Stories from Prison: Robert Hayden
Prison changes people, those sent there, their families, even the
world outside, and it is important to hear diverse voices about those experiences. To Robert, now 68 and living and working as a painter in Cairo, N.Y., prison years served as a platform for him to look anew at his life. In his telling, prison itself was less critical to making him who he is
than the racism and unfairness that he has felt since childhood, though he preaches optimism and hopefulness.
This interview with Robert is followed by an essay by Robert called
SYNERGIZED, part of his written recollections about his life.
This is another in a series of presentations about the effects of prison in a community sponsored by Freehold Art Exchange, Greene County on the Arts and WorkersWrite, the National Writers United Service Organization, 2015.
Paintings by Robert Hayden
Interview by Terry Schwadron and Esther Cohen
Photographs by Molly Stinchfield
The art studio shares space with the rest of the kitchen in Robert
Hayden’s public housing apartment in Cairo, NY. The sun floods
the space in the afternoon, so often mornings are best for Robert to address the easel propped by the window; his paintbrushes are on a shelf within easy reach. And he has surrounded himself with some of the finished works – scenes from nearby downtown Catskill, a lion’s head, a portrait.
“I did a lot of these while I was in prison,” he recounts. “I just started then, and I’ve kept going. I’ve studied a lot of painting in books and learned a lot about colors and color combinations along the way,” he told visitors.
His living room and bedroom are lined with more portraits, some more familiar than others. There are Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio (“They go together, of course, he said), though they hang separately, with a smaller painting of Christ on the cross shown from behind, in between. There is a portrait of Frederic Douglass to go along with others in a yet more striking style of Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks. (“I’ve got to show respect,” Robert explains.) And there are paintings from the 9/11 World Trade Center aftermath.
“I did a red and green floral scene years ago that shimmered so much,
it could make your eyes almost hurt,” he said of his early paintings. “I learned that certain colors worked with other colors in ways that made things seem just more realistic, they come off the canvas. Like blue and orange, they work that way, or yellow and that kind of purple, he said, pointing at a light purple frame around a Catskill Main Street scene.
“That combination is what makes it radiate.”
These days, the paintings are for sale, bringing in a little income for
Robert, now 68. Back in 1973 to 1977, the first of the four stretches that Robert spent inside state prisons, it was something else that drove him. “I would lay in my bed, in my block— there were three tiers, two sides or six tiers in all, or 252 beds in a block—and people would be yelling to each other from far away, across the blocks. . . . Noise. I tried to sleep it off all the time. I rolled off my bed to my knees. I asked God to please help me find some way to support my wife and children and take my mind off of all this. It was at that time I was given the gift of being an artist,” said Robert.
“I found a piece of cardboard opposite me and I made a sketch of
flowers – my wife carrying flowers. I asked a guy what he thought, and he came back, saying I didn’t know you could draw, and he came back with some pastels,” Robert said.
“After that, police or correctional officers, inmates, everybody
eventually came by to get portraits of their families and different
paintings.” People paid him and it went to support his family.
In one painting, there is a row of tulips, and the shadows of tulips
against a wall. “That’s the outside wall facing my cell at that time. The tulips I just imagined as being on the other side of that wall,” Robert said.
“I left prisons with about 50-some originals.”
He thinks his art is about working and blending colors, and his style
varies a bit with each work. Sometimes he paints in acrylics and oils, sometimes with watercolor, sometimes uses charcoals and pastels.
In a written work called SYNERGIZED, a piece of which accompanies this interview, Robert tells his own story, and while the specifics are tough, the essential optimism and hope that mark time spent with him come through. He did get sent back to prison three more times, and he used the experience to tackle his own education, earning a college degree from inside prison, and stoking interests in helping others through his own mix of social work and religion. At one point, he started his own organization to help the drug-addicted through church affiliation.
“I learned that suffering at most important parts of life is essential.
I look at life in ways that take note of the (Biblical) passages that say sorrow is better than laughter for the heart is made better.”
