ibn Kenyatta writing

Prisoner with conscience. Ibn Kenyatta, a celebrated writer and artist, has been imprisoned since 1974 for the attempted murder of a police officer. Kenyatta maintains that he is innocent of the crime and has repeatedly and publicly refused parole since he was first eligible in 1988. This photo was taken in 1977 at the prison school of Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York. Peter Sinclair

spirit: the first step

take heart.   don’t be fool’d.
don’t seek after the seemin’ly easy
way out.
being onese’f is conscious hard
work.   life is still gooddd.
Even tho there are people who
try to make thangs awfully bad.
but after the deluge, the sun
always shines.
and trouble, lahk water,
also moves on.

—ibn Kenyatta

The prison system of the State of New York has a website entitled Inmate Population Information Search.” By entering the name ibn Kenyatta, I can confirm that he resides at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York, that his prison number is “74A3701,” and that he was born on November 1, 1945. I can confirm that he’s black and that he was convicted of attempted murder in 1974.

If I were to add to the state’s database, I would say that ibn Kenyatta is one of the few prisoners in the United States who repeatedly and publicly refuse parole. I would add that he’s also a writer whose essays and poetry have been published in several anthologies and Harper’s Magazine. He has won a PEN prize for prison writing. His charcoal and pencil works have won acclaim at exhibitions in New York State. He renamed himself years before his incarceration, for African revolutionary leader Jomo Kenyatta and the Rev. Charles Kenyatta, the Harlem street orator. He met his fiancée, Safiya Bandele, in 1969. She has visited him throughout his incarceration.

Yet this broad sweep of facts barely addresses the complexity of the man, nor the standoff that has developed between the State of New York and a single prisoner. His continued parole refusals come at a time when state governments across the nation have enacted stringent get-tough policies to keep inmates behind bars longer and reduce or even eliminate parole. Kenyatta’s message has become perplexing to some and incomprehensible to others.

On January 29, 1974, Kenyatta jumped a New York City subway turnstile and soon found himself in a fight with a transit police officer. It was a time of great hostility between African Americans and the city’s police force, and for what easily could have been a matter of assault—both the officer and Kenyatta were slightly injured—Kenyatta was charged, and convicted, of attempted murder. Ever since then, Kenyatta has been protesting his conviction, maintaining that the officer attacked first and he only fought back in self-defense. He has been eligible for parole since January 24, 1988, and has nearly twice served the fifteen-year minimum of his fifteen-to-life sentence. But he has repeatedly refused to attend parole hearings and makes it clear that he is outright refusing to deal with any aspect of the parole system.

Few understand why Kenyatta refuses parole. Some suggest he must be mentally unbalanced. Kenyatta counters that he is compelled to take this stand because he is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. To accept parole carries an inherent admission of guilt, Kenyatta says; the only way he will leave prison is unconditionally, with no admission of guilt. (Such a response by a prisoner is “rare,” says New York State Parole Spokesman Tom Grant, who adds that parole commissioners do not determine innocence or guilt—they assume that the inmate has already been found guilty.)

Kenyatta’s protest has brought him close to death. The New York State prisoner database doesn’t mention that Kenyatta won more than a million dollars in a suit against the State of New York’s Department of Correctional Services in 2001, for the state’s medical “failure to treat.” In December of 1994, Kenyatta developed a bladder infection, which went untreated and progressed to renal failure. He was hospitalized, and is permanently disabled. He must self-catheterize several times each day. Two-thirds of the settlement monies are established in a trust for his medical care following his release from prison. If he dies in prison, the state saves a considerable amount of money.

In November of 2002, ibn Kenyatta is scheduled to once again appear before the state parole board. Although he will again refuse to appear, the parole board will act as if he stood before them and the commissioners are again expected to render their parole decision: “Parole denied due to the nature of the crime.” The board will likely give the date for his next parole board appearance as November 2004. (Even if he decided to request parole at his hearing this November, the answer might well be the same. Under the Pataki administration, lifers or those convicted of violent crimes are routinely denied parole. But had Kenyatta requested parole in 1988, when he was first eligible—and when Mario Cuomo was governor—he would have had a better chance of obtaining it.)

