The right of refusal. Part two of a two-part series.
By Marguerite Kearns / Santa Fe, New Mexico
Thursday, March 7, 2002
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."
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.
'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."
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.
Written and photographed by: Marguerite Kearns, Inthefray.com Contributor
People > Bandele, Safiya >
I n t h e f r a y . c o m
Written by Safiya Bandele | Interact | March 9, 2002
A prisoner, a patient, a lover
People > Kazantzakis, Nikos >
Nikos Kazantzakis Home Page
Society of Cretan Historical Studies
Information on the author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ
People > ibn Kenyatta >
I n t h e f r a y . c o m
Written by Marguerite Kearns | Identify
PART ONE OF TWO. Ibn Kenyatta is a writer and artist--and a perpetual prisoner. February 7, 2002
PART TWO OF TWO. The right of refusal. March 6, 2002
Before the commissioners
I n t h e f r a y . c o m
Transcript of ibn Kenyatta's appearance before the New York State parole board, February 25, 1999
'i stand on my conscience'
I n t h e f r a y . c o m
Ibn Kenyatta's written statement to the New York State parole board, February 25, 1999
Topics > Prisons > New York >
"Special Report: The Prison Explosion"
A series of articles exploring trends in criminal justice policy and prison conditions in New York State
"Parole denials negate crime drop"
By Mary Beth Pfieffer | Poughkeepsie Journal | November 16, 2000
"State has economic stake in new prisons"
By Mary Beth Pfieffer | Poughkeepsie Journal | November 16, 2000
"Compassionate Release from New York state Prisons: Why Are So Few Getting Out?"
By John A. Beck | Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics | 1999
Matteawan State Hospital
Beacon, New York
A history of an asylum for the criminally insane
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.