Postcard — November 5, 2015, 8:00 am

In Solitary

For more than two decades, Willie Bosket spent twenty-three hours a day alone in a nine-by-six-foot cage.

Some might think social work is boring. It is not. I’ve worked with drug users for over ten years. Their tales are some of the funniest, most frightening, and most completely outrageous that I’ve ever heard. So it was with Corine, a gorgeous dead ringer for the androgynous queen of salsa, Celia Cruz.1 When I interviewed Corine in the fall of 2012, she was depressed and smoking crack cocaine. We were sitting in my dingy office in Harlem. Under harsh fluorescent lights, she recounted the glory days of partying with Motown superstars, playing mistress to a millionaire who put her up in a penthouse and plied her with a near-endless supply of crack, pot, and alcohol. She was a Barbie doll living in a pharmaceutical haze—until she got dumped and wound up in a single-room occupancy with a violent boyfriend and a ferocious crack habit. Eventually, she found her way to the day-treatment program where I was employed as a licensed clinical social worker. I asked the question I always ask: Will you tell me about your family?

1 Corine is a pseudonym

Corine told me her stepbrother was Willie Bosket, a man who, in 1978, at the age of fifteen, shot and killed two subway riders and later injured a New York City Transit employee. He was sentenced in family court to five years in prison. The events that followed would make Bosket’s case one of the best known throughout the city.

As former New York Times journalist Fox Butterfield detailed in 1995, in his best-selling book All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, the story of Willie Bosket exemplified the enduring effects of structural racism on five generations of Bosket men, from slavery up until Willie Bosket’s incarceration in the 1970s. After Bosket was sentenced, hysteria followed; New Yorkers were outraged that the maximum sentence a juvenile could receive for these two murders was five years. New York State responded by amending its sentencing laws to allow juveniles as young as thirteen to be tried as adults for murder. It was nicknamed the Willie Bosket Law.

After Bosket’s release, in 1983, a man in his apartment building accused him of robbery and assault, which Bosket denied. Nevertheless, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to seven years in prison. While incarcerated, he attempted to kill a guard and was sentenced to twenty-five years to life. He then stabbed another prison guard and was given an additional life sentence. Before solitary confinement became de rigueur in prisons across the country, Bosket was put in a specially built steel and Plexiglas cell equipped with video cameras that monitored him 24/7. Guards were instructed not to talk to him. For more than two decades at Woodbourne prison, he spent twenty-three hours a day alone in a nine-by-six-foot cage.2

2 Leading civil-rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Solitary Watch, believe that the use of solitary confinement can, and in many circumstances does, amount to torture. There are legislative efforts in several states such as California and New York to scale back or eliminate solitary confinement.

I wrote three letters to Bosket to request a visit but never received a reply. I wasn’t deterred. After reading Butterfield’s book, I had to meet the man who proclaimed, way back in 1984, “I don’t believe there is any such thing as a black man or a poor person getting a fair trial in America.”

It isn’t easy to visit Willie Bosket. The distance alone is discouraging. It’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive from New York City to Romulus, a small town of just over 4,000 residents that sits between Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake. Romulus is in Seneca County, where over 90 percent of people are white and roughly 5 percent are black; at Five Points Correctional Facility 57 percent of inmates are African American and 24 percent are Hispanic. The maximum-security prison is a final destination in the New York City prison pipeline, which has drained the black community of young men and provided employment for white men and women from communities hit hard by economic recession.

I didn’t make the trip alone. My friend Marilena accompanied me. She served as navigator, which was important because one of the most depressing things is to get lost in upstate New York, where the billboards say things like Jesus is coming.

We arrived at the prison around eleven o’clock. A guard waved us into the security checkpoint area. Marilena’s underwire bra set off the metal detector. She was handed a brown paper bag and ordered to go into the women’s restroom, take the bra off, put it in the bag, and come back out. The second time through no alarm went off. The officer then ordered Marilena to go into the men’s restroom and put the bra back on.

