Ibn Kenyatta is a writer and artist — and a perpetual prisoner. Part one of a two-part series.
By Marguerite Kearns / Santa Fe, New Mexico
Thursday, February 7, 2002
Go to Part Two
spirit: the first step
take heart. don't be fool'd.
don't seek after the seemin'ly easy
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
and trouble, lahk water,
also moves on.
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.
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.
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.
(Click here to go to Kenyatta's letter to Marguerite Kearns.)
(Click here to go to Part Two.)
PART ONE: Ibn Kenyatta is a writer and artist--and a perpetual prisoner. FEBRUARY 7, 2002.
PART TWO: The right of refusal. MARCH 7, 2002.
New York State Department of Correctional Services
Inmate Population Information Search
People > Bandele, Safiya >
Beyond the Bars/No Extended Embraces
By Julia O'Farrow | Jaygeeoh! Productions | 2001
Official site for the documentary, which presents portraits of women who have loved ones in prison
Medgar Evers College
Bandele is director of the Women's Center at the college
People > ibn Kenyatta >
January 29, 1974
I n t h e f r a y . c o m
A letter from ibn Kenyatta to Marguerite Kearns, describing the events leading up to his arrest
I n t h e f r a y . c o m
About the themes of social justice that permeate his drawings
Kenyatta's writing, art, and information on his parole refusal
Words as Weapons
Sign up for an online newsletter with updates on ibn Kenyatta
People > Kenyatta, Jomo >
Information on the first president of Kenya
Topics > Parole >
I n t h e f r a y . c o m
Who refuses, and why"
Last Updated ( Friday, February 24, 2012 )