Meeting Karter

January, 2008

First, I remember his hand.  Warm — like blood, like loss.  Far from the balmy welcoming friend who grabs your hand in his, embracing you with a caring but unconscious smile.  Not the pliant hand of the well-meaning stranger who clings almost insipidly, one palm accompanied by another, as if your hand were its filling, the inside of some moist hand sandwich.  No, Karter’s handshake, if I could call it that, was more of a press than a shake, an insistent yearning, an assertion.  I am a prisoner, it seemed to say, Yes.  They call me “murderer,” it might have said, and unequivocally, it asked me into his life.  It was a hand that was unafraid to reach out while guards looked on, and its press lasted only a second in real time, forever in memory.

This moment comes back over and over when I think of Karter, a lodestone to something beyond the stuccoed walls of the Shirley Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI).  In that extended moment, I left the cold colorlessness of the space around us; the low ceilings and straight back metal chairs.  Here, in a kind of no-man’s land between inside and outside, the prisoners held programs.  This modular unit, the kind of undistinguished building so popular these days in prison construction, was squat and barely brightened with occasional flashes—a guard’s badge reflecting light, an instructional wall poster with an ochre or midnight blue background, some bit of forgotten paper on the floor.  The actual visiting area was most likely built first, and it was just a few feet away, a precursor to this emptiness.  Outsiders passed through it before entering this room, and it contained sad little cubicles where prisoners talked on phones to loved ones, cut apart by glassy plastic.  But I was not seeing any of that at this moment.  I was looking into Karter’s eyes.

Karter’s eyes, however, were seeing much more than I could imagine.  They reflected an anguished past, fifteen of his thirty-one years behind bars.  They were long-lashed, large in the wounded way of an animal that has survived in the wild.  His eyes were not about color.  They might have been blue-green or hazel or the kind of bear-brown flecked with bits of gold.  They were eyes whose main feature was that they had a see-through quality like a body of water.  They could hold you, keep you in focus, pull you into the waves, and make you breathless as if you were gazing into the eyes of a long lost lover, of someone who might vanish if you blinked.  And in their penetration, they could keep you from imagining what you did not want to imagine.  A chaotic classroom.  A knife.  Students screaming — swirling in the impossibility of their friend murdered, an innocent child of fifteen, not just dead, but killed in front of them – and later, a young woman saying of this bloodshed, ”We want revenge.”

But I am getting ahead of myself.  At this moment, I knew little about a knife, heard no screams, and had not yet absorbed the vivid details of that day in 1993 that would change Karter’s life.  No, I was a teacher at a community college who was on a field trip with her students.  We’d trudged through cold on the bitterest January day in New England’s 2008, and passed through metal detectors and along a barbed wired path, to listen to a group called “Project Youth.”  Nine men, all murderers, had attempted to tell the truth about crime and to teach the uninitiated about punishment.  At the end of the two hours, while my students sat stunned from listening to each man’s story and each man’s remorse, I stood, almost at the same time as Karter.  I had meant to whisper some sort of thank-you and leave, but before I could, he called my name and we walked towards each other.  And then, I held onto Karter’s eyes as I held onto his hand.

 

I should tell you who I am although it might be somewhat anticlimactic since I live far from the bars that I speak of.  I am ordinary, ordinary in the sense that like many others, I have a job, a husband, a family and friends.  I live in a small town in a small state and I do the kinds of things you most likely do – go to baseball games, enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, and plan trips to distant places I may never see.  I am also ordinary in that murder is opaque in my experience, not something I’d envisioned with a movie-like lens before Karter Kane Reed came into my life.

