These interviews are excerpted from a book called We Are People put together by three foreign social workers who spent several months last year talking with inmates at Hillsborough Prison in Hillsborough, N.C.
Mariam Nassadien and Vernon Rose, South African social workers, and Wolfgang Bischoff, a West Berlin psychologist, led wide-ranging discussion groups at the prison. They compiled the interviews because “we realized that most of the people on the outside did not know anything about Hillsborough Prison and about the reality of prison life. We knew that prisoners, once they come out, tend to repress their prison experiences.”
Nine prisoners were interviewed. What follows are interviews with inmates that have since been released.
For a copy of We Are People write to Wolfgang Bischoff and Vernon Rose, c/o Mulvihill, 357 Wesley Drive, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514.
© Copyright Wolfgang Bischoff, 1979
Why am I in prison? I lost my license for driving while drunk in 1977. Eight months later I was stopped and given a ticket for driving with no license and the judge let me pay it off, a $57 ticket. Then, back in February I ran into the back of a woman’s car. I wasn’t drunk. Just ran into her while my license was revoked and I got time. I feel like they should have given me another chance, with the crime rate in North Carolina so high. I don’t think what I did deserved a sentence full time in prison. I was given a two year sentence. I have to stay here eight months. After eight months I can go home any time, it’s up to them.
Since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten into the academic courses. They got all my records and the school files and all like that. I’m trying to get into the field of data processing. I’ve got three years behind me in that.
I was a regular mill worker. I was trying to save money to where I could get into school. I had been planning to go into the service ever since high school and then I got that setback. I really messed myself up. Now since I’ve come through the process of prison, I’ve seen my mistakes and I’ve accepted the fact that what I did wasn’t worthwhile but I’m pulling time for something that makes no sense.
I recognize my faults. What I’m saying is that I’ve matured myself; I’ve advanced. To me, going through prison has been very educational as far as learning to accept your own self and learning to accept others around you, learning other peoples’ cultures and accepting them and dealing with them. I can see them putting people in prison for something they had done.
I know I can’t control whiskey. And by me coming through this process, I’ve learned that if I take one drink, I’m going to want another and another, so I’ve made it up in my mind that I can just leave it alone. That’s what put me here.
They put you here to rehabilitate you but once they get you here, it’s just like you are in a zoo. You’re an animal. Like, out in the street you’re free to do whatever you want to do. Here, you got certain things. You can’t say this certain thing. Well, like say, for instance, going to bed. Out in the street, you can go to bed whenever you want to. Here, you got to be in bed at 10 o’clock. And like, you want to use the phone, you can only use the phone ten minutes at a time and somebody’s watching you when you use it. If you want to go outside the fence, somebody has to see you go outside the fence and somebody has to see you come back in the fence. Nine times out of ten you’re not going outside the fence.
The biggest difficulty for me in coming to prison was adjusting. Because I was tense, I was scared. I didn’t know how to approach my fellow inmates. You have to feel your way around. I mean, there are certain people you can run with and there are certain people you can’t run with. It’s just that simple. It was a shock the way people turned out to be. I’ve been with and met very smart, very educated people here in the penitentiary. Before I came to the penitentiary, I thought everybody inside was a hard core criminal — killers, you know. But it’s not like that. You meet different people everywhere you go, but I don’t think, for me, when I get back on the street that I’ll meet any more interesting people than the people I’ve met inside the penitentiary.
You don’t know what they expect out of anybody. You can’t trust anybody. You have to build the trust. You have to find the friendship. You have to find somebody you can be with who you can talk with, maybe you can just share some time together. You can’t just let yourself get open with anybody.
In the gun camp I was in, they put you in a room. There was like ten or twelve of you in there. I stayed quiet for a day or so and then I started playing cards with them and talking with them and finding out how they had come down, how they had failed and why they were in the penitentiary. And you just hung with those certain people. They would let you out in the yard for, say, two hours a day. During those two hours you stuck with those people. You didn’t mingle out in the crowd. Say, for instance, if I’m sitting here in a group of six guys from my room, we didn’t say anything to the group of six guys from the next room unless someone knew one personally. Because you could break out in a fight. It can be misunderstood. You just don’t know what to expect, until people feel you out. You have to feel your way a lot through prison. You’re just like a vegetable. You’re nothing. That’s why a lot of people go insane. They can’t cope with it. They’re too frightened. And stuff like this is fed into the prison. That’s why they have so much drugs and dope they can hook people on. It has to be that the drugs are being brought in by the guards. The inmates, they can’t bring it in. There’s no inmate alive that can come out from behind that wall. But yet you still have about five and ten pounds of dope back there. You got the syringes. Any kind of dope they want, they got it. And they bring it in and they feed it to them. It’s just like feeding an animal, so they can control them. It’s pitiful the way a man has to come and spend his time in prison. It’s just time lost to me. But it’s according to the way a person goes at it. If he’s got that weakening point in him that will let him go down, then he’ll go down. But if he’s got his head straight and says I’m not going to let this get me down and goes on, expecting the unexpected, then he’ll make it.