Like many of Kenyatta’s friends, I sometimes held his parole refusal position at arm’s length. I didn’t fully understand why anyone would choose to remain confined when he merely had to tell parole officials what they wanted to hear. This was precisely the point, Kenyatta would explain. In his view, a social system like parole rewards dishonesty and crushes the individual expression of integrity. He chose parole refusal, not merely to make a point about his own case, but also to raise broader social issues.

Today, the situation remains at a standstill. Now and again attention is paid–there was an article in the Village Voice in the 1990s, and two documentaries have told Kenyatta and Bandele’s story. Money from the court settlement will be used to establish a production company, which will showcase Kenyatta’s art and writing.

Last year Kenyatta and Bandele worked closely to draft a will. They contacted me to request that I serve as literary executor if he were to die in prison.

Over the years that Kenyatta has fought his one-man battle, the New York State prison system has only grown, locking more people up and holding them for ever longer sentences. The total number of prisoners in New York State is 70,000 and climbing. When I first met ibn Kenyatta in Green Haven prison twenty-five years ago, he was one of only 15,000.

Prison wall

Unsafe haven. Green Haven Correctional Facility, circa 1977. When ibn Kenyatta resided here, Green Haven was the home of New York’s electric chair. People would say that the streaks on the top of these walls were “tears.” Marguerite Kearns

Kenyatta’s Kind of Crazy

How’d you hear about the Communications Workshop?” I asked the tall, thin man behind me, sitting apart from the group. He shifted in his seat and stared out the window beyond me for a second before focusing on my question.

It was spring of 1977. I was teaching communication skills in the prison school at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, an adjunct to my job as a reporter and editor at the Woodstock Times, a community weekly in the Hudson Valley. On most Fridays we worked on projects—this day it was the prison newspaper.

Every week at least a half-dozen new prisoners visited to consider participation. This man was one of this week’s newcomers. He seemed different from the rest. Most other prisoners who participated in the prison workshop wore bright or colorful shirts with their green state pants. This inmate had the regulation prison white shirt and a full Afro haircut packed close to his head. His eyes shifted away from me, toward the door, as if prepared to bolt at any second.

“I’m someone who checks out these prison programs to see if they’re any good,” the prisoner replied.

“But who are you?” I asked.

“Ah black man,” he replied.

“I know,” I told him, swallowing hard.

“You don’t know,” he answered firmly.

I couldn’t figure out where to take the conversation next, so I also glanced out the window. There wasn’t much in the immediate vicinity that wasn’t institution gray.

“My name’s Kenyatta,” the prisoner finally admitted. “I’m here at Green Haven on the road through life. Most recently by way of Attica.” Any mention of the prison at Attica back then inevitably drew a hush over the room. The notorious rebellion there in 1971 claimed forty-three lives and was in large part responsible for the fact that programs like the communications workshop existed in Green Haven’s prison school. The post-Attica era was an era of hope, grounded in an optimistic vision that crime stemmed from social conditions and “rehabilitation” was not only possible, but it had never been given a decent chance.

But the relaxation of discipline at Green Haven after the Attica rebellion had other, less positive consequences. Approximately 80 percent of the prison’s correctional officers had less than two years of on-the-job experience. Morale was low. The institution was believed to be unstable on both sides of the bars. The state transferred almost as many prisoners into Green Haven back then as it transferred them out to prison facilities around the state. Kenyatta’s transfer to Green Haven was part of this policy.

I spoke to this visiting prisoner about the work of the Communications Workshop, just enough so I didn’t feel as awkward as before. Then, almost in passing, I added, “I live in Woodstock.”

“I suspected you’se were nuts,” he replied.

I raised my eyebrows. “It depends on your perspective, I guess,” I replied. He wasn’t the first person to confuse the town of Woodstock, in Ulster County across the Hudson River from Green Haven, with the 1969 music festival. I wasn’t in a mood for explanations, so I gathered up my papers and attempted to move on to the next activity.

“You know what I mean,” Kenyatta said. “My kinda crazy. You’re crazy, and I’m off the wall to be here at Green Haven after Attica.”

I would discover later that this man always said precisely what was on his mind, without hesitation.

“You’re just learnin about the whys and wherefores of these cagelands. You’ll find out,” he went on.

“Was Attica different?” I asked.

