An Interview with John Booth-El Prisoner #170-921 Death Row

An Interview with John Booth-El Prisoner #170-921 Death Row

AH/ NP: We figure that you were convicted in 1983. What was the political atmosphere at this time? 

JB: The political atmosphere at the time of my arrest, trial and conviction was a racially charged one. I was a poor uneducated African- American charged with the murder and robbery of an elderly Jewish couple during an alleged home invasion. During the trial itself, it was proffered by the assistant State’s attorneys, (there were four of them who prosecuted me), that only one of the victims had actually died by my hands, and for that person, the State would be seeking the death penalty. The transitory aspects of the decision by Mr.Schmoke (an African-American) in seeking the ultimate punishment against another person of African descent held an abundance of potentialities for him with regard to his future aspirations for success in a white male dominated society. It is unequivocally clear that the decision to seek the death penalty against me played a major role in Mr. Schmoke’s ability to cull votes. My life for all intents and purposes, was sacrificed at the altar of political ambitiousness. 

AH/NP: You have mentioned that the prison is a “microcosm of society” and functions as a “compass of the larger problems which exist in the outside communities”. Could you elaborate on the dialectic between outside and inside? 

JB: The correlation of ideals that exist in an external, objective outside community, and the society behind the walls of a prison are interchangeable. They both involve the thinking and working towards an alternative future consisting of the same goals. The only difference is that one is considered a daydream and the other an aspiration. The ability to actualize the objective is however, influenced and in some instances completely controlled by the same entity; i.e., a system that is sustained by class and race. Dialectical thinking is for the most part an acute consciousness of the inner nature of things no matter how many masks are used to alter its real face. 

The same flawed domestic policies that are so much a part of what is wrong in our society, also impact adversely on prison policies and regulations. When inflationary trends impact the larger economy, outside of the prison walls, we feel its repercussions also. When the costs of basic commodities goes up it impacts adversely on the number of visits we receive from family and friends, the quality of the meals that are served, everything from collect phone calls etc. Even the quality of medical services takes a back seat to fiscal constraints. 

Recidivism unfortunately becomes the order of the day because there simply are no programs that guarantee job placement for ex-offenders once they are released from prison. 

Finally, once it is shown how racism has saturated the present fabric of all levels of our government and the ensuing programs that have been erected by mendacious politicians, the concept of fascism comes to mind. Indeed, fascism can be broadly defined as a police state wherein the political ascendancy is connected or fused into and protects the social, economic, and political interest of the upper class. It is characterized by militarism, (we see police conducting paramilitary maneuvers in the arrests of poor people in this country everyday), racism, (which we have already conceded, shapes the policy of most of our social institutions), and imperialism, (which our government is currently engaged in). 

AH/NP: In the 23 yrs that you have been in prison, how has prison organizing developed or changed? 

 

JB: In the 23 years that I have been buried in this steel and concrete tomb, I have seen the state’s penological objective for long term offenders change from one which tolerated rehabilitative programs within the institutions, and a light at the end of the tunnel; to the current warehousing of human beings with no light at the end of the tunnel. This change more than anything else is the root cause of an escalation of violence behind prison walls. The violence is the result of overcrowding, feelings of frustration, self-depreciation, helplessness, boredom, and desperation. Racism is probably no more profoundly demonstrated than in the history of slavery in America. 

 

As if destroying a native people and culture was not enough, the African peoples were then brought to this country in chains, after being stolen from another continent. What makes this act of racism even more egregious is the fact that many slave owners professed that slavery was morally correct because certain biblical passages (Genesis 9:25 – 26) were used to support the institution of slavery. 

Not only was the African person abducted and placed into a ship too small for the number of persons it was designed to carry, but during this inhumane export many were murdered, not only by slave traders but also by one another just so they could breathe during the grueling journey. 

Today in our inner cities, similar conditions exist. People (especially members of the African- American community) are forced to live in crowded projects, imprisoned by their poverty and dominated by an uncaring, ineffective, politically biased, and inherently racist system. In this we can experience not just the phenomenon of history repeating itself, but also the interrelation of those conditions, which are tantamount to the prison experience. As such, this writer is particularly offended by the callous use of the “micro and macroaggresions” in depicting the status quo of members of the African-American community; conditions that America’s role in the slave trade helped to foster from the very beginning. 