A correctional officer (C.O.) escorted us to the “no-contact” booth at the far end of the visiting area. The room was alive with voices and laughter and packed with family members and inmates sitting across from one another at tables arranged in long rows. Some were holding hands. A few of the couples were kissing. The prisoners, almost all of them black, were guarded by a group of white officers.

Once the C.O. put us inside the booth it became eerily quiet. A Plexiglas partition embedded with gray rhombus mesh chain link divided the space. There was a circular metal speakerphone in the center. We sat and wondered if Bosket would come out. Then a lone C.O. walked toward us. He told us that we arrived during “the count” and that Bosket wouldn’t be coming out for thirty minutes. I used the time to review what I knew about his life.

He was born in 1962 to a woman who did not want or love him and a father he never met, whose life was a series of unrelenting, sick, and violent tragedies that ended in a murder-suicide. Bosket’s family lived in extreme poverty and deprivation in Harlem. Rats chewed holes in the floorboards of his apartment, radiators exploded, the lights and heat were cut off. His mother, Laura, struggled with depression and boyfriends who battered her bloody. She frequently punched Bosket and whipped him with a belt. When Bosket was just starting school, he was hit by a car while playing hooky and suffered a traumatic brain injury. By the age of nine his grandfather had sexually abused and beat him. Trauma, violence, and punishment were the three constants in his life. He was widely quoted in the mainstream press boasting that he was “a monster created by the system.” 

Suddenly, Bosket was walking toward the booth with a C.O. on either side of him. They took the handcuffs off, opened the door, and ordered him to sit down. The door was locked, and the guards left. The first thing I noticed was how handsome he was. Long prison bids tend to prematurely age a person, but apparently not Bosket. His black hair was cut short, and he wore glasses and a crisp, dark green uniform. “Mr. Bosket,” I said, “thanks for coming out to see us. It’s great to finally meet you.” He couldn’t hear me through the speakerphone, and I got closer and shouted the words. His smile was beautiful. I asked him what a typical day was like, and he said it consisted mainly of two things: reading magazines and listening to music. Among his favorite publications were Cosmo and Elle. “I love beautiful women,” he confessed. He used to read dense political and legal texts, but now he has trouble concentrating, despite his near-genius I.Q. These days, he listens to Afropop, Brazilian, and gospel on the radio. His favorite show is Echoes, whose tagline is “music for the chillout of the night.”

[Transcript]

From a video interview with Fox Butterfield, the author of All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, published in 1995. The interview was conducted by Helen Redmond.

Willie said that the prison system itself should be on trial rather than him because he was created as a monster by the criminal justice system. And to a large extent it’s true. He was locked up in juvenile facilities at an early age. He spent most of his life in and out of various locked institutions. Although he did get counseling at one place or another, he had an extremely chaotic life. When he began to commit serious crimes, including shooting and killing people on the subway in Harlem, he was given a very long sentence. So in Willie’s eyes the criminal justice system had been his real parent.

I asked Bosket what he was thinking when he stabbed Earl Porter, a guard in the Shawangunk prison visiting room, in 1988. “I wanted to get the death penalty. I wanted to die rather than spend the rest of my life in prison.” Bosket tried to commit suicide soon after the attempted murder of Porter. He overdosed on medication but was resuscitated. “They won’t even let you die in here.” Asked how he copes with being incarcerated, Bosket said, “It’s all I’ve ever known. I’m not hostile anymore. I’ve grown up.” Bosket is now fifty-three years old.

Marilena told Bosket how she was forced to take a drug test by the Five Points prison staff. (If randomly selected, visitors must submit to an ion spectrometry drug test. Those who refuse are denied visitation.) Bosket was visibly upset. He apologized for the prison’s treatment of her and said, “That presumes you are guilty until proven innocent. That has to be unconstitutional.” Bosket had a shrewd, legal mind; he acted as his own attorney in an assault case in the past, and the jury dropped all the charges against him.

