Manchild for a New Generation

March 16, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- If you consider a move from jail to journalism to be an improvement, you should be impressed by the saga of Nathan McCall.

You can read all about it in his autobiography, ''Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America'' (Random House). The title comes from Marvin Gaye's classic, ''Inner-city Blues,'' ''Makes Me Wanna Holler'' makes me want to think about today's political feeding frenzy surrounding the issue of crime. I think Mr. McCall offers important clues as to what will work or won't work in fighting it.

In describing how he went from ultra-violent gang-banger on the streets of Portsmouth, Virginia, to respected reporter for the Washington Post, with stops along the way at a state penitentiary, a state college and newspapers in Norfolk and Atlanta, Mr. McCall offers what Claude Brown, author of ''Manchild in the Promised Land,'' calls a ''manchild . . . for a new generation.''

Mr. McCall's early life defies the usual stereotypes of poverty leading a good kid to do wrong. He was bright, suburban and middle-class by black standards, which is to say working-class by white standards. He was not, like the young hood in ''West Side Story,'' ''depraved on account of he's deprived.''

Yet, by the time he finished high school he was an occasional mugger, ruthlessly anti-white and an unwed father-to-be. Wayward white kids might get more second chances than wayward black kids do, and Mr. McCall had more than his share of enraging run-ins with racists. Yet he offers no excuses or simple explanations for his misbehavior, other than adolescent macho and a misguided effort to be a big guy in the wrong gang.

The shock of imprisonment and the horrors of prison life help turn him around. But toward what? The answer to that question might have been sadder, had it not been for Mr. McCall's ability to focus on good books and the lessons imparted by various mentors and role models, including some in ''Penitentiary State University.''

Jim, a convicted murderer who teaches at one prison's school, urges Mr. McCall to learn a trade, and not just to help his parole chances. Most convicts couldn't be rehabilitated, he says, ''because they had never been habilitated in the first place.''

Mr. McCall looks up the word ''habilitate'' and finds ''to make capable, qualify.'' Most inmates couldn't be requalified because they hadn't been qualified for anything before going to prison.

Mr. McCall uses his time well. He earns a ''good-time'' job in a prison library, a prison degree in printing and acceptance to Norfolk State University after his parole.

Still, he is burdened by obligations to his out-of-wedlock son and by a new stigma: he's an ex-convict.

His respect for the power of words, generated by reading Richard Wright's ''Native Son'' and Alex Haley's ''The Autobiography of Malcolm X,'' leads him to study journalism.

The newsroom culture can be a difficult adjustment for any outsider, let alone a black ex-convict whose world is so far removed from that of whites, let alone that of newspeople. Some whites have better intentions toward blacks than others do. Much of a black professional's life, once he or she crosses over to the white world, is figuring out who is whom.

Mr. McCall perseveres and overcomes. Street savvy has given him good instincts. His significant accomplishments speak for themselves. But, what, I wonder, do they say to those of us who have given up on the idea that prisons can be a place for rehabilitation, not just punishment?

Stiffer penalties will lock more people away longer, which satisfies the vengeance-minded. But, let's not fool ourselves into thinking this extremely expensive remedy will deter future criminals. As Mr. McCall observes, lawbreakers don't worry about the consequences of breaking the law, because they don't think they're going to get caught.

The first ex-con suspect to be nailed under California's new ''three strikes and you're out'' law, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday, was charged with driving a stolen pickup truck. The second is alleged to have wrestled 50 cents from an elderly homeless man. If convictions like this hold up -- the new law requires minimum 25 years to life sentences for any felony conviction after two prior serious or violent felonies -- California's jails could be full in no time.

We may be using a hammer against a problem that calls for a scalpel. Criminology's cooler heads suggest that ''three strikes'' convictions be limited to only the most violent criminals, separating them from those who show at least some chance for rehabilitation.

That makes good sense to me. Most convicts are less fortunate than Mr. McCall. Most won't read books, much less write them, because most are functionally illiterate. What chances do they have in an increasingly technological society? As Mr. McCall's prison buddy said, inmates must be ''habilitated'' before they can be rehabilitated.

Prison is a late place to start. But it's not too late.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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