The bullet went right over the heads of Chris Napier and his older brother, ripping through the front door of their Prichard home in Queens Court before killing their father in 1975. Chris was only 4.
Witnessing his father’s murder was only the first link in a long chain Napier refers to as “street poisoning,” which led to his eventual downfall in 1990.
Three weeks after Napier turned 18, he was convicted of first-degree murder and the distribution of crack cocaine. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole – or so he thought.
Inside St. Clair Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison 35 miles east of Birmingham is where Napier spent 14 years and eight months of his life. His descriptions of prison are described as “the closest thing to death while still being alive” and “one of the most dehumanizing forces a person can experience.”
And as miserable as prison was, Napier came to realize inside of those prison walls that he could turn his life around. Those walls had given him the chance, with time and opportunity, to reevaluate his life for the better, and protected him from progressing further down a dead-end road.
But, it didn’t come easy.
When Napier arrived at St. Clair he was bitter and angry.
“I was an 18-year-old sentenced to life,” Napier said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘How am I going to survive in here?’ I had lived a misdirected life – was frustrated and confused,” Napier concluded.
He recalls a pivotal moment in prison when he was 19 when his frustration got the best of him. Perhaps, it was for the better.
An inmate, who Napier said used to study the dictionary, called him a homo sapien. Fueled by frustration and anger, Napier snapped. He hit the other inmate in the face and a brawl ensued. When the fight was broken up, Napier was sent to solitary confinement. The fight was a result of Napier not knowing what the word homo sapien meant; assuming the inmate had called him a homosexual.
“I was embarrassed that I didn’t know what the word meant,” Napier said, before pausing. “I can remember the first Mothers Day card I sent my mom while in prison,” Napier recalled. “I misspelled dear, spelling it d-e-e-r.”
“But, after the embarrassment passed, I wanted to be educated and took it upon myself to get there,” Napier said. “It was a challenge I was embarrassed.”
While incarcerated, Napier received his GED, participated in several self-rehabilitation programs and reflected over his life. After being incarcerated for six years, Napier stepped outside of the prison walls he had been contained by for so long, but not by himself.
He was accompanied by an officer and was required to wear handcuffs, but still, he was out of prison in some sense, determined to turn his tragic story into one others, who might be on the same path to a cell they may potentially called home, could learn from.
Through the Free by Choice program, Napier was allowed to visit alternative schools and juvenile youth centers, which requested an inmate speaker. At these places, Napier would speak about many things, including the crime he committed, his time spent in prison and what he has learned as a result of these things. In a speech he delivered in the summer of ’97, Napier told his youthful audience, “I committed a lot of crimes, but I’m not here to glorify them. Although I’m convicted of killing one person, in actuality, I’ve killed thousands. I’ve turned future doctors, lawyers and teachers into crack heads.”
As time passed in prison, Napier grew wiser and stronger. He became a Muslim and devoted his life to Allah. He read over 200 books and thought about his life and how he was raised, wrestling demons from his past in order to find peace and understanding in the present.
After being denied parole for the second time in 2000, Napier decided he had read enough books – it was time to write his own.
Napier carefully pulled from his binder a couple of pieces of old, faded, crinkled up loose-leaf with notes and thoughts, scribbled in an unorganized and chaotic order – the first pages of his book. Over the next four years in prison Napier wrote. He wrote about growing up in Queens Court, his father’s murder, his trials and tribulations and about the frustration he felt through all of it. Napier wrote about everything until he was at peace and the loose-leaf was stacked high.
In August of 2004, Napier walked out of the prison walls like he had done so many times before, but it was different this time. There was no officer by his side or handcuffs chained to his hands or ankles – he was free. He had been granted parole.
Five years and nine months later, Napier is still enjoying life on the outside. But, he acknowledged that his past still haunts him to this day.
“Even though it’s been 20 years since I’ve been convicted, I’m still having problems because of it (crime),” Napier said. “If I go fill out a job application or something, I have to put my offense down and quite often get denied. That’s why I published this book,” Napier told Lagniappe.
What started out as loose-leaf chapters have now evolved into Napier’s debut book, “Poverty and Prison: The Frustrations of my Past.” A book Napier says he published in order to help others who might be in the same predicament he found himself in during his youth.
“I know it’s hard to watch people getting on a bus and going to work and then seeing someone dressing sharp, driving a nice car who isn’t doing anything (dealing drugs),” Napier said. “But that’s what this book is for. So people can see what happens if you follow that road like I did,” Napier said.
An inmate bearing handcuffs stood in front of a bunch of juvenile offenders the summer of ’97 and said, “I’m not allowed to say where I’m from, but I would like to add this. I’m from where you are standing now
and where you will be standing if you don’t do the right thing with your life.”
That man echoes the same message 13 years later without handcuffs and 220 pages backing him up.
This story originally appeared in the July 13, 2010, print edition.