When Lawrence Bell, an orphan living in an abandoned house in Camden, New Jersey, went to prison he was 14-years-old. Barely literate and weighing no more than 90 pounds, he had been pressured by three Camden police detectives into signing a confession for a murder and rape he insisted at his trial he did not commit, although admitted he was in the car of the man who dragged a young mother into the bushes where she was sexually assaulted and strangled to death. It made no difference. The confession condemned him, although there was no scientific evidence or any independent witnesses tying him to the crime. He would not be eligible to go before a parole board for 56 years. It was a de facto life sentence.
But on Sunday, thanks to the dogged work of Jennifer Sellitti, an attorney who is in charge of training the Public Defender’s office’s 600 lawyers, Lawrence walked out of East Jersey State Prison after serving thirty years and one day. Sellitti, who devoted two-and-a-half years to freeing Lawrence and who openly wept in court, used Lawrence’s case as a prototype for re-sentencing hearings for juveniles that were tried as adults. Lawrence will attempt, with no money and few connections, to start a life interrupted by a dysfunctional judicial and prison system, filled mostly with 2.3 million poor men and women like Lawrence. It was a tiny victory in a sea of defeats.
Lawrence and I walked the two blocks from the prison to the QuickChek, a ritual for most prisoners released from East Jersey State Prison. The convenience store, which can be seen from the barred windows, has a mythic status in the prison, a symbol for those locked inside of the outside world.
“I feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation,” he said. “It feels so strange right now to be walking outside without handcuffs and shackles.”
“How long has it been since you walked outside as a free man?” I asked.
“Thirty years and one day,” he said. “June 27, 1990 I came into prison at 14-years-old. I’m now going on 45-years old. It’s amazing. It’s scary. But it’s here.”
He said he was up at 4:00 a.m. to wait by his cell door. He was released at 8:30.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said of his release. “A lot of these guys I grew up with. They’re my brothers, they’re not my friends. As happy as I am to be leaving, I won’t ever forget the fact that I’m leaving people I love and care for behind. But this is just a chance to help ‘em, man, to come back for ‘em, just like everybody came back for me. We got to go back for them, too. As I say, it’s bittersweet, but somebody got to go at some point to start bringing other people home. And that’s just the way I try and keep it in focus, keep myself from having like survivor’s guilt.”
“The hardest thing about getting out is the unknown, not knowing what I’m gonna face, not knowing what’s gonna be there, what’s not gonna be there, who’s gonna be there, particularly for me coming in as a kid, as literally a child,” he said. “These are my first steps in the free world as a grown man. I don’t know how to pay a bill. I don’t know how to open a bank account. I don’t know how to apply for insurance. There are so many things I don’t know, and I think that is probably the scariest thing for me, trying to figure out how to exist as a grown man in a free world after 30 years.”
“When you thought about getting out was there one thing you wanted to do in particular?” I asked.
“As crazy as this sounds, I want to ride a bike and go swimming,” he said. “I don’t know why. I think that might be a reflection of the fact that I got locked up as a child. I kind of think about the things that I left off doing as a child. I also look forward to getting up that first morning and sitting outside and having myself a cup of coffee on the steps, just quiet, just enjoying freedom.”
Lawrence entered the QuickChek, clutching some cash friends had handed to him, and came out with a bouquet of flowers for his lawyer.
The police violence in the streets of American cities is savage and lethal, but its counterpart is our monstrous prison system where the poor are railroaded into cages by courts that coerce 94 percent to take plea deals rather than jury trials. The poor are imprisoned for decades for crimes they did not commit or with sentences for crimes they did commit that are four or five times longer than in any other industrialized country. We have 25 percent of the world’s prison population but are 4 percent of the global population. Half of those in our prison system have never been charged with physically harming another person.
The poor rarely get adequate legal representation and once locked up usually depend on self-taught prison paralegals to help them file desperate appeals, although many sentences increasingly come with the stipulation that there can be no appeals. Hiring an outside attorney to file an appeal costs as much as $100,000, a sum neither they nor their families can obtain.