“Are you for real?” Kenyatta responded, as if peering at me from behind a wall. It was as if he used a pair of invisible binoculars and occasionally he squinted to adjust the focus.

“I’m asking you about prisons because I want to know. Be patient. I’m relatively new behind these walls.” It was true. I was young. But it was the innocence and idealism of my youth that helped me get beyond my insecurity about being a white person in a room filled with brown and black faces.

“I’m not tellin you anything when I say all state joints are breedin grounds for rebellion. All them big jails got Orange Crush teams—two-legged mutts wearin orange suits, plastic masks, carryin clubs and guns, with four-legged dogs on leashes, all the time invadin the prisons—tearin up shit. Beatin and terrorizin prisoners.”

I’d seen them and smelled fear in the air on several occasions as the CERT squads rolled through Green Haven’s hallways. Many prisoners called them “goon squads.”

“Is Green Haven an improvement?” I asked.

“This place blew me away. Attica is/was racist, so somethin was always happenin. Green Haven is somethin else entirely. Wide open. Wild. Uptown Saturday night. Riker’s Island moved upstate. I could hardly b’lieve my eyes and ears with all the bedlam and excesses I found my first few weeks here. After Attica, I wasn’t prepared for the madness of ‘The Hav’.”

“Are you saying it’s a pleasant place to be?”

“That’s not what I’m sayin.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Since last September.”

“So tell me more about Attica,” I continued, my reporter nature getting the best of me.

“Uptight. Low-down. I was in D-Block—you know. The infamous D-Block of the Attica massacre. Good thing I got there four years after it was over, or I’d probably be dead now. Didn’t have an easy time at Attica. Just came off ah protest strike right before my transfer to Green Haven. Supportin the ‘good time’ bill in the legislature and airin a list of grievances. The joint was always being locked down for three days to ah week or more for shakedowns so the Orange Crush could come in and search n destroy. We’d wake up at 2:30 a.m. with the sounds of all hell breakin loose.”

“Glad you’re here, huh?”

“This may sound peculiar, but I didn’t wanna leave Attica.”

I’d heard this perspective before. Many prisoners believed the predictability of institutions such as Attica were preferable to the loose-one-day, tight-the-next, unpredictability of Green Haven.

“There’s good programs here at Green Haven, despite the disorganization,” Kenyatta added. He explained that prior to Attica, prisoners were never allowed to design, organize, and teach themselves anything, let alone something with the radical potential of communication.

“You probably can’t see it as clear as I can, since you haven’t been locked up as long as the rest of us,” Kenyatta noted, and then he smiled. As Kenyatta spoke, he had moved his chair closer toward mine. I didn’t notice it at first. Increments of a half-inch bridged the distance until he faced me directly and spoke as if we were the only people in the room. He lowered his voice and its tone became more intense.

“You know and I know the Haven is the hub for most of the political action goin down by prisoners all over the state. So there’s overwhelmin negative activities and tremendously positive elements counteractin in ways that give this place a wild, political, unique flavor.”

“Sounds to me like you’re the nutty one for wanting to stay at Attica.”

“It took me forever, but I finally got my respect there. I established myse’f as not being their average inmate. It ain’t easy startin over—dancin from the bars into one fantasy dream or another.

“Check out the relative freedom at Green Haven compared to Attica,” he noted. “There, all movement is rigidly controlled. Here, there aren’t many gates in the corridors. The heavy gate is where y’all enter the prison to git to the blocks and where we go for the visits—A and B Corridors. When I got here, I’d leave E-Block and carry on all over Green Haven without being stopped or challenged by a guard, and ah lotta times I didn’t even have to show ah pass at the electric gate by the package room. I’d just appear, and the guard would buzz me in one side. I’d go into the package room area, come back out, and be buzzed through the gate to the other side and return to E-Block. I often got ‘lost,’ kinda, during my first week or two here.”

“Freedom is relative, isn’t it? Still feelin’ lost?”

“I’m a runnin man. Runnin from this and that. You’re runnin too. I can tell.”

Of course, he was right.

One Jumped Turnstile, Two Trials, and Many Long Years

When you spend time inside a prison, you quickly discover that it’s not polite to ask directly about a prisoner’s crimes. Kenyatta wasn’t shy in this regard, however, and anyone who demonstrated even a vague interest would hear about not only the crime that landed him behind bars, but also his views about race and social policy in the United States.

