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.
Kenyatta's kind of crazy