Plainfield, Prison, & Perseverance with “My Manz” author J.M. Benjamin

I recently sat down with J.M. Benjamin, Plainfield’s critically acclaimed author of over a dozen books, including Essence Best Seller “Ride or Die Chick” and award-winning “Down in the Dirty.” Before the success, which has lead him to the cusp of producing a feature film based on one of his other novels, Mr Benjamin spent twelve years in several different prisons. We sat down and discussed Plainfield, writing, incarceration and re-entry, prison activism, and, of course, “My Manz,” the movie to be shot in this city.

Slogan for the push to make "My Manz" in Plainfield

Slogan for the push to make “My Manz” in Plainfield

Before we get started, please make a donation to the kickstarter campaign for this film. There are only five days left, and as kickstarter is an all-or-nothing proposition, it’s crucial to reach the goal before the end of that time period. The money raised will be used to shoot the first ten minutes of the film, which will help secure the rest of the investment to complete the movie. The creators of the movie pledge to use local talent of all sorts as much as possible, even providing paid internships (along with screen credits) for our young people. Money will go to local businesses. In fact – sneak peak – some of the long-time local businesses you are familiar with will be integral parts of the film. This is an opportunity to get something positive in Plainfield – something that we can all be proud of. Let’s not let it slip by. Please support this kickstarter, and continue to let people know about this project as it advances.

I want to talk about the movie, first, then we can go into your story. As this is Plainfield View, how does this film exemplify the spirit of Plainfield?

The union of myself, Lamar Mackson, and Alrick Brown is a representation of the definition of Plainfield. Three different walks of life come together for the greater good of our city. You have a famous film director and Sundance Film Festival award winner in Alrick Brown. You have a known film producer in Lamar Mackson. In other words, that’s an NYU graduate and a Wardlaw-Hartridge attendee, teaming up with a Plainfield High School drop-out kid from the projects. Somehow, some way, we have landed on the same path with the same flight, and are moving together. That’s what Plainfield is about.

You want to hear something ironic? The projects can beef with Third St, Third St can beef with Sixth Street, Sixth Street can beef with Arlington Ave, Arlington Ave can beef with all of us, but when we go to prison it doesn’t matter what block you’re from. If you’re from Plainfield, I got your back and you got mine. That’s kind of like this. Project kid, NYU Graduate, Wardlaw-Hartridge guy – all three of us are from Plainfield. If you remove our academic backgrounds and our neighborhoods, you are left with three positive men trying to do something for Plainfield, in Plainfield.

What do you think the movie would do for you neighborhood, for the city, and for audiences overall?

It would mean a lot for people that come from where I come from. You know those films shot in New York City where they show the Twin Towers? It brings you back to a time, to a nice place, a positive place – where the towers stood. It also puts you in a state of mind of compassion and sympathy and empathy because of the tragedy that occurred, all the lives lost and the people who banded together afterwards. Well, this film takes place in the projects on Second Street, Elmwood Gardens, which likely won’t exist by the time we finish this movie. For those that are from Elmwood Gardens and get to see Elmwood Gardens in the film, it takes you back in time to a place where you overcame a struggle. The projects may have been a stepping stone with generation after generation starting there and then moving on, getting better education and better paying jobs that allow them to move out of the projects, but never forgetting them and always appreciating them.

For Plainfield as a whole, it would be something to be proud about. It would strip the barriers down from East End versus West End, poverty versus fortunate – you know, the social and economical classes in this city. At the end of the day it would be something universal for Plainfielders to embrace, take ownership of, and be proud of. When you see this movie, you will sit there, emotional and in awe, saying “Wow, I am from Plainfield. This is my city and those are my people. It’s not what the media always portrays. It’s not all about gang violence and negativity. Plainfield is a positive and beautiful city, and I’m proud to be a Plainfielder.” That’s what this film will represent.

So I understand that you grew up only a short walk from where we are meeting right now.

Yes, I grew up in Elmwood Gardens, the projects, right down the street.

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Film producer Lamar Mackson, author J.M. Benjamin, & Director Alrick Brown, from left to right, at Elmwood Gardens. Photo by Kathy Johnson

When did you first get involved with the streets?

