Our “Letters From Prison (Correspondence, May 1992) elicited a number of requests for an update. The letter ended with “Frank,” a 26-year-old black man imprisoned in Illinois, in solitary confinement at a medium-security prison. He had been placed in isolation for his own protection, because the gang he had once belonged to, the Black Gangster Disciples (G. D.’s), had called for his murder by issuing a statewide “hit.” What angered the G. D.’s was Frank’s cooperation with a state investigation into a 1991 riot at a maximum security prison that left him and a few other inmates severely beaten. After two weeks in a St. Louis hospital, Frank passed a lie detector test proving he had nothing to do with the melee and then identified key gang leaders responsible for the attack. For his own safety, he’s been transferred to four different facilities in the last four months.

Frank’s first transfer after his May letter to Chronicles was to a medium-security facility that housed a G. D. board member (one of the gang’s 12 leaders in Illinois), even though he had explained to prison officials that the G. D.’s would most likely kill him at a facility where a board member is held. The gang leader immediately approached Frank and reported that the hit would be issued soon. The guy was nonthreatening, and relayed the information calmly and without a hint of malice. Like in The Godfather, this was business, nothing personal.

Frank was also told that the hit had been delayed because communication among the board members had been temporarily disrupted: a board member’s cellular phone had been confiscated in a shakedown! I had long known from my years of contact with Frank that gangs in prison occasionally operated by cellular phones. Officials at the central Department of Corrections in Springfield, Illinois, profess that all measures are taken to curtail interprison communication between gang leaders, but this is untrue. When I heard about Frank’s transfer to a facility with a board member, I immediately called the prison to request that Frank be placed in isolation for his own safety until another transfer could be arranged. The lieutenant I spoke with sympathized with Frank’s plight, and then openly acknowledged that some wardens and officers will “look the other way” regarding special privileges for board members if in return the gang leaders will help to control prison violence. He candidly admitted that cellular phones were sometimes part of this informal quid pro quo.

When I was told that the request for a transfer would have to come from the inmate and not from me, and after hearing from Frank two days later that his request to speak with prison officials had been ignored, I called the internal affairs office in Springfield. The bureaucrat I spoke with doubted my story, particularly the part about cellular phones, because “such things are against the rules.” I then identified myself as a journalist and recounted the conversation I had had with the all-too-candid lieutenant downstate. The clerk was shocked silent, after which he assured me that “the matter would be looked into.”

After two more weeks in solitary confinement, Frank was transferred to yet another medium-security prison. Again, this facility had a G. D. board member, and once more I set out to request protection for Frank. This time, upon calling the prison, I learned that Frank had already been placed in isolation, not for his own safety, but because he was a “troublemaker.”

I immediately assumed Frank had been in a fight, but I didn’t know for sure until he called the following week and gave me the complete story. His problems began the day after he arrived, when he was awakened at 7 A.M. and instructed to report to the prison’s psychiatrist. Frank told the guard that he hadn’t requested such a meeting, but he was ordered to go anyway and to “quit smarting off.”

The psychiatrist was, in Frank’s words, an “Iranian or Arab of questionable competence.” After a quick perusal of Frank’s record, the doctor concluded that the young man’s many transfers and fights with gang members were the result of an inability to socialize with others and to express anger in nonthreatening ways, problems for which he had just the cure. Awake for five minutes and taken from his cell against his will, Frank was less than receptive to psychoanalysis, and his lack of cooperation only reinforced the doctor’s faith in his diagnosis. When Frank refused to take the drugs the doctor wanted to prescribe, and exclaimed that he didn’t believe he had a psychiatric problem to begin with, the doctor cried “Denial—the first sign of a problem!” The doctor then added, “It is clear to me that you are indundated with problems.” Now Frank is no Samuel Johnson, but he knows enough English to realize that he’s never been “indundated” with anything. It was because of this standoff that the doctor filed a report about Frank’s “recalcitrance.”

An incident that followed a couple of days later only confirmed for the warden the doctor’s diagnosis. While waiting to hear about his request for another transfer, Frank was assigned a job in the prison kitchen. The inmate managing the kitchen took a liking to Frank, and determined that the new kid “needed a friend.” Frank was uncertain whether the cook was insinuating a homosexual relationship, but in any event he told him that he didn’t need any “friends,” that he simply wanted “to be left alone to do his time in peace.” The man then cracked jokes about the Rodney King riots, at which everyone in the kitchen except Frank laughed. The cook assumed he had been “dissed,” and an argument ensued, during which Frank verbally exploded. The many transfers, the threat on his life, the many months in isolation, the runaround he’d had with the prison psychiatrist, the news that some of his personal belongings (his letters, books, and radio) had been lost during his last transfer—the strain and frustration of these matters all came to a head, and contributed to the anger he unleashed on the cook. Frank was reprimanded for unruly behavior and placed in solitary confinement the following day.

For his “proven inability” to live peaceably in medium security, Frank spent a month in isolation and was then transferred back to maximum security. Actually this was exactly what Frank had wanted, for only maximum-security prisons have formal facilities for inmates in protective custody. Of the two institutions he could be transferred to, the protective-custody area at one of them consists merely of another wing of the same building housing the general prison population, and security for the p.c. inmates is extremely lax; the other prison is safer, with the p.c. population housed in a separate building. If sent to the least secure of the two facilities, Frank had little hope of surviving his sentence without an attempt on his life.

I again contacted Springfield and requested the safer of the two prisons. I later found out that Frank’s transfer had been changed at the last minute, apparently to accommodate this request. I’d like to think that the original assignment was changed because of the state’s concern for Frank’s safety, but no doubt my phone call had an effect. It’s one thing for inmates to be killed in prison; it happens every day. (In fact, as I write, Frank’s prison is on a 90-day lock-down because of two violent incidents, one involving an argument over a homosexual liaison and the other concerning a fight between rival gangs; the casualty count after three days: one inmate dead, four inmates wounded, and three guards hospitalized.) But it’s quite another matter if someone “from the outside,” and especially a journalist, not only knows about a forthcoming murder, but had even informed the prison beforehand of the danger to the victim’s life.

Which brings us to the present. Frank was accepted into the protective custody program at the maximum-security prison where he currently resides. He has formally requested that his “good time” be returned, which was suspended because of his many transfers. If approved, Frank could be released next January; if denied, he’ll be released in January 1994. Frank has also agreed to meet regularly with a therapist. For according to what the Department of Children and Family Services told him last July, if upon release from prison he would ever like to see his son again, who is now age seven, he must consent to counseling and therapy now. Frank agreed to this because he loves his son, but he nevertheless resents the legal extortion the state exercises in the name of “family welfare.” As he explained to me recently, “The counselor is a nice lady, and occasionally it is good to have someone to talk to. But I wasn’t convicted of a sex crime, or of abusing children. The state has no right to hold my child captive or control my family after I’ve paid my legal debt to society.”

Frank faces a double-threat; the wrath of the gangs and the benevolence of the therapeutic state.