Anthony Reminisces About The Early Days Of Incarceration
I was, a fourteen year old kid in jail facing a murder charge without a lawyer. My parents scrounged up money and consulted with attorneys, while the state appointed a Public Defender (PD) to represent me named Lynn Ruess. Ms. Ruess had recently graduated law school. She was probably twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old, blond and (I must say), pretty, so I thought back then as a young caged man-child filled with restrained testosterone. Ms. Ruess demonstrated a lot of concern for me. She was worried – worried that on her hands was the “life” of a young child. And she didn’t hesitate to tell me just that.
I recall vividly one of the times I visited with Lynn. By the time of the visit, Lynn interviewed witnesses, took crime scene photos, retained an investigator – basically conducted a preliminary investigation into the facts of my case. Shortly after conducting the preliminary investigation she sat down with the prosecutor, Hope Whitehead, who was the Assistant Circuit Attorney of St. Louis city, and was prosecuting the case against me… a plea deal that left Lynn devastated. The best offer we got out of Ms. Whitehead was Life. Understandably, she felt embarrassed to be the bearer of that bad news. Nevertheless, it was her responsibility to inform me of the plea offer whether she liked it or not. That’s how it goes, but as a child, I did not understand that aspect of the law. She was just doing her job
“They offered you Life with the possibility of parole”, she said. “If you take the Life sentence you will have the “possibility” to have a parole hearing in 13 years and may be released in 15.” That was the plea bargain I was offered, a 14 year old kid. I had never been disciplined in Juvenile before; didn’t have a history of violence; and, frankly, though every homicide is a “tragedy”, I had not been accused of committing an extremely heinous crime. Nevertheless, that was the offer: Life.
So, almost immediately my affections changed for Ms. Ruess. In my mind from that point onward, Ms. Ruess was in my mind like all of the other Public Defenders: Sell -Outs! The perception in jail and prison is, all Public Defenders work for and with the State. That is what you are indoctrinated with coming through the door and regretfully so. Now, after gaining a working knowledge of the law I understand that just like there are good doctors and bad doctors, good mechanics and bad mechanics, good writers and bad writers, good beauticians and bad beauticians, so there are good and bad lawyers alike. Guys in the system who do not understand how the system works miss this. They are under the misconception that “all” Public Defenders are sell-outs and working with the state to convict and condemn them. “That’s who pay their checks, right?” guys would reason. “Man, don’t go to trial with a PD, you’ll get railroaded!” That’s classic prison talk.
I know this because I studied a lot of appellate briefs when I was in prison and I reviewed hundreds of trial transcripts. That’s how we learned in there. We mocked what the good attorneys did and we shunned the bad attorneys. Attorney talk and who got the latest denial and/or reversal was everyday gossip. I grew to understand that the difference between a Public Defender and a Private Defender (e.g., lawyer) is simple, one is in business for himself or employed by a fellow attorney. That is it. You should not assume anything especially when it relates to something so serious as retaining an attorney to represent you against a criminal charge!
To get the point of how difficult it is to fix a case once a bad lawyer screws it up, just think about this: It is easier to fix dental or medical malpractice, a car screwed up by a bad mechanic, to fix damaged hair… than it is to correct a wrongful conviction. I want criminal defendants to get this; criminal convictions – a conviction obtained by a jury of your peers or a guilty plea are almost impossible to reverse. “Anthony, you need to find a way to work with criminal defendants before they are convicted”, an attorney friend suggested recently during a conversation. “It is simply too difficult to fix something somebody else screwed up. I like to get a case at the onset when a case starts off with two pieces of paper.” I had never thought of a case being developed in that way because when you’re incarcerated and you are represented by “deficient” attorneys, you aren’t afforded the opportunity to witness your case develop from two pieces of paper. You will be lucky, in some instances if you have a bad lawyer, to receive anything filed on your case in a timely manner.