“To get all the garbage off of me, the dross, I had to be thrown into
the furnace,” he says now about his prison years. “Those years were a growing experience. All of them, the burglaries, were my fault, of course, but I knew what was in my heart.”
His early years in Long Island, as he details in the SYNERGIZED
account, represented to him a constant barrage of incoming racist
insults – at his Catholic school, in the streets, everywhere he went.
“My upbringing was such that I thought we were getting hit on every side,” he explained, with blacks isolated and ignored, or scorned or worse, beaten.
Even at age 8, he remembered, he decided to “get back” at whites by picking white neighborhoods to burglarize. “I was thinking, ‘I’ll fix ‘em’ at the time.” I should have handled it better, but that’s what I was doing.”
Later, “I saw the Freedom Marchers demonstrating against racism on television. And white people joining in the marches. It was then that I realized that racism was not about skin color, it was about Evil Is as Evil Does.”
He sprinkles phrases from his religious life into comment about the
Once in prison, he saw disrespect from fellow prisoners. “There was a wall, and nearby a yellow line. You had to stay behind the yellow line, and yet guys would swing their legs across that line. I kept seeing the disrespect that people were doing to themselves. I told them that they were doing things that even dogs don’t do.”
He added, “Maybe that’s where I got interested in Human Services,
to see if we couldn’t do better. . . . Even though I didn’t heed my own counsel.”
He believes that he must test the truth of what becomes common
around him. “I purposely set myself up to go into prison when I saw
the Attica riot on television, those images of naked inmates laying on the rain-soaked ground outside in the yard of the prison, and thought to myself, I’ve got to find out why this is happening. And I told people I was with at the time that I wanted to go into prison to see why this was happening.”
“Is Hell real? From what I’ve experienced at one time in my life, Hell is a bullpen to wait for the Judgment. I ran around with guns and drugs and gangsters before I found that God is real. I died and was brought back.”
He sees “unbelief ” everywhere around us in society, and because
we’ve taken God out of it, believes that the deterrents He set up
against crime are not working, and believes that people are growing up without respect for themselves or God.
What has he learned in his important life passages? “Be forgiving,” he said.
–Terry Schwadron/Esther Cohen
WorkersWrite, National Writers United Service Organization
By Robert Hayden
In September, 1953, when I started attending a private Catholic
school at the age of six in Hempstead, Long Island, my introduction
to the outside world began amid discrimination, oppression and
prejudice. Writing now at age 61 (in 2008), the memories of those
early impressions are still as vivid as if they just occurred. This short story of my life to this moment may prevent others from causing some of the hurts and pains experienced in my life, and to understand what repercussions those insensitivities can bring about.
Our Lady of Loretto School had about 1,000 students in grades 1 to 8, and the classes had as many as 65 students. In the whole school, there were maybe eight Afro-Americans, then called negroes. Racism was not as hidden as it is today; as a result, being called a “nigger” on the playground was a common, everyday occurrence. The nuns, too, had their part in exhibiting prejudice.
There were times when I was called to the nuns’ desks and humiliated before the whole class. My parents had to come to school many times about these incidents, on my behalf as well as for my brothers and sisters.
Once in fourth grade, the nun asked the class, “Does anybody in here know what a native is?” I remember getting so hot I felt like fainting. There was no doubt in my mind that I was being set up to be the laughing stock of the class one more time. Right away, the whole class laughed and looked my way. A girl stood and said, “Yeah, that’s one right over there,” pointing at me. From the first grade to the fourth, I would do all I could to get out of going to school because of the oppression I felt just for being black—and the irony of it all is that my skin is brown.
Getting up in the morning to go to school at first was a dream come
true for me. It turned into a nightmare very soon, though, and I sought ways to get out of going to school. When Moms woke me, I would go to the bathroom and pick at the mole under my left eye until it bled, then go to her with blood running down my face, saying, “Mom, I feel dizzy.” It worked for a while, but because of the pain, I decided to come up with other excuses, like being sick, though that did not work as well as the mole. One day in the first grade, I accidently crapped in
my pants, and the school sent me home. I wondered if it could work
again. This time while at school, I did it deliberately. It worked! I did it over and over until the embarrassment from classmates for doing that became greater than the shame of being oppressed for being a black student. So I began to come home often crying about being called a “nigger” and slapped on the head by white boys.
