Actor Charles S. Dutton joined Roland Martin on the set of Washington Watch to discuss his latest film projects and what he says to encourage young African-American men who are incarcerated.
MR. MARTIN: Here’s more of my interview with Charles Dutton.
[RESUME INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES DUTTON.]
MR. MARTIN: You spent seven years in prison.
MR. DUTTON: More than seven. Se- — seven and-a-half the last time, 12 all total.
MR. MARTIN: Twelve to- — [crosstalk] –
MR. DUTTON: Seven and-a-half the last time.
MR. MARTIN: — so, you – so, you we- — you were in prison twice. That’s where you found your voice.
MR. DUTTON: Um-hum.
MR. MARTIN: What do you say to these young, black men out here who are either on their way, who are going down that path, or who are already in that system, who think, “Look, I have no life. I can’t accomplish anything. This is the only thing I really can do”?
MR. DUTTON: Um-hum. Well, you know, I – I speak in prisons all the time, Roland. You know, all – all over the country, and – and it’s getting more difficult because of the amount of time they’re handing these young African-American and Latino men –
MR. MARTIN: Twenty, 30 –
MR. DUTTON: — you know –
MR. MARTIN: — 40, 50 –
MR. DUTTON: — with- — without –
MR. MARTIN: — years.
MR. DUTTON: — parole. You know? That’s the thing, too: without parole. The federal system – there’s no parole in the federal system. So, it’s hard to go into a federal prison and tell a guy, “Get your GED,” when he’s got 80 years without the possibility of parole – which means he’ll do 74 years. And – if he gets good behavior.
And so a kid that’s 19 – a prime example: there’s a kid in – in the Coleman correctional federal facil- — system outside of Orlando, the largest federal prison in the state. I mean in the country – federal prison. I kept staring at this kid. I was speaking there a couple of years ago, and he came up to me [and] said, “Hi. You know my uncle.”
And I said, “Who’s your uncle?”
He told me his uncle, and me and his uncle were in prison together when we were kids.
MR. MARTIN: Wow!
MR. DUTTON: And I said, “Wow.” I said, “What are you in for?”
So, he told me. And he was only about 29. He went in when – ten years earlier when he was 19, but I could see it was just dawning on him that he now realized, after ten years, that his life was finished. He had life without the possibility of parole. Went in at 19 years old, and for those first ten years at 19, he was still a kid. He was probably play- — playing – playing basketball, running around the prison having fun. And now he – it dawned on him that his life is over, and he said something that almost brought me to tears. He said, “Could you go by my grandmother house an’ tell her to get me a lawyer?”
Now, his grandma lives in the housing projects –
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. DUTTON: — raising her great-grandchildren. And I couldn’t tell the kid that his grandma ain’t got no money. I just had to say, “Sure. I’ll” – “I’ll go” – “I’ll go talk to her.”
So, what I do when I talk to folks [is] I try to tell them in my day – 35, 40 years ago – most states were spending tens of millions in those days on rehabilitation. But those days are over with. It’s punishment now.
MR. MARTIN: Put ’em in. Lock ’em up.
MR. DUTTON: Lock ’em up, and that’s it.
MR. MARTIN: “See ya when you’re o-” –
MR. DUTTON: That’s it.
MR. MARTIN: — “when your” –
MR. DUTTON: And – and –
MR. MARTIN: — “time is up.”
MR. DUTTON: — and it is true when people say – people scream, “Oh, you’re exaggerating.” The — there’s a plan for the – there’s a plan in every state for the 17-year-old who hasn’t even been born yet. The prison is being planned. You know? And – and the ki- — and the person hasn’t even been born yet!
So, you know, you don’t – you don’t pla- — build a prison just because you say, in any state, “Oh, my God. We” – “We got a problem. We gotta build a prison.” Those things are build- – those things are thought of way in advance. We know from third grade – when they’re [in] third grade where they’re going to end up. And so we[’ve] got to – we[’ve] got to house them somewhere.
So, it’s – it’s a tough thing to answer because on one level – I can speak from my experiences – when you could get out, when you could get out [on] parole and – and make parole, and they had programs to help you – I went to college in prison. I got a[n] associate arts degree – a two-year degree in prison, while I was in the penitentiary. Those days are over with now s- — in – in the prisons.
But what I do – I said, “Listen. You’ve got to try to discover” – “or, rediscover your own humanity while you’re here because sometimes these things are cyclical. Sometimes political winds change, and then parole and stuff starts again. So, you’ve got to be ready to be a better person if those things change. So, get your GED. Try to take college courses. Try to advance and” – “and change your life while you’re here. Otherwise, you’re going to be a dinosaur” – you know – “and – and the world is going to pass you by. And if you do have a sentence that means that” – “that” – “you have a sentence that says you can make parole, you have to somehow try to better yourself.”
And – and it’s a[n] interesting thing, what – what I tell young – really young guys. “Real tough guys” – I mean real tough guys – “are leaders, not followers. So, the minute one of your buddies say[s], ‘Let’s start this prison riot,’ ‘Let’s go stab this guy,’ ‘Let’s beat that guard up,’ if you’re a real tough guy, you can say, ‘Man, I’m finished with that. I ain’t doin’ that.’” I said, “So, the difference between admitting what” – “what you are – a leader or a follower,” I said, “that’s the first thing.”
And then the last thing is that everybody has to look in the mirror. In – in the solitude of their prison, he or she has to look in that mirror and say, “You know what? I’m finished.” And it’s almost dealing with a drug addict. You know you can’t help them until they’re ready to get help.
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. DUTTON: And sometimes in the prison situation, he or she has to want to change, has to want to change. And then when they do, you[’ve] got to have things set up for them –
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. DUTTON: — to do it. Now, that may [seem] unfair. Somebody[’ll] say, “Well, why should I have to” – “Why can” – “I can’t even send my own kid to college, and these prisoners get” – “get to go [to] college for free in” – “in the prison.” But who would you rather live next door to you? Somebody who’s come out of the pr- — the penitentiary who’s changed and a better human being and wants to be a productive member of society? Or, somebody who’s still pissed off? You know?
So, unfair as it may sound, but that’s the country we live in.
MR. MARTIN: Well, we certainly appreciate that – that you looked in that mirror. You found your voice.
MR. DUTTON: I did. I did.
MR. MARTIN: ’Cause just imagine if we didn’t have your voice out here, doin’ what you do.
“Least Among Saints,” “The Obama Effect” – we will look for all those things.
MR. DUTTON: Um-hum.
MR. MARTIN: Charles Dutton, we appreciate all that you do.
MR. DUTTON: Thank you, Roland. Thank –
MR. MARTIN: Thanks a bunch.
MR. DUTTON: — you, my man. Thank you.
[END OF INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES DUTTON.]