Prisons, along with the police, are the twin pillars of social control. They are used by the ruling elites to keep those discarded by deindustrialization and austerity fearful, intimidated and neutralized. Break the reigns of terror by the police and the bonds of the world’s largest prison system and the ruling elites will stand naked before us. And this is why the reigning oligarchs, despite gaslighting us with promises of reform, have no intention of weakening the two principle institutions that keep those they have betrayed in bondage and themselves in power.
Lawrence, who I taught in the B.A. program in the New Jersey prison system run by Rutgers University and who has a 4.0 GPA, never had a chance. He lived at 14 different addresses, a common experience for the poor who are repeatedly evicted from their homes and often suffer from the same perimigration trauma I witnessed among refugees and the displaced in war zones. (Perimigration is the phase between initial displacement and eventual resettlement.)
Like orphaned children buffeted by war, Lawrence endured extreme poverty, chronic instability, physical abuse and the early death of his parents. He lived in constant fear, even terror, amid street violence — Camden per capita was often ranked as the most dangerous city in America — was exploited by drug dealers, deprived of his most basic needs, and was rejected and outcast by the wider society. He never had an adequate income or sufficient food.
Lawrence, terrified and alone in the Camden police interrogation room, was repeatedly assured by the detectives that they wanted to help him, that if he signed the papers he could go home, that 10 years would immediately be taken off his sentence. He had no family to intercede on his behalf or legal representation. His father had died when he was about two. His mother, who had raised him and his sister, had died in June 1985 when he was nine. His forlorn efforts at his trial to recant the confession, to insist he did not commit the crime and did not understand what was in the confession or its consequences, were brushed aside by Judge Isaiah Steinberg.
He was charged with murder, aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, and related offenses in the 1990 rape and murder. Steinberg, when he announced the aggregate sentence of life plus 50 years with 55 years to be served without parole, sneeringly called Lawrence in the courtroom a “despicable coward.” Lawrence was 14 at the time of the crime. He was 15 when the court told him he was an adult. He was 16 during his trial. He would be 70 before he could see a parole board.
[Judge] Steinberg, when he announced the aggregate sentence of life plus 50 years with 55 years to be served without parole, sneeringly called Lawrence in the courtroom a “despicable coward.”
Lawrence, who I taught in several classes, was one of my most dedicated and gifted students. If I mentioned a book that was not required reading, he made huge efforts to obtain it and read it. At the end of a history course I taught called Conquest — we read Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution — Lawrence waited until the classroom was empty. He told me, “I know I am going to die in this prison, but I work as hard as I do so one day I can be a teacher like you.”
Lawrence’s life was a train wreck of abuse and neglect, one that defines the lives of many of my students. He suffered terrible physical abuse from his mother’s boyfriend Reggie. The tragic struggles of the poor are rendered largely invisible by a corporate media that caters to the demands of advertisers and is addicted to ratings. This is why protestors in poor neighborhoods attack camera crews. It is why crowds trashed the CNN headquarters in Atlanta. The poor know that these reporters only appear to film or write about looting, fires and rioting, never exposing or explaining the long slow drip of neglect, poverty, police terror, mass incarceration and humiliation that make the eruptions comprehensible.
“My earliest memory is of coming home from kindergarten,” Lawrence said. “My mom and I would watch TV shows together in the afternoons. That day, I came in through the door and saw my mom sitting on the couch with Reggie holding a shotgun to her head. And she said in a very calm voice, ‘Go upstairs.’ And so, I did. Something didn’t feel right, but I didn’t understand what was going on. At that age, you believe your mom, so I thought everything must be OK.”
“I had a couple of guinea pigs that I would take care of, and they can be dirty and will, you know, make a mess everywhere,” he said. “One day, Reggie told me to clean up after them, and I said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ but I didn’t clean up the mess right away. So, later on, without saying anything, he brought his dog up to the second floor where the guinea pigs were kept. He let his dog behind the gate at the top of the stairs and the dog went in and ate the guinea pigs. He would do things like that. Just sadistic. Another time, we had some small dogs like poodles that were outside one night — and this was winter — and he took some water and threw it all over them and closed the door with them still outside. They froze to death.”
