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Eye of the Hurricane
My Path from Darkness to Freedom
By Rubin Carter, Ken Klonsky
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2011 Dr. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, LL.D., and Ken Klonsky
All rights reserved.
Boys' Prison: Light Where the Sun Don't Shine
As a man who has lived in many prisons, I can say that prison is a dehumanizing, soul-destroying environment. Nevertheless, I thrived in the structure of prison, although my "success" in those places rested solely upon my ability to defend myself.
In admitting even this, I do not mean to give comfort to the apologists for an American judicial system that is more racially biased today than ever. An astounding one-third of all African American males between the ages of twelve and thirty-seven are either living in prison or under the direct supervision of the judicial system. Because we are made to fear crime to an irrational extent, we learn to accept adolescents sitting in prisons until they grow gray beards. A system weighted so heavily toward retribution and one so rife with error and injustice is a perversion of the natural brilliance of the human spirit.
But I know enough not to rail, and I know that no amount of tinkering with the system will change the imbalances. The system will still be run by sleeping people, solemn-faced, civilized savages in dark suits, savages in wigs and black robes. Fear is the primary emotion of these savages. Of course, savagery is not exclusive to the jungle, even though we have been conditioned to associate the word with the imaginary spear-throwing Africans of Hollywood movie sets. In the end, the justice system, like the government itself, reflects the beliefs and exerts the power of the savages who run it. When push comes to shove, we are all savages! The reactive violence of the criminal is mirrored by the retribution of the judge. That is how it must be on this level of unconscious human insanity.
The ultimate manifestation of unconscious behavior is the death penalty. You might say that the death penalty is a perfect punishment: an eye for an eye. But knowing what I do about the imperfections and prejudices of the people who run the system and the overwhelming numbers of poor people who face execution, I see clearly that too many wrongly convicted people die today and will die in the future. Between 1977 and 2010, 1,217 people were executed in the United States, but more than 138 prisoners (as of 2009) were removed from death rows because of trial errors, recantations of testimony, or DNA evidence. One out of every nine people sentenced to death are innocent of the crime for which they would have died. How many other innocent people who lacked DNA evidence or competent legal representation died unnecessarily? We'll never know. How many is too many? I say one.
The death penalty is supported and maintained because of its savage simplicity. Think about what took place at the high school in Columbine or on the Indian reservation in Red Lake, Minnesota, or at Dawson College and École Polytechnique in Montreal or, worst of all, in April 2007 at Virginia Tech. At Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two young people who had been hurt and excluded by others, exacted the death penalty on their innocent classmates. At Red Lake, Jeffrey Weise shot his grandparents and, afterwards, his fellow students. In Montreal, Marc Lepine, violently opposed to women's participation in male-dominated professions, came in to exact revenge for past wrongs. At Virginia Tech, Cho Seung-Hui, the perpetrator, was full of rage for imagined and real hurts from his classmates. Some say the perpetrators just "snapped," but in my view they were heavily influenced by the reactive message that permeates our society, our governments, and so much of the media: You hurt me. I'll hurt you back. At both Red Lake and Columbine, the inspiration for the mass killings was Nazi Germany, one of the countries that showed the world an easy method for eliminating problems.
Newspapers and reality television programs present us with violent images of mostly black crime, of car chases, of young men and women being wrestled to the ground and placed in handcuffs. We think that crime has gotten out of control. We feel threatened. We begin to think that stiff prison sentences for young offenders are justified as long as those children are not our own children. Children tried in adult courts become less the exception and more the rule.
And then we have training schools, which used to be known as reform schools. These are places where we put angry children who are living by the same reactive behaviors that they were taught by society. Training schools and boot camps only perpetuate the cycle of violence. We might think we are going to browbeat someone into behaving properly, but that is clearly not possible. The law of the street is the law of the jungle is the law of the courtroom is the law of the penal institution. It is not the children we have to deal with but ourselves.
The State Home for Boys in Jamesburg, New Jersey, did not look like an actual prison as it does now. When I first wrote about Jamesburg in my book The Sixteenth Round, I saw it through the jaundiced eyes of a wrongly convicted man. I wrote about the retributive violence among the young prisoners. I wrote about the sexual predators who ran the cottages and the depravity of the older prisoners who took advantage of the younger ones. My book was a polemic against the whole system, and Jamesburg was just another part of that system. Because of the inexcusable behavior of some of the adults in that institution, I lost all respect for so-called authority.
