My Life in Crime
Updated: May 6, 2019
My Life in Crime
By Michael A. Kroll
When Governor Gavin Newsom pulled the plug on California’s chamber of death – at least for as long as he remains Governor – I wrote a brief reaction, which I posted on Facebook (and which is quoted below).
My friend and colleague for more than 20 years, David Inocencio, saw that post, and asked if I could write something for The Beat Within about my path to this point. (I’m sure I’ve given him more than he had in mind, but when my pen hits paper, it has a mind of its own.)
In 1996, David was a social worker in the “maximum” boys’ unit at San Francisco juvenile hall. Following the assassination of rapper Tupac Shakur, he saw the raw grief and anger on the faces of the young men locked up there, and decided they needed an outlet for their emotions, a way to express what they were going through. He looked for, and found, some modest funding and a spot in a larger non-profit, Pacific News Service, and The Beat Within was born.
At the time, I worked as a writer for the same non-profit. My long career as a writer/journalist focused almost entirely on our criminal “in”justice system, and David and I shared a passion to tell the stories of those so casually cast aside, as if they are not equally human, as if “there but for grace go I” does not apply. So, when he asked me if I’d be interested in doing writing workshops in juvenile hall, I didn’t hesitate.
After launching The Beat in San Francisco, the Probation Department of Alameda County asked if they, too, could have a writing program there. David and I conducted the first such workshop in the San Leandro juvenile lock-up. On that first day, a 15-year-old boy in the front row challenged almost everything I thought I knew about the juvenile system.
Knowing I would “fail” his exam, he began. “Do you believe a juvenile can have his picture in the newspaper and identified as a criminal?”
“No, I don’t think…”
“Wrong!” he exclaimed, pointing an accusing finger at me, before continuing.
“Do you think a kid can be ID’d as a public enemy on television with his picture?”
“I really don’t think…”
And so it went. He and I have been corresponding now for the past 23 years, he sometimes writing from the bedside of one or another dying prisoner whom he cares for in the prison hospice. The New York Times did a story featuring him and his fellow angels of mercy at the Solano State Prison in Vacaville. That is where he is serving, literally, the long prison sentence he received for a crime he committed when he was 14 years old. He is just one of so many young people who have found, through writing, their common humanity, and whom I have watched grow from child to adult.
I have been with the Beat Within, though not always directly, for all of those 23 years. More accurately, The Beat Within has been with me for all those years, and I – like Beat writers before and after me – appreciate the space I have been offered to express myself, the very essence of The Beat’s simple genius.
I have done many things in my long life, from my first arrest during Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in 1964 (followed by many other arrests for political protest), to teaching English in exotic places like Malaysia and Japan, and not so exotic places, like East Los Angeles, New Orleans and Atlanta. My life-long opposition to the death penalty, based largely on my sense of personal responsibility, has put me on many different paths, and taken me to many different places and positions, all of which I am proud to claim. But being a part of The Beat Within makes me as proud as anything I have ever done.
My Life in Crime
I don’t know which I hate more, the fact that many states still execute their citizens, or the fact that so many of us still want it to happen. Whatever that might tell us about ourselves as a society, or even as human beings, I have spent a significant portion of my life opposing capital punishment.
That opposition, I am sure, began early, as I was coming of age in the 1950s when California’s gas chamber was a regular feature of what we call our “justice” system. At dinner-table talk, those real executions at San Quentin elicited expressions of repugnance by my entire family, each in our own way. My way focused on the phrase, “The People of California vs.” the condemned. I was then and am now one of “the people of California,” and therefore could not evade my own responsibility for this deliberate taking of a human life.
When I am asked, as I often am, if this or that defendant “has a right to live,” I hear a different question: Do I have a right to kill? The only moral answer I have for that question is, no, I do not have that right.
That moral sense of personal responsibility has taken me from letters-to-the-editor in my teen years, to writer and award-winning journalist in adulthood, to directorships of national organizations, to investigative mitigation work in individual capital cases, to direct action, sometimes leading me to jail – and always back to pen and paper.
There are numerous milestones in these efforts that mark my life’s journey. (Lest anyone misunderstand, I have no intentions of stopping that journey. Although I’m closing in on – gasp – 76 years, I am as eager as ever to know what lies around the next corner.)