I was in the streets since I was twelve years old.  I made some bad decisions and my criminal activities became a progressive behavior. From juvenile facilities to being charged as an adult at age fifteen in North Carolina, then coming home to Plainfield worse than when I went in. I came home older and more advanced, criminal-wise, and the next thing you know I was wanted by New Jersey and apprehended by Pennsylvania. I was charged with a lot – trafficking, racketeering, and possession.

You ended up going to prison?

I did state and federal time, a total of over twelve years.

Once in prison, did you find out that jail was worse than you imagined it would be?

Definitely, being someone that was used to calling my own shots, being able to come and go as I pleased. Prison was a major transition for me. Being exposed to things that would be traumatic for the average person was disheartening. I was considered tough on the street, then I go to prison and I’m surrounded by a bunch of tough guys from all over. Eventually, in order to survive I got caught up in what I call prison politics, doing the things that are made available to you in prison. You have choices. You can go to school, you can go to law library, you can take courses and programs or even play cards, basketball, chess, dominoes – whatever you want. You can also embrace using and dealing drugs in jail. You have options. In the beginning I chose all of the ones that kept me stagnant. It just kept my mind in a world of negativity until eventually everything came crashing down on me while I was in.

What do you mean everything came crashing down?

At first, I was getting into countless physical altercations. I was dealing with contraband inside prison, conducting illegal activities. I was adjusting to the conditions of prison, manipulating the system in order to live how I wanted in prison because I didn’t have much outside support aside from my mom, who was struggling and working, and caring for my other siblings. The hustler in me prevailed in there, or I should say the negative hustler in me.

Eventually I went to lock up, which is administrative segregation for a year and a half, where you are locked in a six by nine cell, literally 23 and a half hours of the day. That’s what I mean when the walls came closing, or crashing, in on me, literally. It felt like I was losing my sanity.

How did you break from that?

It wasn’t until I embraced spirituality that my sanity was restored. It was during my time in lockup someone gave me a book on Islam. Reading that book brought peace within my life. Around the same time, a counselor was encouraging me to keep a journal. She was saying that something inside of me was me so angry, making the choices and decisions that left me in solitary confinement. It was through writing as a form of therapy and through embracing my religion that I began to mature, learning what it means to be a man. I had to unlearn my old behavior and relearn a new one.

So your turning point was in jail. Were your first books written behind bars or when you got out?

I wrote while I was in. One thing – I never knew that I was a writer let alone able to write a full-length novel. This counselor who encouraged me to write, I let her read my journals and she was so impressed with the writing and the stories. I remember when I got out of solitary confinement, she was talking to me like I was a writer, a real writer. She brought me some books to learn about submitting your work to publishing companies. Because I was an avid reader and urban fiction had become this new wave for African-American readers, I started reaching out to the companies that were publishing those books, which I was reading.

I started by journaling, but I wrote my first manuscript (which later became my first novel “Down in the Dirty”) because there was a misrepresentation in the other books that I was reading about where I came from. They want you to believe that we grow up aspiring to be these negative individuals, but they don’t consider that we are living in the projects, and our environment. In reality, we are just like any other kid that lives in the East End of the city, or North Plainfield, or South Plainfield, or Scotch Plains who aspire to be doctors, lawyers, educators, and athletes.

All in all, how much of your work did you produce while in prison?

I came home from prison with thirteen completed manuscripts, and another dozen or so concepts for other manuscripts which I later went on to write in the next few years. Not only did I write “Down in the Dirty” while I was in, but also “My Manz and ‘Em,” which the film is based on, and “Ride or Die Chick” which became my Essence Best Seller. I knew before my release that I needed something that would deter me from pushing the old product that put me in prison in the first place. I had to fall out of love with the streets and fall in love with the new game, and that game became the literary game.

So that’s what the kickstarter slogan “Choose Your Hustle” comes from. From one hustle to another one.

Definitely. I actually switched my game plan and changed my product and picked a new hustle.

We all know that the struggle for prisoners doesn’t end upon release. Talk about some of the issues with finding a place in society after serving time.

It’s called re-entry, and whether it’s friends, family, strangers, groups, whatever – you need something to attach yourself to because you’re very vulnerable.

