I remember every detail of my life-changing conversation with a battered old prisoner who had been incarcerated for more than 40 years that day in 1964, but it was this man’s final 12 words that sparked the fire in me to grow from being a predatory criminal to eventually becoming a service-oriented community contributor. As he hobbled down the corridor in the area of the old Central Prison known as the “back hall,” Babe Dillard said: “Don’t keep on being a fool and wind up making my mistake!”
Damn, I said to myself that old man just called me a fool, as my quick tempered anger swelled in my chest. Suddenly from some place quiet calm engulfed my mind. I pondered what Dillard had advised: do not continue being a fool; do not wind up making his mistake. What was I doing that made me a fool? One word–crime. Later, I came to understand and now teach that crime is stupid and the more you do it, the more stupid you become. It is possible to become incurably stupid. What was Babe Dillard’s mistake? He had wasted his life, spending 40 of his 67 years either in prison, on escape from prison, or trying to get over on enough people to make the next sentence seem to be worth it.
Dillard’s reputation rang through the NC Prison Department (in the days before it became the NC Department of Correction). He had allegedly escaped from escape proof prisons. He had allegedly fought dozens of guards to a standstill. He had allegedly killed hound dogs in the woods as they tracked him. But that day, Dillard told me a much different story. He said that he lost all of his encounters with prison officials. He said a pack of dogs had almost killed him before the handlers pulled them off. He had the scars to prove his accounts. At one point, Dillard said emphatically: “Boy you can’t beat this (expletive deleted) chain gang,”
As this battered old man hobbled down the corridor a frightening picture flashed before me. I saw myself hobbling down the corridor of another prison decades later trying to convince some foolish young criminal to stop being a fool and to not make my mistakes. I was 22 years old. I had gotten expelled from Hillside High School in Durham, NC within the first three monhs of my 10th grade year. As a last resort, my mother enrolled me Laurinburg Institute, a private school in eastern North Carolina with a reputation for helping kids turn around their lives. I was there about three months and wound up in jail for stealing.
In other words, it was only a matter of time before I went to prison. The first sentence began in December 1959–2 to 5 years–and ended in May 1962. I was out just long enough to pass the General Education Development examination, but before receiving my certificate, I was back in prison, this time with a 5-7 year sentence. After about a year picking cotton, harvesting sweet potatoes and picking a variety of other vegetables grown at Caledonia, a huge prison farm, I tried to escape, along with another inmate. We never made it off the compound. But here I was this day waiting to see the Classification Committee to be reclassified into close custody and shipped to Odom, another huge farm in the North Carolina prison system.
I had no idea that a random conversation with an old convict would become an epiphany experience for me.