The last great book I read made me cry and grind my teeth and pace my cell. It was written by a Harvard Law School graduate. It was Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. With the best education in America, Mr. Stevenson chose to “get close to,” defend and ultimately save the lives of people on death row. People on these kind of missions—playing a bigger game in life—make murderers like me melt.
My name is John J. Lennon and I am a thirty-nine-year-old prisoner serving twenty-eight years to life at Attica Correctional Facility in western upstate New York. I was convicted of selling drugs and shooting a man to death on a Brooklyn street in 2001. I’m sorry for killing him, I’m sorry for it all.
That said, I’m not just a murderer. Today I’m also a journalist. Years ago, I fell into a couple of opportunities at Attica. In a privately funded pilot college program, I learned how to think better. In a creative writing workshop, I learned how to write clearly. Since then, my words have appeared in publications that make them matter.
Recently, Pete Davis, a law student and online editor at the Harvard Law Record, asked me to write a piece that would serve as a sort of open-mic to talk to you students at Harvard Law. Since my lane is journalism and not the law, I figured I would interview a few of my seasoned prisonmates and get their takes.
Anthony “Jalil” Bottoms has been in prison for forty-five years. He was a member of the Black Panther Party and one of the New York Three, convicted of killing two New York City cops—one white, one black—in 1971. Jalil rid himself of the militant Marxist mindset long ago, and today he sports a kufi and a white beard, speaks in a soothing tones, and takes in the world with sad and kindly eyes. He’s a Muslim.
I recently saw him at the lifers annual picnic. It’s a gorgeous day in Attica. A couple hundred mostly black and Hispanic prisoners in green mingle on a grass field at picnic tables. Music is playing, a handful of old white ladies, who volunteer for therapeutic and anti-violence programs, are scattered among the lingering guards. In the distance, the thirty-foot gray wall looms. Jalil greets me with a hug. We’re in different cellblocks, so we don’t see each other too often.
He tells me he’s heard about some articles I’ve recently published and that he’s proud of me. That feels good. I tell him about this piece. In a nutshell, Jalil says you all should know that the mass incarceration debate cannot begin without understanding that while the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited slavery in American society, it allowed for it in American prisons, and today that’s where one in three black men wind up at some point in their lives. While Jalil invokes abolitionism, Michelle Alexander, whom he often quotes, eerily parallels the Jim Crow South to The New Jim Crow—her 2010 book, and her label for America’s prison system. The exception clause in the Thirteenth Amendment, Jalil says, sanctions slavery by the state and must be amended.
Chris Hynes, who’s been in for thirty years for a 1988 robbery-turned-murder, is a small and bald-headed Irish fellow with a big reputation for being the jailhouse lawyer in New York. Because he’s the Attica Lifers president, he is all over the place at the picnic handling gripes about food, attendance, etc. When I tell him about this piece, he says he’ll send me a kite (a written message). “Law students and lawyers need to get inside prisons and teach legal courses,” he writes in the kite I receive a few days later. “Guys need to learn how to interpret the law and write effectively to protect their rights.” He also says you should know that legislation like the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) significantly restrict prisoners’ ability to get federal habeas corpus review and for them to be able to bring civil rights actions against prison officials.
After chatting with Jalil and Chris, I sit with other guys. Rothstein is an animated, light-skinned, fifty-three-year-old inmate from Harlem. He asks me to use his jailhouse Jewish nickname. He sits across from me, wet with sweat because, moments before, wrapped in a white bed sheet, he’d captivated a wide-eyed Lifers audience as Shakespeare’s Mark Antony crying over Julius Caesar’s dead body. Also at the table is Dino Caroselli, a sixty-five-year-old, olive-skinned gangster who looks forty-five and sports a gold rope chain, thick as my pinky. He’s been in for twenty-five years. A corrections lieutenant once set him up with a false positive urine test. Dino bit off the officer’s nose. The report for the urine was dismissed. But he got another forty years for attacking the lieutenant.
When I ask them what they want Harvard Law students to know, they explode, interrupting each other and calling for reforms to penal law, case law, legislative law. “Cases are settled on the golf course,” Rothstein says. “They need to use their country-club associations to influence social justice—and then legal justice will be the byproduct.”
“You can’t tell them that!” Dino scoffs. “It’s insulting.”
“I’m in Attica for a stem and a lighter!” Rothstein shouts. “I’m a crackhead, not a criminal!” There’s awkward silence. His eyes get watery. Then he laughs, “Too much?”