In 1974, ibn Kenyatta was twenty-eight, a young man steeped in the Black Power movement. He was determined to share the plight of African Americans with the world, and so he became a writer, working odd jobs in New York to support himself. At the time of his arrest, he had produced thousands of pages of an autobiography in addition to essays on “The Black Condition” and a volume of poetry entitled Requiem for a Black Dog.

There were no telling indicators that this particular young man might end up in state prison. Then, on January 24, 1974, he slipped through a New York City subway turnstile without paying the 35-cent fare. A transit police officer approached Kenyatta, who said he had paid the fare. In the argument that ensued, the officer grabbed Kenyatta’s arm and they fought. Kenyatta was unarmed. He claims the officer beat and shot him, after which Kenyatta took one of the officer’s guns and returned fire.

The scuffle and shootout left the transit officer and Kenyatta with minor injuries. (A scar is still visible today on Kenyatta’s forehead where the officer hit him with a billy club.) Interestingly, the arresting officer who booked Kenyatta wrote down “assault.” But the charge was later ratcheted up to attempted murder: It was the seventies, and the country’s law enforcement establishment, decrying the “war on cops,” was out for blood.

During two trials Kenyatta maintained that he had been attacked and had only acted in self-defense. The officer insisted that the young man had first assaulted him, and that he was the one who had been defending himself.

Kenyatta chose not to participate in the criminal proceedings right from the start, convinced the trial would be stacked against him. When the judge insisted he appear in the courtroom, he arrived wearing pajamas. He told the judge, “This is a hypocritical, racist, corrupt, and unjust system that has endured nothing but misabusing and misusing the people of this country.” He refused to give authorities any information about himself except his name, ibn Kenyatta, which could not be confirmed since he had chosen it years earlier.

The first trial ended in a hung jury. Kenyatta’s legal counsel was of the opinion that the second trial’s jurors wouldn’t have been able to agree if the judge had not insisted they continue deliberations. The trial transcript suggests some members of the jury believed the charge of attempted murder was too harsh, and that a lesser charge of assault would have been more appropriate. Kenyatta was sentenced to twenty-one years to life for the attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. Years later on appeal, a judge reduced the sentence to fifteen years to life, as the defendant had not been in trouble previously with the law.

History, Herstory

When ibn Kenyatta introduced me to his “woman friend” Safiya Bandele in the visiting room that summer of 1977, it was like most everything I have come to know about the pair—utterly unpredictable. When the tall, beautiful woman rose from her chair and embraced me, I was stunned. I’d never witnessed a black woman embracing a white woman behind Green Haven’s thirty-foot walls. They called me “Sister,” and over the years their letters to me have always been addressed to “Sister Marguerite.”

Here are the facts on Safiya Bandele: She and Kenyatta met in 1969. She coordinated his defense committee for his two trials. Today, she is director of the Women’s Center at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. She is well-respected in New York City as a community activist, an advocate for women’s issues, and frequent commentator on the criminal justice system. She and Kenyatta are now planning to marry.

Through visits and letters, I learned even more about this extraordinary couple. Kenyatta was born in rural Alabama in the countryside outside Mobile, one of eleven children born to Emma Lee. He never knew his father, and never heard him referenced. He was named “Class Artist” when he graduated from high school. Shortly after, his mother died, and Kenyatta joined his older sister and her family in Harlem. He began to write and seriously study African American history. He was living with his high school sweetheart when he met Bandele.

Over the years I also told Safiya and Kenyatta about myself. I was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and earned my badge of honor—an arrest record—at demonstrations. An eleventh-generation American from Philadelphia, I have Quaker ancestors on both sides of my family who served as conductors on the Underground Railroad. For a good part of my life, I lived under the assumption that my hands were clean of any stain of slavery.

Then, when I was researching my genealogy in the 1980s, I came across an inventory from the early 1700s, which listed the possessions of one of my ancestors after death. Listed along with farm livestock, tools, and other possessions was “one negro man.” It seems that even among the Quakers—a group that would later play a vital role in the abolitionist movement—there were some who held slaves.

I told ibn Kenyatta about this in a letter. He was surprisingly lighthearted about my discovery, suggesting that he might be the living spirit of this “one negro man,” who in my life would personally represent the issues of the African American experience in these United States.

