A controversial new book opens wounds over a 23-year-old murder and in the process reveals hideous truths about youth incarceration in America
And so it was, in a country ruled by Lady Justice Red, that sixteen-year-old Massachusetts high school sophomore Karter Kane Reed was charged with first-degree murder and ultimately sentenced to life in an adult prison. According to the Boston Herald, on April 12, 1993, Karter “stormed” into a high school classroom and stabbed an unarmed boy named Jason Robinson, also sixteen years old. The reasons why evolved for Karter as he understood more about himself, but the facts were distilled by many news sources into this: Karter Reed, along with two friends, arrived at a local high school to finish an earlier fight, and their actions set off a firestorm in the quiet town of Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Something had, as Karter himself later professed, gone “horribly wrong” in his life.
–From Boy With A Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. By Jean Trounstine (IG Publishing).
The nightmare of mass youth incarceration is no longer a topic that will get you dismissed from the dinner table. Twenty years ago, when prison reform advocate and author Jean Trounstine started teaching inmates and examining their lives in the process, virtually everything that happened behind bars stayed there. But thanks to an army of compassionate activists and a complementary cocktail of coalescing cultural, social, and economic factors, there is an increasing awareness and concern about a range of criminal justice issues.
A professor of humanities at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Trounstine has always worked and researched far ahead of trends. Her inspirational and influential 2001 book, Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama In A Women’s Prison, was the new black decades before orange, and in addition to writing about female inmates she has elevated the discussion about the hundreds of thousands of young people who are bulldozed through our so-called corrections gauntlet each year.
Writing about all the young people who are held in adult prisons and jails in America, Trounstine outlines broader issues then drills deep into the youth offender system through the lens of Karter Kane Reed, who as a 16-year-old 26 years ago stabbed a fellow teen to death. Convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, Reed was incarcerated for 20 years before being released in 2013—in large part because the Supreme Court of the United States ruling that sentencing juveniles to life without parole violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2007, Reed started communicating with Trounstine, and 100-plus letters and several years later, Boy With A Knife emerges with the troubling yet critical story of innumerable former delinquents.
The book, just released last week, has already caused a minor uproar. Protesters are expected outside of Trounstine’s signing and reading at Porter Square Books in Somerville this Tuesday, while her project was the topic of a lengthy feature in last Sunday’s New Bedford Standard-Times. The family and friends of the victim, Jason Robinson, are especially angry that the author will be bringing Reed, who is still on parole, along to subsequent events. We asked Trounstine about the controversy, and about her larger mission of making society safer through ethical prison reform.
Today, more than twenty years later, we have learned that it is wrong to treat kids as if they were little adults, no matter what crime they may have committed. Yet many of the same policies that impacted Karter Reed back in the 1990s continue to affect incarcerated youth today. On average, approximately 250,000 youths are currently processed in adult courts each year, a large number for drugs, burglary, theft, and property crimes, as well as for violent acts. While the age of adulthood in all states but New York and North Carolina (as of 2015) is eighteen, juveniles as young as twelve in Colorado can be tried as adults for capital crimes. Of the 250,000 facing adult imprisonment, the Sentencing Project reported in 2013 that 10,000 had been convicted of crimes that occurred before they turned eighteen, and subsequently resulted in life sentences behind bars.
–From Boy With A Knife
Chris Faraone: How do you introduce yourself these days? Writer? Activist?
Trounstine: Professor, activist, and author.
In that order?
I would go author, activist, and professor.
You are ever-present on some of these [criminal justice] issues. Do you feel like the topics you spend your whole life paying attention to are ones that most other people tend to ignore completely?
When I first started teaching in prison I was very isolated. Before I wrote Shakespeare Behind Bars—that was published in 2001 but I started it in 1990—nobody was talking about this stuff. It was my introduction to incarceration by working in prison. I was naive, I didn’t know anything, but that’s what got me interested in what’s going on. That was a happy story about women succeeding in doing a play; it was a powerful story, but it was a niche book. Nobody had really been writing about women at the time, and gradually through the years the book lasted. The paperback is still in print. But also [9/11] happened, and nobody was really interested in prison in that way because of “terrorism.”
What was the connection between that event and prison reform?
