Clinton Nkechi Walker on Writing, Maturity, and Ending the Silence

Letter from Clinton Nkechi Walker on July 22, 2014

Interview #2

How did you get into the practice of writing and/or poetry? Why is it important or meaningful to you as a means of expression?

Since I can remember I’ve always been a writer of some sort or the other. I haven’t received a degree or anything in writing. It’s a hobby I enjoy. Two good friends of mine got me started in the styles of poetry and essay writing. I heard my friend Tizzy say some of his poetry one day when I was in the hole of the notorious Greene County. I was intrigued by how a person can be creative with their thoughts using words, rhythm, and rhyme so I tried the art form. I liked it and now use it as a way to express my thoughts.

Our comrade Saleem is responsible for me writing in essay form. I remember a time when I was angry about an issue and voiced my dilemma to him. He told me that I should write about it. I took his advice and it became another way to express my thoughts and feelings.

My writing is meaningful because it’s an outlet for me to channel my thoughts by putting my words on paper. It can be looked at as a form of therapy or self medication. It’s not a cure to my aches and pains but it does allow me a degree of relief. Without that relief, I believe I would be irritable and more anxious.

In your first set of responses, you speak generally to the fact that people change significantly over the course of a lifetime, and that at 37 or at 27 years o1d, they are not the same person they were at 17. Would you be willing to speak to how that has been true for you personally and what made certain changes either possible and/or difficult?

When I spoke about a person changing in the course of a lifetime and not being the same person 30, 20, or 10 years ago, I was speaking on the gradual change a person goes through. For example, 20 years ago I remember running and jumping in a pool in my neighborhood for the first time and almost drowning. I also remember jumping from one roof of a house to another and playing chicken on the train tracks, amongst other absentminded things. 10 years from then, I was somewhere around the age of 23, and I remember being very impulsive. With that impulsiveness, I would usually approach most situations with a level of aggression which would almost always end in some kind of confrontation. I imagine I was in what they call the “trial and error stage”.

It was time, experience, and the growth of life that allowed me to mature into the man I am. If you were to ask that 23 year old me if he would ever jump in a pool again knowing he couldn’t swim, jump from roofs, play chicken again on the train track, or throw spark plugs at people’s windows, I’m sure he would undoubtedly answer with a “never”. If you ask me now, in my near 33rd year on this earth, do I feel the need to approach every situation aggressively as I did when I was in my 20s or will I ever again react on blind impulse, I would unquestionably answer with a sincere “never”.

The truth is that there is a natural process of growth that we as human beings go through as we mature in age and in knowledge. Some folks’ process may be easier or a tougher struggle than others, but the process is inevitable. Maturation is a part of experiencing life and contrary to lawmakers, a person don’t suddenly stop learning and maturing when they reach any one particular age. When doing my mischief in my younger years and making my mistakes, I can’t imagine any thoughts by the adults in my household to lock me in my bedroom until I grew old and died or to put me on punishment for the rest of my life. Without a doubt, I’m sure they would have thought that to be too excessive, cruel, and simply ridiculous. The adults in my life undeniably understood the importance of punishment and chastisement but, they never lost their compassion and understanding of the potential growth that comes with aging and maturing. This compassion and understanding is what’s lacking in the hearts and minds of lawmakers, politicians, and society as a whole.

The elements that made my changes possible were my common sense of the need for change and my will to want to change and not keep making the same mistakes over again.

What made those changes difficult is that sometimes when living in this cruel, vulturous, dog eat dog environment, changing your crude, vulgar self isn’t necessarily the best approach for a guy. Too much correction can leave you vulnerable in a sense. Others don’t care a speck about a person’s self correction. They may not have reached that point in their lives. If at any time a guy believes for a second that another is sweet for the taking, they will try that person with no hesitation. What I’ve learned over the years is how to balance my sense of peace with the chaos of others. It’s an art that is difficult to master and even with that balance at times I can be forced to become the person that I’m desperately trying to run away from. The truth is I can never be the person that I want to be as long as I am confined in an environment that feeds off of vileness.

What do I think has caused the conditions of mass imprisonment? Why has the broader public allowed it to happen and who has benefited from it?

I believe it is many elements that cause the conditions of mass imprisonment that are directly or indirectly related to the economy of this country which is reported to have the largest prison complex in the world. I believe the many components that make mass imprisonment possible have their beginnings in what has been coined with the phrase the “school to prison pipeline.” Schools have now adopted the “tough on crime” mentality which, when dealing with children, becomes “tough on potential”. Incidents that would warrant detention in my time have now become grounds for suspension and incidents that warranted suspension have become just cause for expulsion, along with possible charges by the justice system.