By then, I was used to unexpected twists and turns in the story of ibn Kenyatta and Safiya Bandele. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when Kenyatta first told me that he had decided to refuse parole.

ibn Kenyatta staring out the window of the prison

Inmate ibn Kenyatta stares out the window of his prison.

The Right of Refusal

New York state prisoner ibn Kenyatta has served time under three governors—Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo, and George Pataki. For nearly three decades, he has been a witness to their legacies as writ in the state prison system. Kenyatta has seen the total number of prisoners in New York state grow from 15,000 to over 70,000. He has watched as new get tough” policies reverberated through the prison system. Fixed sentences, rarely invoked compassionate release laws, and a mandate to grant parole only sparingly mean that, though crime in the state has dropped dramatically, prison population growth has more than made up for the decline in new recruits. That means more prisoners are dying behind bars than ever before.

Also while Kenyatta was behind bars, prisons became big business in New York. In 1988, the state spent twice as much on higher education than on prisons. In 1999, prisons came out $100 million ahead. Some critics of the state’s “prison industrial complex” fear that, as a key component of the state’s economy, prison bloat has come to stay. Others even suggest that the state’s criminal justice policies encourage populous prisons for other reasons—like the thousands of jobs busy facilities bring to economically depressed areas. The inmates of the Mid-Hudson Valley’s “prison belt,” say critics, lie perilously close to the surface of the region’s economy and the awareness of any who care to look closely.

Kenyatta simply doesn’t fit into the current scenario. He has refused parole since he became eligible in 1988, as he will not accept the assumption of guilt that accompanies it. At a time when inmates are far more likely to protest the rarity with which the state parole board releases prisoners, Kenyatta flatly refuses a privilege for which many are fighting. His message of parole refusal is one few people—fellow prisoners and parole officials alike—want to hear. And his protest has been largely drowned out by the persistent drumbeat of political rhetoric that grows louder as the prisons grow larger.

Though Kenyatta, who is fifty-six, keeps a low profile at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York, his writings and art work shake the perspectives of many who encounter him. And both supporters and detractors recognize one basic fact about the man, even if they don’t agree with him. He is standing up for what he believes is right. He has chosen to label himself a “U.S. Constitution Slave,” in reference to the Thirteenth Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Kenyatta believes imprisonment is slavery redefined for the twenty-first century. In its latest American incarnation, he says, slavery has manifested as the highest incarceration rate on Earth. The United States boasts 5 percent of the planet’s population and one-quarter of its prisoners. Many young people of color are given an unacceptable choice: a lifetime of poverty, or a lifetime of crime (with prison a likely outcome). He refers to correctional facilities as “Prison Plantations.” And these plantations, he says, are “no longer just black and no longer just male.” There are also “whites, Latinos, blacks, women, children, old people, all of them locked up.”

For Kenyatta, parole requires an act of ultimate submission: the admission of guilt. Kenyatta maintains that he is not guilty of attempting to murder a law enforcement officer in 1974. He insists that he acted in self-defense. He accepts the possibility that continuing to deny any guilt may mean dying in prison. Several years ago, it almost did. His brush with substandard prison healthcare in 1994 won him more than $1 million in damages, and permanent disability.

Even death in prison is a divisive subject in New York. Despite the existence of a compassionate release program, the death rate in the state’s prisons is much higher than that of most other states. Between 1992 and 1998, only 215 of more than 2,000 who died in custody were released for medical reasons, suggesting that these laws are not invoked as often as they could be. Critics assert that medical parole remains a political, not humanitarian, issue.

Parole of any sort is first and foremost a moral issue for Kenyatta. “Some people would try and convince me it’s in my best interest to say I’m guilty when I’m not and accept parole,” he writes. “But getting out in the streets is not freedom to me. My burden is that of being black. And when I thought of the fact we are born dying, it hurt me for such a long time. I felt betrayed. But there is no escape. We’re not going to live but for so long and I’ve come to terms with this. I’ve realized my life and death can be used in the service of making a point about life in general and specifically about life here on the Prison Plantation. I love life, but everyone I know dies. I won’t be an exception to the rule, but I have a choice. Yes, my journey is perilous. But I’m on loan to the struggle. It’s my destiny to dance this particular dance.”