I’d been teaching the day I got his first letter.  It was 2007, the middle of November, a week before Thanksgiving break, cold, brittle, the kind of weather where trees begin to bare their spines.  I’d been bundled up and dashed from the parking garage to the college, stopping at the mailroom as I always did before class.  Amidst the usual interoffice memos and junk mail was a slim legal-sized envelope.  I was surprised to see the neat handwriting with a return address from a post office box in “Shirley, MA.”  I didn’t know anyone in Shirley and I didn’t know too many people who had post office boxes, at least of my friends.  I well remembered that Framingham Prison, where I had taught women writing and literature for ten years, had a post office box in its address.  I’d seen those words, “P.O. Box,” on the occasional card I received from prisoners after I left Framingham.  They almost disguised that one was, in fact, receiving mail from a prison.  But as I turned over the plain white envelope with a single flag stamp, I saw the familiar pale blue marking across the back of the seal:

This correspondence is forwarded from a Massachusetts Correctional Institution. Its contents may not have been evaluated and the Department of Corrections is not responsible for the substance or content of the enclosed material.  If you have received unwanted correspondence from this inmate call 1-866-684-2846 to stop future correspondence.

For some reason, my heart started to beat more rapidly.  Shirley was a men’s prison, wasn’t it?  I didn’t know any men in prison; in fact, I had specifically not taught men behind bars so I could avoid being alone in a room with a group of male prisoners.  Female prisoners were different, I had decided.  They were accessible.  This was not rational, but not so radical for someone who feared the slap or cringed at a man’s loud rebuke.  I had connected with women prisoners.  They cried; they confided – even through anger as thick as night – and this I understood.  Many were victims of crimes, not merely perpetrators, and even if this was true of men too, I imagined male criminals to be far more brutal and aggressive.  My fears of setting some man off, of being too confrontational, too flirtatious, or too something indefinable had insisted I work with females.  There was more to it, of course, and I will get to that in time, but for now, it’s enough to tell you that females simply seemed safer to me.  I didn’t need proof; I didn’t need statistics.  I had no problem relating to the young male students in my college classes, but my life had led me firmly away from teaching any man behind bars who might be a rapist or a male sex offender or a murderer.

It was an hour or so before my first class, and I had time to sit in my office and read Karter’s letter.  I read it, fingering the light-weight lined paper with its blue inked perfectly formed vowels and elegantly straight consonants filling exactly two sides of a page.  I read it, and then, taken aback by the content, I called a friend and read it to him.  I heard the words as I said them aloud, but I was so pulled in that I was almost breathless.   It’s hard to describe how receiving one letter from an unknown man in the dark sent me into such deep conflict, but it did.  Much of me wanted to have absolutely nothing to do with him.  Besides what I have mentioned above, I had already been involved with prisoners for ten years.  I’d directed eight plays at the women’s prison.  I’d written about their struggles, heard about their children, and worried about their welfare when they got out.  Enough was enough.  I’d moved on.  But the letter was unlike anything I had ever received.  There was some draw from this stranger.

Part of it was the surprise of Karter’s having landed by chance on a book I had written about directing The Merchant of Venice.  Part of it was his forthrightness.  About the Bard, he wrote:

I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare (I hope to you that is not some unforgivable blasphemy); I admire the breadth and depth of his work, i.e. the philosophical, psychological and sociological insight, and his unparalleled command of language – but I have to work too hard to read it for it to be thoroughly enjoyable.

 

In a short two page letter, Karter mentioned three books as casually as I mention what I had for breakfast, including Drew Leder’s The Soul Knows No Bars, and Christine Rathbone’s A World Apart.  That impressed me.  He was self-educated; he was articulate.  Since he’d found my book on the shelves of the prison library, he’d decided to write and ask me to find materials or point him in the right direction to aid Pam, a female friend, with her parole.  That might have given me pause – a man in prison corresponding with an incarcerated woman and now he’s the one to help her — how predictable.  But he seemed open, without a trace of coyness, and his honesty appealed.  It touched me the way he wrote about women behind bars:

Personally, I have served almost fifteen years of a 2nd degree life sentence, and so am intimately familiar with the difficulties and challenges that men in my situation face in trying to win their freedom through parole; but through my relationship with Pam…I am acutely aware that the problems facing women, the issues that contributed to their crimes and their behavior in prison, are infinitely more complicated and difficult for the parole board to assess, and therefore their struggles far greater….

For Pam and other women in similar circumstances, I am trying to find a   qualified  and objective source to advocate on their behalf:….women who are mothers, daughters, wives, sisters and friends; women who’ve made poor choices and horrible mistakes but [who] deserve compassion and consideration; women who deserve a second chance.

