"There was always this faint voice I would hear during the most trying times telling me 'don't give up, just a little bit more,' I'm not sure how I made it through those days..."
Wise, a 36-year-old African American man with a sage demeanor, penned those words in the introduction to his self-help guide book, "Your Greatest Obstacle (The Guide to Stepping Into Your Greatness"; words written in the 19th year of his incarceration--at age 36--for murder---and innocent.
Appropriately named, Wise was released from Otisville Correctional Facility on September 1, 2009 after spending 20 years and eight months in prison for a crime for which he claims to be innocent. He was originally scheduled to be released alone week earlier, but because of a miscommunication between the NYS Division of Parole and his family his release date was unexpectedly pushed back. Wise was not too pleased about that, but with the patience of Job and the wisdom of a guru he calmly waited for the problem to be cleared up. Today Wise is a free man.
Born Huwe M. Burton in the birthplace of hip hop, the Bronx, New York, Wise was raised by his immigrant Jamaican father. They rented the top floor of a two-family house from the family of New York Hot 97 radio deejay Funkmaster Flex. Wise carried the now classic record crates of the young Funkmaster Flex to and from neighborhood parties. That is where his love for hip hop and other genres of music developed.
A love that years later would provide an escape from the realities of prison.
A barely above average student in private school, Wise was transferred to public school early in the ninth grade where he began losing interest in school because of the too easy curriculum. Paradoxically, the illusory allure of street life piqued his interest.
Around the same time Wise was arrested and charged with second degree. A sixteen year old kid looking at life in prison.
Not bitter about the course his life has taken, Wise spent most of his years immersed in music. He raps (he sounds like Nas) and produces beats with his keyboard. Actually and a couple of his friends managed to mix a demo tape and have it played on a local college radio station. The claimed the moniker "Dirty Hands".
No longer a chubby teenager, Wise is now physically fit from countless hours doing calisthenics, married, has eyes that windows a story of sleepless nights and exhaustive insight, and a voice that vibrates a placid maturity. He has aspirations for running (and completing) the NYC marathon; "finishing next to the Kenyans and Ethiopians" as he jokingly promises.
Three weeks prior to his release, I sat down with Wise over a cup of John Wayne style coffee and vanilla creme-filled cookies in the Transitional Services Center at Otisville Correctional Facility for an interview. While I was preparing our coffee a mutual friend invited himself into the office where we were to conduct the interview. He had been having difficulties controlling his anger.
Wise tactfully volunteered the following advice: "You know better, you gotta do better." The thirty-something year old man replied, "Wise, you know what? You're right," and helped himself to a few cookies before exiting the room.
Wise being wise.
Pens: How does it feel to be finally going home?
Wise: Sometimes it feels surreal. You know in your mind that it's gonna happen, but you're also thinking, "You're really gonna let me go!" People usually see release as a cause for celebration, but I'm so different. For me, nothing is final. This is just the beginning. I just want to start doing what I should've been doing. I'm ready to get to work.
Pens: What's the first thing you want to do when you are released?
Wise: Spend time with my wife and what's left of my family. I want to be extraordinary. My family just wants me to be a regular guy, but that's not for me.
Pens: But you've spent almost 21 years in prison. Society does not expect much from you. Isn't regularity something to aspire for?
Wise: That's society's perception. Being below the radar is not for me. I will do more than is expected of me.
Pens: Got a job lined up?
Wise: A cousin connected me with an office manager for a dot com company in Westchester.
Pens: Do you think you're socially ready to interact with people in an office setting?
Wise: I think prisoners are complex and fragile in mind and heart. That can make them dangerous. Because of that I have learned to read personalities well and I will use that skill [of reading personalities] at my job.
Pens: Are you dangerous and fragile?
Wise: I used to be... I hit a bottom in my life that caused me to ask myself, "Is this it?" It happened in 1997 when I was in the box for a dirty urine. I began questioning my decisions and the people in my life.
Pens: You had an epiphany?
Wise: No, it wasn't an epiphany. It was like a faint voice that got louder telling me to change the way I think. I still hear the voice. The only difference now is that I've heard it so much that it's become my voice.
Pens: You've been in prison since you were 16 years old. Talk about that.
Wise: I wasn't afforded the opportunity to make mistakes like teenagers in the street. I had to learn things faster. I stumbled a lot as a teenager on Rikers Island from 16-19. Everything was insane. The thinking was insane. We were a bunch of 16 to 19 year olds going upstate with no direction, with 15 to life being the least amount of time to serve. Crazy. Those three years on Rikers Island shape the way I see thing today.