Relatively few have heard about this prisoner’s unusual stance. He has been dismissed as unrealistic, a dreamer, a self-appointed martyr marching to the beat of a different drummer. Responds Kenyatta: “Maybe that’s true, but I like the drummer I hear. We’re in tune and have perfect rhythm. If others don’t hear my drummer, at least maybe they can hear their own.”

His Life, and His Life Sentence

It was late afternoon when I laid my head to rest against the seat on the train headed toward New York’s Grand Central Station. I’d just spent six hours with Kenyatta, on my first visit in years. It was mid-February of 2002, twenty-five years after I first met Kenyatta at Green Haven’s prison school, and his fiancée, Safiya Bandele, shortly thereafter. The sun was setting over the Hudson as I reviewed not only the day but also the long years of knowing Kenyatta and Bandele. I had witnessed their struggle from afar, and here I was back again, passing through the Hudson Valley landscape I’d loved but hadn’t enjoyed like this for years, rolling on the rails south to the city.

Bare trees streaked by the train window as I was carried past marinas, warehouses, and people waiting at stations. Back at the prison, time had stood still. Even Kenyatta appeared in a perpetual state of waiting.

When Kenyatta first told me about his decision to refuse parole, I knew better than to argue. It was his life, and his life sentence, after all. I said something like, “I suppose you know what you’re doing.” Soon thereafter, I recall remarking in jest to a friend that Kenyatta had the most unusual freedom committee requirements I’d ever encountered. There were no letters to write in support of his release from prison, no public officials to convince. My participation was simple. I didn’t have to do a thing.

In 1988, when Kenyatta was first eligible for supervised freedom, he made it clear he wasn’t interested in cooperating, stating his intent to the parole board chairman. Kenyatta wished to be unconditionally released to the African American community in New York, from whence he came and to which he intended to return and make a significant contribution. He made it clear that he would leave prison on his terms, not theirs.

Then came the year from hell, 1994. Kenyatta fell ill. At the same time, he was scheduled to appear before the parole board, and had declined to cooperate. A guard cited him for refusing a direct order to leave the cellblock and report to the parole board. Kenyatta argued that parole was a privilege and therefore not mandatory, but that didn’t prevent him from spending two days in solitary confinement—a.k.a “the box,” “the hole,” or “segregation.” Bandele and a group of close friends in New York bombarded the warden’s office with phone calls. Kenyatta was removed from “the box,” but the calling campaign continued until he was finally sent to a hospital ten days later.

Bandele’s wrenching account of Kenyatta’s illness describes a man within days of death. Yet he showed no signs of retreating from his parole refusal position. More than one person in Kenyatta and Bandele’s circle of acquaintances dropped their support of what they considered a crazy position. Some hung on. “I don’t like to speak about Kenyatta refusing parole,” says friend and former inmate Trevis “Spiritwalker” Smith. “Not because he’s wrong, but because my place is to be his brother and support him, no matter what choices he makes. He believes in something. So many people don’t believe in anything.”

In 1999, Kenyatta finally appeared before the state parole commissioners—but only to explain why he continued to refuse parole. He wasn’t permitted to read the formal statement he’d constructed. He left with no resolution. His next parole hearing is in November 2002.

Drawing of two eyes

“When he saw the eyes on the wall, he jumped back.” Former inmates said Kenyatta’s artwork had the power to inspire—or startle.

‘Sit Up Straight and Exercise’

Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon is housed in the same buildings as the former Matteawan State Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane. The place conjures images of old brick buildings, straitjackets and shrieks, tranquilizers, shock therapy, and confinement in dark holes from which there is little likelihood of return to the ordinary world. It is a crazy man’s world.

The accoutrements of insanity are long gone, and Fishkill looks like any other prison. Some of the inmates here, however, leave touched with a certain kind of crazy that the prison can’t suppress—Kenyatta’s kind of crazy. Though his influence over the prison system remains frustratingly insubstantial, the effect he’s had on the lives of individuals—directly and through the telling and retelling of his story—are not. “Among people on the inside who are conscious,” says Smith. “Kenyatta is a hero. I am among the people he has taught. He leads through action and life experience.”

