From Harlem to murder, from prison to Africa. Lee Walters tells Lindsey Hilsum his story.
THIRTEEN years in the joint, you gotta whole lotta time for thinkin. You think about your whole fuckin life; that’s why I can recite things that have happened to me so vividly ...
We lived over on the East Side, between 112th and 113th Street. There’s an Irish family round the corner, there’s a Puerto Rican family, there’s a Chinese laundry - those buildings, the whole area, are loaded with every kind of nationality you can think of.
It’s durin the Fifties there’s a change. Young guys are comin back from the service doped up. It’s not in the papers, nobody pays it any attention, the fact that drugs are comin into our neighbourhood. Gradually the change comes, there’s a lot more drugs, looked like there were more kids, they start team down buildings. The place is beginnin to deteriorate although nothin like what it is now.
People are tol’ from an early age, you gonna grow up and take care of yourself, git out on your own, learn to survive. I guess ah pick up on that jus like everybody else. Lookin around, growin up in the street, seem that there’s fast ways to make money, you make the decision: ‘Well, I’m a-gonna try an’ make it the fast way, as opposed to goin out here an’ bustin mah ass like mah father’s bin doing.’ Ah mean, life is jus’ to make ends meet. So you seen ‘em do that, an’ you say ‘Fuck that. What I wanna do that to myself for?’
I go to school, instead of learnin I did a lot of daydreamin. You dream about what you see in the movies. You see people drive thru your neighbourhood in a big car, an’ you look at the guy, he’s got a nice little girl sittin next to him, an’ you think to yourself, why the fuck can’t I have that? You live in a community where few people go innywhere outside. For some reason you’re a curious little kid, so when you learn how to skate the first thing you do, you use your skates as an escape cos they c’n take you further than your little legs. I used to skate down to Central Park, all the way to the end. I used to get on the bus, on the train and go for rides, git lost I went so far. I used to go up on the roof at night - in Harlem it’s the only place you c’n see the stars - and think to mahself, I really do have to git outta here ...
I tol’ mah daddy’s ol lady that ah wanted to try heroin. Somethin sinister about this woman has since tol’ me she was glad she got me hooked. So I started snortin heroin. I was 13, 14 years old. I was movin fast.
Then I got sent to reform school for not goin to school, for bein in a known gang, gettin in a gang fight, bein recognised and informed on, havin the police come to mah house, three o’clock in the mornin, they snatch mah litle ass outta bed, take me to gaol. They kick mah ass, right? An I git sent to reform school.
So ah come out thinkin I was really hip, really a good crim’nal now! By the time I was 16 I was really into heroin. Mah ol’ man signed me into a drug programme in a place called Riverside, an he got killed while ah was in there. He was fuckin with some Italian guy’s girlfriend, supposedly it was a break-in, and they shot him. I come out for the funeral, an I don’t go back.
I had a girlfriend, my childhood sweetheart, she was a beautiful girl, an we both became drug addicts. This was durin mali dope dealin days, I used to look after her habit an’ my own. Wouldn’t let mah woman sell her pussy! I must have gone up to the Bronx to visit mah aunt, when I come back. my girlfriend has sold some pussy to buy some drugs. I beat her up. Then ah slep’ with her sister to git even.
I got busted for sellin drugs when I was 18. They sent me in for three years, an I did my whole fuckin three years because ah was such a bad kid. That’s where I read Plato, I read Nietzche, Animal Farm, 1984 ... in this penitentiary there was nothin to do, it was the worst place in the world. We used to have to line up every fuckin where we went, it was like one of those ol’ chain gang movies. All I learned was to be a little slicker, how to be a better dope dealer, because I’d made more dope dealin friends.
I got into stick up when ah got outta the joint. I stuck up the guys who were sellin drugs, an’ the number runners, anyone doin anything illegal if they had some money. I’d get my pistol, sometimes I’d take a couple of guys along, I find ‘em, sneak up on ‘em, an stick ‘em up, that’s it.
The crazy thing is, a lotta these people knew me so it meant they was always lookin for me. I kept that shit up until ah found I had to get outta town. I went to Washington DC, an’ heard about a number runner there, who used to pick up money from all different spots, there was supposed to be a lot of bucks. So I decided to stick him up.
Well, this one didn’t go too well, because the guy decides he wants to fight for someone else’s money. Now I shot at the guy. Instead of goin the other way, the bullet wen’ into the guy. The guy dies. It was kinda like an accident. I mean, true, I didn’ have no business bein there with a gun, but ah mean, ah didn’ set out deliberately to kill this guy.