“It was like walking on eggshells all the time. Everyone would have to be quiet whenever he was home. My mom would try to keep us all quiet by having us play board games or do other quiet things. The door was set up with a lock on the inside and the outside, so you would need a key to get out of the house. And we couldn’t go into the basement or their bedroom. They were off limits. I don’t think I saw into my mom and Reggie’s bedroom until I was maybe seven or eight years old. I can remember hearing fights going on upstairs. Like, you would hear things being thrown around and breaking or like my mom being thrown around. And then, after a few minutes, there would just be silence. He would come downstairs like nothing had happened and leave. Then we would go find my mom and she would have a swollen face and bruises, putting ice on her face in front of the mirror. And I just remember wanting to get bigger so I could beat him up. I wanted to kill him for doing that to my mom. The saddest thing was that even when he wasn’t home, we would still act like he was. Because he drove a tow truck for work, we didn’t know when he was going to show up, so we always acted like he was home.”
Lawrence’s oldest brother, Gary, was about 20. He was in and out of prison. He was “everybody’s hero because he would stand up to Reggie.” By the time Lawrence was seven or eight the only children left in the house were his sister, who Reggie sexually molested, and himself. His sister once jumped from the attic window trying to escape from Reggie and broke her ankles. Reggie’s fury and violence intensified. His mother tried to leave, but Reggie would take Lawrence or his sister hostage until his mother returned. Reggie once took Lawrence when he was about seven or eight to the apartment of a stranger after picking him up from school. Reggie called his mother and said he was going to give Lawrence pills, which he told Lawrence was candy. His mother shouted over the phone for him not to swallow the pills. She agreed to come back to Reggie if he would hand her son back to her.
Reggie called his mother and said he was going to give Lawrence pills, which he told Lawrence was candy. His mother shouted over the phone for him not to swallow the pills. She agreed to come back to Reggie if he would hand her son back to her.
“For a long time, I was angry with her for not leaving,” he said. “I blamed her for allowing us to be abused by him. But later on, as I thought more about it, I could see how she couldn’t leave. I learned about Battered Woman Syndrome and how people can be manipulated, and I know that that’s what happened to her. After being angry with her for years, I was able to let go of blaming her. I forgave her. And then I also had to forgive myself for ever blaming her.”
On June 22, 1985 his mother collapsed in the kitchen.
“We called 9-1-1,” he said. “I held her head in my lap while we waited for the ambulance to come. It was a blood clot in her lung, a pulmonary embolism. She was dead there on the floor, but I think they revived her at the hospital. Then she died on the operating table, if I remember correctly.”
Reggie came home that night from the hospital.
“Your mother died, and I don’t want to hear anything out of you,” he told the children.
“He forbade us from crying about it,” Lawrence said. “I remember the exact song that was playing when he told us she died. My sister and I just sat there in the living room for what must have been a long time. For months after she died, I wouldn’t speak to anyone. Sometimes I would whisper to my sister, but I stopped talking to other people for a while. Before she died, I didn’t smoke weed. Before she died, I was a good student. I started getting into trouble at school after that. I got into my first fight that year in school, my first physical fight. A kid said something about my mom, some joke about her being stupid. I grabbed a chair and hit him with it. I think there was a rage inside of me that wasn’t there before. No school counselor or anyone else talked to me. I am the epitome of systemic failures. If you want to talk about how systems fail, just look at my life. There isn’t anyone available to help you in that situation. I never remember the police coming around the house except for maybe once when my brothers were brought home for playing hooky. So, after the police left, we all watched as they got beaten. But no one ever intervened.”
“No school counselor or anyone else talked to me. I am the epitome of systemic failures. If you want to talk about how systems fail, just look at my life. There isn’t anyone available to help you in that situation.”
The death of Lawrence’s mother deeply affected his older brother Troy who was manic-depressive and an alcoholic. Troy, after his mother’s death, tried to kill himself by cutting his arm from his wrist almost to his elbow with a hunting knife.
