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Ian Manuel Discusses Incarceration At A Young Age In New Memoir


Ian Manuel was sentenced to life in prison without parole when he was just 14 years old. And before we go further, we should note the details of his crime are disturbing, as is the story of his treatment in prison. He had a tough life growing up in a rough part of Tampa and an abusive family and would spend 26 years in prison - much of it in solitary confinement - before his release in 2016. But his new memoir is unsparing on himself when at the top, he described shooting Debbie Baigrie, a mother of two, in the face - in the mouth, to be precise, during a robbery attempt in 1990.

I begin here, he writes, because I hurt someone very badly during a time in my life when I was blinded by my own hurt. And I want to admit it. I want to state the truth of it. I think I owe it to her and to the child that I was. His new memoir is "My Time Will Come." Ian Manuel, who is now a motivational speaker, joins us from Brooklyn. Thanks so much for being with us.

IAN MANUEL: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Why was it important to you to begin your memoir this way?

MANUEL: It was important because I wanted people to know that I wasn't running from my truth - that I was willing to stand in front of what I had done, even though I was a child. So yeah, that's my reason for starting there.

SIMON: You make a point in your book about talking about the ordeal that Debbie went through. But you relayed a moment during the trial when you laughed out loud.

MANUEL: Yeah. Yes, sir.

SIMON: Now, you were - what? - 14 then, right?

MANUEL: Yeah, I was 14. For your listeners that don't quite understand why was I laughing - some - another little teenager that was sitting by me said something that was funny. And I laughed not knowing that in the courtroom, everyone has a role to play. And as the defendant, you're supposed to remain stoic - no facial expressions at all time. But I was a 14-year-old child, not knowing what I was up against. And this kid said something that was funny, and I laughed. Debbie seen me laughing and took that as if I thought the whole ordeal that was going on with my sentencing and the trial was a joke. And when she got a chance to speak to the judge, she let it be known that Ian doesn't take this serious. So if he doesn't care, I don't care what happens to him.

SIMON: What made you call her when you were in prison?

MANUEL: Yeah, it was November of 1991. It was around Christmas. And I received a bunch of legal work for my lawyer. And I sat there in the dormitory going through my legal work, and I seen Debbie's phone number and address in there. And something just compelled me, man. And I called her, and Debbie accepted the call. And I just remember saying, I'd like to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and to apologize for shooting you in the face. And she asked me a question that no 14-year-old should ever have to answer. Ian, why did you shoot me? And I remember just saying, it all happened so fast. It was a mistake. We talked for 15 minutes. Then that call was over with, and I asked her, could I call back? And I don't remember much about the second call, but I do remember asking her, could I write her? And I wrote her. And that's how our correspondence started that lasted for like, five, or six years for my initial incarceration.

SIMON: Yeah. I have to also ask you how you wound up in solitary confinement.

MANUEL: It's a couple of reasons I ended up in solitary confinement. So first of all, I was placed in solitary confinement my first day in prison based on my age and my size.

SIMON: The whole idea was ostensibly to protect you.

MANUEL: Yeah, yeah - initially. Then after three weeks at the reception center, I was transferred to adult prison at 14 and given all the responsibilities of an adult. In prison - their way they punish you is to put you in solitary confinement. So I accumulated disciplinary reports for walking into grass, for being in an unauthorized area, being somewhere I wasn't supposed to be. The officers would yell at me - I'd yell back. And I found myself at age 15 placed in long-term solitary confinement, a place I would stay for 18 consecutive years from when George H.W. Bush was president to when Barack Obama was on his second year of his first term.

SIMON: Yeah. Can we possibly understand what solitary confinement is like?

MANUEL: It's torture to the soul. The U.N. says that if you keep someone in solitary confinement for more than 15 days, it's considered torture. I'm proposing that no child be placed in solitary confinement ever again and that even for adults, there's some type of cap and that the people there receive the adequate mental health and medical care that they need so that once they're released from solitary, they don't go crazy. Everybody don't turn out like a Ian Manuel, released with their sanity, their humanity and their talent intact. Most people go crazy and lose their minds under those circumstances.

SIMON: Tell us what made a difference for you.

MANUEL: It was a couple things. One was poetry. I challenged myself. I tell myself that if I couldn't rewrite Tupac's poems, if I couldn't rewrite Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise," if I couldn't rewrite Langston Hughes, if I couldn't rewrite Eminem's "Lose Yourself." I tell myself, Ian, you don't have what it takes to be successful. And I - every day get up with that intentional - those training sessions, so to speak. And then I'd share my poems with my fellow prisoners, who, I tell you, are worse than Simon Cowell.


MANUEL: But then once they heard me, they started asking me to write their girlfriends and their wives poems. And they would pay me to do it. It was my poetry. I remember one time they took me out of my cell for an hour because in prison they use PBS as a punishment.

SIMON: I was going to ask you about this. Yes, please.

MANUEL: Prisoners like sports and entertainment. And so to torture you even more, they deliberately chained you up, shackled you up and put you in a small television room for an hour. Well, it backfired on them this day. And it was a show on called "To Be Heard" about three South Bronx teenagers who discovered slam poetry. I couldn't wait to get back into my cell to write this poem called "Every Time I Breathe" because I had been exposed to a different style of poetry. And if you don't mind, I'd like to share that poem with you now.

SIMON: Yeah, please.

MANUEL: (Reading) Every time I breathe, I feel the need to justify my existence, to take this moment that I'm living and enjoy every millisecond in it. My life and my struggles - not many can comprehend it. My desire for freedom burns like a sausage inside a skillet. Tomorrow isn't promised, so I'm thankful for this minute. Though, in prison, merely existing, it's like my life has been suspended. But that means it's temporary because I haven't been expelled. And I still got a chance as long as I can (inhaling) in and exhale. Every time I breathe, I become an intergalactic being, stepping out of character like a chiropractor snapping peas. I pray so many times, it's like I got arthritis in my knees. But I still get down and bow my head because I continue to believe that as long as I can breathe, God is going to make a change in my circumstances - only chance is for me to glorify His name. You don't know me, homie, but that's odds that I already overcame. So if prayer works but hurts, then I can stand a little pain. I want to end this part by thanking God for bringing me to these heights. And I make a promise to always honor and cherish this breath of life. Every time I breathe. Every time I breathe. Every time I (exhaling) breathe. Thank you.

SIMON: That's an amazing poem. Thank you.

MANUEL: You're welcome, sir. Thank you for allowing me to share it with the world.

SIMON: How easy is it for you to be happy now?

MANUEL: I'm still chasing the dreams I had in solitary confinement. You've got to understand my dream was to get out of prison, do a book, do a movie about my life, then use my experiences to change the criminal justice system. I'm only at the beginning of that. You know, I don't know how - if people understand how improbable me just being released into society was. The U.S. Supreme Court had to overturn my life sentence for me to be out of prison. The U.S. Supreme Court had to deny the state's appeal when they went back to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to reinstate my life sentence. It's difficult for me to be happy because I haven't accomplished all the dreams that I had set out for myself in solitary. But I'm on the way. This book is a stepping stone to my happiness.

SIMON: Ian Manuel. His book - "My Time Will Come." Thank you so much for being with us.

MANUEL: Thank you for having me, Scott. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.