CELL 17: Interviews With The Imprisoned“CELL 17 is an intimate look at a diverse group of individuals as they depict their childhood memories, their entry in the criminal world, and finally their current state of incarceration . . . a thoughtful contribution to our further understanding of the lives of prisoners and the institutions that confine them.”
Dr. James Inciardi, author HISTORICAL APPROACHES TO CRIME, DRUG TREATMENT AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Professor and Director, University of Delaware Center For Drug And Alcohol Studies
cell 17 prefaceIn the second half of the nineteenth century outlaws that preyed on railroads and banks became legends. Literally thousands of “dime novels” were written which gave completely false accounts of the exploits of Jesse James, “Wild Bill” Hickock, Billy the Kid, John H. “Doc” Holliday and dozens of other western desperados, bandits and gunfighters. The Eastern publishing houses printed them as fast as they could for millions of Americans. They became one of the most important forms of entertainment of the age and they were not marketed as fiction. The vast majority of readers accepted the fantastic accounts of superhuman marksmanship, just revenge and heroic encounters as fact. Writers and publishers developed a product that glamorized the outlaw. Their output was embraced by a society that craved information and entertainment. The accuracy of the information was not important if the reader was entertained.
The next generation, still fascinated by the invented exploits of Wyatt Earp and the others, produced Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly and Baby Face Nelson; a new batch of legends. Movies of the time showcased Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney in false but entertaining depictions of their era’s criminals. Like the dime novels, the movies had little to do with reality.
In 1971, at the age of fifteen, I made a friend. He was a street fighter; a twentieth century desperado. He and I differed in important ways but we were alike in many ways too. We were on our high school football and wrestling teams. We were both fierce competitors but I think our motivations were different. Like a cross between Marlon Brando and Geronimo he fought and smoked and played the drums and lived a life that his mother and his coaches couldn’t change.
Now, twenty-five years after the practice fields and wrestling mats we are still friends. Much has happened in our lives. We’ve been grooms and groomsmen together at three weddings. We’ve traveled. We’ve worked together, and he has gone to prison three times. The first time was for eighteen months and the second time was four years. His last stay was for six months.
During his first stay, we corresponded and I sent him a book but I didn’t visit. When he was in the second time I visited on four or five occasions. I lived on the West Coast but I came to Delaware on business often and whenever I could I drove to the Delaware Correctional Center in Smyrna to see him. The visits were short. He said little about his life inside. He might tell me about the others that were sitting near us with their families. If he was in a fight since the last visit I’d hear about that. If a guard was abusive or kind he would mention that. Most of the time was spent catching up on family matters and his legal actions, or his status as far as release.
The effect that prison had on him was profound and he has had a difficult time on the outside. Life as a proud rebel was tough enough. The burdens of being an ex-con are further testing his mettle.
I care very much for my friend and the last thing I wanted for him was harsh punishment. I certainly didn’t want them to throw his key away. But I also knew his victim and sympathized with her. It seemed to me that his circumstances were unique and our emotions, his and mine, were complicated. I realized that the families of the other prisoners must feel that their husbands and fathers and friends were unique and their problems complex.
My knowledge and perceptions of prison were based on peripheral contact but it was enough to make me think about people in jail in a different light. Before, I considered myself well informed even though newspapers, news magazines and television were my only sources of information on prisons and criminal justice. I was an interested citizen and I had opinions about crime, courts and prisons. Punishment was a prominent aspect of my opinions. As I became aware of the actual conditions and problems my opinions changed. It’s like visiting a new country or meeting someone that you’ve spoken to but never seen. Places and people are never what you expect. The realities of incarceration aren’t what I thought. Even though my contact with the prison was as an infrequent visitor to a single prisoner it made me realize that the simple solutions that I supported before were inadequate. In order to understand what might work I had to find out more. To learn why crime is so pervasive today and why some children turn into law breakers and others don’t I had to ask questions. To help my own sons I listened to the answers.
In the past one hundred years tastes and technology have changed. Producers and publishers have adjusted. But we are still a society that seeks escape and information. Television and movies, devices for entertainment and profit, give us what we seek. Newspapers and weekly news magazines have deadlines and editorial guidelines. They too seek to fulfill the need and satisfy the craving. Everything we see and hear from these sources is influenced by powerful restraints. Skilled journalists and principled publishers can issue truthful and useful results within these restraints. Others produce modern versions of the nineteenth century dime novel and often, because the presentations are so similar, it’s hard to separate misinformation from truth.
Today, crime and violence isn’t concentrated in the Wild West, Chicago or East LA. It’s closing in on all of us. The time has come for us to look at the problem for what it is and to stop glamorizing and stop being afraid.
The conversations and the people in this book are real. The conditions of their lives and the acts they’ve committed aren’t entertaining. What they say, however, is instructive and at times enlightening. My friend’s situation is unique. Everyone I spoke with described different circumstances. The differences between their tales are more striking than the similarities but since each path led to the same place there are common threads. In some cases it’s clear that punishment is deserved and in some I saw how things could have been different.
These interviews are windows into the most significant problem our country faces. While gazing at those that are imprisoned through the glass of words on a page we see a reflection of ourselves and our society. In some cases, the images that their words conjure are disturbing. But if we are compassionate we’ll change focus and thoughtfully consider the changes that we need to make.
I am very grateful to Gail Stallings with the Department of Correction for her assistance. Without her help and the cooperation of the Department, it would have been possible, but it would not have been done.
Thanks also to Derrick Johnson and Joe Kelly for their assistance at the Multi Purpose Criminal Justice Facility and to Matt Henderson at the Plummer Center. It was a supreme pleasure to work with these men.
Donna Sharp of Felton, Delaware provided professional editing and valuable criticism. Her efforts are greatly appreciated.
Mike Wolfer of Ground Zero Comics contributed to the cover design and provided inspiration by persevering and remaining on course toward his goals. Thank you Mike.
Special thanks are due the men and women who shared their thoughts. They had different reasons for agreeing to speak with me but a common motivation for each was a desire to help others.
In consideration of their privacy and the families, their real names were not used. Amir was the only exception. He is a Muslim and Amir is the name the he chose for himself. Its meaning has significance and I shouldn’t change it.
Thanks also to the men and women of the news programs of National Public Radio for writing, producing and airing the reports and essays that inspire others to think and write.