“I was sitting on the porch with my sister when Troy called once,” Lawrence said. “He was crying and drunk. He told her that he was going to kill himself. So, I got in my car, I had been driving since I was twelve, and drove over to the cemetery where my mom was buried. He was sitting at her grave. He was drunk and crying and said he wanted to die. I went over to talk to him. And I’m not sure if it was a moment of clarity or a moment of acceptance, but I went back to my car and got my gun. I loaded it and handed it to him and said, ‘Here. If you want to die, put it in your mouth. You won’t miss.’ He looked at me for a moment, then he got up and walked to my car and got in.”
Troy later tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the stomach. Troy visited Lawrence in prison a few times.
“He died a few years ago from heart complications, tuberculosis, alcoholism — you pick the reason,” Lawrence said.
Six months after his mother died Reggie was arrested and sent to prison. Lawrence moved in with an older woman, a friend of his mother’s, who lived across the street, who he called Grandma. But she soon left for New York City and passed Lawrence into the care of her daughter Debbie, who was bipolar and physically abusive.
“Debbie was sort of like my guardian, if you can call her that, but she wasn’t officially my guardian,” he said. “That’s now an issue in my case — to this day, the state of New Jersey doesn’t know who my legal guardian was after my mom died. Debbie wasn’t legally responsible for me, so she wasn’t able to give the police permission to interrogate me like they claimed. I got left with Debbie because I guess Grandma thought it would be good for Debbie to have the responsibility of taking care of me. She thought it would calm her down and give her more stability.”
“Reggie’s abuse was sometimes physical but mostly psychological, but Debbie’s was just physical,” he said. “It would get to the point where it was a preemptive beating. When I’d come home from school, she’d say, ‘I know you did something,’ and beat me. And she was smoking and selling weed. The house was raided by police multiple times when I was staying there. She got me to sell weed for her. She’d say that if I wanted new sneakers, I would need to earn them. I’d see other boys I knew selling drugs and making money. One day Debbie asked me where my friends were getting their money from, and I said drugs. She said, ‘Well, why don’t you go out there with them?’ So, I started selling for her. I’d sell dime bags. One package was 35 bags, so I’d give $300 to Debbie and keep $50 for myself. That was a standard cut at the time. After that, I always had money. I saved a lot of what I made. I was the kind of kid who would keep at least $20 in my shoe at all times. I would take my money, go buy an ounce of weed, pack it up into bags, and sell it myself. I was making more that way. That was the end of depending on her.”
He still had a key to his old house on 25th Street, although it was abandoned. He started sleeping there at night. He carried a gun, a .32 special, fearful of being robbed.
“Before I went to sleep, I’d spread some gravel over the porch so that I could hear if anyone came up to the house during the night,” he said. “I could sell drugs and take care of myself without her. My sister was still around. She would argue with me and tell me I needed to stop selling, but at the same time, she was accepting my help. She had little kids by now and she was struggling financially. So, even though she didn’t want me to sell drugs, she needed Pampers for her kids and she accepted my money.”
He got a girl pregnant when he was thirteen. She had an abortion.
“It felt like another loss,” he said. “I never had suicidal thoughts or a desire to die like Troy, but I will say that I was sort of numb. I didn’t care about living. One night … I was sitting on my porch smoking weed and taking pain pills. I was drinking beer, too. I had been given a prescription for the pills because I was hit by a car and broke both of my knees. I also had head trauma from the car accident. I was sitting in a chair on my porch with my legs propped up because they were in a soft cast, and taking these pills, but they weren’t helping. I took another one, and nothing. I took a few more, still nothing — no help with the pain. A friend of mine had some Xanax, so he gave me some, and I took one or two. Not long after that, my sister came over and saw me on the porch with the pills. And she said, ‘What are you doing mixing those pills with all of that? You’re gonna kill yourself.’ And my response was just, so? That was my attitude toward life then – I didn’t care if I died.”