One day, my father, frustrated, told me that if I came home crying
one more time, I would get the whooping of my life. Notice I said
whooping, not beating. As black kids, we knew a whooping was worse than a beating or spanking. I decided that it was better to get a beating from white boys at school than to get a whooping from Dad. It was time to fight back!
The next morning on the playground, when I was made fun of, I
WENT OFF! I started fighting like a madman. In fourth grade, I came to school one day with a black cape on. I had a sawed off, double-barreled, loaded shotgun underneath. The nun went into the coat room and saw the shotgun under the cape, and was shocked almost to
death. The school called my parents to school, and I really heard about that. But I had no trouble from any classmate after that day.
Persecution was now hidden from sight in school, but revealed itself in other ways in the rest of my community. Just walking down the street as a black man brought up ill feelings. As I got closer to any whites walking towards me, they would cross to the other side of the street before we passed each other. As I crossed the street at a red light,
I could see white drivers stopped at the light making sure that their
car doors were locked. Seeing them pushing down their buttons and staring at me was a constant reminder that I was considered “different and dangerous.”
My first job, provided through a program in high school, was at a
restaurant, working for the most pleasant elderly white couple I had ever met. They treated me as their own son. I started out washing dishes, before being promoted to taking receipts at the cash register up front. A few weeks later, at the end of the day after we had closed, they wanted to talk with me. The elderly couple fixed me a cup of hot chocolate, and we sat.
With tears welling in their eyes, they told me that they would have to let me go. In other words, I was fired. They told me that they were losing business fast because they had hired me, that their customers were staying away because I was black and working in the restaurant. I was sixteen at the time, and understood where they were coming from. Yet it tore at my heart so that I fought back tears as I walked all the way home. To compound it all, there on TV were the Martin Luther King Jr. marches.
Seeing dogs attack my people and hoses being turned on them, stones being thrown at them, white people cursing at them, police locking them up, bombs blowing up little Black girls in churches, civil rights workers murdered and the KKK given free reign to incite hate was enough to fill me with vengeance. And eager to do something about it.
I decided to go into white neighborhoods and rob them every chance I got. As a result, I began to burglarize white homes with a passion.
However, this was the biggest mistake I ever made. Filling my heart
with hate was not the answer, and I have paid dearly all of my life for holding onto bitterness.
My reaction to all the injustices I had personally experienced and seen as unjustifiable was like using “the blame game” as an excuse to justify what I did. Whatever the explanation, I was totally wrong. Nevertheless, this is what took the most notice in my life and the things that affected me to an extreme. Any guilt I felt for burglarizing homes of whites, I deadened with drugs. Unfortunately, my attention was on the wrong
thing when it came to seeking help. Focusing on the drug problem, I missed the fact that the bitterness had to be rooted out of my heart.
In 1973, I received my first sentence for burglary. The sentence was seven years, and I did about four. A few years later, I was sentenced to two and a half years to five, and was released after two and a half.
Six years later, I was given six to twelve years for the same crime –
burglary. While incarcerated this time, I decided to “cut the crap.” I
decided that I would do no more drugs, and that I would go to college.
Having served six years on that sentence, I left the Department of
Corrections with two Associate degrees and a Bachelor of Science
degree. My concentration was in Human Services, and I graduated
with high honors, a grade point average of 3.75. I was the first inmate to ever emerge from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY with a Bachelor’s degree. And I kept my word by not ingesting any drugs in the six years that I was incarcerated.
In October, 1993, I was released. Upon arriving home, I found my
wife and children living in abject poverty. Mainly, the house she rented from a Mr. McCausland showed that he was a slumlord. The storm door was broken, the floors had paint spots, the place needed painting and there was a gaping hole in the roof directly over the children’s bedroom. I decided to fix as much as I could in an agreement with the landlord to give me the materials to fix the roof. I used my own paint, sanded the floors – with his permission, I had hoped to get a job in carpentry by showing my skills in how I refurbished the place. He never gave me the materials for the roof, and it got worse. We decided not to renew our lease, which angered the landlord, who decided to make things hard on us.
