He’s Still Not a White Man
Just take a second and imagine what it would be like to be incarcerated since 1991. Some of you weren’t even born yet! Think of all of the changes in the world since then that you’d get to see, but not touch or be a part of. That’s how Obadyah Ben-Yisrayl has been living for the past 26 years in a Steel Cage. He has an exceptionally close relationship with his family and has raised a beautiful daughter from behind bars. He talks about the importance of staying connected to family. He’d like to share his story with you about what it’s been like not only being in prison in the general population, but also being on death row for 19 years. He tells about how he has been able to manage behind bars because of the love and support of his family. He keeps hope that one day he will be exonerated because the witnesses reported that a white man committed the crimes and he’s still not a white man.
Listen to Interview Here:
I am because we are.. whatever you see in me that is good, I am that because we are that. I could not be the person that I am right now without them. I know that.
From my conversations with Obadyah, I found him to be a positive person in light of everything that he’s been through. He was on death row for 19 years and during that time there were 21 deaths: 18 executions by the State, 2 deaths of natural causes, 1 was murdered by other prisoners. He said that it really affected him because the inmates on death row became their own kind of family. They’re together 365 days a year, and even if they get visitation from family, that’s only 48 times a year. What I thought was interesting was that they could have face-to-face visits with family and friends and not have to visit with the glass dividing them. Having these in-person visits really helped Obadyah keep his sanity while he was on death row. He also got to visit with his daughter.
So, I’m holding my daughter in my hands for the first time and she represents life… and at the same time I know I have a death sentence hanging over my head. So, here’s life in my arms, but death is hanging over my head and it was definitely a life-changing, life-altering moment…
During the four trials, two of which he was acquitted and two that sentenced him to death, he could visit with his family through the glass window, never having physical contact. The death sentences have since then been reversed, so he has been in the prison general population for the past seven years.
Obadyah Meets His Daughter
Obadyah’s family was always in the court during his hearings. His daughter was born while he was in prison. He said he “basically met my daughter through a glass window in the County jail during a 20-minute visit”. She was about 2 weeks old and each following week a family member or friend would bring her to him. Obadyah was able to hold his daughter for the first time when she was about three months old during his fourth trial. He had already been convicted and sentenced to death at this third trial. He wrote a letter to the judge asking for permission to hold his daughter, which was granted. Obadyah said:
It was life changing. I mean I was 22 years old and my life had changed. Everything that I had previously known that was normal, now stood on its’ head. This was my first time ever in trouble and I’m looking at a death sentence and a possible second death sentence because I hadn’t been to trial yet for the fourth trial yet. So I’m holding my daughter in my hands for the first time and she represents life. She represents the perpetuation of me and I’m seeing my flesh and blood, and at the same time I know I have a death sentence hanging over my head. So, here’s life in my arms, but death is hanging over my head and it was definitely a life-changing, life-altering moment and I don’t think from that moment on that I have ever been the same individual I was before I was incarcerated.
Obadyah was taken to death row. He was scared and didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t what he expected. They did have a private visitation area and someone from his family would come every week, so they could sit and talk for a couple of hours, and that helped keep some normalcy in his life, because nothing else was normal; it kept him grounded. He saw other inmates with their families and began to see them as people and not as their case; that people could not be diminished by one incident in their life and that somebody loves them, too. He also did note that there were inmates who did not have family visit and some for reasons where their crimes affected their family, or the family was ostracized because of the crime their family member committed.
Whatever sentence you have, that sentence has been imposed upon your family also.
Obadyah also talked about how the sentence imposed on him was also imposed on his family:
You learn to appreciate your family because your family has, for all intent and purposes, sentenced also. Whatever sentence you have, that sentence has been imposed upon your family also. But the irony is this, the sentence that’s been imposed upon me is being implemented in a way that I’m behind some bars in an institution where I have no choice about whether or not I’m going to be here. My family and anybody that chooses to be close to me is in a prison with no bars. They’re in a prison, being sentenced and doing time just like I’m doing time. The only difference is it’s a prison of their choice. They volunteer to put themselves in a prison without bars simply to love and be with you and support you. They don’t have to stay at that prison, they are not confined to that prison by anything except their connection to you.