After I was offered Life and convinced my PD was selling me out I started to frequent the law library at the Workhouse, a Medium Security Jail located in St. Louis city. I would bombard the law clerks with questions. Ultimately, one of the clerks who is still currently incarcerated at the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, Missouri agreed to tutor me. At fourteen years old I started to learn about the system. He started by explaining to me how the American polity functioned. Taught me the difference between local, regional and national government. Taught me the difference between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of Government, and how law was interrelated with politics. Time passed and we developed a comradeship. We became cell-mates, worked out together, dined in the Chow Hall together, rec’d together, watched each other’s back, but most significantly, we studied and analyzed law and politics together frequently.
Back in the day we called it “rotating”. Rotating was when we would gather together inside of the dorm area in a particular Housing Unit and kick around knowledge. Those rotations were like Think Tanks to us. We took them extremely serious, because in fact, if you misinterpreted a rule, a statute or deadline you would suffer some very real consequences. That was our reality – the prisoners who took a interest into the law and their legal pleadings. So, we didn’t play! Now that I have been inside of law schools and learned how law students are taught, I must say in all honest our rotations were a lot similar. Though, our instructional manuals were copies of legal treatises we obtained from the law library and law books we ordered from various legal publications providing services to indigent prisoners and detainees.
The old-timers would often urge us youngsters to, “Make this penitentiary your University. Read. Learn everything you can. Educate yourself like Elijah Muhammad, Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X and George Jackson did when they were serving time… they were no different than you or me”, they’d tell us. They would also dump (educational) books on us and encourage us to read. Sometimes they’d even give you an “assignment” or make you write a book report. “You need to stay in that law library and stay on top of your case if you ever hope to see the streets again”, Anthony was told. “I am not going to do it for you. I will help you but only you know your case. You have to get into those books and try to figure things out because it is your life at stake, not mine.”
I recall being laughed at and mocked for listening to the older-heads rather than doing what “everybody” else was doing which was waiting around for their appointed or paid attorneys to contest their convictions for them. But, I must say, I am so grateful to those brothers for getting me on track because it is so easy to become “lost” in the prison system. “Consumed” in it — institutionalization is real! Many prisoners just give in because the stress of appealing their convictions wrongful or otherwise simply becomes too much to bear.
So, during my early days I hung (mostly) around prisoner rights activist and law clerks. It just happened that way, I believe, by me being so young when I entered the system — those prisoners, the “good” brothers as they were called, ingratiated themselves to me because in many of their eyes, I could have been their 14 year old kid. They felt an obligation to protect me and guide me.
Often, the prisoners my age made fun of me calling me a “revolutionary” and other names. The prisoners I hung around were very active politically. We protested the Death Penalty. When executions would take place at Potosi they were always on Wednesdays at midnight and for dinner on Tuesday the prison administrators would have a party in the prison for the staff and they would offer us our favorite food, “fried chicken”. And they would also go out and purchased DVD’s and show movies all of Tuesday and Wednesday, we believed in honor of another execution.
Our way of protesting the Death Penalty, of losing another one of our number was to not eat at the dining hall on Execution Day. As much as we craved that fried chicken — the best food the prison served — we weren’t going, and we would be urging other prisoners to also boycott the dining hall. When prisoners complained of not having food, we provided food, but we were determined not to participate in the execution party. And we never did. That was a policy of the “good” brothers. We also organized Hunger Strikes, work stoppages, passed out literature, and most significantly, we defended fellow inmates against “gestapo” attacks by the prison guards and “predatory” prisoners. That was our vocation back then. Our way of clinging to our humanity. Our logic was we wanted to give youngsters a chance entering the system. I got a chance so I wanted others to get a chance to survive incarceration as well.
The early days of my journey were all about survival. Learning how to make it inside of the walls; learning how to “jail” as the prisoners say, and trying not to become consumed in prison life like so many others had before me. During the early days I received a great deal of conduct violations because I had trouble learning the ropes, but I made it. And the reality is that either you will learn the easy way or the hard way. Just as it is in society so it is with the prison system; you have to learn the culture, customs and mannerisms of the people and the environment if you wish to survive incarceration.
by Anthony Williams, Founder & Director, MO PAC, LLC