Former inmate Vernon “Giz” Giscombe was searching for what he wanted to be—when he met Kenyatta. Giscombe had just taken a class in commercial art at the prison, and his teacher had forced him to enter a piece of his work in a prison art contest. “I did,” he says, “and the piece was stolen by some officers. I was thrilled, almost as if it had been sold.” One day Kenyatta walked by Giscombe’s cell, checked out his work, and told him, “You need to stop playing and apply yourself.” Every night thereafter, Kenyatta gave Giscombe feedback. He in turn watched Kenyatta’s progress on a self-portrait, of his eyes. “One day an officer walked by who hadn’t been on the block before,” says Giscombe. “When he saw the eyes on the wall, he jumped back. That’s how real they looked. I could literally see his hair stand up on end.”

“I thought about who he was and what his art meant and somewhere along the line, I just took off in my art. After I learned more about him, it hit me how he’d lost everything but he’d lost nothing. He taught me how to turn the negative into positive. He never told me what to do, only he’d talk about what was going on, in the present. After I got out, I continued working with art and now I’m a teacher at an after-school center. I use art and sports to identify with kids—forty-two of them. Of that total, thirty-two are fatherless—in prison, dead, or strung out on drugs. I use art work with them, in the same way Kenyatta taught me.

“His example always fascinated me inside the walls. I just couldn’t keep myself from examining who he was and what he was doing,” says Giscombe. “He never lifted weights in the prison yard like a lot of the guys. But I watched him, lift his leg vertical and stretch. And then one of the other guys in the yard told a story about him—some guy who was at Attica with Kenyatta. He told me about how there had been two short poles in the outside prison yard. They had no obvious use and had been there a long time.

“Kenyatta figured out how to do seventy-five exercises with those two poles. He’d go outside and just work on the exercises he made up. Then one day some officers took the poles away. Kenyatta asked why and the guys in the yard speculated it was because he’d found a positive use for them. That story stuck with me, like the story of the eyes. It was another example of making something positive out of what was available. Through his example I’ve learned how to stand and walk upright, just like I’m teaching the kids. Kenyatta once told me, ‘Sit up straight and exercise.’ Now I walk upright because of knowing ibn Kenyatta.”

Meddling with the Course of the World

The situation as it stands today offers some hope that Kenyatta will be released, though perhaps less hope that he will accept the terms. Bandele has been working with African American politicians like New York Congressman Major Owens to negotiate Kenyatta’s release, and several Brooklyn elected officials have taken an interest. Lennox Hinds, the prominent lawyer who handled Kenyatta’s medical suit, is committed to seeing his client released.

All this is true, says Kenyatta. But there are no assurances, because no mechanism exists for his release that does not involve parole. Even an executive clemency application before the governor isn’t acceptable—clemency is merely a shortening of the sentence in which the prisoner is then handed over to the parole board for supervision. And no New York governor has issued a pardon, which erases guilt, since 1945. Nor does parole guarantee freedom. There is nothing on the other side of the prison door to support the slaves, he says, many of whom are broken and damaged, returning to the streets without jobs and running with hearts full of rage. As for himself, Kenyatta says he wouldn’t be completely honest if he didn’t admit to a small reservoir of bitterness held against the injustices of the world—though he resists it.

“I am like the peasant that the Greek writer Kazantzakis describes, who leaps on the stage to meddle with the course of the world,” says Kenyatta. “I don’t need much to be happy. When I speak to other prisoners, it is in this same spirit—of finding happiness and not hurting other people in the process. As far as me going home is concerned—well, the system can do what the system wants to do. The powers that be—they’re able to do what’s needed. It all depends on how much pressure is applied, whatever is expedient. And some people say that the state is not going to budge because I’m a black man and what I’m asking for—to be returned to the African American community through a process of unconditional release—has never been done before.”

“This doesn’t scare me. This doesn’t depress me. It doesn’t make me feel less energetic, less committed. This situation is much bigger than me.”

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Will, the taxi driver who specializes in delivering people to the Hudson Valley’s prisons, and to the men and women of the New York State Department of Correctional Services who made my visit to ibn Kenyatta possible.

Click here to go to Kenyatta’s letter to Marguerite Kearns.

This article was originally published in two parts, on February 7, 2002, and March 7, 2002.

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