You’re just like a vegetable. You’re nothing. That’s why a lot of people go insane. They can’t cope with it.
About alternatives to my situation: I could see them putting me in a place where I would go through my penalty, letting me get into an alcoholic class, where I could learn the effects of alcohol and turn my ways and taste from alcohol instead of putting me here. Put me some place where there are materials so I can make it. But putting me here, all I’m thinking about is revenge. Not me, but the average person when he gets out there says I’m going to do this or steal something or get drunk for a week. Just because I was down so long without it. And nine times out of ten that’s what the person is going to do. He’s going to go right back out there and fall into the same trap.
The reason why I drink, well I can’t put the blame on nobody but myself. But I look at it from the whole family point of view. My family wasn’t all that wealthy. We would be, what you would call, the average black family. I grew up with family arguments, family fights. My mother drank. My father drank. All the people that they associated with drank. So I just grew up drinking. I got started drinking when I was ten, eleven. I mean drinking. Right before I got busted, I could drink a pint of liquor myself. I’d say I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t. I seen days and nights when they said I did this or that and I don’t even remember the night. Me, I was an alcoholic. I can see that. And I don’t want to go back to it. I know I have that taste for alcohol in my system. And I know if I go back out there I’ll only be wasting myself. I intend to leave it alone. But as far a putting a man in prison for driving drunk, that’s ridiculous. The day I sat in the courtroom, there were three or four white men with the same charges, but they let them pay out, maybe seven or eight hundred dollars. I was black. The man didn’t say nothing about no fees or charges. They gave me the maximum sentence. My skin color gave me away. I can base it down to that. I didn’t have the money, so I got to pull the time. It’s just as simple as that.
The Rev. Ben Chavis, a civil rights worker in Wilmington, N.C., was arrested with nine others in 1971 for the firebombing of a store during a period of racial unrest.
The controversial conviction of the Wilmington 10 — which many insisted was racially and politically motivated — was widely protested. Evidence surfaced after the trial that cast doubt on prosecution testimony, but motions for a new trial were repeatedly denied.
Finally, N.C. Governor Hunt reduced their sentences, while denying them a retrial. Rev. Chavis was granted study release in 1978 to enroll in Duke Divinity School, and paroled in December, 1979, the last of the Wilmington 10 to be released.
I have been arrested 30 some times, but I have only been convicted once. We (the Wilmington 10) were put in prison even before we were tried and convicted.
Being involved in the civil rights movement for a long time, one of the things that you are aware that could possibly happen is jail or imprisonment. You certainly don’t want that to happen, it’s something you don’t look forward to, but when it does happen, you sort of fall back on the realization that it was inevitable. If you are trying to seek social changes, real dents to the structure’s system, the history of this country has been the system resists change and will, in fact, eliminate anyone who is trying to promote change. One of the means of elimination is to put you in a prison so, you know, that’s why I say I did not know the time, day or hour it would happen, but I understood fully why it did happen.
When I first went to prison, I didn’t go in with an attitude that I belonged there. That’s very important! When the judge stood me up and sentenced me to thirty-four years, I rejected it the moment he sentenced me. I have never accepted it and I will never accept my conviction!
I decided that I was not going to escape. We were sent to prison from the county jail and while I was riding on the prison bus to Central Prison, from Wilmington to Raleigh, that’s when I made up my mind not to escape. When they first put me on the van, I was looking for some way to get out right then. It’s a natural human instinct to reject captivity. It took about one hour and a half, maybe two hours, to drive from Wilmington to Raleigh and on the way I thought about it, about what I was going to do. I decided escaping would be wrong. Not necessarily for me, but it would be wrong for the movement. I decided to concretely struggle against that existence, from the inside. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I’m not the only prisoner that has been doing this, there have been a lot of others.