 

I’d always told my students I believed in second chances.  Running my hand over his smooth signature, noting the slightly large “K,” the way he tilted his script, I paused, considering.  Maybe he did know how to strike the right chord; maybe he was keenly aware of the import of such a request.  But it seemed that he respected women, and I had to admit, I felt needed.  Then it hit me.  What awful thing did he do?  Whom had he hurt?  I pondered the line, “Personally, I have served almost fifteen years of a 2nd degree life sentence.”

You can see why I found it so hard to decide whether or not to even answer his letter.

Every year, early on, in my Voices Behind Bars class or in what my students call “Prison Lit,” I ask them to spell out what their images are of those who reside in our prisons.  Stocked with media stereotypes from Oz and Prison Break, they make a list, filling the board with words like “junkies,” “tattooed bodies,” “somebody’s bitch,” “once a con always a con,” “rage addicts,” and “big black guys.”  They giggle embarrassedly, some of the women admitting that they find an incarcerated man “dangerously sexy,” and some of the men certain that all convicts must be “tough,” and “macho.” Not only do my students ignore females in that list – they don’t think about women when they think about prison, and as the males later admit, “I’d never date ‘damaged goods,’” – but they paint a pretty frightening picture of men behind bars.  I allow this intentionally, in order to spend the remainder of the semester discussing how prisoners are not what the media wants us to believe, and that many are not so different from themselves.

So it was disconcerting to me, as I sat with Karter’s letter, that I was no different from the freshman entering my class.  Stereotypes?  They were flooding me.  Karter might be the dangerous convict I had conjured up who’d kept me from ever teaching men behind bars.

I began googling “Karter Kane Reed.” I felt a rush of adrenaline, an unwelcome thrill mixed with fear, which crystallized when I actually saw his name in print on my computer screen.

I had to limit my search to “Karter Reed,” to find over a hundred entries.  They came with impenetrable titles such as “Model School Tries to Cope With Killing in a Classroom,” “No Gang Tied to Killing, Just Three Rare Friends,” and “Last suspect imprisoned 2 years after stabbing.”  I read feverishly, knowing in my mind that news articles tell little of the true story, but gobbling them up just the same, hungry for facts.  I landed upon a site posted by a group who called themselves “The Angels of Columbine.”  It shockingly listed over fifty incidences of school violence from 1992-3, noting what happened and who was killed in each.  It summarily gave these fifty-five words to describe what occurred at Dartmouth High School in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on Monday, April 12th, 1993:

Karter Reed, his cousin Gator Collet, both 16, and their friend Nigel Thomas, 15, were looking for Shawn Pina today.  Shawn had beaten Nigel and insulted his mother.  They came into a classroom at Dartmouth and saw 16-year-old Jason Robinson, whom they mistook for Shawn.  Karter stabbed Jason to death with a knife.

 

Could that be possible, I wondered, staring at the screen, that Karter actually “mistook” one boy for another?  Was it an accident or a planned attack, this murder, a kind of raging into the school of boys’ wielding weapons, boys like hunters looking for prey?   Were those fifty-five words slanted in some way to sensationalize this tragedy even more?   Fifty-five words.  A mere paragraph.  I have thought since how ironic it is to believe we can tell anything from a brief paragraph and that any discussion of plot must always be cautionary.  It is theme, of course, that has more appeal in literature, but to try to understand a story without its main trajectory is impossible.  Narrative matters.  And how the story is told is everything.  I wasn’t sure this story was being told correctly, and so with letter in hand, I went to class.  Still in some sort of strange blur, I read it aloud to my students.  They could help me decide what to do.

We had just finished reading The Falconer by John Cheever and the class of fourteen was about to begin writing papers on Cheever’s main character, Farragut.  Farragut, who is far from the stereotypes they’d mentioned the first week, is a college professor who gets imprisoned for fratricide, an unfamiliar word to many of my students.  While Cheever shows us prison through the world of an addict, he uses dream-like prose, enticing us to root for Farragut’s self-discovery as he detoxes and comes to grips with his past.  My students had struggled with Cheever’s style and humor, and none of them really wanted to spend hours writing the paper I was about to discuss.  So you can imagine what a relief it was for my class to focus on this letter.  They were interested not only because it was a diversion but also because it was real life jutting itself into their classroom.  Their eyes stuck on me as I read, heads cocked, cell phones tucked away, no texting in their palms.  As they questioned what I thought sixteen-year-old Karter had really done and how a sixteen-year-old could be sentenced to an adult prison, I began to wonder with them.

