BEHIND BARS: Michael Ta'Bon spent a decade in prison, mostly for armed robbery. Now, he builds a wooden prison cell once a year and lives inside it.
A brand new prison is rising from the icy winter streets in Germantown. The institution is temporary and, with only one 7.5- by 5.5-foot cell, small by the standards of America’s booming corrections system. Michael Ta’Bon, or O. G-L.A.W. (God’s Love at Work), is building the “Unprison Cell” and spending his fourth straight February living inside it.
“Walk a mile in my shoes. You wanna be like me?” the 39-year-old, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, asked a reporter on Sunday. “I got these chains and I got these real uncomfortable cold boots that we wear upstate. Put these on, put these chains on. Walk around. Hop, skip, jump. How you feel? You don’t like the way that feel? … You didn’t even get to the strip search yet.”
The mostly wooden structure, on East Chelten Avenue near Chew Avenue, is parked in front of a women’s halfway house. Ta’Bon — a rapper, ex-convict and radical-protest-performance artist — sleeps, covered by a blanket, on plastic bread pallets on the floor.
With this protest, Ta’Bon is warning young people away from a lifestyle that could kill them or send them to prison, and protesting a government that fails to provide good jobs and schools, but does find money for jails. This year, Ta’Bon is building a bigger cell on top of a trailer. He plans to take his show on the road.
The sign on the back of his mobile prison cell reads “Jail is 4 Suckaz’!” He has a second motto, too: “Education over incarceration.”
“One accusation is lack of education — that’s the cause, the effect is mental starvation,” he raps into a tape recorder as he sits behind the seat of his parked car, a decommissioned police Crown Vic. “That is one justification, for crime operations, in the ghetto habitation, which becomes rationalization, for our incarceration, and penetration, of governmental domination.”
Ta’Bon spent a decade behind bars, mostly for armed robbery.
“Some of ’em I did do, some of ’em I didn’t do,” he says. His story is this: Born in Pennsylvania Hospital, he was raised all over Philadelphia by a blind mother and an HIV-positive father who sold heroin, and then became addicted to it. It was up to Ta’Bon to take care of his little sisters, one of whom had a tracheotomy, another a colonoscopy bag.
“We moved around. We didn’t have no money. So my mother was like a gypsy,” he says.
He counts out a long list of schools that he was kicked out of.
“I started robbing people, selling drugs, the typical poor ghetto kid.” Who was he sticking up? “Anybody.”
Ta’Bon, who embraces a mix of Christian and Muslim beliefs, says he was angry with God before finding his purpose in life. Today, he also prophesies a scary, techno-dystopic future, including a government that will forcefully implant electronic chips under citizens’ skin and lock up dissidents in FEMA-run concentration camps. He is eclectic.
People stop by to ask Ta’Bon what he is doing.
He says they ask, “‘Why you living in there? What’s happening? What’s going on?’ So I’m still giving ’em sidewalk therapy as I build. And I can explain to them that each screw, each bar that I put up, each piece of wood that I put up, represents a bad decision that I made — that boxed my own self in prison.”
In this Northwest Philadelphia zip code, 137 people were admitted to state prisons in 2008 at an ultimate estimated cost to taxpayers of $16.6 million, according to the most recent data collected by the Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections. That year, the state locked up 4,472 Philadelphians at an estimated cost of $544.8 million. Overall, the state has nearly 50,000 people behind bars.
Ta’Bon frequently makes the news.
In 2011, in one of his protest actions, he walked into the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s annual luncheon while Mayor Nutter was speaking. Having cuffed his hands behind his back and wearing his trademark jumpsuit, he demanded jobs and training for ex-offenders. In 2012, he chained himself to the sculpture in Love Park to protest police brutality.
He can’t say when the cell will be completed. Snow storms, arguments with his wife and a funding shortfall have all conspired to slow him down. But Ta’Bon won’t be detained for long. At least not on someone else’s terms.
Learn more about O. G-L.A.W. and donate to his unprison cell at glawmovement.com.
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