March 27, 2007
By Ken Krayeske • Hartford • 1:30 AM EST
The 15-year-old African-American prisoner sat outside his cell reading intently, taking advantage of quiet time, as he was the only prisoner in the cell block of building three at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.
The guard at the security console in the sterile main hall of the cell block sat quietly, too, but the 14 of us Quinnipiac University School of Law students taking a tour on Friday, February 23, with our two guides, were noisy, talking through the educational experience of visiting such a facility.
We were alone in the living quarters, which almost felt like a dorm but for the prison accoutrements. The other prisoners who lived there were playing basketball or hanging out over at the Boys Club on campus.
While some law students mingled in front of the guard station, and others tried to comprehend teenaged life in the tiny cells, I wandered over and said hello to the prisoner.
I asked him what he was reading. “Last Man Standing,” he said, the story of Black Panther Geronimo Ji Jaga. The young man seemed engrossed, so I didn’t want to bother him, but he said it was a good book. I told him we were from QUSL and just taking a tour.
Then we had to move along. I had never heard of Ji Jaga before. Formerly known as Elmer Pratt, Geronimo Ji Jaga was a political prisoner. He spent 27 years locked up in California prisons for a crime he didn’t commit. Johnnie Cochran defended him in the murder trial in 1970, and called it his toughest case ever because of state shenanigans.
“There's a quote I like from Henry David Thoreau, who was a hell of a rebel on his own,” Ji Jaga said. “I think it was Civil Disobedience, where he said, ‘In a society that imprisons unjustly, the only place for a just man is in prison.’ That makes all the sense in the world to me. It's war in prison.”
It’s war out here, too. But the Essence interviewer followed up: “Do you have any sense of how many Black men and women may be inside for political reasons?”
Ji Jaga, straight, no chaser: “You may call me crazy [but I believe] that because of our socioeconomic conditions, every Black man and woman in prison is, in fact, a political prisoner. Every one, bar none. If you've got money, you're not going to prison,” he said.
That 15 year old knows it. And after my tour of three of the six buildings at the facility, I feel a little closer to Ji Jaga’s truth, too. Out of about 98 inmates at CJTS, ranging in age from 14 to 18, not a one is white, according to one of our two tour guides.
The boys - about 75 black, and maybe 23 Latinos - come from Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Danbury, Waterbury and Torrington, our guide said. While the population shifts regularly, the white inmate is rare.
He didn’t have the exact numbers. He’s a shift supervisor, rank-and-file in 1199 SEIU, not a bureaucrat, and he said the muckety-mucks don’t tell him racial breakdowns or recidivism rates. He and his staff know it by observation.
But a kid has to do something to get in here, they assure us. All these boys have done something, been arrested eight or nine times at the minimum.
If a 13 year old catches a charge for say, marijuana, where the white kid in the suburbs has parents who can afford a lawyer, this boy can’t. And he avoids prison the first few times. like Philip K. Dick said, once they have a file on you, they always do.
So then he violates probation because he gets caught in the hallway in high school without a pass. And he ends up in CJTS. That happens.
Some of the boys are in there for probation violations, some violent offenses, some drugs, some guns, our guides said.