Arts & Culture » Culture

Detroiter Sylvester Long talks about how he found a new focus in prison

15 years in 16 prisons



We get a lot of snail mail at the MT office, but a package of poems from a Detroiter named Sylvester Long moved us, in particular a poem titled "To All of My Sisters," which Long wrote while incarcerated. We decided to publish it in an issue of MT last month.

"When I went to prison, I started realizing the importance of the woman," Long explains, who spent 15 years in prison for murder. Long says he did it to protect his family, but quickly realized how worse off they were without him. "When I went to prison, I hurt them more," he says. "It hurt them more, because now I'm gone and I can't do nothing."

Long invited us into his home to show us more of his poetry and artwork, including a Detroit-centric collage mural that takes up two basement walls and part of his ceiling, made up of photos culled from Rolling Stone, Vibe, and Metro Times.

Now, Long has a gig doing janitorial work in a building downtown. "They treat me good. They treat me fair — that's the important thing," he says. "They don't hold it against me that I'm an ex-felon."

Long says it's tough for ex-felons to prove that they're reformed — he got fired from a job at Eastland mall when he let his past be known. Long says it would be better if people could be out about their pasts — his mind was opened when he started learning about celebrities who did time. He says it's not impossible to turn around; part of it is taking the opportunity to spend prison time bettering yourself.

"These guys go to prison, and they play basketball, play cards all day, do everything wrong — and then come home and want a job," he says, but adds that he thinks prisons should offer more educational opportunities for learning trades. Longs claps his hands in exasperation. "To come home and say I don't got nothing, I don't have my GED, I didn't get no skills, I didn't get no trade, and I'm an ex-felon?"

Long is also a motivational speaker at juvenile detention centers, which he says is the most rewarding of his post-jail gigs. "I have fun with them. I can understand their lingo," he says. "A youth told me one time, 'Man, they be bringing all these guys in here, they have on their suit and tie, they ain't never been on the street, they ain't never been to the joint or nothing.' I talk to them because I been there."— mt

— Long has written a book, State Prison: My 15 Year Walk; call 313-247-9557 for more information.

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