|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)|
PART ONE OF TWO. Ibn Kenyatta is a writer
and artist--and a perpetual prisoner
Go to part two
spirit: the first step
The prison system of the State of New York has a Web site 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.