“Are you going to write him back?” someone asked.  It was Sophie, the soft-eyed young woman who should have been born in 1950.  She wore long Indian print skirts, hemp bracelets and Birkenstocks, and she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life.  But she loved Voices, and with a kind of save-the-world glee, she argued with all the criminal justice students who wanted Farragut kept behind bars for the rest of his life.  “I don’t know,” I said, looking at her face, a Keane painting of sadness.  She’d already decided that Karter deserved her compassion, mostly because everyone deserved her compassion.

It took me a few days to decide.  And finally, I told myself I should write him at least because the students wanted to visit Shirley.  They’d already toured Billerica House of Correction where they’d spoken to a prisoner in for drunk driving, someone who was close to their age.  They wanted to see more.  I reasoned I would help Karter’s friend behind bars but not necessarily directly. One of my students would certainly want to work on female advocacy issues for her final, and then, I’d send the findings to Karter – an idea that fit perfectly with the assigned research project.  That plan gave me a little distance.  I’d ask Karter about the visiting policies at Shirley and if he might talk to my class about life behind bars.  I would write him for them.

That night at home, I picked a card that looked a little festive, a card that had snow and a vague winter scene on it, a scene that might not make him miss anything too much.  The card had limited white space inside so it would guide me to be succinct in my writing — tentative and brief.  I started by complimenting him on his use of language, and I limited myself to a few questions without being too intrusive.  I wrote that I’d look into advocacy issues and signed my name, “Jean.”  I remember fouling up a card before I got the words just right, and I remember how drawn I was to letter writing, how easily my black pen found little flourishes at the end of sentences.  Letters were what we did years ago at camp or to thank someone per our mother’s instructions.  Personal letters were not common in 2008, now that email and cell phones and instant messaging had taken over.  But from the beginning, I felt compelled into some world created with words alone, some dialogue that later seemed as intense as Karter’s eyes.

I walked out to my mailbox.  Leaves were still swirling in the night breeze.  The light was on in my husband’s study where he was reading, and it cast a warm yellow pool onto the driveway.  I stood at the mailbox, letter in hand, about to put the metal red arrow up, pointing it towards the stars.  But something stopped me, and I walked back to the house without placing the card in the box.  I’d send the letter from school the next day.  Then it would be stamped “Lowell,” disguising my home town.  As I went to bed that night, I realized I was just kidding myself.  If Karter had found my address at Middlesex Community College, he could certainly find my address at home.

 

Forty-two miles northwest of Boston on the Shirley/Lancaster line is Shirley MCI.  There prisoners are classified as “minimum” or “medium” risk.   I’ve never fully understood the classification system, which prisons consider a way of determining one’s dangerousness.  Before I met Karter, I believed that classification should logically be based not only on one’s crime but also on one’s behavior behind bars; however, that is not always the case.  I’ve heard horror stories from women at Framingham who flat out say it is almost impossible to have their status changed, even after years of program participation and no disciplinary reports.  Some prisoners have their classification changed and are set to move, say to a pre-release, but the Department of Corrections pleads “no beds,” and they end up waiting for months, getting what is called a “setback.”  Likewise, sentenced prisoners such as sex offenders, those who might be considered the worst of the worst, are supposedly safe behind bars.  But as in Miguel Pinero’s darkly realistic play Short Eyes, those deemed marked men are sometimes attacked inside, in acts of “street justice.”  Who knows if correction officers merely look the other way?  In 2003, the murder of defrocked priest, Joseph Geoghan, occurred just down the road from Karter at the maximum security prison in Shirley, the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.  Geoghan was in for sexually abusing boys, but his protective custody status didn’t stop an assailant from getting into his cell and strangling him.