In retrospect, it seems ironic that I was sent to Jamesburg, an institution that was full of adult pedophiles, for attacking an adult pedophile. I have sometimes wondered if the sentence against me would have been half so harsh or harsh at all if our skin colors were reversed. Who would have been called a criminal then? This pedophile, and it was commonly known among the white community that he was a pedophile, was also an important man in the community. He had attempted to "interfere" with a friend of mine. Even at a young age, my instinct was to defend others.
There's a saying that's been around for a long time: If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. The hell that is prison was a learning place for me even if it may not have appeared to be at the time. Being thrown into a boys' training school (I was identified as number 18,577) was definitely a whole lot of lemons. But within this den of iniquity were opportunities and decent individuals who gave me an education that I may not have appreciated at the time.
Mr. Hart, for example, ran the dairy at Jamesburg. In those days, the training school was a self-contained world where we raised our own food on a truck farm, mainly grain, corn, vegetables, and livestock. The farm was a good setting for me because I had not grown up solely in the streets of Paterson, New Jersey. Part of my extended family still lived on farms in the South, where, as a very young boy, I would work during summer vacations to earn enough money for my fall school clothing. Although part of my family came north in the Great Migration — the twentieth-century exodus of blacks from the agricultural South to the urban North — my connection to the rural southern United States has always felt more important to me.
Mr. Hart was maybe five feet tall, around fifty, very stern and powerful, a man who whistled all the time, so you always knew when he was there. Through my boyhood eyes, he seemed ancient, but we connected. I always got along with stern people as long as they stayed true to themselves and they didn't put their hands on me in anger. I felt good around him because he was a hard worker and he spoke just a little bit more than I did. He could see that I loved being around animals, so he gave me responsibilities in the dairy, always summoning me from wherever I was to assist in the birth of a calf. Those one hundred or so cows meant everything to him; woe be unto anyone who messed with them! A group of us used to milk them by hand twice a day, at four o'clock in the morning and then at five o'clock in the evening.
That barn was a one-room schoolhouse. One of my cows, number 319, was a real kicker. She slammed more than one person into the barn wall. I had to put her in leg braces and shackles to tie her down. Mr. Hart made sure that I had all the bad cows, not as a punishment but because I was so good at handling them. That was my psychology class.
I also loved pitching hay from the hayloft to feed the cows, because I could always grab a smoke up there, dangerous as that might be. That was my recess.
Mr. Hart came to get me and Lou Van Dyne, another violent young man I grew up with, at about three o'clock in the morning to prepare the hay or, in the wintertime, the corn-and-molasses mixture to feed the cows. Then we went out into the pasture, brought the cows inside the barn, and got them into place for milking. We had to keep an account of how many gallons of milk each cow gave every day. That was my math class.
We were in charge of the fertilization of those cows and the birthing of the calves, clearing out their breathing passages and cleaning them up. That was my biology class.
Then there was Reverend Van Pelt, at that time the only black person working in the system. I wish the Baptist preacher had affected me more. Looking back, I think it's funny that they foisted Catholicism on us (we had to say Hail Marys and Our Fathers in the cottages every night before going to bed) but we had a Baptist preacher on Sundays. I guess they thought that one or the other would rub off on us. Reverend Van Pelt was also a short man, but he, unlike Mr. Hart, always dressed impeccably in dark suits and ties. He had graying hair, and his skin color fell somewhere between redbone, like Malcolm X, and a shade darker.
Let me digress for a moment about skin color. Africans in America — or black people, as we came to call ourselves — are keenly aware of the differences in shades of skin. Cross-cultural identification, wherein one tribe cannot discern the features of another tribe, is one of the scourges of the criminal justice system. The idea that we are all black skinned is ridiculous, even though I continue to use the term "black" as I do here. The so-called science behind the slave system decreed that the lighter a person's skin, the more intelligent and, therefore, the more expensive the slave. The mulattos, quadroons (one-quarter white), and octoroons (one-eighth) were usually destined for the manor house, while the dark-skinned folks like me were turned into field hands. Even now in Haiti and Jamaica, the darker your skin, the lower down the mountain you live. As a young boy, I fantasized about marrying a woman whose skin had a yellowish hue. When it comes to the measure of a human being, skin color is a meaningless distinction, although one cannot ignore the historical significance of race. I believe that we are all of one race, the human race.
Reverend Van Pelt used to tell us that because he was chaplain at both Jamesburg and Trenton State Prison, he would meet those of us he had known here at Jamesburg on our way to the electric chair in Trenton State. You could chart our "progress" through the institutes of lower learning, what I call a step up the criminal justice ladder going down: Jamesburg, Annandale, Bordentown, Yardville, Rahway, and Trenton State. Looking back, it was a powerful message about recidivism, but we were much too hip then to hear it.
"You ain't talkin' to us, old man," someone would always say.
