eyes on me, and thought that at any moment they would say, "So you're here to visit the terror boy." Instead, figuring I was new, they just handed me a form to fill out, and I turned it in with my ID once completely filled out. Some of the questions on there were quite ridiculous, "do you have any cameras, weapons of mass destruction, food, electronic devices, narcotics, etc." It became almost a joke when I came to visit after this first time, just thinking that anyone that would actually have any of this would check yes.

While I sat waiting to be called I still wondered why the guards stared. They probably wondered why someone so young would have an inmate for a boyfriend. Whatever the reason was, they seemed very curious. When I had gone back to visit for the holidays after this first visit, a couple of the guards remarked to Sherman "that girl comes here allot doesn't she," and "why are you here, if your from LA?"

"Visit for Austin," the guard called. I got up and checked into a visitor book. Meanwhile the guards checked my clear purse that held about 10 dollars in loose change for vending machines and a hotel key; pretty much the only things you are allowed to carry in with you in a clear bag. They then asked me to take off my shoes and to pursue through the metal detector. I passed without a beep, but was then asked to read a board. It said that I was about to be tested for drugs with a special ionic machine that works like a vacuum. I had to raise my arms while they sucked particles off my clothing, and they then ran it through a machine. I felt awkward, but imagined it was less than what Sherman has to go through daily. In one of his letters he had mentioned that about every week they'd give him a breathalyzer test to see if he's been drinking. Any person that knows him knows that he's Mr. Anti-drugs & alcohol. I guess it doesn't matter there. We'll I passed the test, being Mrs. Anti-drug & alcohol, and they stamped my hand. Again I was sat down until a group of visitors were checked in, then they lead us into a boxy white room where we had to show our stamp to another guard. Once we all cleared, finally we were taken to the visiting room.

On the way there the barbed-wire was more apparent like Sherman wrote to me, "I think they purposely put it in certain areas, like right above the entrance to the Food Court so it's the first thing you see when you get up in the morning and go to breakfast. It's there to remind you that your "a prisoner." I got a turning feeling in my stomach partly experiencing his physical & mental sentence. I saw food service inmate workers about 40 feet away from our path, but we were separated by a chain link fence. I wondered if Sherman was around there since that is his assigned job at the prison. He only receives 8 cents an hour pay (that's with a high school diploma). He gets paid monthly, and in his last check he received only $10.

In the visiting room there were rows of colored plastic chairs under exhausting fluorescent lights. Different colors indicated different types of prisoners, like green/blue chairs were for INS, hold-over, and pre-trial prisoners. I got the choice of red, yellow, or beige. I choose red since it was about the only spot available in the packed visiting room.

I waited anxiously constantly looking at the clock. One by one inmate's were let out from a corner door after they were padded down by a guard. After 20 minutes of waiting, Sherman appeared in khaki pants, a khaki collared shirt, and black steel toe boots. At first he glanced all over the place looking for me like a lost little boy. Once we locked eyes, our smiles were unstoppable. We rushed to each other and were allowed to hug and kiss for a few minutes. He hugged me so tight that my back cracked about four times. It was so refreshing to feel him and smell his long dreads. After our "allowed touch time" was up we sat down and held hands throughout the visit. He put his arm around me a couple of times until a guard came up to us and asked if I was Sherman's sister. Sherman responded "No, she's my girlfriend." Then the guard said that we were not allowed to do that then. What a load of B.S. we thought, and we couldn't say anything back because it would risk loosing visits. We were still allowed to lean on each other and hold hands. I felt like I was back in high school with all the rules, fences, guards/security, and uniforms. Sherman said he felt the same way. Still the guards weren't that bad, a lot of them were friendly and talkative, they just do what they are told to make a living. Something's slide, some don't, you just got to know the ropes and types of guards.

Sherman and I constantly stared at each other looking for changes. I noticed he gained muscle & a couple of pounds. He also seemed taller since he stood up straight from doing 300 daily incline push-ups and bench presses. He works out about twice a day, because he said that having this routing helps the days go by faster. By looking at him I could tell he wasn't kidding about working out. He sets goals for himself like by the time he finishes serving time he wants to be able to bench press at least 300 pounds. When he first came to the facility he was struggling with 65 pounds. After 4 months, he's now at 185 pounds max. Another reason he keeps a routine he says "it's good cause it builds self discipline." While I continued staring at him I noticed he had a cold. He always seems to be catching some sort of cold or flu in there. I guess being in such enclosed quarters, the illness just bounces back and forth through the prisoners. At first I was worried, he wouldn't be able to eat right with his vegetarian diet. He came into luck that one of the chef's there will cook occasionally soy meat. Sherman said it sometimes doesn't have enough flavor, so he has to improvise and add ketchup & pepper for taste.

Amongst his other physical changes were his dreds that seemed a couple of inches longer, and his face seemed to have years added to it from all the stress he's been going through. In picture she had sent me from the prison for my birthday I could see his boyish stare seemed hard-edged. But at our visit he seemed to regain some of his glow, also at the upcoming visits with his mother and again myself. I guess the hardened look could just be homesickness and prison life, either way I was glad to have the lively Sherman in front of me. He is truly an amazing spirit with phenomenal abilities to transcend all the negatives of this situation into something positive. I love this about him. Even though his physical appearance is changing a little, his heart and mind continue in the same path of maturing
strength, compassion, love, and intelligence.

We talked and talked about a variety of topics. Sherman said he is very glad to be receiving support letters and reading all of them. He's sorry he hasn't responded to a lot of letters, but it's quite difficult with the shortage of stamps, time, and energy. That place seems to suck the life out of him. He has mentioned a variety of his favorites from all around the world like from France, South Africa, and a large majority across United States. Letters seem to be part of his motivation to move forward and stay strong. He sends thanks and appreciation to all of you that have taken the time to write to him.