First and foremost, I have been writing for decades about criminal justice in all its manifestations: the juvenile system, and what we do with and to kids in juvenile detention; the adult system with its overreliance on incarceration, and how little we do to prepare those we imprison for successful lives afterwards; the death penalty and all the issues that affect and infect every aspect of it, from its inherent racism, to its ineffectiveness as a deterrent, to the inevitable mistakes that are part of every human endeavor, to its crushing costs, to its classist application (“Them without the capital get the punishment,” the slogan goes; the recently exposed scandal of the rich and famous buying their children access into the best universities in the country is the other side of the same coin).
And there is yet another aspect of the death penalty that hardly gets mentioned at all, and that is how it tears at the wounds of families of victims, who suffer through a seemingly endless process during which, on multiple occasions, their wounds are picked at, prodded for maximum effect, and opened over and over again.
But, of course, it is not an endless process. It has an end.
In 1992, after a 25-year hiatus dictated by state and Supreme Court decisions, California again put its machinery of death, the gas chamber, to use. For me, this was a huge political setback, of course, but it was also a personal tragedy. The condemned prisoner who had reached the end of his legal lifeline happened to be a man I had been visiting for a decade, a man I liked, a friend – though he had been convicted of killing two teenage boys to steal their car and rob a bank. Robert Harris, I had learned through those years, had a tortured childhood, suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, had been abandoned by his family before adolescence, was sexually abused as an eleven-year-old in juvenile detention, and so forth. Tragically, these same qualities define the lives of so many I’ve met on death row, both before and after, complicated by generational issues of mental illness, educational and developmental deficiencies, drug abuse, and the ravages of poverty.
Robert asked me to witness his execution. I certainly did not want that experience. But, at the same time, I knew I had to be there, so that there would be someone in that witness area who cared for him, who was not there to celebrate his death. It was, perhaps, the most excruciating experience of my life. It lasted all night as one court after another entered stays of execution, while higher courts knocked them down, one after another.
Ultimately, my friend was strapped into the gas chamber, and then unstrapped and taken back out, as yet another court issued yet another stay. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an unprecedented order to all lower courts to stand down, announcing that they would tolerate no further stays of execution. Prison guards went into high gear, and very quickly brought Robert back into the chamber and administered the cyanide gas. For 16 minutes, my friend gasped for air like a fish out of water, until his heart finally stopped. California was back in the killing business. (I described this horror in a piece that The Nation magazine published on its front page on July 6, 1992; “The Unquiet Death of Robert Harris” is on my web site at: www.michael-a-kroll.com.)
An award-winning documentary, “Procedure 769,” which features witnesses to this state homicide (including victim family members, state actors, and, of course, me) is a fascinating look into how we bring our own biases to bear to such moments, how what we see is colored by who we are.
At that time, I was the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) in Washington, D.C. The organization had been founded two years earlier, with funding from the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation, and with me as its first director. But after witnessing my friend’s execution, I was immobilized for some time, unable to focus, unable to work, and so I resigned. However, DPIC remains the pre-eminent non-profit in the country dispensing accurate information about the death penalty, the indispensible go-to site for media doing stories on capital punishment, and I am proud of my work as its founding director.
I returned to California to continue my professional writing career. I was getting published in newspapers and magazines across the country, a way of continuing my efforts toward abolition and criminal justice reform. Along the way, I had the great privilege of meeting and working with some of the most dedicated and decent people I have ever known. Some were lawyers. Some were writers. Some were activists. Some were victims. And some were prisoners. One of my first reactions to Governor Newsom’s act of political courage was sadness that so many of them have not lived long enough to experience this moment. Here is what I posted on Facebook:
I once met professed death penalty opponent, former Governor Jerry Brown, at a party between his two stints as governor. I approached him and asked this question: “As one abolitionist to another, what would you recommend as the best path towards that goal?” To which he replied, “Forget it!” and turned his back and walked away.
Now, he has an example in his successor of real political courage, which Brown could not bring himself to exercise. Governor Gavin Newsom, who presided over the first same-sex marriages in the country BEFORE the Supreme Court barred states from prohibiting this right, has now done it again. He has granted a reprieve for nearly 750 men and women under sentence of death on California, announced a moratorium on the death penalty, and closed the horror chamber where so many have been strapped down and killed.