They take me to the glasshouse, maximum security. me! I’m 22 years old! Now the shit starts to come. There’s a warrant for my arrest from New York for a murder that happened seven years prior to this beef I got in Washington. Me an another guy stuck up a guy, an the guy got shot They had a description of me, but they never caught me, til ah fell for this second murder.
They sent me to Queen Elizabeth Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Whenever you got a murder beef, they automatically send you to this hospital for psychiatric treatment Everythin seems to turn against me as ah think about doin these years that are comin up. As crazy as ah try to act, ah don’ eat no shit. There’s guys all round takin their faeces an coverin their faces with it, tryin to convince the doctors that they’s crazy, because the electric chair is still goin on, they still burnin niggers, an bein insane is one of the ways not to go to the electric chair.
In Washington DC the guy sentenced me to 30 years for the second murder. Then they sent me to New York and tried me for the first one, an gave me two-an-a-half to eight years, not to start until I had finished the 30 years.
When ah went in there, the prison was still segregated. We rioted. We had a race riot. Then we had a riot riot, we fought against the police - everybody got down! Then they said they wanted to mix the cells, an they were puttin one black guy in with seven white boys. They’d knife him. The guys who were doin the stickin, they was mainly Klansmen. We had riots, strikes, people bein teargassed, whipped ... innyway, we got over it.
When they started mixin the cells, I started hangin out with this little, short blond guy, Dixieland Mafia type. We dropped acid together, we started dealin in heavy drugs - heroin, cocaine, mescalin - makin a lotta money. I was becomin politically aware, gettin in a group, studyin Mao, dialectic materialism, all the ass, man.
In prison, you c’n jus see over the wall. An they put the prisons way out in the countryside, so you see trees, birds, shit you never thought about before. An you begin to associate freedom with that. About ‘63, ‘64, I put a map of Africa up on mah wall. I’d read bout Mau Mau, Kenyatta was my hero. I read Nkrumah. An I’d look at that map, an think ah warma go there, ‘n there, ‘n there
I read science fiction. I went thru phases. At one time I had stacks of shit on astrology, at another it was Islam. I was a Muslim for five years. Then this doctor came in, decided he wanted to do some work inside the joint. He got permission to create a therapeutic community. We dealt with things like Transactional Analysis, an ‘who the fuck is in control?’ Finally ah had somethin I could kinda get onto.
I started gettin involved with workshops. I saw it was somethin positive ah could actually contribute without havin bin a college graduate. It meant decontamination, it meant I could survive in the world without usin’ heroin, or committin some atrocity. The only limits is the limits we put on ourselves. It meant that when they said ‘Boy, he’s gonna be a hellraiser,’ or ‘He’s gonna die young,’ to say ‘Fuck that, ah’m not gonna be inny of those things, I’m gonna be myself. I’m gonna make the choice.
You jist git out an’ work on it. I used to get up thinkin’ ‘Where’m ah gonna git me some money from?’ An, well, I got my pistol, so this is number one. Ah already know that if ah stick this in some sucker face, he’s gonna give it up, cos I gonna take it, ah ain’t giv’n him a choice.
I know I don’ wanna do that no more. Haven’ wanted to do it for a long time. I don’ even think I liked doin it when I did it. I was in for 15 fuckin years. After you bin in there, nothin don’t look ugly any more when you come out.
Postscript Lee continued to run workshops in Transactional Analysis for prisoners and their families when he was released. He became a counsellor, and later a lecturer at several colleges in New York State. In 1983 he went to Africa, where he now lives. He still holds Transactional Analysis workshops, as well as organising fashion shows, and promotions for local craftspeople.
Changing prison. In Brazil being imprisoned was a passport to hell. Marco Antonio Vanucchi tells Sue Branford how he fought back.
Sao Paulo, which is Latin America’s largest jail. It was built for 3,000 and now holds 6,000. I was put in a cell that had been built for three or four people, but was holding eight or nine. The brutality was a terrible shock.
There’s a lot of suicides in prison. People get desperate at the horror of it. Others are killed, but then hung up to look like suicides. Quite a lot of prisoners go mad. But I wanted to survive, so I adapted. I became tough, brutish. It’s the only way to survive.
I got involved with crime again because life in a developing country like Brazil, which has very high unemployment, is tough enough for those without a police record. But, with one, it’s near impossible. I had a wife and a child. I tried to work as a cabdriver, renting a car, but I couldn’t make ends meet. Then I met a mate of mine, from the Casa de Detencao. He taught me how to rob a factory.
I was caught a year later, at the end of 1972, after we’d robbed Souza Cruz (a subsidiary of British American Tobacco). I was caught in the car, with my wife and my mate’s wife. We were all taken to the police station. The women were beaten up, given electric shocks and put on the pau-de-arara (parrot’s cage, a kind of torture). I could hear them screaming from my cell. The police wanted to know where my mate was.