“Imagine that you are fourteen, still a kid, and you are brought into a courtroom,” he said. “You have these adults around that you’ve never met before and they are saying things you don’t understand. You catch a few words like ‘murder’ and ‘rape,’ but you still don’t know what they are talking about. It happens really fast and then they take you away, back to the youth house — the correctional facility. That’s what it was like. That whole hearing was like a blur. Next thing I know I’m in the youth house, I was meeting with a lawyer, then going to see a psychiatrist for an evaluation. But I don’t fully understand what’s going on. That’s why I never want to be in a situation where I can’t follow what the people around me are saying. Part of what drives me to learn and be ready for anything, any conversation, is wanting to prevent that from ever happening again.”
He spent 22 months in jail before going to trial.
“The judge decided to charge me as an adult because of the seriousness of the crime,” Lawrence said. “He said I didn’t seem remorseful. But what they didn’t think about was the effect that being in jail had on me. I saw two people get killed when I was there. During the trial, my mind was partially focused on that, keeping myself prepared for going back into that situation. They interpreted that as indifference and a lack of remorse. One thing that the judge said has stuck with me. He called me ‘irredeemable.’ I’ve been working hard and working on myself all this time to prove him wrong. I want him to be able to look at me and admit that he was wrong about [that]. If I saw him again, I’d tell him, ‘You were wrong about me. But that’s OK, it’s OK as long as other kids — babies — don’t end up being locked up like I was.’”
“The judge decided to charge me as an adult because of the seriousness of the crime. He said I didn’t seem remorseful. But what they didn’t think about was the effect that being in jail had on me. I saw two people get killed when I was there. During the trial, my mind was partially focused on that, keeping myself prepared for going back into that situation. They interpreted that as indifference and a lack of remorse.”
“After the trial, they took me away, stripped me down and put me in a jail uniform,” he said. “That’s when it became real and I knew what was happening. I went to the jail that night, but the people at the jail didn’t want to admit me at first. I was so small and looked young. They were calling their supervisors to find out what to do with me. That first night I was put in a holding cell with other guys. And one of the guys was staring at me, looking at me funny. I started a fight with him — I felt like I had to. I was taken away and I ended up being placed in protective custody. It’s a block for anyone who can’t be in the general population. I was in isolation. It’s called ‘23 and one’ — 23 hours in isolation and one hour outside of your cell each day. I would count all the bricks in my cell, all the lines on the walls. I still do that. I will count all of the photos in a magazine or every time a word or phrase shows up in a book. I learned that habit while in isolation. The hardest part, probably, is being alone with your thoughts. They were concerned for my safety because I was so small and skinny. But there were, I think, six pedophiles on that block. I wanted out. So, I signed a waiver so that I could join the general population.”
Lawrence’s brother Gary was known within the prison population. His friends watched out for Lawrence, who was now 17-years-old and at Garden State prison.
“A man named Salaam, who was like a father figure to me, really took care of me,” he said. “Whenever I was getting into trouble or fights, he’d come and talk to me. Reverend Du Bois was another person who helped me a lot. He was the head chaplain at Garden State. He showed me respect and really cared about me even though I was Muslim, and he was Christian.”
East Jersey State Prison.
“There was a time when members of the Bloods tried to take over the chapel,” he said. “Some guys, including me, intervened on behalf of Reverend Du Bois. He was really well-liked and respected by everyone. In the end, the Bloods backed off. I bring up this story because not all Christians were as accepting of me as a Muslim as Rev. Du Bois. Years ago, I wrote to Centurion ministries asking for help with my case. They said they wanted to help but that they were focused on helping Christians, not Muslims. They might have felt differently about taking on my case if they had known how I’d put my neck on the line to help Christians like Rev. Du Bois.”