I took part in a lot of violence at Jamesburg. It was expected. Young people at the time saw Jamesburg as a place where you could learn how to fight and where your reputation would follow you when you got out. No question, I eventually became one of the toughest boys in the place, what they called a "Duke of State." I didn't see myself as a bully but would set certain people up to fight me. Those certain people would be the ones who took advantage of vulnerable or physically weak people. If you wanted to hurt those people, then you would have to fight me. You might say that it showed my early sense of injustice.
The ends may have been praiseworthy, but the means were wrong. Looking at my present life, how much different is it to spring an innocent man from prison than to defend a vulnerable person from victimization? I would say not a great deal different.
The best example of defending a vulnerable person that I can remember goes back to a time when I worked on laundry detail at Jamesburg. The boys in cottage 6, where I lived at the time, did the laundry for everyone in the institution. My particular job was ironing shirts for the staff. Each cottage had three floors: a basement where the inmates lived, a main floor that consisted of a recreation room with television and a laundry closet, and a top floor where the cottage mother and father lived. Once a week, as a ritual, the cottage mother would hand out the clean laundry. The cottage mother and father could see the whole dorm from the landing outside their apartment. At night, if the cottage father gave us permission to use the recreation room, a strong boy might force a weaker boy to stay downstairs in the darkened basement while the others went up to watch television. The adults would look the other way at this behavior, and for good reason. The cottage mother and father were just as likely to abuse their power for sexual favors with the prisoners, especially with the five house boys who stayed behind during the day to clean the cottages.
The assistant superintendent at Jamesburg, as I remember him, was a heavy breather, a big lump of a man with thick, purplish lips. His size, his position, and his loud voice gave him total control over the prisoners. One day, as I was delivering shirts to cottage 7, where they housed children from six to eleven years old, I heard a boy crying in the basement. I went down to check and saw the assistant superintendent fucking the boy. This cruel, sadistic act so infuriated me that I attacked the man with all the power I had at my disposal. It may be difficult for you to imagine that a wiry sixteen-year-old could beat up such a large man, but I was to have a career as a professional boxer, a middleweight who could fight heavyweights and was considered one of the hardest punchers in the business. I cocked a Sunday on him, getting in the first punch! That man was a bloody mess when I got through with him. They put me in solitary for what I did, but I never regretted it for a moment.
Some of the violence at Jamesburg was random and insane. A young man who didn't want to go on a work detail to the manure pile asked me to accompany him behind the cottage. I wondered why he had a baseball bat in his hands, but since we were friends I didn't expect any harm coming from him.
"Break my knee," he told me. "I don't want to go to work."
I wouldn't do it at first. Then I asked him, "Are you sure?"
He told me to go ahead, just pleaded with me to do it.
I swung that bat like Jackie Robinson and hit his knee. He didn't have to work that day or for some long time after that. When I saw him in Paterson fifteen years later, he was still limping.
Jamesburg was also a military school where we learned self-discipline and how to march. I had always known that I could control my tongue, as many people who stammer can, by speaking rhythmically or singing. As young kids in Paterson we used to go around to people's houses and sing. I also sang in the church choir. At Jamesburg training school, I was a line sergeant for my cottage because I was so good at counting cadences, and of course it was easy for me to do that later on in the military. I brought in my own rhymes, like an early version of hip-hop, except we didn't wear baggy clothes. Six days a week we were dressed in khaki uniforms, and we held our heads high. A line sergeant stands outside the lines; that was me, always wanting to stand out from the crowd.
We had a duty officer named Mr. Unger who drove a shiny film-noir black Ford around the campus, license plate 649, always on the lookout for stragglers and smokers. He was a stumpy, pigeon-toed, bowlegged man whose belly had grown out and married his barrel chest. He'd pop out of that car like a jack-in-the-box if he suspected anything was going down. If you talked too loud during mess, he might make you stand out in the center aisle for the whole meal with your arms spread like Jesus on the cross. He made sure we marched back and forth from work. Wherever we went, we had to have a pass with the time stamped on it, and you had to account for any time gaps between point of departure and point of arrival.
Jamesburg used to have a close relationship with the surrounding rural community and the greater community as well. We used to go out and caddy at Forsgate Golf Course. We also went out frequently and performed. I was in a gospel quartet that sang for the Lions Club. There was a group of four boys at Jamesburg called the Ham-boners who appeared on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, a popular TV show, and won the top prize. The Ham-boners performed their routine to a military cadence.
Excerpted from Eye of the Hurricane by Rubin Carter, Ken Klonsky. Copyright © 2011 Dr. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, LL.D., and Ken Klonsky. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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