Today, I shed tears for those whom I have loved who dedicated their lives to ending the barbarity of human sacrifices under law, but who did not live long enough to see this day. I thought that I would join them before seeing it myself, but, mercifully, I was wrong.
The struggle is not over. The death penalty is still the law in this so-called progressive state, and, of course, is still practiced in many others. But, for today, at least, I can, again, appreciate what can happen in American politics when principle is coupled with courage.
And so, unexpectedly, the Governor has given me hope for the future. But he is not the only source of that hope. My ongoing work with The Beat Within provides a powerful source of hope. I work with young people in juvenile hall who, like all teenagers, are struggling to define themselves, to maneuver their way through the violent reality of so much of their lives, unable to see a way forward.
Sometimes, you want to shake a child into a grown-up’s sense of reality, a recognition that their lives matter, that they can steer away from the choices that lead them to locked facilities. You want them to see where they are heading and have them make rational choices to move in a different direction. But, of course, they are still thinking like children, and shaking them cannot move them into adulthood. And yet, even then, there are sparks of brilliance and silent prayers that they will survive both their debased neighborhoods and our debased criminal justice responses.
At the other end of the spectrum, I meet with men consigned to prison for decades for crimes they committed as juveniles, and from them, I get inspiration. They have used their time to examine their lives, to understand themselves, to overcome childhood abuse and neglect, to be better human beings. I wish everyone could have the experience of spending two hours listening to these men sharing their self-revelations, their unfolding wisdom. The hours I spend with them are among the most rewarding I have. They are my hopeful example of what is possible.
And then there are the men and women I meet in county jail, some still struggling with their juvenile thinking, others moving into a more thoughtful maturity, and some who have faced themselves and their demons squarely, and are ready to take their places in society as positive, contributing citizens. It is a process, and one that I am honored to be able to witness all along its trajectory.
I see men in San Quentin State Prison who continue to examine their own lives, who ask profound questions about themselves and the world, and who, through that process, and the universal process of physical and mental maturity, grow and change; alongside these men, I see the boys and girls in juvenile detention, the place where most adult prisoners began their incarcerated lives , and the opportunity to see both, side-by-side, leaves me at once sad and buoyed at the same time.
I am sad because there is really nothing new to learn about the general failure of our system of corrections to correct. That requires individual commitment, a desire to change, and the willingness to make difficult decisions in one’s life. The impoverished social conditions, the poor educational opportunities, the easy access to guns and their glorification in video games, TV shows and the movies – and their appeal to young boys – continue to be the world in which too many of our children grow up. The generational patterns of incarceration, fathers and sons and the occasional mother and daughter, are the reasons why a certain class of people – overwhelmingly poor and black and brown – are so over-represented in our prisons and jails and juvenile lock-ups.
This is the true national emergency!
But, at the same time, I am buoyed by what can happen, by what is possible, even in a system that fails more often that it succeeds. I conducted a workshop in a county juvenile hall last week in which a young girl wrote: “You cannot drown your demons; they know how to swim.” That profound and self-aware observation in one so young gives me hope. I am constantly reminded by men and women in blue (state prison), men and women in orange (county jail), and boys and girls in green and purple and beige (juvenile hall) how much talent we sweep behind walls, as if it were dirt under a rug, as if putting it out of sight and mind will somehow protect us “good people” from the rotting conditions we have allowed to fester.
The system grinds many young people into bits and pieces, and often continues to grind them well into adulthood. Some will never escape the destructive after-effects. But some, through the alchemy of self-reflection (often through writing), go through a magical process that leads them to become some of the people I treasure the most, and knowing them is one of the great pleasures of my life – a pleasure often accompanied by tears.
My final observation, given the prompt of Governor Newsom’s ending the death penalty in California, even if only temporarily, is this: when we allow our flawed government to exercise its awesome power to kill, then all other penalties appear merciful by comparison. But sending any human being – boy or girl, man or woman – to prison is not an act of mercy. Yet, mercy can be found there. It has been one of the great privileges of my life that I have been witness to