Any expectation that after two stints in jail, my older brother had left his violent criminal behavior behind him were for naught in May 1959.
Late in 1958, Calvin’s second wife executed a carefully choreographed plan and left him for parts unknown because of his long–term abuse. She and I had had a close relationship, and I never for a millisecond doubted her when she finally told me about his abusive behavior. Like so many such victims, she had kept his abuse to herself for many years.
In the early evening of Saturday, May 31, 1959, Calvin burst into her brother’s home and murdered him, shooting him six times before his mother, wife, and child. We never learned specifically what had motivated this horrific killing. Calvin was seriously wounded by the police in the course of his arrest, survived and was tried convicted, and sentenced to 40 years to life imprisonment. The sentence was reduced on appeal to 20 years to life, almost all of which was served at the notorious Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
Like everyone else in our families, I was devastated by the horrific nature of Calvin’s crime, a classic rage killing. Why? No matter. He was no longer my heroic, ten-foot-tall brother who bounded up our stairs, returning home from World War II. Clearly, he was a deeply disturbed and violent person.
In the years that followed, I dutifully wrote and periodically visited Calvin, accompanied by Ma and Eleanor. Dad couldn’t steel himself to visit his imprisoned first–born son. One day, when I pressed Dad to accompany me on a “male bonding” trip to visit Calvin, my stoic dad declined saying, “If I do, I’ll cry.” I understood and never raised the issue again. He did regularly write Calvin and send him money for his prison commissary account.
Eventually, I became Calvin’s lifeline to the outside world, but more on that later.
IT SEEMED LIKE THE DREAM JOB
I compartmentalized Calvin’s imprisonment and moved on with my life. My focus was my family, my career, and my increasing immersion in the civil rights movement and community action.
Taking a break from the emotional stress of the State Training School, I had accepted a position as a psychiatric social worker at the Veterans Administration Out-Patient Clinic in Brooklyn, New York. My colleagues were generally bright and collegial, and we had the resources to provide first-class mental health services, primarily to long–term, chronically mentally ill World War II vets.
But I missed the rewards of working with young people. I learned in about 1962, that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was opening three of the country’s first halfway houses, called the Pre-Release Guidance Centers, for federal youthful offenders (ages 18 – 21). Its mission was to facilitate the re-entry of federal youthful offenders into the community. The Brooklyn PRGC had been contracted out to Springfield College in Massachusetts.
The innovative nature of the PRGC, my experience in aftercare work with juvenile offenders, and the challenge of administrative leadership duties combined to make the position seem like a dream job for me. I was excited when I was offered the assistant director’s position.
Our residents were first-time, nonviolent, young offenders. Most were convicted for either transporting stolen cars across state lines or stealing federal checks (usually to purchase drugs).
The unusual circumstance which led to the conviction of one of our charges stays with me to this day. I never figured out how he had managed to steal a huge, unattended Greyhound bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan and drive it all the way to Iowa before he was apprehended; he fell asleep and crashed the bus into a ditch. Go figure.
The vast majority of our residents were white. They had been carefully evaluated beforehand, to assess their likelihood of benefiting from the program. I wondered about the relatively few Black kids referred to the PRGC. I suspected that their numbers were not like their percentage in the sending federal facility and asked the question, but never received a direct answer from the BOP coordinator.
Despite my initial optimism, the PRGC wasn’t a good fit for me. Its counseling staff was all white, recent Springfield College grads, who had never lived in a large ethnically diverse urban area, and had no prior experience working with troubled young people. They would never have been hired for such a position if they had been New York City.
We had fundamental differences about counselling our population. My approach was to try to learn the roots of each young man’s problems and try to help him see patterns that he might wish to avoid in the future. Their approach was a one-size-fits-all approach — engage them in sports (Springfield College focused on recreation) — and encourage them to express their anger both on the basketball court and in counselling sessions.
Those differences were irreconcilable. The director, Black, like me, was a Springfield grad, too. His attitude of resignation to our differences in approach and his inaction aggravated the situation.
My breaking point came when one counselor casually told me that he didn’t care what I said, adding, “I’m going to challenge you every step of the way.” The absurdity of his statement to me, second in charge of the PRGC, was almost unbelievable. But, as a Black man, I understood exactly what was going on; it was still another manifestation of white privilege.
These young white guys, as a result of their limited life experiences and education, plus their mutual reinforcement, were locked into a pattern of conduct from which they couldn’t deviate. Our director posed no threat to their status quo. I did, because I was supposedly their immediate supervisor, Black, and an agent of change.
That counselor’s promise to challenge me every step of the way, was about much more than our professional differences. He had to be intransigent. He was fighting to preserve his privileged caste position. Today, he probably yearns to “Make America Great Again.”