Prisoners are brutalized by their environment, not the reverse. There is a virtual vacuum that exists in maximum security prisons in Maryland, i.e., a lack of jobs, a lack of advanced educational opportunities, and banishment of the former self help organizations that provided prisoners with an opportunity to interact with individuals from the communities that they came from, and to participate in worthwhile projects (book drives etc.,) which contributed to the quality of life in the outside communities, and of equal importance, the self worth of the offender. The biggest change is that in Maryland, there are no more penitentiaries, but rather there are now correctional institutions and centers which are under the direction and control of the division of corrections, which in turn is a unit within the department of public safety and correctional services. One of the biggest non-elected political prizes in the state of Maryland after that of Governor, is the Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services. America is famous for its use of euphemisms of assigning a seemingly benign name to a horrific condition or action i.e., capital punishment instead of state sanctioned murder. The title division of correction is a misnomer, because it does little to correct the behavior that led to the offender’s incarceration in the first place. The care, feeding, even medical and psychological services have been outsourced and privatized through contract to the lowest bidder. Consequently, prisons have become corporate business entities. In some states, the prison itself is under private ownership and the confinement of prisoners has been outsourced to private companies. As such, prisons have become commodities with shares to be sold or traded on the stock market. 

AH/NP: How has the legacy of the 60s and 70s prison movement contributed to organizing today? Was there a systematic backlash following the peak of the movement? How has the system restructured itself to inhibit organizing on that level? 

JB: Until approximately ten years ago, organizing within the prison complexes with the help of volunteers from the outside communities helped to foster a change in incarcerated individuals. This was directly related to the legacy of the poor people’s movements of the 60’s and 70’s. People were as a matter of course, more politically astute, and socially conscious. As previously noted, there was less violence and more of a concerted effort towards self-edification by prisoners. However, because of political backlash, that conflicted with the interests of right wing ideologues, (a combination of both elected and appointed officials), most of the self help organizations were gutted from the internal programs which had for years been permitted to exist within the division of corrections. 

In much the same way that social programs in the outside communities were abolished under repressionist government regimes, prisoners serving life with the possibility of parole, were removed from prerelease programs and placed back in the system after working for years to turn their lives around. 

AH/NP: To who or what do you credit your education? 

JB: I credit my education to life and adversity.  

They are both great teachers. In a place where your physical environment does not change over the course of 23 yrs, how do you maintain an understanding of the outside world? 

My understanding of the so called “outside world” is maintained by literally thinking “outside of the box”. That is to say I embrace the outside world both personally and vicariously. I also employ the mediums of certain periodicals, radio talk shows and the like to stay abreast of current events, and issues, especially those affecting the disenfranchised members of society. 

AH/NP: If state sanctioned murder is not a deterrent according to empirical data, then what ideological purpose/s does it serve? 

JB: Just as the so-called war on drugs is a civil rights issue, which finds its origin in institutional racism, it is by no means unique in that consideration. The current drug war can be traced back (from an ideological perspective) to Jim Crowism, and it is in that analysis that one can discern that the current system of state sanctioned murder is for all intents and purposes, the grandchild of lynching. The same post reconstruction in-equalities that produced mass social disenfranchisement of African-Americans also witnessed unspeakable atrocities including, but by no means limited to, murder at the hands of unreconstructed Southern sympathizers. 

The decline of lynching however, in the early 1900’s had a direct relation with the use of state sponsored murder in support of errant racist policies. In Virginia for example, between 1908 and 1930, of the 148 people put to death in the state’s electric chair, 131 of the victims of that racist pogrom were African-Americans. Today, minorities still make up the majority of folks designated to receive the “ultimate punishment”. Of the roughly 3, 370 people currently sentenced to death, a disproportionate 42% are African-American, 10% are Latino, and 80% of that total number is convicted of killing whites. 

Just as the so-called war on drugs further disenfranchises a people who are already classified as gauche, rendered politically destitute by removing them from civil society and then denyed the right to vote while their bodies are decriminalized, and addicts treated at hospitals rather than incarcerated in prisons. Moreover, if we as a society were to decriminalize drugs, the violence associated with the drug trade would fade into obscurity because there would be no huge profits to be made. Property crimes should be addressed through community corrections, with a mind set towards restitution rather than incarceration. Long-term offenders should be taught skills that would enable them to truly pay their debt to society during the period of their incarceration. 

AH/NP: What are some of the first steps to developing alternatives to our current justice system? 

JB: One of the first steps would be to have an open and honest dialogue that addresses poverty which is one of the primary or root causes of crime in our society, with an emphasis on quality education, and political empowerment. 

Thereafter it would be prudent for our government to be willing to spend as much money to send a person to college as they do to send a man to the penitentiary, or to wage war and engage in nation building on foreign soil. After all, charity begins at home.