While we were talking, a steady stream of men, women, children, and inmates stood in the corridor next to our booth chatting and embracing, waiting to get their pictures taken. A C.O. stood nearby. The families posed in front of a cloth backdrop of a glittering Manhattan skyline, and the Click, Click Man, as prisoners called the photographer, snapped their photo with a Polaroid camera. Bosket was distracted by all the commotion and kept glancing over at them. I left the booth and asked the C.O. if we could take a picture with Bosket. “No, he can’t have photos taken,” the guard shouted. “He’s in the SHU!”

“He’s not in the SHU now,” I shouted back. The Click, Click Man looked over at me and shrugged.

Bosket was transferred from Woodbourne prison, his home for over two decades, to Five Points in September of 2014. “They came to my cell and told me I was leaving,” he said. “No explanation . . . the change was difficult. I had a routine. I knew all the guards.” This was the only time that I heard anger and resentment in his voice.

Bosket has no contact with family, and that is the way he wants it. Years ago, he told us, he asked his wife Sharon to stop sending letters and not to visit. “It serves no purpose,” he said. “I’m done. I’m never going to get out of prison.” He was concerned about Marilena and me visiting him because the trip was so long. “Is it a burden?” he asked. Apart from us, he’s had no visitors at Five Points aside from prison ministers, who, he said, “visit everyone.”

I wanted to know what Willie Bosket thought about the idea of redemption. I told him that I believed that there was too much focus on prisoners redeeming themselves and not enough on reparations to prisoners for all the harms that society and the criminal justice system perpetrated against them. Bosket had a different take. “I don’t believe in redemption. That’s a religious idea, and I’m not religious.” Instead, he wants to give back to society. “I want to save one or two kids from what happened to me.”

Bosket told me he had received my letters, but he didn’t have postage to send one back. He doesn’t have the money to buy a book of stamps in the commissary. I wrote that I lived in Harlem, just a block away from where he used to live, and I took the 3 train to work every day. It was the train he used to ride and rob passengers on. He said he missed the “real” corn bread that’s available in Harlem; in prison it is served with chili con carne and not very good. Bosket said that when he walked out to meet me he expected to see a black woman. “Because you live in Harlem,” he laughed. “Black people live in Harlem.”

How did I know so much about him? Bosket wanted to know. I said that besides reading Butterfield’s book I found information on the Internet. “What is the Internet?” he asked.

To be locked in solitary confinement is to become a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, buried in a time capsule. I explained what the Internet was. According to Bosket, his other Rip Van Winkle moment was when he saw a cell phone for the first time. It was during the drive from Woodbourne to Five Points last year. The correctional officers were using them. It was both baffling and exciting to him.

I asked Bosket what he thought of the Black Lives Matter movement. He hadn’t heard of it. I described to him how a protest movement had developed after police shot and killed unarmed black men: Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott, among many others. Bosket appeared surprised and said he wasn’t sure racism still existed.

A couple of times over the course of our three-hour meeting, Bosket veered off into monologues that appeared to be fixed delusions. He said the correctional officers were not “born from reproduction,” that they were some kind of robot. And he believed there were computers inside our bodies. This wasn’t surprising given how long Bosket has lived in almost total isolation. But what is remarkable is how sane he still is, that his memory is intact, he has a sense of humor, and he cares about the well-being of other people. “There is a deep crying from inside my heart,” he told us shortly before we left, “that never stops.”

We said good-bye to Bosket and made our way out of the prison. The visiting room was still noisy and packed with prisoners and their families. I looked back at Bosket, alone now in the booth, and I choked back tears. We walked fast down the long, dark corridor; a bright yellow line divided the cement floor. From the prison control room a female C.O. pushed a button, and a massive steel door with bars automatically glided open. Outside the prison, loops of razor wire concertina sparkled in the hot sun, and C.O.s smoked cigarettes and talked on their cell phones. Ensconced inside the stale-smelling rental car we broke down into loud sobs. But our crying came from a different place than Bosket’s. And eventually it stopped.

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