Only two of our charges failed to complete our program successfully. They relapsed and committed new crimes. Personally, however, other than being part of an apparently effective and historic program and meeting Bobby Kennedy, then the U.S. Attorney General, when he visited the halfway house, I have few good personal memories about my tenure there.
Today, such halfway houses are commonplace throughout the corrections field.
MAKING A REAL DIFFERENCE
One of New York’s few private treatment centers available to troubled Black kids was the Wiltwyck School for Boys in upstate Esopus, New York. With former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as one its key patrons, the Wiltwyck School provided comprehensive residential, therapeutic, and educational services. An Academy Award documentary film, “The Quiet One” and Claude Brown’s critically acclaimed book, “Manchild in the Promised Land, document the wonderful story of the Wiltwyck School.
Wiltwyck had opened a relatively well-funded and staffed halfway house, named after one of its alumni, the former world heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson. Patterson House was situated in a twin East Side brownstone building and accommodated 25 kids, almost all of whom were Black or Puerto Rican. I applied for and was hired as its assistant director.
The instant you entered Patterson House, you were in a totally therapeutic environment. It was warm and welcoming. Everyone, from the maintenance staff to the director, was screened to be sure he or she had a child–centered approach to their work. It wasn’t enough to be a skilled clinician or janitor. You had to like kids, respect them, and be open to share any differences with others in a healthy manner.
Family therapy, under the leadership of the nationally acclaimed psychiatrist, Dr. Salvatore Minuchin was a central part of the program. Sal, an Argentinian, had lived under and actively resisted his country’s dictator, Juan Peron, and supported my emerging social activism.
We never missed the opportunity to make a teaching point out of an untoward incident with a child. For example, I became the self-appointed, after–school greeter. In addition to my operational responsibilities, I’d usually stand by the front door as kids returned from school and ask warmly, “So what did you learn today?” They knew what I was talking about. Not reading, writing, and arithmetic, but feelings. Sometimes, it was about a child getting angry, but telling the person why, rather than striking out. Sometimes, it was about not handling his anger well. I would always find time to talk with the child about what and how it happened. I made it a teaching opportunity.
One-way mirrors are often associated with spying on people. Not so at Patterson House. We used one-way mirrors therapeutically. Everyone – parents, kids, and others –– knew we used them. Occasionally, while observing a therapy session with a child and his family, we would see something of significance, walk into the room, invite a parent or child to join us behind the mirror, and then discuss the relevant matter. Behind the mirror, the parent or child would hopefully recognize that the observer can see more than the participant.
ALL IN FOR JUSTICE
Meanwhile, I was becoming increasingly involved in community action and civil rights activities. I became an advocate for integration. I joined picket lines and became active in the American Orthopsychiatric Association (Ortho), a liberal interdisciplinary mental health organization focused on human behavior and social change. I also joined other activists in the Social Workers for Civil Rights Action. One of our members, Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, was one of the three civil rights workers brutally killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1965.
I’m not sure how or when, but I cautiously began to wonder about the feasibility of taking a few of our Patterson House residents with me on picketing activities. It was shortly after the North Carolina AT&T students lunch counter sit-ins at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Soon Woolworth stores were being picketed nationally, pressuring its corporate headquarters to desegregate its lunch counters. Nearby Patterson House, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and others were picketing our local Woolworth’s store.
When I announced my intention to participate in the Woolworth demonstrations, a few, and then almost all of the kids wanted to join me. After consultation, we gave them the green light. Once the picketing was over for the day, we met with our newly-discovered demonstrators and found that they felt empowered by their participation. They felt better about themselves, enjoyed the camaraderie of others on the picket line, and had channeled their anger constructively. Eventually, Woolworth gave in to nationwide pressure and desegregated its lunch counters.
In the academic world, subjecting one’s observations and findings to peer review through publishing or a presentation at a conference is the true test of scholarship. I shared the findings that grew out of allowing the Patterson House boys to help picket Woolworth at Ortho’s annual conference in San Francisco. I was pleased that my observations and tentative conclusions were well received.
MORE “GOOD TROUBLE”
At home, nearby Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, I took on a leadership role in our neighborhood community association. We were outraged to learn that the owners of a local supermarket intended to open an adjoining liquor store. We knew it would be one too many liquor stores in our neighborhood and tried to negotiate with the owners. When negotiations collapsed, we picketed the supermarket beginning just before a weekend. We were pleasantly surprised when unionized delivery men refused to cross our picket lines. Once we shut the supermarket down for the entire weekend, we were able to negotiate a settlement – a laundry instead of a liquor store.
Flushed with the exuberance of our success, afterward I said to the supermarket’s attorney, “I guess you never expected us to act up like this, did you?” His reply, “Honestly, we never thought about you.” It stung me, at first. But then I realized that if he was as smart as I thought he was, he’d think about us and other like-minded people in the future. Power to the people!
With only 24 hours in a day, the combination of my full–time job and increasing involvement in professional and civil rights activities meant less time for what should have been my first consideration – family. By now, the stresses in my first marriage were showing.
