How I Got Famous -
With the Help of the New York Times
Starting in early 1974, and following a brief period of involvement with the correctional system in New Jersey where I taught young inmates how to read, I spent four years as a youth counselor with the New York State, Division for Youth, the agency that maintains the Juvenile Corrections system. Accepting the New York job reflected a hope that I was entering a system that provided intervention to help keep some of these kids out of the adult prison system.
Willie Bosket convinced me that my hope was only a fantasy. He was one of the best examples of how uncorrecting, the correctional system could be and eventually became my reason for resigning. A few months after my departure, Bosket killed two people in a subway robbery that brought him less than three dollars. As Willie was not yet sixteen, he could not be prosecuted as an adult and was sentenced to serve five years in a youth institution. The New York State Legislature, with the support of the Governor, changed the law to permit youthful offenders charged with a serious crime to be tried as adults. In the Capitol Building halls, the legislation was known as the Bosket Bill.
Willie committed a number of other crimes, some in jail and some during a brief period of release a few years later. His fame was his undoing and now he was over the legal age. Judges, no longer restrained by restrictions governing juvenile criminals, gave him the maximum sentence each time. During one of his upstate New York prison terms, he stabbed a guard in an unprovoked attack.
In the spring of 1989, he was tried for that crime and the trial was reported in The New York Times. The articles inspired me to write a piece for Op Ed page which I entitled "HOW DO YOU MAKE A MONSTER?" The Times published the article on April 21, 1989, coincidentally appearing the morning after the famous Central Park Jogger rape.
I became a talk show celebrity overnight, appearing on programs with people like Diane Sawyer and Connie Chung. But that's a separate story and someday I may write a piece about the making of a short-term TV celebrity... me. The scary part of the entire episode was finding out that the criticisms I voiced of the youth correctional system, based on experience more than a decade old, were still as valid in 1989 as they had been in 1977.
Eventually, Fox Butterfield, an award-winning New York Times reporter contacted me because he decided to do a book about Willie. Fox spent a whole day with me taking notes as I remembered those long-ago events. I even made him a tuna fish sandwich but all I got was one short mention in the book. Only kidding... the work is fantastic and if you have any interest at all, read ALL GOD'S CHILDREN by Fox Butterfield, or, at least click on the title for a book review.
The following is a combination
of how I originally wrote the piece along with some of the better
editing provided by The New York Times. I offer the essay under
the title chosen by that "Great White Father of
Newspapers," because who am I to argue with the Times?
BOSKET'S LAW: TROUBLE SETS YOU FREE
I was almost Willie Bosket's first murder victim. In 1977, the 14 year old "terror of Brookwood," now known as New York's most incorrigible inmate, took a pool cue by the thin end and swung it like a club, aiming it at my scull. I moved and the tip of the stick brushed by my nose. All of his attention and energy went into the assault and he had not expected to fail. When he did, he was disoriented and off balance so I tackled him and pinned him to the floor of the gymnasium. Today, the 26 year old convicted killed has committed so many additional crimes, he won't be eligible for parole until he is 79.
Twelve years ago, my job title was "child care worker" employed by the New York State Division for Youth and assigned to the Brookwood Center for Boys in upstate Claverack, New York. In reality though, I was a jailer for teenagers. Willie Bosket, then just fourteen, was under my care for about six months.
When Willie was assigned to Brookwood, the director called a special staff meeting to warn us of his arrival. The news was not well received by the veteran workers. They'd had Willie before. Maybe because we were new, and maybe because we were a little younger and little stronger than many of the other staff, my coworker Bob and I were given the happy news that Willie would be assigned to our wing.
Although group therapy and other "rehabilitative" programs were administered by the day shift, it was common knowledge that the 4-12 -- our shift -- was the most difficult. We had to relate to the youngsters without the assistance of teachers, classrooms and other distractions. We were in charge during those touchy hours when the boys were locked away for the night in their individual single rooms.
Willie Bosket and I became "friends." We spend many hours on many evenings in deep conversation. Willie demanded a tremendous amount of attention and approval. He was a completely institutionalized youngster -- highly manipulative and very charming. A stranger would have wondered why he was even incarcerated. Yet I remember the ease and conviction with which he said that killing someone would be "no big deal."
To him the attack on me was not unprovoked. Two weeks earlier I broke up a fight between Willie and another resident. The boy turned his rage on me and I responded by locking him in an isolation room. This was my last night of work before a vacation.
On my first evening back I took six boys to the gym for recreation. Most of them shot baskets while Willie Bosket and I played pool. He waited until he thought my guard was down and then he tried to take revenge. To Willie's street sense of honor and morality, his action was perfectly appropriate and totally justified.
Again I locked him in a room -- for one hour. The regulations required that a boy could not be isolated for longer if he demonstrated that he was calm and in control of himself -- even if his offense was attempted assault. Willie was calm within fifteen minutes. He knew the rules and the smile he gave me when I unlocked the door was a grin of victory.
I resigned a few days later. This was my fifth time I was attacked in sixteen months. (and I was considered to be a popular staff member) In my final report on Willie Bosket I said that the boy was completely amoral and capable of doing serious harm to himself or others.
A few months after I resigned, Willie was released to a group home, despite numerous incidents that continued to suggest that he was incapable of functioning in anything but the most structured environment. But Willie had learned -- the more trouble you make in a youth institution, the more likely you were to get released.
I went along on the trip to New York City and visited the institution he where he was to reside. Bob and I were not there five minutes when we concluded that Willie couldn't last a month. A few weeks later Bob called to tell me about Willie Bosket's role in two subway murders.
Basically the system stinks. "Experts" have implied that any chance for Willie's salvation was destroyed when he was sent to Brookwood Center because he was housed with "other inmates who were in for murder, rape and armed robbery."
Though Willie Bosket was confined for only simple robbery, he was one of the most dangerous youngsters in the entire place. The murders, rapists and armed robbers were much easier to control. A complex set of laws and regulations -- appropriately designed to prevent abuse of children in institutions -- became a shield that kept us from protecting the other kids from Willie and even Willie from himself.
Rehabilitation was out of the question. Even discipline was almost impossible. Willie knew the system better than we did. He'd lived in it longer.
When Brookwood Center inherited Willie Bosket it was probably too late to help him. The monster had already been created. Certainly part of the failure belongs to society but I keep remembering that some of the boys -- some convicted of far more serious offenses -- returned to those same streets and managed, somehow, to turn their lives around. The unfortunate part is that the legacy of Willie Bosket has not even taught us anything.
"I'm sure you are going to kill somebody (else)," the judge told Willie Bosket at his sentencing. A lot of people who took care of young Willie during his institutional career knew that too. Yet even in prison he was still not searched carefully enough to find the homemade knife he used to stab a guard.
If we can't find a way to save the Willie Boskets, can't we at least find a way to save us from them?
"I'll haunt this damn system," Willie Bosket has promised. I believe him.
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