Mass incarceration can be faulted to the inadequate, unequipped and/or careless attorneys and the justice system in general. It is also caused by the lack of knowledge of the laws by those that are being targeted who are disproportionately people of color.

Bernard Kerik, a former New York City Police Commissioner, stated on C-SPAN that the success of District Attorneys (DAs) is based in three areas: 1) the DA conviction rates; 2) how much time the DA can get the person; and 3) the attention the DA can get from the conviction rates and sentencing accomplishments. It should not be overlooked nor ignored that mass incarceration is a result of insensitive District Attorneys who strategically stockpile charges against the person accused, threaten the person with an excess amount of time, then offer them a deal to plead guilty in exchange for less time. It is said that 91% of convictions in the U.S. are the result of guilty pleas.

Mass incarceration also has its connections with the scarce opportunities to acquire meaningful employment in this country. With greedy corporations setting up shop in other parts of the world for cheap labor, the job market in the United States has seemingly shrunk; because of that, the prison industry and all its benefits has become the primary means of employment for many people. The fact that those means essentially require living off the hardships of others should be no surprise. Historically, this country has made its capital off the sweat, agony, blood, and tears of others. Why else is it lobbying rural communities and their community leaders for prisons to be built in their areas? In my opinion, the baton of chattel slavery has been passed to a more subtle, yet no less brutal, form of slavery called mass incarceration and it’s being done for the same reasons of old – the economic benefits. This charge is evident in many areas, but none in more plain sight than in this country’s constitution, specifically the 13th Amendment which reads:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

The broader public allows it to happen because, again, the practice is nothing new. A method that is being used as an excuse for mass incarceration is scare tactics by politicians and media who play on the fears and distorted perceptions of the public. For example, their crisis-like publicizing of unavailable jobs, crime at an all-time high, crimes normally of the inner cities reaching suburban areas, the potential danger their children are in, etc. With those fears intact, it easily paves the way for tough on crime laws, tough sentencing, and more construction of prisons.

The answer to who has benefited from mass incarceration is simple: the elite and suburban folks in this country who are disproportionately composed of, but not limited to, folks of European descent.

How would you respond to those individuals who argue that highlighting the voices of those who have been convicted of crimes harms victims?

I would answer by saying that millions of defendants pass through the criminal justice system every year, yet for the most part we never hear their voice. From the initial warnings at arrest from officers of the right to remain silent to the encouragement and insistence by counsel for defendants to remain silent, apparently, for their interest at plea bargains and trials, defendants’ voices are not able to be heard. The practice of denying a voice to the criminally charged and convicted can cause many unforeseen harms to the victim than the muting of him or her. It is through speech that defendant’s express remorse and through that same speech can retribution, rehabilitation, and redemption begin to be weighed but since a platform for the voices of the convicted is greatly frowned upon and is almost nonexistent these many avenues of assessment are being wasted to a fault. What better way to evaluate one’s repentance and progress except to witness and hear it from the horse’s mouth?

With that evaluation, coincidentally, it also allows a greater one to take place. It allows the observation and careful study by community, those victims and would-be victims, who directly rely on the virtuous functioning of the criminal justice system and its duties to rehabilitate. In this sense, the highlighting of voices who have been convicted of crimes do more good for victims than harm.

Furthermore, because of the silencing of defendants throughout criminal proceedings and beyond, many victims are denied a degree of closure and understanding of how and why they became a victim. With allowing and encouraging the speech of the convicted it could, for the first time, provide answers for many victims of crimes and in the process give victims a sense of finality and peace.

How has your own incarceration impacted your family and community?

My incarceration impacts my family on many levels. I’ve been incarcerated for nearly 16 years and throughout those years I’ve acquired quite a bit of knowledge and wisdom in regards to my heritage and culture, economics, and social behaviors, along with overall life experience. Knowledge becomes useless if it can’t be passed on. Because of my incarceration the wisdom I’ve obtained from my experiences is unable to be properly passed on to my brother & sister, nieces & nephews, friends-and the community in general.

What song would you want to be the soundtrack to your story?

“Love is the Answer” by Aloe Blacc.

If your voice could be heard anywhere where would you want, it to be heard?

I would like my voice heard-at a college gathering occupied by enthusiastic, eager-to-fight-for-the-people’s-justice college students.