Visiting Calvin at the Attica penitentiary, accompanied by Ma and Eleanor, became a family expectation. It was a 400–mile, 8-hour drive from Brooklyn, in rural upstate western New York, near Buffalo. It was difficult for me both physically and emotionally. I did all the driving since neither Ma nor Eleanor knew how to drive. It was an all-night trip. We’d leave Brooklyn at about 11 p.m. to drive almost the entire trip on the dark and monotonous New York State Thruway.
We were exhausted and bleary-eyed when we reached the small town of Attica at about 8 a.m. Looking for the prison, we were directed along a winding, pastoral, country road. Then – suddenly – out of the blue, there it was: the Big House. It was like a concrete monster rolling out of the ground. It took my breath away.
Just like in the movies, Attica prison is bounded by a thirty-foot concrete wall with strategically placed guard towers and a single entrance. It was terrifying to us, notwithstanding its pristine, perfectly manicured landscaping and spacious, almost empty visitors parking area. This was real. This was prison. It was a shock.
We hadn’t given much thought about what to expect, but once confronted with the place, we sucked up our shock and approached the entryway. There, a bland uniformed guard went through the routine of taking our names, checking our identification, and ensuring we were on Calvin’s visitor’s list – relatives only.
We were then directed to a sally port. If you’ve never been in one, take my word –– don’t. It’s scary. A sally port is a secure, controlled entryway to a prison or fort; at Attica it was used to get into the main visiting building. It consisted of four fixed steel walls with access to the steel “room” only by front and rear doors; a guard, positioned overhead, monitored the sally port. One door doesn’t open until its twin has closed, confining you in the steel room for a few long, long minutes. The harsh, metallic sound of the door as it slams gives meaning to the term, “slammer.” You can’t describe that sound, but you know it when you hear it. And you don’t forget it.
Eventually, amid internal bureaucratic delays and security, we saw Calvin. He was cheerful and nicely dressed in a white shirt and slacks. Inwardly, I was troubled by his “pimp” walk. It’s a “don’t mess with me” swagger, imperative for survival in the joint. We were separated from Calvin by a heavy wire mesh screen, with openings only wide enough to barely touch him with two fingers. A stern uniformed guard sat at an elevated desk, watching for any exchange of contraband or other prohibited activities. After too-short a time, he shouted, “Five minutes” left in the visit. Then, “Times up,” ending our visit.
Time passed all too quickly. We talked about everything under the sun with Calvin, except the dinosaur in the living room — his killing of his brother-in-law. What was there to say? By now, Calvin had taught me not to expect any remorse from him.
I could barely keep my burning eyes open when we left to return home. Other than remarking that he looked well, there seemed little for us to say, beyond small talk, as we drove the 400 miles again. Oh, yes. I once got a speeding ticket just outside of Syracuse. I was so tired, it didn’t really matter.
After dropping off Ma and Eleanor at their respective homes, I reached my own home, and bed, at about 2 a.m. It was 27 hours since we had left home the night before. No sleep. All of that for a total of about three hours face-to-face with my brother. The rest of the time, was spent driving and waiting.
And that’s the way our yearly visits with my incarcerated brother went for about ten years. By then, Ma and Eleanor had relocated to Los Angeles, California and I had the job perks to fly to and from Buffalo, New York, rent a car, drive to Attica, visit and return home – all in a single work day. ,
Looking back, I realize the extent to which the families of inmates are also victimized by their crimes. The empty visitors parking lot spoke volumes. My family had the luxury of personal transportation. What about the time, cost and inconvenience of those who don’t? What about the children left behind? Does the impact of these negatives outweigh the employment benefits to these small, rural, almost entirely white towns? It’s another one of the inhuman aspec our corrections industry.
A PAINFUL DECISION
President Lyndon B. Johnson spearheaded the Congressional approval of his War on Poverty, a blanket name for several major pieces of federal anti-poverty legislation. A central feature was the establishment of local community action programs with “maximum feasible participation of the poor” to improve their local communities. A number of these “poor” people, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, eventually became local and national leaders.
It was a painful decision to leave Wiltwyck’s Floyd Patterson House. After all, it was the most rewarding position of my social work career. But I knew that these kids were returning from our program to their impoverished, politically neutered communities.
This was my chance to be a full-time agent of systemic change. It was a no-brainer to accept an offer to serve the Brownsville (Brooklyn) and then Long Island City (Queens) communities as executive director of the federally-funded Community Progress Center. We had a $1.3 million annual budget – real money then and now.
I was being paid to do what I had wanted to do since my undergraduate days at Howard University ten years earlier.
Tags: Attica Prison, community activism, Patterson House, Wiltwyck School
Next. 20. Servant Leadership
© 2020. Lloyd A. Johnson. All rights reserved.