| Freedom, deferred
PART TWO OF TWO. The right of refusal
Go to part one
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."