I went to Caledonia Prison in 1972 and I only stayed there a month and a half. They put me in a hole down there because I was organizing the prisoners. Caledonia is a large prison farm in the South complex. It’s one of the largest farms in the South. The farm is almost the whole county. They have a fence around the prison. When you work out on the farm, there are guards riding horses with shotguns. They could have a tractor to mow the grass; instead, they have prisoners out there with swing blades. That’s not me, useless. See, I am trying to explain to you the process. First, they put you in isolation and observe you, then they send you someplace like Caledonia, give you orders to see if you will obey their orders. Then, if they think you have been conditioned and molded, they would send you to minimum custody and get you ready to go back out in society. That’s what Hillsborough is supposed to be. Start off at maximum and go to minimum. I refused to work in Caledonia, I told them that I read that the Supreme Court had decided that mandatory prison labor is not constitutional. A prisoner is supposed to work if he wants to work, and so I selected not to work. Of course, they threatened me at first. They said, “No, if you are given a direct order, you are supposed to work.” I said, “I am not going to work.” I was in grad school at Howard University at the time. I wrote Howard, and had them send me my books. I studied while everyone else worked. Now, I could have gone on out there and worked, but I was not going to do that. I was not going to work for the State. They make a lot of money. Caledonia is a multimillion dollar profit complex. Caledonia provides a critical service to the State of North Carolina and the critical service is not just keeping these dangerous prisoners locked up, the critical service is making that money.
When I first came to Caledonia the prisoners were glad to see me. Most prisoners had heard about me before I went to prison. They wanted me to come to their prison because they knew we could make some changes. I helped them to get in touch with a lawyer, helped them to write writs to get back into court. I had books on prisoner rights. I shared the books with them. I held religious meetings. My religious meetings were always geared to struggle. The prison guards never liked what I said because I talked about brotherhood; black and white prisoners struggling together. They didn’t want to hear that because there was a lot of division at Caledonia. They wanted the blacks and whites to be at each other, prisoner against prisoner. If you have that, then the prison system benefits from that, divide and conquer. When all the inmates stand together, there’s power.
I have found more humanity in prison than I have in the streets. That may be hard to understand. The first day I went to Central Prison, I told you about these elderly inmates who pulled me off to the side, and for an hour, told me certain things that I needed to know the do’s and don’t’s of prison. They didn’t have to do that. The reason why they did it was because they were concerned, they wanted to share the benefit of their experience. That was very important, and that has helped me survive. Some people say, “Well, Ben, you survived because you have had so much publicity on the outside,” but it has been more than that. The public is not in the cell with you. The public does not make up your mind whether you are going to hit the guard back when he cusses or spits on you, and tells you to take all your clothes off and bend over. You have to make some decisions, and you have to decide whether or not you are going to let the prison system break you.
I think we need to get to people who are headed to prison, before they get into prison, before their first arrest or trial. It’s obvious, they need to be talked to, to explain a certain kind of counter-orientation. Now when you go to prison you are oriented, but I’m talking about a counter-orientation. That would get them ready for this experience because a lot of young boys, teenagers, and young men, go into prison unaware. They fantasize, are very naive, and gradually they become molded into a person without any control over it. That’s why I encourage study.
Caledonia is hell on earth if you let it be. Caledonia is a little hell on earth because the prison guards made it that way and so did some inmates. Most of the cutting and stabbing and killing each other was instigated by the prison system, snitchers. They would have one inmate that would tell something on another inmate. The prison guard would go back and tell the inmate population that the guy is a snitcher, so when he goes to sleep, they kill him. You can’t make it at Caledonia alone. I got along with everybody. I refused to join one clique. The prison guards and the administrators provoked us. I’ve been in prison four years. I’ve never had an argument with a prisoner. No one has ever pulled a knife on me, no one has ever threatened me, no one has ever hit me with a chair. I have taken some knives away from prisoners. One inmate was getting ready to cut an inmate and I stopped him.