After all the work I put into the house, he went to Social Services and lied to them by saying we had damaged his house. My wife and I of course denied it, and asked for a fair hearing. We were given a hearing at Common Ground Dispute Resolution Inc., believing that with my wife, two children and me as witnesses, it would be enough to have the evidence weigh in our favor. Plus there was still a hole in the roof.
Yet, the judgment went against us, and we had to forfeit our $560 in security. That was a con game played not just against us, but a common occurrence for slumlords to inflict on people on welfare. As far as I was concerned, the oppression had started again. I was determined to stand with my head held high, and let it roll off my back instead of reacting to it as I had always done in the past.
In our case, my mother and sister helped save us from homelessness.
We had no money for a security payment, Social Services would not help, but family helped. Thank God for mothers and sisters. Wow, I had made it through that one without going off the deep end this time.
Within two weeks, I had a job and I was having the best time with
my family that I had ever had. Surprise on our children’s faces as they awoke that Christmas morning to find new bikes in the living room was a sight I will never forget.
Within a year, things were going fine. I was seven years clean now from drugs, and had been accepted to SUNY Albany School of Social Work to begin my quest for a Master’s degree in social work.
In September, 1994, I went to the first day of orientation at the
university, among the 250 students assembled. We were welcomed by the staff and shown a video about discrimination. In the video, two newscasters described how differently Blacks are treated in our society than whites. The reason for the video was because our studies for the next semester were to be on discrimination, oppression and prejudice.
The video depicted two close friends, one black, one white, who were sent into different establishments, including a store, a car dealership and a job interview, accompanied by a hidden camera. What stood out was when the white man inquired at a dealership about a new car, followed by the black man inquiring about the same car. The price quoted to the black man for the car was much higher. When the video ended, we all went off to discuss it.
I was truly amazed, and am to this day, that almost all of the white
students in my class said that they had no idea that Blacks were
discriminated against to the level we had just witnessed in the video.
There were just two blacks in this class of about 30, including me.
I could hardly believe my ears when I heard the testimonies being
described as new revelations to my classmates. Believing them was not a problem—their reactions were genuine. But here I was at age 46 in a classroom of young whites from upper- and middle-class America.
Maybe, I thought, that was the reason that they were ignorant to the plight of discrimination that I had and my people have suffered for so long. They lived in a protective environment which was altogether different from ours. Was this a call for me to share with them my experience? Could I make a difference now in this environment and persuade them that it really does happen? Would my story make a change in the way they treated Blacks? Maybe as time went on, I would test the waters.
The next day, our professor, a young woman, handed out a drawing of an empty Coat of Arms. In the four spaces provided, each student had to draw a picture that depicted his or her life. The papers were collected and distributed randomly. We all ended up with someone else’s coat of arms. The object was to see if we could guess whose paper we had and to get us acquainted with one another. I can’t recall what I drew in all the spaces, but in one I drew a picture of a Church with people coming out to convey my strong affiliation, and at the bottom right, a picture of a smoking gun pointing at a person’s stomach. My purpose was to
illustrate that I had been shot twice, once at 13, once at 17.
One by one, each of us tried to guess whose life we had in our hands. It was an interesting way to get to know each other. No one could guess who I was, and they couldn’t make out for sure what the picture of the lower right hand was. They gave up, and the teacher asked whose paper it was. I raised my hand and was asked to explain the drawing. I
explained that I had been shot twice, once in a gang war and once by accident.
The teacher then said she would demonstrate what “synergism” was.
In other words, the combination of our life experiences and how
they together develop us into the people we are — how family, school, neighborhoods and jobs, to name a few, condition our behaviors.
