Ian Manuel grew up in Central Park Village in Tampa, Florida. In 1991, when he was 14 years old, Ian was sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide crime in which he shot and wounded a woman. Ian served 26 years in Florida prison, including 18 years in solitary confinement. The Equal Justice Initiative later took Ian’s case and won his re-sentencing. On November 11, 2016, Ian Manuel was released from prison. He has since published a gripping memoir, interspersed with poems conceived in his cell, called My Time Will Come.
The following is an interview with Ian conducted by Straight Ahead’s statewide organizer David Garlock, who served 13 years of a 25-year sentence in Alabama prison for taking the life of his abuser. David also won his freedom through the representation of the Equal Justice Initiative and returned home in 2013. In this interview, David and Ian discuss pivotal moments in Ian’s life, the impact of race in the criminal legal system, the power of transformative justice, and the urgency of abolishing both solitary confinement and life without parole–or death by incarceration–in Pennsylvania and across the country.
David Garlock: So the first question I wanted to ask you was, what were the ramifications of your offense at 13 being tried as an adult?
Ian Manuel: Well in Florida, I was charged with attempted murder, doing a robbery. And so my crime happened when I was 13 years old. But in Florida, they have a law that says a child of any age indicted for a life or death felony shall be treated in every respect as if you were an adult. And so I, based on that grand jury indictment, I was charged as an adult.
Now, if you asked me, the real reason they chose to even use that law [was that] my victim was white and I was black and it was a lady. And so that’s my opinion why they chose to even enact and use that statute to try me as an adult.
David: How do you think things would have been different if you were white or if you were somebody who had means where you could have had a hired attorney?
Ian: First of all, had I been white, even my victim said, had I been a white, blue eyed, blonde haired guy, that my sentence would have been different. And I truly believe that because I looked around after I was sentenced, I seen [white] guys shooting up their schools and they was given sentences to the age of maturity, meaning they could get out when they were 21. Whereas I didn’t kill anybody. And I was sentenced to death in prison. Had I been someone with power and prestige, I just totally believe that my sentence would have been different. The judge looked at me as a menace to society and he tried to eradicate me from earth with a sentence.
David: So at the age of 13 you were told that you’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison. Did that really resonate? Could you really understand the totality of that type of sentence?
Ian: No, I couldn’t. I remember immediately after I was sentenced, I went back to the holding cell and I talk about this in my book, My Time Will Come, that my cousin was in a holding cell, he just had a trespassing charge. His name was Sam. And he asked me, “What did they do?” And I remember telling him, “They gave me 40 years.” That’s what a life sentence sounded like to a 13 year old kid, 40 years. I did not even know that what they did to me was worse than 40 years, because there was no end date in sight for the time that they had just given me.
David: So 13 year old, you think 40 years. At what point was it where you said, okay, I could potentially spend the rest of my life here in prison?
Ian: That’s a great question. Because even when I went to prison, the so-called old timers, one of the first conversations I had with so-called old timers was, and I told them I had a life sentence and he was like, “Aw, that ain’t nothing Jit”. You know that’s what they call kids at that times, Jitterbugs. So “that ain’t that nothing Jit. You’ll get out of seven years. They’ll parole you at seven years, man, you ain’t got no time.” And so I was happy. I’m like, man, I got a life sentence, I get to get out in seven years. It wasn’t until much later, man, much, much later when those seven years turned into the 14 and those 14 turned into 21, and I was still there. It hit me much later on after I was out of my teens that, “Hey, the sentence that I have, it means forever.”
And they used to pass out these game time slips and at the bottom, I don’t know how they get it in Alabama, but in Florida at the bottom of the game time was your release date. And my release date said, “99-98-9999.” There was no date, no end date in sight for that. So starting to understand that I’m like, “I don’t have a release date. I’m never, ever going to get out of here if they have anything to do with it, I got to get myself out.”
David: So they just recently did this article in the New York Times about you. About the 18 years that you did in solitary. I know that a lot of people who are serving life without parole sentences or what a lot of people that are incarcerated here in Pennsylvania, they call it “death by incarceration” because you’re never going to get out. So what kept you sane in that solitary cell?
Ian: For me being in solitary confinement, it was my imagination that sustained me. If you’re asking how I survived, it was my imagination. I would conjure up thoughts of myself as a superstar rapper or a superstar actor. It had something to do with someone that had power, because I was powerless at that point. I had to conjure up these thoughts that one day I would be somebody ‘cause I looked around me and I just felt different. I felt like I had something of value to offer the world. But because of an offense that I committed as a child, you were telling me that I would never be able to show that value to the world. Someone in power had said that I would never be able to show my value to the world because he had deemed me valueless at a young age.