I have seen inmates torn apart because their families won’t write them, and/or their loved ones won’t write them. By the same token, I’ve seen them just talking with them, identifying with their problems, being really interested on a deeper level than the false level out here in the community. People say, “Well, I really care a lot.” I’ve seen inmates really care about one another, in a way that most people who are caught up in the intricacies and complexities of life aren’t able to care. You have to suffer in order to really care. I’m not saying that I’m glad that people suffer, but I’m saying suffering enables you to have the quality of caring on a deeper level because you have been through that experience. Amidst all these negative things, there is some human goodness that comes out. There’s something different. There is a communication that is not put into words. There is some feeling there, there is an exchange, there is a give and take.
The public is not in the cell with you. The public does not make up your mind whether you are going to hit the guard back when he cusses or spits on you, and tells you to take your clothes off and bend over.
One incident which led me to leave Caledonia was at the recreation field they had at that time. Usually everybody was wrapped up in playing basketball, on this particular day no one played basketball. The guards panicked! Everybody sat in the bleachers and the guys were reading the poetry they had written, whites and blacks, everybody was clapping at the poetry. We were having an inmate meeting, that’s what we were having, but the guards panicked. No one was trying to escape. No one was trying to turn over anything. Everybody was very orderly. That orderliness, that togetherness among inmates scared the guards. They went to grabbing billy clubs; over the microphone they ordered everybody off the yard, to their cells. They ordered me to come to the front office over the microphone, you know, called my name out. I refused to go!
There are two things they’ll call your name for to get you to the front office: either to get on your case about something, or to call you to snitch. I was not going to allow the prison department to put me in that position, to make it look like I was going to tell what we were talking about. So I didn’t go. I went back into my cell. They came to my cell, got me, and took me. They forced me to go to the front office. At least everybody knew then that they were going to take me to punish me for something, not to get information out of me. They will try to use you that way. Anyway, they carry me to the front and the superintendent cussed me out. Nigger this. Nigger that, stirring up these prisoners, not going to tolerate it, going to kick my ass, so on and so on, you’re not in Raleigh, you’re in Caledonia, they bury prisoners here and they never will be heard from, no one has ever done this and never going to allow anyone to do it and just wanted to get you straight right now! They wanted me to sign a statement saying that I’d maintain a low profile at Caledonia Prison. ‘‘I’m not signing nothing!” They didn’t put me in the hole, they just sent me back to my cell. I think they were just trying to scare me.
They sent me to this prison hospital, prison sanitarium, where prisoners have tuberculosis. That’s where they sent me, where I stayed for three years. Six months of the time I went on a hunger strike and they brought me back to Central Prison because I protested conditions. I didn’t think it was right for healthy prisoners to be in the same place as people with tuberculosis. Also, there were a lot of mentally disturbed persons, prisoners that were given these behavior drugs, prolixin, thorazine (which make them act like zombies all the time). That’s the kind of environment they put me in, in rodent-infested living conditions, and in a room with six men. One time they tried to give me drugs. I refused. The nurse made a mistake, see, they go by your bed number, they don’t even know your name. If you’re sleeping in a certain bed, they give you these drugs. I told the lady, “I just came in, man, I’m not supposed to get these drugs.” She called the officer and he recognized that I was a new inmate.
When I got to McCain, I was unaware that it was a prison hospital. The prison superintendent said, “You are in medium custody, you have to go up on the medium custody ward.” So they took me up on the ward. When they opened the door, I saw guys with masks on. I didn’t know what was going on. No one told me, until after several hours, I finally asked one guy, “Why are you wearing that mask?” He said, “I’ve got tuberculosis.” That was very upsetting to me. At Caledonia Prison, I could sit down at a table with my family and visit with them. At McCain Prison, because it was a sanitorium, because it was unhealthy, because of the contagious diseases, they wouldn’t let me touch my family. I had to talk to them through plate glass.
I had to protest the conditions of McCain. First, though, I wrote up this grievance form, because I always found you had to exhaust the existing channels to prove they didn’t work. So, I wrote the little grievance form and, ironically, they held a public hearing on the grievance I wrote about. They concluded that the prison was right for sending me there. However, they did, after that, agree to allow contact visits for prisoners who were not sick. But still, that was only a partial victory.