Well, they caught him too. Then they let the women go. I was sent for a year to the Casa de Detencao, then I was transferred to the Penitenciaria do Estado de Sao Paulo, the state jail.
It was terrible there. The first thing they did was to deduct the price of your coffin from the pittance they gave you for your basic needs. Then you were sent for four months solitary confinement in a terrible dark cell. There wasn’t even a window, just a steel plate, with holes in it, for ventilation. There was no justification for this so-called ‘initiation period’. It was just to terrify you. When I came out, my skin came away when I pulled at it. I was beginning to rot.
After that, I was thrown in with the rest of the prisoners. There was no selection. If I’d had an enemy, I’d have died. Prisoners always get arms, bribing the guards, or making them from iron bars in the grills. The conditions were terrible, but I didn’t take it lying down. I was always protesting, so I got the reputation of being an agitator, a rebel.
Women who went to visit were made to take all their clothes off, were given a thorough searching, even in their sexual organs. It was really degrading. Women hated it and many gave up visiting. That was what the guards wanted, for it meant that they could do what they wanted, without any fear of complaint.
There was little that a prisoner could do if he was maltreated. If he had a row with a guard, he would be sent to another jail, perhaps 1,800 kilometres away. Then his family couldn’t visit him, because of the expense. If he complained the prison director simply said ‘Well, kill a prisoner, then we can send you back.’ I know a prisoner who killed 15 others, mainly because he wanted to be transferred.
It’s terrible for the families. They’re poor enough anyway, for most of the men in the prison had only earned the minimum wage when they were free. But without the men, the women can’t manage. The children get neglected and many of them end up in crime. I had to let my wife go, because she couldn’t manage without me, She married again. They’ve brought up my son well. I’ve been lucky.
In December 1983 the military police invaded the jail and several prisoners died. I felt I must help. So in January 1984, five of us got together and we started a commission. We started to ask the prisoners what improvements they most wanted. It wasn’t easy work. We had to go around at recreation time, but in the end nearly everyone contributed.
Three demands came out top. First, they wanted a permanent commission to point out irregularities to the authorities. Second, they wanted their wives to be allowed to visit them in an individual cell. There’s tremendous promiscuity in the prison, with men using other men for their sexual needs, and they thought that marital visits would reduce this. And third, they wanted regular medical treatment.
With time, we got more and more support from the prisoners. They saw the commission like a raft in the middle of a stormy sea. We also started to get things organised. We looked after the crippled prisoners, taking them out for a breath of fresh air at recreation. Some of them were in a dreadful state, as they had been neglected for so long. We started to ask for special treatment for the mentally retarded and the mentally deranged.
We started to demand the release of those who had completed their prison sentence. For there are lots of prisoners who had served their term but are still in prison because their papers have been lost. With the overcrowding of the prisons, the bookwork has got into an awful state. It’s a vicious circle, because clearly the prisons would be less crowded if they let out all those who should be free.
We began a newspaper, called Democarcere. It caused a scandal. The guards scoffed, saying that prisoners shouldn’t be allowed to write. Then, on March 15 1984, we held elections. Almost all the 1,200 prisoners voted. The guards said that we would cause havoc, but we didn’t. It was completely peaceful, orderly. I was elected along with 34 others. We set up five sub-commissions to look into all aspects of prison life.
One judge in particular hated us. With the help of a well-known radio commentator, he started to spread rumours. He said that we had drugs, arms and were planning a riot. The public started to panic so finally the state government sent in the military police, on 20 October 1984. They broke up everything we had - radios, beds, blankets. Some of the men had worked for months, stitching footballs, to earn enough for a radio. They had to send in three lorries to take away the rubbish.
We were really angry. Some prisoners wanted to break the place up, but the commission managed to stop them. We explained that this was just what the judge wanted, that we would be playing into his hands. Instead, we started passive resistance. We just kept completely quiet in our cells. We wouldn’t go out to work or for recreation. Total silence. It unnerved the guards. They didn’t know how to deal with it. But our tactics worked. Gradually, we improved things.
Today, it’s better, but change is slow. Beatings still go on. The guards are still corrupt. We had 21 years of military rule in which anything was possible. You can’t get rid of that heritage overnight.
I’m now hoping to work with abandoned children and young offenders. With the recession and high unemployment, thousands and thousands of children are having to fend for themselves. Many are going into crime.
The way it is going, Sao Paulo will have to turn into one giant prison to deal with the increase in crime. The authorities are trying to hush it up, brush the problem under the carpet. But that’s stupid. We need to be honest, look objectively at the problem and then do something about it.
Sue Branford has recently co-authored ‘The last frontier’ a book about Brazil’s native peoples’ fight for land rights.