You’ve got to free your mind!

March 3, 2016 § 1 Comment

BigErn  On occasion, you encounter someone whose life experience is so different from yours that it forces you to recalibrate your understanding of humankind.

That’s how I felt meeting the Lakota counselor at a summer camp where I worked. And that’s how it was with Big Ern.

His full name: Ernest Shepard III and his reputation preceded him. About three years ago, my partner Joe told me he had met this amazing guy. “He spent 45 years in prison and now he’s working with Youth Justice Coalition.”*

Meeting the formerly incarcerated wasn’t anything new—Joe himself was a Vietnam-era federal prisoner, in for draft resistance, and is deeply involved with criminal justice reform movements—but forty-five years! I couldn’t imagine it.

Plus, a hefty sentence like that might mean an unnervingly hefty crime, though it was hard to know. Sentences often don’t match the violation and it’s a breach of prison etiquette to ask, “What are you in for?”

Anyway, Joe said Ernie was okay and that was enough. We invited him to our Christmas open house and were delighted that he came.

It was immediately clear how Ernie got his nickname— he was tall, robust, muscled—and seen on the street, he could appear intimidating. In fact, he was gentle and kind.

That Christmas, Ernie mentioned that his father had been a musician, that a clip of him playing with the Duke Ellington orchestra was posted on YouTube. I pulled out a laptop and we all watched a performance of “Take the A Train,” with an extended solo by Ernest Shepherd pere playing the bass and scat singing. The man was good! And his son was so proud.

ErnSpeakingIn the months afterwards, I’d get reports about Big Ern from Joe when he’d run into him at demonstrations or county supervisors’ meetings where Ernie spoke up on behalf of the formerly incarcerated. One Saturday, I tuned into Geri Silva’s KPFK radio program, “Think Outside the Cage,”   and heard Ernie’s warm baritone. He sometimes spoke haltingly, not because he didn’t know what to say but because he was reaching deep inside himself to access wisdom that had come from decades of struggle.

fair-chance-project Through the grapevine, I learned Ernie was was working with the Fair Chance Project, “a movement led by liberated lifers (formerly incarcerated men and women), prisoners and loved ones of term-to-life prisoners organized around the demand for just sentencing laws and fair parole practices.”

That’s what Ernie was doing on Friday, February 19, waiting for an elevator that would take him to a Fair Chance meeting, when untreated cancer claimed him. He had celebrated his 71st birthday only the week before.

Since his death, I’ve learned more about Ernest Shepard’s life. He grew up in segregated Los Angeles, in the Black community surrounding Central Avenue. He was academically accomplished, but, as he told YJC students, “Like a lot of Black youth, I wanted to be a student, but I was forced to be a fighter.”

In one of those fights, another man died, and though manslaughter would have been an appropriate charge, the prosecutor called it second degree murder and demanded the death penalty.

Ernie spent three years on death row, but studied the law, filed a writ, and was granted a new trial. He then represented himself in court, getting his sentence reduced to 7-years-to life. Lamentably, “tough on crime” policies kept him in prison decades beyond seven years.

I last saw Ernie at a theater performance by former prisoners. During the panel discussion that followed, he said that to remain whole while locked up he’d had to do a lot of inner work. To be free, he told us in an impassioned voice,  “You’ve got to FREE YOUR MIND.”

Coming from anyone else, this would have sounded New Age-y and glib. But from Ernest Shepard III, with a lifetime of struggle behind him, it was Truth with a capital T.

The panel ended shortly after Ern’s pronouncement because what more was there to say?

A memorial for Ernie will be held on Saturday, March 5, 2016 in Hardy Hall, 6501 Crenshaw Blvd., Inglewood.


You can see Big Ern yourself in this five-minute video interview shot in 2012 by Robert Corsini.

* From their Facebook page: “The Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) is working to build a youth-led movement to challenge race, gender and class inequality in the Los Angeles County juvenile injustice system.” Their continuation high school is located at Chuco’s Justice Center, 1137 E Redondo Blvd., Inglewood, California.

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