I decided that the only privilege I had was to eat, so I decided to give that up. I didn’t have the privilege to drink because at that time, they didn’t have a water fountain at McCain Prison. So I decided to stop eating as a political protest. It was really my first hunger strike, I hadn’t studied up on what I was doing, but after a few days I really got concerned about health, because I wasn’t eating or drinking. After seven days, my body became dehydrated from lack of water, so I started drinking water (by that time, they put a water fountain upstairs in McCain Prison for the first time, so I had access to water). I was lucky, because there was a doctor at McCain from India. He had just been hired. He didn’t have any allegiance to the State. I don’t want to get him in any trouble because he was scared he’d be deported, but privately, he would almost encourage me. He had experienced the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and how Indians look at spirituality, and the struggle with the inner self. Also, Dick Gregory, who had a lot of experiences in fasting as a political protest, called me. At that point, after around the fourteenth day, I consciously changed my hunger strike, which was in the form of a protest, to a fast, to a spiritually strengthening fast, which is a big difference. All the while I was on this hunger strike, I was angry. I wanted to get back at the system and that was just my way of getting back at the system, but actually I was winding up doing negative things to myself by having this anger inside me and not eating at the same time. Once I decided to change it in my own mind, even how I conceptualized what I was doing, I wrote up a statement about why I was going to continue on this fast. I began to get people to send me books on fasting, strengthening. I began to let the doctor take my blood pressure, so I would know what it was every day and my temperature too. I began to write down the number of ounces of water I was drinking and the number of ounces of water I was excreting. I kept up with everything because I knew it was going to be a long struggle and I was prepared for a long, extended thing. I decided I would go as long as I could. Over the three to four months that I stayed on this fast, I didn’t become an expert, but I read about 100 books on fasting. I became very strengthened spiritually. I began to put my mind on positive things and not the negative. I began to pray a lot. It was really strengthening myself. At on point, my blood pressure got down to maybe 30 over 50, which is dangerously low. Then, even though I wasn’t eating, it began to increase. My metabolism rate slowed down. I was at peace with myself and had the understanding that what I was doing would be positive. By that time it had been blown up, a lot of people had gotten involved, besides myself, and I was winning. What I mean by winning is the doctor at Central Prison said “Chavis, you are not going to live past 60 days.” On the 75th day, he came in and shook his head. When he came in, I was doing exercises. I was doing yoga positions. He thought I was unconscious. They locked the door and put a guard in front of the door because they felt somebody was sneaking food in to me. They didn’t believe I could do this. So, they locked the door to make sure I wasn’t getting any food, and I guess they thought by locking the door and putting guards there that I would give in. That only made me stronger because I was winning. When I started the fast, I was weighing 165, when I stopped the fast on September 21, 1976, I weighed about 100 pounds, but I was strong.
They sent me to Central Prison and I continued to fast. They thought when they moved me from McCain to Central Prison that I was going to stop fasting. The fast had become more than just my little personal gripe with the prison system. It had become symbolic of a lot of concerns. I knew that the National Alliance was going to have a march on Labor Day. (I am one of the co-chairmen of the Alliance). I decided, in my own way, I was going to go as long as I could, but I hoped I would last until after that march. People used my fast to organize the march. People from around the country came to Raleigh on Labor Day to march.
It was while I was on this hunger strike, in August of 1976, when I got a letter from Allen Hall, saying he didn’t want me to die. His conscience was bothering him. I wrote him back to say I didn’t want to die either, certainly not before the truth comes out and I said, “I am praying for you.” A week later, he announced he had lied. That’s when the case broke open. He was the State’s witness who testified against me. He hadn’t admitted he had lied until he heard about my hunger strike. It bothered his mind. The press was saying that Chavis is dying. They didn’t know I was getting stronger. I lost weight, but spiritually, my heartbeat was strong. I only drank water. (I drank a gallon of water a day. I worked my way up to a gallon of water and day and two ten-ounce cups of pure orange juice). I got all the minerals and everything I needed from the orange juice. It was a victory, I succeeded. I beat them at their own game; not only beat them, but allowed folks to organize a movement which was the most important thing. There were thousands of people who came to that march, one of the largest marches in North Carolina’s history.
By that time, Allen Hall had recanted, the other two witnesses then admitted they had lied. So the whole situation changed. When I got back to McCain, I began to do more to build up the movement around the Wilmington 10. It’s easy for me to say, “I’m not guilty, I didn’t do it,” but it’s a different thing when the people who said you did it admitted they had lied. It gave me a whole new platform to stand on.
I try to encourage the inmates not to lock themselves in another prison, a psychological prison. They have to break out of that. Physically, the prison has me nightly, but that’s the only way they have me. Spiritually, I’m not in prison, psychologically, I’m not in prison. I will never be. I will die first; and then when I die, I will still be free.