At Jessup, cautionary tale of a misspent life

Inmate's autobiographical play resonates in prison performances

November 24, 2006|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,Sun reporter

Michael A. Williams Jr. displayed his life on a makeshift stage at a state prison in Jessup recently, and when it was over, he wept.

They were tears of anguish as Williams reflected on a misspent life dealing heroin and cocaine on the streets of West Baltimore - experiences he has captured in a play he calls Where Y'all At?

At 37, "Li'l Mike" has had a lot of time to ponder and regret bad choices that led to a lengthy prison sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution.

He hopes that telling his story in dramatic form will serve as a cautionary tale for young people he sees traveling the same self-destructive road.

The play has been staged several times this year inside the walled Jessup compound, where inmate actors divide baking flour into piles representing heroin and cocaine, and toss money around to the music of Curtis Mayfield and the O'Jays.

The story is resonating with fellow inmates and prison administrators as well as with prisoners' family members who got a chance to see it.

His once-estranged father, Michael A. Williams Sr., cried throughout much of one performance for inmates' relatives last summer. His parents, who are divorced, said they learned things they didn't know about their son's life.

Williams got the OK to stage the play from then-Warden John A. Rowley, who was named this fall to head the state's prison system.

The play gave Williams and more than a dozen inmates at the Jessup prison who performed in it a creative outlet for their energies, Rowley said.

"It also provided an opportunity for this group to speak to other, younger inmates about what a life of drugs will get them," Rowley said. "The only thing that could come out of that was positive."

Rowley said he had mixed emotions after watching it.

"I was absolutely amazed by how much talent we have confined to our correctional facilities, and I was amazed by the power of the message," he said. "On the other hand, I was absolutely frustrated to know that his story is being repeated every day in our communities, over and over again."

The play shows "Li'l Mike" at 15, in the mid-1980s, meeting up with an older cousin at Pascal's, a trendy nightclub on Park Circle. The cousin introduces him to snorting heroin and, in short order, to the money to be made in Baltimore's drug trade.

"My first involvement was through a major organization, supplied out of New York," Williams said. "I went straight into major-level dealing."

With rolls of bills stuffed in his pockets, he was, by his own account, soon running wild.

Williams said he eventually made, after paying his workers, $1,000 a day at his height as a drug dealer in the late 1990s.

His criminal career was interrupted on several occasions when he was arrested.

As a teenage offender, Williams was sent to juvenile centers such as the now-closed Montrose Training School, a place he describes as a "warehouse" where he mostly learned how to be a better criminal.

There were missed opportunities as well.

At one point he was sent to Glen Mills Preparatory School, a well-regarded program for juvenile offenders, outside of Philadelphia. But he ran off during a weekend home and didn't complete the program.

"That's one of things I kick myself about, the opportunities that I didn't take advantage of," Williams said.

For his working-class parents in Edmondson Village, he was a constant source of heartache.

His mother, Gwendolyn Roy, said her son's downfall was hanging out with a bad crowd of older youths. Nothing she or his father said or did seemed to make any difference in getting him to mend his ways.

The late-night calls from police, the time taken off from work for court hearings, trips to visit their son in juvenile detention centers and later in state prisons all took a toll on his parents.

"A lot of times I was thinking of giving up, and I didn't," his mother said. "I was always there for him. It was a hurting thing, it really was."

Williams' father, a maintenance worker who renovates houses and apartments on the side, said his son wasn't very good at hiding what he was doing.

There were times when he'd see his son with a line of people - eager customers for the drugs he was selling - following him down the street.

Once, while on his way to work and waiting for the bus at North Avenue and North Rosedale Street, the elder Williams watched as his son, oblivious to his father's presence, was busy dealing drugs nearby.

The elder Williams acknowledges that he was far from a perfect father. He drank heavily at one time and took to "the strap" to discipline his rebellious son. He said he was frustrated because he knew that his son was wasting his potential.

"He's had many chances to do the right thing over the years," said the elder Williams, who cut off most contact with his son in recent years but has grown closer to him since watching the play.

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