“When I was young, people didn’t give me chance,” he said. “Nobody intervened, nobody tried to help or took me aside and said that they believed in me. But once I got to prison, I encountered people who cared about me and really wanted to help. As soon as I was given a chance, I took to it like a fish to water. So many teachers and classes have had an impact on me over the years. My teachers have been mentors. They stand as examples of what I want to be and show me what is possible. Every day, I am trying to make progress and be a little better than I was yesterday. I’m always learning, growing. It may be that today I learn a new word or work through a puzzle – anything that challenges me. Something in me pushes me to keep getting better. My most prized possessions are my books. I have nice, hardbound editions of The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and others. I love reading Homer and Ovid and the classics. I’ve read everything that Shakespeare has written. I actually have a one-volume edition of Shakespeare’s works. I like his sonnets and comedies the most. My favorite book is probably Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. I read that one a long time ago and still like it. You’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy, right? Right now, I am writing a book that follows my life as a journey through the different stages in the Divine Comedy. It sees my own experiences as part of a journey that leads to the discovery of self. I remember thinking when I first read the Divine Comedy that his idea of Purgatory is sort of what it feels like being in prison.”
Lawrence would not have walked out of East Jersey State Prison on Sunday without Sellitti.
“When I first started as a lawyer, my boss in Wooster was this guy named Mike Hussy, who is an amazing attorney,” Sellitti told me. “He’s retired now. And I would go to court all the time, and I would come back from court, you know this little new lawyer, and he would say to me, ‘Doing justice?’ And on the days when I did something great in court, when I got a great victory for a client, I’d be like ‘Yeah! Yeah! I’m doing justice!’ And on the days when things went wrong, I’d be like, ‘No, no justice today.’ And then finally, one day, I believed my client was innocent, but he got such a good deal and he really wanted to take it. I didn’t want him to, but I understood what he was doing, and he took it. I came back to the office and he asked, ‘Doing justice?’ I said, ‘I have absolutely no idea.’ He said, ‘I’ve been asking you that question for two years, and you finally got the answer right.’ And that’s like, kind of the best way you can look at the system. Half the time, I’m like, I don’t know.”
Those who know Lawrence and who were released before him have used the last few weeks to fill my garage with household items. We applied for and received a grant from the Lilah Hilliard Fisher foundation to rent a small apartment in East Orange, NJ. In the fall he will finish his degree at Rutgers. We will pool our meager resources, because no one else will, to help him resurrect his life. It is a victory for us. But it does nothing to halt the onslaught that continues around us. There is only triage, the attempts, often by those most abused by the system, to extract a little justice. I cling emotionally to these tiny victories — a job for a student who was released, covering the rent for a student who got out and was evicted from his fiancée’s trailer because of his conviction 30 years earlier, buying a computer for a student who matriculated to Rutgers but did not have any money. These victories keep me going, but they do little to blunt our callous indifference to the most vulnerable among us.
In the fall he will finish his degree at Rutgers. We will pool our meager resources, because no one else will, to help him resurrect his life. It is a victory for us. But it does nothing to halt the onslaught that continues around us.
You become fatalistic, you strive against a monolithic evil knowing that whatever you achieve is Pyrrhic, that the system flourishes despite your efforts. And yet, what binds you, what keeps you going, are these relationships. How can you walk away? How can you do nothing? If you stand with the oppressed and are defeated have you failed? Or does one succeed by simply being willing to make that journey, to show them they are not forgotten, not alone? And while Lawrence’s release is minuscule when set against the vast injustice around us, it is not minuscule to us.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the last volume of the Gulag Archipelago, once he is released and sent into internal exile, writes of a Serb, a teacher, also in forced exile, named Georgi Stepanovich Mitrovich. He, too, had been recently freed from the gulag. Mitrovich would not give up his dogged battle with local authorities for justice for his students.
“His battle was utterly hopeless, and he knew it,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “No one could unravel that tangled skein. And if he had won hands down, it would have done nothing to improve the social order, the system. It would have been no more than a brief, vague gleam of hope in one narrow little spot, quickly swallowed by the clouds. Nothing that victory might bring could balance the risk of rearrest — which was the price he might pay.” (Only the Khrushchev era saved Mitrovich).
“Yes, his battle was hopeless, but it was human to be outraged by injustice, even to the point of courting destruction! His struggle could only end in defeat — but no one could possibly call it useless. If we had not all been so sensible, not all been forever whining to each other: ‘It won’t help! It can’t do any good!’ our land would have been quite different.”
This essay first appeared on Scheerpost.