We also talked about books he finished reading that I had sent him. He finished reading the Elaine Brown story "A Taste of Power" and "Lockdown America" by Christian Parenti. He just started on two other books. The main one he's currently reading sent by his mother is called "Decolonizing the Mind," and "Fast Food Nation." So far he's got plenty to read, but doesn't mind receiving more. He shares his books with some of his fellow inmates, especially conscience literature. He feels that others should be able to read books likes "Lockdown America" to better understand their imprisonment because education is a powerful tool.

Sherman also mentioned that in this facility he gets the chance to play music. He plays bass guitar for a prison rock band, and he plays drums for the prison chapel on Saturday evenings. Many other facilities don't offer this, so it's good he has this opportunity while serving time. It also helps him practice for when he comes out, because one of his main focuses will be writing music with conscience lyrics. We're still not sure if he will be able to use computers for this art due the 3 year probation. I guess we'll know when he meets with his probation officer.

As we continued with our visit, inmates that also had visitors would pass by us and say hello to him, "What's up Sherm Tank (Sherms or Shermanator)?" I found it a bit amusing. I was glad to see this interaction. He would tell me about some of them. Like one of the guys was the singer of the rock band that Sherman plays bass for at the prison. From what I saw, Sherman hasn't had a problem making friends. Especially since this facility seems to not inhibit any racial tension. When his mother visited the first time, she was approached by one of the inmates. This inmate told her that she shouldn't worry about her son, because Sherman was being looked after. On my visit I could tell that he knew different people and he was well rounded. I got to see that other inmates were not the Hollywood stereotypes, well at least not in this federal facility. They also had families and loved ones on the outside, like Sherman said "they are regular people." Most of them are in prison for non-violent drug offenses, it really made me think about the prison system. I noticed that many of these prisoners seem to come from low-income families and majority were people of color. I wondered how many of them were able to afford a private attorney or ended up with a plea-bargaining public defender.

Sherman and I also talked about his case. It's a hard topic to avoid, especially when there is still hope for a plea-withdrawal. Sherman further realizes the all the railroading and manipulation that was involved in his case to set him up. He was used to "set an example to deter future revolutionaries." Being in that place he replays and analyzes facts over and over. The injustice doesn't fade away. For Sherman and those supporting him, this case isn't closed.

Our first three-hour visit flew by in a flash. The guards announced, "Visitation is over! Inmates to the red chairs! Visitors to the door!" We were again allowed to give a quick hug & kiss goodbye. I felt like shrinking small enough, so that I could fit into his pocket or vice versa. We joked about this, to break the sadness. While Sherman held me tight in his arms, he reassured me that this nightmare sentence would be over soon and he would come out upgraded version Sherman 2.0.
I couldn't help but to laugh at his goofy humor and feel comforted. His positive energy made me feel more serene with the thought that I would be back to visit him soon.

I'll end this quoting Sherman from one of his letters:

"I'm going to try everything in my power to not go back, ever. I never want to go back to prison. The reality of the situation is though I'm not in full control over being a target, but I am in control of how much I will fight to not get locked up again. I'd like to go to school when I get out. It's not going to get rid of the reality of the situation though. They are going to be on me for the rest of my life. Trying to look good isn't going to change it. If I take college classes it's not for me to try to look good, but to do something for myself. This isn't something I can simply run away from or hide from by a change of lifestyle. The only thing that can bring this to an end is some kind of social change. I can lay-low for as long as I want, but it won't ever change the reality of things. That's why I didn't really lay low during my case, because it wasn't going to change anything. They still
wanted their conviction and the Judge always had 1 year on his mind since my first court appearance. That I couldn't control, so I just continued to do organizing work and spread more word out in the open about my case. Like at first when everyone was telling my mom and me to be very quiet about everything, because it could "hurt my case." It was false, because the Judges mind and FBI's mind were already made up from the start. So really if you think about it, the only thing that could have been done strategically was to be very vocal about it and continue would have at least organized more people and increased awareness. Which is a key element that eventually leads to change. That to me is more important in focusing on, rather than "laying low," because it's not like you're loosing anything. Your still going to struggle and end up in jail or struggle and live in paranoid fear of running your whole life. Both things are a prison."


Thanks for taking time to read the story. Please do
distribute this Sherman Austin update.

I'd like it to be known that this case is not closed. We are still in need of a lawyer to help with either a plea-withdrawal or being a paralegal advisor(pro-bono) for Sherman during his probation. If you have any contacts or ideas of people to try please e-mail information to the e-mail addresses listed below.

*We also are still in need for donations, which can be sent to

Sherman Austin
12115 Magnolia Blvd. #155
North Hollywood, CA 91607

Money donated, will either go toward legal use or commissary money for Sherman's spending needs in prison, like paper, pencils, soap, food, stamps, etc...

*Please do take initiative to set up educational forums and events that will spread awareness about this case and/or help raise money.

You can e-mail Jmi46 [at] if you do decide to take initiative and might need help.
You can also try to e-mail me @ Herstory17 [at]

I'm hoping that you just don't just see this experience as an example, but also as a personal experience that you can connect to your life.

Progress & motivation,

*PS. you can write to Sherman at

Sherman Austin #51565-054
8901 South Wilmot Road
Tucson, Az 85706

Books must be sent from the publisher or directly from the store. For further explanation please e-mail me at
Herstory17 [at]

Also be aware that all mail sent to Sherman is subject to prison personal reading and examining it. You cannot send extra stamps included inside your letter. The extra stamps will not go to Sherman and will be thrown away by prison personal.


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