As the world began to be more and more afraid of violence and terrorism, my interests were not what the regular public were interested in. People wanted to know why I was writing about prison. Now we’ve had this sea change, and because of this financial interest—not because of moral interest—there’s much more talk about these issues nationally. In [the Democratic debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in Brooklyn], even they were fighting over who has the best criminal justice policy. In a way there’s a fashionableness to this. It’s good for those of us who are doing activism, and there’s a concern that it will also fade out and people will just jump into the next thing they’re concerned about.
There are so many stories about people behind bars that could be books in their own right. What are some of the cases you came across early in your work with prisoners that made you realize that certain examples are worth communicating to a larger audience?
The stories of the women I met behind bars really stuck with me. They weren’t what they were portrayed as in the media. Particularly one woman who I wrote a lot about, her nickname was Dolly. She was put in prison for second degree murder; she didn’t pull the trigger, she didn’t do anything. She was the person who supposedly encouraged the crime, though there was no proof. Her boyfriend got in a fight and killed somebody. Even before that, I lived in California and there was a play I saw called ‘The Cage,’ and it was with men who were formerly imprisoned at San Quentin. They toured and told the stories of talented human beings who lived behind bars who no one knew about. These lives weren’t wasted, but people had squandered certain opportunities or never had opportunities to begin with. It’s always very interesting and disturbing at the same time.
How do you feel the way that women in prison are portrayed in media and society has changed or evolved over the years?
There’s a much stronger presence of women who are getting out of prison and becoming activists. Andrea James in Massachusetts did a conference and brought women who are doing amazing work to change the prison system—people who had their sons incarcerated, or who themselves were incarcerated. Justice Is Healing is her organization. What’s changed nationally, for men too, is the movement of people who say people who have been part of the problem should be part of the solution.
At what juncture does a story like the one about Karter become something bigger, like a book?
Karter reached out to me—I wouldn’t have known anything about him. I get some letters, but his was just phenomenal to me—I didn’t know what to make of it. I had a sense when I received this letter that something important was going to happen if I responded. Consciously I only intended to write back offering to give him the information he needed, but the correspondence just developed, and through that I learned things about the prison system and parole and about men in prison vs women in prison.
Do you feel that when these issues are generally addressed, that there’s not enough of a human face attached to them?
Absolutely. I was very stereotypical of my image of men behind bars before I met Karter. I always understood he had murdered someone, which is horrible, but the challenge for me was to see the crime and how horrible it was for the families and the community and to also see the person.
There’s no script for reporting a book like this. What process did you end up establishing, if any?
I researched by talking to Karter’s family. I had our letters, I had the trial transcripts. I went to the library in New Bedford and found out everything I could about the crime. I spoke with people who lived in the town. I made a choice to not talk to the [victim’s] family because I thought it would be too painful for them; I thought it was a good idea not to alert them, since it was such a wound.
Was the backlash to be expected?
I guess so, but not to this extent. I think it’s hurt and rage. I have no problem if somebody wants to have a civil dialogue with me about this—I think one of the reasons to have a book like this is to have a conversation. I have three goals—to show what the Supreme Court says, which is that a child who commits a crime is capable of change; to make clear that the best way to treat kids is not through the adult prison system, to help kids and society and keep us safe; the third is to add to the conversation and to be a part of this and contribute.
How does this all tie into everything that’s happening right now? Do you have any specific thoughts on the Massachusetts prison system that you’d like to share? In the book you note that, “In 2014, Massachusetts passed harsher juvenile sentencing laws for first-degree lifers, setting parole eligibility between 20 and 30 years … Under this law, a 14-year-old convicted of murder could get put away for three decades before a parole eligibility hearing.”
I’ll tell you all about parole. We talk about wanting to have people out of prison, but we’ve gotten stingier about parole—particularly to people who have committed life crimes. Parole makes us safer. Parole, with good supervision—and I’ve written about this a lot—is a good thing, not a bad thing. Keeping people behind bars for longer and longer periods of time does not help.
If we’re really serious about decarceration, we need to stop just talking about people who have committed nonviolent crimes. Because truthfully, the people who are in our prisons—more than we talk about—have committed violent crimes. We have to stop giving them longer and longer sentences, we have to help them get out, we have to have better re-entry programs.
Trounstine will read from Boy With A Knife at Porter Square Books on Tuesday, 4.19; at Middlesex Community College on Monday, 4.25; and at Harvard Law School on Tuesday, 4.10.