So it was with that strange combination of excitement and fear that plagues those of us who watch too much TV, read too many magazines, and listen to too much talk radio, that I and my students piled into cars that icy January morning.  We were heading to Shirley to see what we could see.  The class was actually over for the semester, but some students, including Sophie, still wanted to make the trip.  We were to hear from men who warned others not to make the same mistakes they made, be it with drugs, alcohol, violence or abuse.  I’d told the travelers that of the approximately 9, 525 sentenced male prisoners in Massachusetts, 1350 resided in Shirley, a prison meant for slightly more than half that capacity when it became a minimum/medium facility in 1991. They knew too that behind bars that January, there were almost twice as many white (42%) as black and Latino men (58%), and that 66% of the males were single.  I had in a somewhat joking but deadly serious tone reminded them not to give out their phone numbers or addresses. That had happened once, behind my back, when I took students to the now defunct Lancaster Pre-release, and I’d had to help one naive female get un-entangled from a correspondence.

I was heading to Shirley feeling my own worries.  We had finished the semester and the student who had volunteered to do the project on resources for women had failed the class and produced nothing.  I was no further along on my promise to get advocacy material to Karter that I had been two months ago, and I felt a little sheepish.  After all, Karter had written me at least five letters by now.  I’d sent him four tasteful cards.  I did plan to do some research for him on my winter break, but I was uncomfortable going empty-handed.

If I am completely honest with you, I was uncomfortable for another reason.   Karter had crept into my consciousness.  While I told him little about myself, he poured himself into five, six, ten page letters.  He said he had friends inside, belonged to book groups and had read many of the classics.  I knew he’d spent time on almost twenty programs during his years inside with names like Alternatives to Violence, Emotional Awareness and Barber School.  He wrote how he found girlfriends who broke his heart; they disappeared or gave up, needing more than a relationship in bits and pieces with someone who could only give them one kiss on visiting days.  He sent me poems he’d written about incarceration, and told me about his stories and essays.  He wrote how the boy he killed lived with him every day, and that he grieved for what he had done.  His words formed images in my mind, in the way of a small flutter of birds, the passing of pinkish clouds in a blue sky.

“Watch out,” one of my colleagues said to me, “he’ll disappoint you.”

“I have only two words for you,” said another, speaking of the man who Norman Mailer fought to get out of prison and then committed a heinous crime. “Jack Abbott.”

I knew full well how the words of a lonely prisoner pulled on thirsty me like water in a well, but I had allowed myself to be pulled along.  I had considered not writing at first, but now, two months later, I felt a raw fascination to see Karter and the other caged prisoners, sprinkled with the same hesitations that had kept me away from men behind bars.  What could happen, I said to myself?  Nothing to be scared of, I cooed, and then I recoiled.  With hands on the steering wheel and students snug in the back seat of my car, I kept reminding myself to concentrate on the road.  It was absurd, I thought, all of it — the circumstances, the trip, the idea of corresponding with a murderer, and this damn pounding of my heart.  Soon we were in the country, trees and more trees.  My students chatted.

Some had decided not to come along after they’d heard of Shirley’s dress code.  “I only own blue jeans!” one young woman said to me on the phone.  The list of Dos and Don’ts had taken us all by surprise, and I’d felt out of date when I first saw the list.  I’d not entered a secure facility in Massachusetts for over ten years.  But jeans had always been a no-no.  Apparently you might look too much like a prisoner.

The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security posts the dress code for visitors on their website.  I so enjoyed reading it aloud to my class although the grammatical inconsistencies were difficult to represent verbally.  I’ve adapted the 2007 version a bit here, to show you how many more restrictions there were for the “weaker sex.” I couldn’t bear the semi-colons that they put at the end of each line so I’ve omitted them, and by the way, my favorite item is #19, “no bathing suits,” which is a restriction only for female visitors.  I leave it to you to figure out the rationale for each of the items listed, which is exactly the kind of silent treatment MCI visitors learn to expect.