Pens: How? Is that good or bad?
Wise: Neither good or bad. When you put a bunch of human beings together against their wills things happen. The first time I saw someone get cut I was shell-shocked. Years later, if I saw someone getting stabbed my next thought was like, "What are we gonna cook for dinner?" You lose a little bit of humanity in prison. Some of my friends in here still hold on to those moments. I can't watch that stuff now.
Pens: What has sustained you throughout your bid?
Wise: Music. My ability to make it. It always provided an escape fro the reality of prison. I dabbled with music when I was home, but I honed it in prison and I'm good.
Pens: What type of music?
Wise: Rape mainly. It takes feelings and turns them into words that makes others feel the same. Making music. Playing music. Playing an instrument. I can play R&B, jazz, salsa, bachata, merengue, and rock. A whole new world has opened for me. It's still my escape.
Pens: Does hearing Funkmaster Flex on the radio motivate you?
Wise: Yeah, we loved music equally.
Pens: Did you think you could be successful like Flex?
Wise: Not until after my first parole board. Nine months later, after my dad died in May '05 I told myself, "I'm not dying in prison." Ironically, I wasn't at Otisville at the time.
Pens: You've been to six parole boards. Why has it taken six attempts? Isn't at least three the charm?
Wise: First off, three isn't the charm. I'm not one of those guys who's going to blame the political climate for my hits. I don't think the parole board commissioners are the axis of evil. Some people are just the same people they were when they were arrested. They try to betray who they really are when they are in that room [where the hearings are held]. I was never angry after any of the hits...
Pens: Never angry? Never?
Wise: Never. I always questioned what I did wrong. Even my family would ask what I was doing wrong. Some said that I should pay attention to my facial expressions, my language.
Pens: Did you maintain your innocence at the various hearings?
Wise: I thought about it, but my family were basically like, you did the time so if they want you to speak as a guilty person, I might as well. They wanted me to say whatever they felt it would take to get me out of prison.
Pens: So what did you do?
Wise: I told them what they wanted to hear; that I was guilty. It wasn't easy because I wasn't a good liar and I was an even worse speaker. I was scared to talk in my first hearing. The air conditioner in the room was louder than me. After that hearing I said to myself, "No one will ever have that much control over me." So I enrolled in the Public Speaking class here. I needed help. The next few hearings still showed that I needed to work on my character. I needed to correct some things. My third hearing turned into a shouting match. On my fourth hearing 22 people went up for parole and 22 were denied. My fifth was a deadlock and my sixth... Well I am going home, finally..
Pens: Well overdue, now let's move past that. You have written a self-motivational book, "Your Greatest Obstacle (The Guide to Stepping Into Your Greatness)" Tell me about it. What is the inspiration and purpose behind it?
Wise: I wrote it after my fourth parole hit [denial]. All of us didn't represent ourselves well and I thought, "What is standing in our way?" The answer wasn't the legislature or the political climate, it was us! In one word, the answer was ownership. The book's purpose is knowing what you want, unlearning the word 'can't', putting all your eggs in one basket. Once you embrace these things you can become the driver of your life.
Pens: In the book, you wrote, "Prisoners are one of the better examples of those that are reminded each day that they are social deviants. Everything around them is designed to remind them of their views." How have you been able to be the exception to your own assessment?
Wise: My father used to tell me, "I'm not saying you're better than people in there, but you are better than what prison has to offer." If you compare prison ethics to those in society, it's two different worlds. Applying prison ethics to society's doesn't work. Basically, I stopped doing jail and all that comes along with it.
Pens: The attribute Wise, it is a self prophetic name?
Wise: It's something I had to grow into. I'm still growing into it. But we're all wise. We just have to focus on it. The things you focus on are the things you see.
Pens: So what do you focus on? What are your dreams?
Wise: To be very well off financially. Society teaches us that wealth is shallow, I disagree. I will create music that can become the soundtrack to people's lives. I want to touch lives through my music. Bono, Mike [Michael Jackson] touched lives. My purpose is to touch people's lives. I never walked with my head down after those five parole hits because I wanted the next man to believe that he could make it. I want to inspire people. My boss at my new job will open me up to some speaking engagements, so I'm looking forward to some surprises.
Pens: This interview on pensfromthepen is first of many for you, hopefully. What would you like the world to know about Wise before, during, and after prison.
Wise: [thoughtful pause] That whether it is good, bad, or indifferent it always starts and ends with me. I am not bitter or angry about any of this. Everything that I've been through has inspired me. I've learned to embrace these things and to stop fighting it.