So I used to dive into my imagination and write poetry. I started settling up obstacle courses of different poets and I would rewrite their poems. I rewrote Eminem’s poems. I rewrote Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou. I would motivate myself saying that, “Ian if you can’t do their poem as good as them or that rap as good as them or better, then you don’t have what it takes to be successful.” And that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself and, but I would do it. And I would recite these poems to my fellow prisoners, under the risk of being gassed if I was caught talking in confinement. But I wanted to feel that relevance. And prisoners are the toughest critics in the world. They’re tougher than Simon Cowell. They’re tougher than Sandman on Apollo. Because you got to understand a lot of, a lot of prisoners have a lot of pain of abandonment, of shame, of hurt and anger. And so to be able to reach those men in there and touch their hearts and souls, I knew I could be successful out here because those men are harder to reach.
David: I love just seeing everything that’s transpired in your life from when you got out. And the thing that’s so amazing about your story is the relationship with the woman that you harmed. So can you tell me some more about that and how important her being in your life has been to, not only you while you were incarcerated, but tell me about that experience of seeing her upon your release?
Ian: Yeah. That was a dream. That was, I’m glad you brought that up. Because that was a dream I had in solitary confinement that one day I would be released and that I would be able to kiss this lady on both sides of her cheek. Because I didn’t know where I shot her. She was shot in her open mouth and the bullet came out of one of her cheeks when I was 13 years old. And I called her from prison when I was 14 to apologize for shooting her. I called her collect. Back then, 30 years ago, you could actually just pick up the phone and press zero and get a live operator and just tell him what number you was calling. Now in prison, they got this system where you have to turn in a phone list and get a pre-approval before you can call somebody.
David: 30 calls, $30 a call too, at times.
Ian: Yeah, at times. Right, very expensive. But at this time I called the lady [Debbie], she forgave, she accepted the call. I just used my first name at first, Ian. And then she said, “Can you ask him his last name?” So I said, “Manuel.” And we talked for 15 minutes. I just remember getting on the call and saying, “I wish you would have a Merry Christmas, you and your family a Merry Christmas. And I called to apologize for shooting you in the face.” And she asked me, “why did you shoot me?” She asked me a question that no 14 year old should ever have to answer. And I told her, “It happened so fast. It was a mistake.” And then she, we talked and the 15 minutes was up and I asked her, “could I call again?” and she said, “yes.” And after those 15 minutes was up, I don’t really remember that much about that call, but I asked her, could I write her? And she said, “yes.” And I that’s how our correspondence started.
But 20 something years later, 26 years later to be exact, when I was released on November 10th, 2016, I meet her in a parking lot in a gas station, across the street from the jail was surreal. Like imagine one of the first people you greet after your lawyers and your social worker… A thousand thoughts are going through my head and a thousand emotions, but she just hugged me. And I got to actually live the dream I had in my mind in confinement and kiss this lady on both sides of her cheek. And it was just a wonderful feeling. Warm feeling. It was the epitome of restorative justice.
David: And me personally, I call our system right now, the criminal legal system, because there’s no justice in it. And I think that we definitely need to go to restorative and transformative justice, because that brings healing to everybody. And your story is a perfect example of that healing that takes place when you have the person that’s caused the harm, being able to talk to the person and create a relationship with the person harmed. Where she can ask you those questions. Because in the trial, she’d never be able to ask you those questions.
Ian: No, never. And then when she tried to visit me when I was in prison, they actually have a thing on the visitation form that says, check this, if you are the victim of this inmate’s crime. And so she checked that box every time and they would deny access to visiting me. So I would’ve never got a chance to talk to her in person in prison.
David: So thinking about restorative justice, thinking about transformative justice, 13 year old Ian Manuel commits this offense, what should have the punishment been for 13 year old Ian Manuel?
Ian: I would have said if the system believed that rehabilitation, which they didn’t, which the judge reminded me of 2011 during my re-sentencing for Graham versus State of Florida, he said “the legislative intent when Mr. Manuel’s crime happened was to punish not to rehabilitate.” So there was no legislative intent to rehabilitate me at the time. But what should have happened was they should’ve sentenced me to a juvenile program until the age of maturity, and given me court ordered treatment, court ordered rehabilitative processes. That wasn’t in place, man.
What they said actually was by sentencing me to life that we don’t have any type of programs in place for someone like Mr. Manuel. The only options are to either sentence him to die in prison or to release him. We’re not going to release him, so we’re going to sentence him to the most restricted punishment that we have, which was life in prison. But the happy medium would have been sending me to a long-term juvenile program that gave me an option to rehabilitate, man. And that was something that they chose not to do.
David: So what is one thing, if there’s one thing, I know I get asked this question all the time and I hate it because there’s so many things, but if there’s one thing that you could change and reform the system today, what would it be?