 

 

MALE VISITORS

 

  1. No clothing similar to that issued to an inmate or uniformed personnel
  2. No blue, black or gray denim/dungaree pants, coats/jackets, or vests
  3. No sweatpants, sweatshirts
  4. No fatigue or camouflage clothing
  5. No shorts, tank tops
  6. No bare midriff, muscle shirts
  7. All visitors are required to wear undergarments.
  8. No T-shirts, hooded shirts or jackets, all types of neck ties (except attorneys)
  9. No jogging suits to include nylon material
  10. No clothing with cut-out pockets or holes are permitted
  11. No double layered clothing will be allowed, i.e.; two pairs of underwear, pants, sweatpants, shorts or combinations
  12. No clothing with elastic waist bands regardless of material
  13. Hair pieces, wigs, extensions and braids will be allowed.   Removable items will be removed and checked by the trap officer, in the pat search area.  No pins, elastics, barrettes, etc. will be allowed to hold any of the above in place.
  14. No bib/overall type clothing, (i.e. pants, shorts, etc.)

 

 

FEMALE VISITORS

 

  1. 1 – 14. Everything on the male list
  2. 15. No tights, leotards, spandex, body suits of dance/exercise fashion
  3. 16. No tank tops or tops permitted which expose the back beyond the upper shoulder areas
  4. 17. No visibly sheer clothing with/without undergarments
  5. 18. Proper traditional undergarments (i.e.; underpants and bras) must be worn
  6. 19. No bathing suits
  7. 20. No low cut or excessively revealing clothing
  8. 21. No tight fitting clothing is permitted
  9. 22. No nylon, panty hose, or underwear with holes in the immediate crotch area
  10. 23. No bobby pins, curlers, hair clips, hair scrunches, head bands, bandanas
  11. 24. No T-shirts.
  12. 25. Visibly pregnant females may wear maternity pants with waistbands without having to submit medical evidence
  13. 26. Outerwear of a light weight material must be worn with a  slip/camisole
  14. 27. Dresses or skirts are not to exceed approximately 6″ above the knee, no skirts with slits extending 6″ above the knee are permitted
  15. 28. Shorts, Skorts or Culottes may be worn if not shorter than 3″ above the knee and are of “dress or walking type”. No denim, spandex or sweatpant/sweatsuit material will be permitted
  16. 29. Clothing with religious or ethnic significance, subject to search.

 

ALL VISITORS

 

  1. Footwear covering the whole foot must be worn by visitors
  2. No jewelry other than wedding/engagement ring, medical alert bracelet/necklace may be worn into the institution
  3. Hats, gloves, scarves are not allowed to be worn by visitors into the visiting room
  4. Any type of appliance, brace, ace bandage, cast, dressing not prescribed and/or applied by medical personnel are not allowed. Aforementioned items must be accompanied by medical evidence.
  5. Any adornments or accouterments, that cannot be removed to be examined and could constitute a security problem, will not be allowed
  6. Any articles of clothing, worn by the visitor with holes, rips or tears will not be allowed, i.e. fashion jeans
  7. At the discretion of the Superintendent or his/her designee, any article of clothing, worn by the visitor, displaying obscene, racial, sexual, or  caricatures, or symbols and gang affiliation will not be allowed

It was a bumpy ride down the dirt road into the prison parking lot, where construction was going on and cars were packed in and parked at odd angles.  I remember how bright the sun was in spite of the cold and how vehicles seemed sharply clear in that light.  As we emptied from our cars, I saw that we’d all dug through closets to find our least alluring clothing.  I was wearing sturdy boots, black pants, a black turtleneck and a very bulky brown and black velour shirt under my heavy wool coat.  Most of my students had found khaki pants or “dress pants,” and the females had limited their make-up.  At Billerica, one had looked as if she were dolled up to go to a club – Genevieve – even her name was something I cautioned her not to mention to the prisoners.  But now, since it was impossibly cold, make-up seemed to disappear under red noses and parched skin.  Everyone paraded down a walkway into a flat boxy building that looked like an afterthought.  Perhaps my students were aware, as I was, how fortunate we were to see the expansive cold blue sky.  I was thankful too that we were not asked to lock up our hats, gloves and scarves with our jewelry and wallets before we moved through the flat processing building and crossed a patch of frozen yard to enter the main institution.