Dino and I laugh, shaking our heads.
Rothstein soon gets distracted and Dino leans in and says, “I love the guy, but he’s out of his mind.” I don’t miss the irony of his comment. Exasperated, Dino says, “You know, John, it all comes down to education.”
Ignorance is ugly, particularly in prison. It’s loud and obnoxious and violent. It tumbles into my cell right now as I write this. But for some, education can quell that.
Here’s proof: My friend Carlos Polanco is a Dominican, thirty-two years old, in for manslaughter. In 2011, he and I started college at Attica. Back then, Carlos grappled with changing his life and his association with gang life. Once, I had to remind him of our opportunity and persuade him to holster his scalpel—else he would have carved up a mouthy Blood member on the tier. Soon after, he transferred to Eastern Correctional Facility, a cushier joint closer to New York City, and landed a spot in the prestigious Bard College program that provides college education to qualifying prisoners. Last year, he led its debate team to defeat Harvard’s.
“We have been graced with opportunity,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
Sadly, few get those opportunities.
Here’s what Harvard Law students should know. College in the can is scarce. The programs that do exist are mostly privately funded. The 1994 crime bill made prisoners ineligible for Pell grants. Since then, the US prison population has doubled. Last year, the Obama administration started a three-to-five-year pilot program called “Second Chance Pell,” which will allow some prisoners to access Pell grants. If a President Trump comes in, he’ll likely scrap it. The Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act., H.R. 2521, will restore Pell for prisoners permanently. It needs a lot of support: Hillary Clinton’s support, your support.
I encourage you all to get even closer to the problem. Many of you will go on to practice corporate law. But that doesn’t mean you can’t come into the slammer, as Chris Hynes suggests, and train prisoners how to structure legal arguments, how to keep their elbows tucked in and learn how to write, how to punch out declarative sentences with nouns and verbs. Get this: John Whiteford of Goldman Sachs used to come into a New York prison and teach financial literacy. Point is: You can still kick ass and take names and help prisoners be less helpless.
And for those of you who may go work for the prominent Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, perhaps charting a path to public office like Robert F. Kennedy, remember this: As a prosecutor, you’ll have profound discretion with charging defendants, which, in turn, will profoundly shape their lives. Also, try to realize that you’re seeing people come before you who’ve had few opportunities. (Admittedly, I had plenty but squandered them, which is why I have a lot of shame.) These people are at the worst point of their lives, having just done terrible things. As disgusted as you are with them, know that they are just as disgusted with themselves. You may not see it. But they are. Trust me.
Take Rothstein, who initially came to prison with a three-to-six-year sentence for a desperate robbery. From a medium-security prison, he filed a post-conviction motion on a technicality and won. Then the prosecutor refiled the charges and upped the ante on the plea. In another act of desperation, he squeezed out a courthouse bullpen window, jumped two stories to the street, and ran. He barely got a city block before two officers tackled him. Now he’s doing twelve years to life. In Attica.
For years I’ve been attending twelve-step meetings with Rothstein. He’s a performer who owns the stage—lots of emotion, lots of tears, lots of pain. One on one, he’s a manic close talker who sometimes uses words I don’t understand. He hits you with out-of-the-blue factual info. “You know, Harvard was originally called New College, in 1636,” Rothstein says. “This guy John Harvard died on his voyage to America and his library was discovered and went to the college. In 1638, it was named Harvard after him.” I don’t even know if this is true, but I think he shoves this kind of detail into conversations to seem smart. He is.
But I happen to know he’s overcompensating for what lies beneath. Shame. Shame about being poor and having no formal education, shame about being too light-skinned and growing up in Harlem, shame about his mom leaving him along to fend for himself and his siblings—he stole supper from supermarkets, snatched pocketbooks from pedestrians—while she was off doing drugs and turning tricks. This is his background. This is why a serious talk with Rothstein can suddenly turn to tears. He wants powerful people—like you all at Harvard—to want to help instead of hurt people like him with punishment. It’s just mercy he wants.
It’s what we all want.
John J. Lennon is serving a sentence of twenty-eight years to life, at Attica Correctional Facility. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Marshall Project, PEN America, the Albany Times Union, and Quartz Magazine. His website is johnjlennon.wordpress.com.
This essay is a co-publication with the Harvard Law Record. Read more from John Lennon: “The Murderer’s Mother” from THR’s summer issue and “The Murderer’s Reckoning: An Interview with John J. Lennon” on THR Blog.