Let’s be clear, prison is not a rehabilitative center. It’s a warehouse where you are sentenced to where it’s up to you to take advantage of the time that you are going to be sitting. A lot of times men and women get so caught up and focus on what they want to do and need to do when they get out that often they neglect to focus on taking the necessary steps while still in to insure that once they’re out they don’t return. That’s what I did, and that, along with my spirituality and support from my family, was  the difference between me and the statistics of one in three of us returning to prison in the first three years after release, re-joining the 2.2 million incarcerated Americans. I knew I had to figure something out while I was still in.

Imagine, though, someone returning to Plainfield and there are no parenting programs and no jobs made available. If they’re in a halfway house, they’re out of town, far from children and loved ones, because there are no halfway houses in the city. When people come back home to Plainfield, if the city is not affording them any assistance, they know that the hood, the streets, the block is always inviting will embrace them no matter what. We need something more appealing to ex-offenders than the block.

And it’s often almost impossible for ex-offenders to find jobs.

I see it all the time, though I fortunately didn’t experience it. You are encouraged and told to answer that question truthfully, and that a job can not legally discriminate. But the fact of the matter is that if they don’t want someone with your background to work for that establishment, they will refuse it, and that’s so discouraging for many ex-offenders who are genuinely trying to get their lives back on track and be productive in society. That’s one of the leading causes why so many return back to what they come from. If an ex-offender feels that they are discriminated, that is a trigger for them to give up.

We address this in the film. A struggle for this ex-offender wanting to come home, turn over a new leaf, but eventually feeling that the deck is stacked against him, as it often is. They always tell you to have a plan, but when you’re an ex offender you need a back up plan, a plan to back up that plan, and a back up plan to back up the two backup plans.

Being that you spent a year and a half in solitary confinement, which is considered torture by international standards, I was wondering what you thought about the recent hunger strikes against long-term solitary and other abuses.

I stood for requests for inmates to take a stand for better conditions in general. When you are in prison, you need to have some form of ownership or something to be proud of. You need something to challenge your integrity and assure that you integrity is still in tact, and that you still have freedom of speech and the right to stand firm for your beliefs. If the word goes out that no one is going to eat breakfast in the facility or no one is going to use the phone for the next 30 days, then you have to make a decision and you have to challenge yourself to what type of man you were. I was one of the ones that stood firm on not eating, not using the phone, not having my family come visit me.

I commend and applaud those brothers and sisters that do it because I know what’s behind it. These facilities invoke harsh penalties, harsh conditions, and harsh actions on inmates. A lot of times we are treated inhumanely. I remember at one point I felt like a caged animal in a kennel. That does something to you. The strength in you wants to resist it, but a lot of times when you resist it, you are penalized for wanting to stand as a man or a woman.

I understand the personal need to resist, but tell us how standing up works to make your conditions better.

Standing up is the only way you get attention. If they get word that someone hasn’t eaten in 30 days, and it’s not a religious movement, they have to come in and investigate. Once they are in, everything rolls downhill. They get your list of demands. I remember I was in federal custody, and the conditions for federal inmates – we were housed with immigration inmates, INS, and we were being treated poorly because we weren’t from that area. I remember I was part of a movement. I was the one appointed to write a letter to the federal bureau – they came in and wanted to know what was going on. After that, we received better conditions – healthier portions of food, more time to go to the law library, more dayroom time, recreational time. Taking a stand and saying “I am a part of something” is empowering and encouraging when your spirit is broken.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I am already living it. I now have young people and ex offenders coming up to me or telling their parents or their loved ones that they are writing books because of me, or that they want to be a writer because of me. Sometimes they can just identify with me because they are saying “he comes from what I come from” or “he comes from something less than what I come from”. When I go to juvenile facilities, halfway houses, prisons, colleges, non-profit organizations, religious groups and I speak to people I get the same response –  “you touched me” or “you motivated me” or “you inspired me.” I used to be a major contributor to the destruction of this city. Now I’m considered to be a contributing factor to its uplifting – the power of change.

Statistically, I should either spend the rest of my life in prison or be buried in someone’s cemetery according to my past. I’m just blessed to be alive to witness my legacy.

A special thanks to J.M. Benjamin for sitting down to speak with us. You can email him at jmbenjamin.author@yahoo.com or follow his twitter, @JMBenjamin.

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