Ian: I would end solitary confinement for juveniles. No human being, period, needs to be placed in that type of long-term solitary confinement, but especially a child. A child shouldn’t be… And there’s this steps being taken. They just passed an act that the Governor of New York, Cuomo, signed into law to restrict solitary confinement. But it’s so many, I, right, that is a tough question. Because then the thought process is, okay, why not change it where juveniles don’t even go to prison in the first place to be placed in solitary confinement? You know what I’m saying? But there has to be, I would… There’s so much man, a cap placed on solitary confinement for even adults. It’s so tough to just limit the change in the justice system to one thing. That’s a tough question.
David: Yeah. My mind is always like cap sentences at 20 years.
Ian: Oh my God, I thought of that one too, because that is enough. After sitting in prison for 20 years, you’re not the same person anymore.
David: Even if you’re not, I mean, things have changed. Like there’s theories out there that are called Life Course Theory and it talks about aging out of crime. In Pennsylvania right now, we have 5,400 people serving a life without parole sentence. We have the second most people in the United States. So do you know who has the first?
Ian: Oh, Florida?
David: Yep. How’d you guess? How’d you guess that?
Ian: Because they’re so backwards.
David: But the only reason they have more is they have double our prison population. Otherwise, we would. And 73% of those people committed their crimes before they were 25.
Ian: Wow. That’s crazy.
David: So in PA, sentencing is mandatory for death by incarceration for felony murder, regardless of the circumstances. So in PA if you’re charged with first or second degree murder it’s automatic life without parole. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. And what falls under second degree murder is felony murder. So if you and I go somewhere, I commit a murder and you’re with me, you’re getting life without a parole too. So do you think that’s something there’s justification in that?
Ian: There’s definitely no justification in that, man. No one should be sentenced to the rest of their life in prison, man. Especially for a second degree murder. Second degree murder and you didn’t, and I was just there and I didn’t do anything and you did something? That’s ridiculous. That’s not justice. And the United States is big on telling other countries how to run their countries, like we’re the police of the world. And we don’t even have our own stuff right at home. Clean up our own stuff at home before we go try to police the world. That’s insane.
David: Yeah. So if you were talking to a legislator right now, if you were talking to a Pennsylvania legislator, what would you tell them about your experience with life without parole?
Ian: That the sentence in and of itself, the punitiveness of it, did not rehabilitate me. I, as a person, rehabilitated myself. And even in the system, you look at the way it’s set up, like in order to be paroled out you have to have a spotless record. And here I am, had that been the case with me, I would have never got out of prison. I have over 200 Disciplinary Reports and over 150 of them are false. And so you can’t define a person by his prison record. And you can’t define a person for something that he’s did when he was 13, 14, or even 21.
My lawyer, Bryan Stevenson says something that is profound, “We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.” And I truly believe that because I committed a violent crime when I was a 13 year old child and they tried to obliterate me from earth. With a death in prison sentence. That’s not who I became. That’s who I was as a child, and actually, I don’t even believe that’s who I was as a child. I believe I committed that one act and that was one night out of my life. But I evolved. We, as human beings, we evolve, and I think the law needs to catch up with the evolution of man.
David: So then, Ian Manuel is not a violent offender?
Ian: No. Ian Manuel has been out for five years and had it been up to the system, I would have never got out. But I’ve been out five years, I haven’t felt what a pair of handcuffs feel like in five years. I haven’t been in the back of a police car. The only time I can remember having engagement with police officers is when I one heard me speak, a captain heard me speak at an event. A captain for the NYPD and he’s like, he gave me his card. I just seen it today. He gave me his card and he was like, “Hey man, you are a powerful speaker and I would love for you to speak to my precinct. I don’t know how you feel about a police officer, but here’s my card, man. If you ever think about it, give me a call.” So no, Ian Manuel isn’t a violent offender. Ian Manuel is a prolific public speaker, a poet, author, and hope to one day become a dad, like you are.
You can’t write somebody off based on something that they did at one night or one day out of their life. That’s just a moment in time. And we all make mistakes. We all can evolve from those mistakes. And so don’t condemn somebody. Even this guy that came out with this theory of the Superpredator. Let him tell it… I was the epitome of a Superpredator and that theory turned out to be wrong. And if he was wrong about the whole theory of a Superpredator, then the judge sentenced me to life without the possibility of parole, based on that theory. And here I am showing that I’m more than the worst thing I’ve ever done, man. I actually have value and can offer inspiration to the whole world. That New York Times article that you speak of, I still get emails, still get DMs from people saying, “Man, you inspire me, man, that if you can overcome what you went through with your sanity intact, man, then this little bit of stuff I’m going through is nothing, man. Keep going, man. Keep showing them and keep proving them wrong.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.