What stands out most for me from that initial meeting — the only meeting I have had in which I actually greeted Karter — besides the intensity of our touch, was the incredible sadness that filled every corner.  The nine prisoners sat twenty feet from rows of hard back chairs that were set up for visitors.  The empty space between their chairs and ours made it more obvious that we were free and they were not, that we were innocent and they were guilty.  And yet, the space could not stop grief from floating across the gap and permeating the room.

Boogie began.  He was a thirty-eight-year-old black man sentenced for life with no opportunity of parole, and he was a bit of a jiver.  In about one minute, we knew why he went first.  He loosened everyone up as though he were the barker at a circus, a DJ telling us what we were going to hear today.  He was the jokester who like Emmett Kelley, a clown years before Boogie’s time, appeared with a smile and hid the hurt.  Boogie danced around the facts of how he’d shot and killed a rival gang member at nineteen in a turf war over drugs.  I thought he must have told this story ten times a day to schools, and I thought it was a somewhat tired talk with the obvious moral:  every action has consequences.

But my students didn’t seem to feel that way.  They looked 100% fascinated, searching to understand if they should care about these broken men.  The twenty-something Asian looked as if he were a student but his story involved gangs, guns, drugs, and being turned in by his buddies who made a deal with the Feds.  When he said that he’d shot someone in a drive-by, I heard a gasp from Sophie.  For me, it was hard to focus both on his unravaged young face and on his vicious crime.

There was, of course, the requisite prisoner sensationalized by the local media.  Someone whispered disbelief to me when she first heard him introduced.  She had pictured this man from the paper as if he’d “had fangs and sucked blood,” but here he looked forlorn.  The notorious “Hockey Dad” could barely speak to us and sat a little apart from the others.  His eyes seemed unfocused and his muscled arms were wrapped tightly around his body.  Perhaps he knew how shocking it was for us to be in the presence of someone who’d killed the coach of his son at a hockey game.  But it was hard to tell what he felt since he said so little.  The only information that trickled out was that he’d beaten the man to death over entanglements about the game on ice.

And then, before it was over, before prisoners got up to put their chairs away, moving brusquely in the way of schooled soldiers, and before we passed through that vast loneliness and watched the scene fade from view, Karter stood to speak.  He was dressed in the blues of prison, a washed out shirt with darker pants, and he looked down more than up, moving slowly to the center of the room.  His face had aged from the fair-skinned, lean blond boy he once was – a child sentenced to life in a man’s prison – but there were waves of vulnerability that flooded his eyes, his choked-up voice.

As Karter unraveled the how, leaving flecks of loss in our hearts, we were left to wonder the unfathomable why.

6 Responses to “Meeting Karter”

  1. Michael M

    Great piece of writing, a true success story. Had the pleasure of meeting Karter in the middle of his sentence and had the chance of watching him grow into a caring, honorable man. Working with at-risk-youth is his true calling. What an asset to the Juvenile Justice field. I hope I have the chance to work with him in the future…. Michael Mims.

  2. Jamie Domiano

    I sit on a Board of Directors with Karter. This young man, is a bright, humble,an one of the most honest man I know. I have always liked Karter. I did not know his story. Someone else had told me about him. I was not shocked, but I was curious.
    I googled him and this article came up. If anyone is remorseful for their crime it is him. I see it in the way he careries himself. He will be on probation for the rest of his life. He has a nice girlfriend and he works full time. The death of a child is something no mother can get over, I am not taking any pain away from Mrs. Robinson. However, in this young man’s case I believe he has done his time, paid back society, and regrets that terrible day back in 1993.

  3. Milton Gasson

    This is a great writing. ..I personally spent years with karter towards the end of his bid I was the first one to see him when he got his decision from the parole board and I remember him with the big long hug and tears of joy, fear….one of the best men I ever had the pleasure to meet and I miss him so I googled his name and this came up. Thank you for helping me remember how great my old friend is!

  4. Jason

    That’s my brother thanks for caring..my dad could have been a better teacher..and my brother and I had met only once in life.dont know how this happends.but because of your story I learned he was a good kid in a messed up child hood. As we stood separated as kids and because of this I search to find out who my brother is.and how our life’s became further apart instead of closer.i love him dearly.and this reading makes me believe we will be together again some day.thanks Jason..Derrick Davis.

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