In the early morning hours of January 11, 1955 a 24 year old male African-American was found dead, hanging from a light fixture in his maximum security cell in Mansfield, Ohio's State Prison. The officials claimed that he had committed suicide. His fellow inmates secretly told me that he had been beaten to death by the guards. I took particular interest in this atrocity for Ronald McGhee was my kid brother.
I had just visited him the previous week and knew that suicide was the last thing on his mind. Dad, a fairly well connected attorney and Cleveland businessman, was doing all he could to get his probation reinstated and I had reported the good news to my brother. How he got in prison in the first place, and how he had his probation revoked is a story well worth the telling.
Ours was a middle class African-American (in those days "Negro") family living in an upper middle class integrated neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio consisting of my father, my step-mother, two sisters, my brother Ron and myself. All were college graduates except Ron. He chose another path - that of a night club singer with Bull Moose Jackson's Jazz Band.
In that capacity he lived on the fast track - wine, women and song but with an income insufficient to support the lifestyle he would have liked to live. On several occasions he had written checks that later bounced and he was in danger of being jailed. But my "father worked things out" with the stores involved and he was put on probation.
One of his many female companions was a young white girl whose mother was appalled at the choice her daughter had made and did everything in her power to keep them apart. When she learned that Ron was breaking his court stipulated 11:00 pm curfew, she notified the police and his probation was revoked and he was sent to Mansfield Prison in southern Ohio. At that time very much like Mississippi.
Following a visit to that prison by that his girl friend, he was thrown in "the hole" where he was found dead the next morning.
From that day on I pledged myself to dedicate a part of my life to helping the many thousands of youngsters just like my brother who find themselves in prison. Beginning in 1958, at San Quentin State Prison in California I began presenting what I now call Tree of Life Conflict Resolution Seminars. Over these 36 years I have visited perhaps 30 to 40 prisons from San Quentin to Sing-Sing including the Women's Federal Penitentary in Alderston, West Virginia and have written to and received letters from hundreds of inmates.
Page Two - From San Quentin to Sing-Sing
The Tree of Life Bookstore which I opened in Harlem, N.Y. in 1969 had specially selected books of consciousness and self improvement that were particularly inspirational to the African-American inmates who comprise the majority of the prison population in America.
As "Shahid" (a young man who had spent 14 years of his life in 7 different New York State penal institutions since 1975) stated: "I began searching, looking desperately for an answer - and where did I find it? At The Tree of Life Book Store of Harlem.
"I went through pure HELL in prison: experiencing persecution, physical brutality, tension, frustration, etc., culminating in being put in solitary confinement in a room 6 by 8 feet with no windows, naked on the floor, for 13 months for refusing to shave my beard!" (Just like the cell that my brother, Ron died in).
On my trips to the prisons what I found was young men and women who, day before yesterday, were 10 year old kids bored to death in school just like I had been. What they wanted most of all was to discover the purpose of Life and what their role in life should be.
When I began reading their horoscopes to them, they literally begged me for books and lessons on Astrology and spiritual development. This hunger for the inner knowledge, I even found on the part of the guards who, like the inmates, also spend a large part of their lives in prison.
As Shahid said, "Thank God I had a book that Kanya had sent me:"The Secret of Regeneration" by Hilton Hotema, which was so interesting and informative that when the guards opened the door to let me out, I requested that they come back the following month because I was busy meditating!
"I have truly reformed myself, and I just want to share this precious information with all of you. The prison's punishment taught me nothing. I only learned from the books in The Tree of Life and from the Divine within myself!"
About Kanya Vashon McGhee
Founder and manager, Tree of Life Bookstore, Harlem, New York. Formerly a California Public School teacher, he was for 17 years, producer and host, The Tree of Life Cable TV Show, New York City. The emphasis was on the practical consequences of spiritual knowledge.
Kanya has also been conducting seminars in community centers, colleges and prisons all over the United States (including Hawaii), Canada, the West Indies, Mexico and Europe. He is presently conducting weekly Conflict Resolution Seminars at Atlanta's Dunbar Community Center.