Obadyah’s daughter visited him the whole time he was on death row, as well as when he moved to general population. They spoke on the phone a lot and wrote. He was very close to his daughter. One of the hardest things for both of them was when she left and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t come home with her. The city where they lived was a small town and his case was very prominent, so everyone knew who she was. We didn’t talk a lot about how it affected her on the outside, and we may be able to talk to her so she can share her experiences. All she has ever known is the father that she saw in the visiting room. She has grown up into an independent woman with a good job and her own apartment. They speak a lot on the phone and she still visits on her own now that she is old enough. Obadyah commented that he’s noticed that the two of them have a lot of the same tendencies that are similar, even though they have not spent any time together outside of the visitation area.
While waiting to go to his fourth trial he was in a cell block with other men that were older and more experienced. They helped guide him and provided books for him to read. This is when he started his studies and is an avid reader. This is also where he started his transformation to be the person that he is today.
I asked him how he keeps up with what is going on outside and all the new technology. When he went into prison the internet was just starting and there was no such thing as a smart phone. He said he’s a news junkie and keeps up on everything through reading.
He said general population was so different than death row and he adapted to that environment, too, with the help and support of his family. He also was able to see changes and growth in the people that visited him, especially in his daughter:
When you are around your family every day there are things that you don’t notice, very subtle things that you don’t notice about a person if it’s a facial feature or a personal quirk or sense of humor or something else. Over a period of time you don’t see those things, they just develop because you’re with this person and you just the growth. But when you only see your family 48 times at the most a year, every time you see them you notice something different about them so I think that’s what I was thinking when she first came to see me at 22…(I saw her change) from a child and then a young woman into a woman. You start to see those things and notice those things every time you see them. There’s something different about the way she pronounces her words, how she carries herself, you notice all of these things. So, I was noticing these things, I was saying to myself because like I said, I see a lot of myself in my daughter, so the little bit of credit I could take I would say, I did something right.
I asked Obadyah what is the best thing someone can do to help their loved one. He said that:
Prison minimalizes certain people. What I mean by minimalize is that it’s the things that you thought about being in the world becoming very very small, but those very small things become very important things. So just a card with words, ‘I’m thinking about you’, ‘I love you’, ‘I’m here for you’, just something that simple can make the difference between somebody thinking about suicide that day to somebody thinking there is somebody out there who loves me. I’m not by myself, I’m not in this alone. It’s the simple things that actually help us hold on.
I Am Because We Are
When I asked Obadyah what he would say to his family for what they’ve done for him and he said there were so many things that he’d want to say that he’d never stop talking. Then he said:
If I really had to narrow it down I would just tell them that I am because we are. Meaning that whatever you see in me that is good, I am that because we are that. I could not be the person that I am right now without them. I know that. I give a lot of power to my higher power, but on the physical plane…it’s because of my family that I am the person that I am and that I have endured and that I’ve maintained my sanity and I love them and I am thankful and could never repay them.
To see Obadyah’s artwork and to read the article that Fran Quigley wrote, “Innocent Man on Death Row”, go to the Die Jim Crow website: http://www.dieartwork.com/obadyah-ben-yisrayl.html
Obadyah also has a Facebook page that he invites you to visit: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000155358305
Prison the Hidden Sentence, Inc. does not pass judgement on Obadyah’s innocence or guilt, nor trying to convince the reader either way. We are not here to try to solve the crime. We are here to give humanity to all people and to give Obadyah the opportunity to share his story. Behind every person in prison there is a family that is affected. We support the prison family and not the crime; the prison family includes those on the outside and those on the inside. As in all of our stories our hearts go out to all victims and their families, as they too are living their own story.
Interview with Obadyah’s daughter is here: https://theffip.org/site/featured/26-years-outside-steel-cage-daughters-story/