She drew a big circle on the blackboard and said this was the Beaver family, then she drew three small lines out from the circle and put small circles on each, identifying the father, mother, and beaver, adding, “And he had been shot twice!” I was stunned! “Why did she do that?” I asked myself. Now in my studies I have read on post-traumatic stress disorder, I look back and say those were symptoms I began to experience then and there. As far as I was concerned, at that moment, I was back in Catholic school being ridiculed once again. And to make things worse, the whole class laughed. Consider: I had shared with them some very traumatic events in my life and the professor met them with sarcasm, and the students took it as a joke that I got shot in the stomach.
I saw the two white policemen standing over me, saying, “Hey nigger, who shot you?” I told them I did not know, so they kicked me in the stomach where the bullet entered and picked me up, one by my feet, the other by my wrists, and threw me into the back seat of their patrol car. “And they thought that was something to laugh about!!! Why did she do that? When class is over I’ll ask her, and tell her how I really feel about what she did. No, wait a minute, if she was so heartless to do that, then if I question her, I may not be given good grades… forget it.”
And forget it I did. I buried it inside of me. A week later, coming out
of an Albany bank where I cashed my federal student loan check, I
stopped and said to myself, “I ought to get a hit,” a hit of crack, that
is, and I did. I had just tore the mole, crapped in my pants and got out of going to class ever again.
My family didn’t see me for three days. And when I did finally get
home, the $4,500 had been spent on crack. Everything went downhill from there.
First, I told my parole officer, and over the next 18 months, I went to three different rehabs, two for 30 days and the last for a year. I left that one after two weeks. It was then that I made up my mind that I wanted to go to a Christian rehab because only Jesus could deliver me from the intense addiction of crack.
My wife and two good friends, Christians, drove me to a large Christian rehab in New Jersey. Unfortunately, a parolee from New York had recently murdered a New Jersey state trooper. Jersey wanted no part of me. Then it dawned on me, with all of the Human Service education I had, I could start my own Christian rehabilitation center. I went to my pastor and told him of my vision. But the unthinkable happened – I found out that he and his wife were smoking crack themselves.
In great need of fellowship and hungry for the word of God, I
called all of the Churches in Catskill to find a pastor who might be
supportive. Finally, I got a minister on the phone who spoke sincerely, and I attended his Church that Sunday. After about 15 minutes, I went to get my wife and children from our previous church. This church was all white except for one other family and mine. When I shared my vision about forming a Christian rehab program, he introduced me to another congregation member who was struggling with drugs.
As I got to know him, I felt all the more compelled to get the rehab
started. With the help of my wife and friends, we started the “Narrow Road,” and using the church name, we collected donations. We also had to find a place to live.
My addiction was under control, thanks to Narrow Road. I would pick up other addicts from the street, bring them to my office and witness to them about the power of faith. I saw grown men cry, admitting that they needed help, and I would get them to agree to go to the Kingston Hospital detox unit for 30 days before returning to Narrow Road. We were in a two-family house. Downstairs was a brother member of the
church, and upstairs was for our office and emergency placement beds.
I had an 800- phone number, sought donations, and sold advertising for a magazine about the rehab. At the end of the week, those helping accepted $50 for their work. Rent, utilities and phone bills ate up most of the money fast. I was also working on getting a grant.
We ended up moving to a trailer on Kiskatom, but that turned out to be another complicated situation. The landlord had been living there with a homosexual lover a few yards from his family, who disapproved of the relationship. The landlord, under pressure, moved out, and asked his realtor to find a Black family to put in the trailer. Apparently his family did not like Black people either. We had no idea what we had moved into. The family caretaker of the land worked out of an oil company in Cairo, NY. As soon as we moved in, trouble started. When oil was put in our tank, for example, we would pay for more than was delivered. This and many other things were being done to drive us out.
Social Services would not help any of the addicts I referred to them
from Narrow Road. Social Services told the addicts a rumor I was
subsidizing the program by selling crack on the streets, an out-and-out lie. Then one day while driving home in a snowstorm, I totaled my car.
I was six miles out of town with no way to get to work. A number of
times I walked it. People in the church were acting as if my family and I were becoming a burden.
Those who were neighbors helped with water, since the caretaker was constantly breaking the pump. Another neighbor declined to give my wife a ride to church. I had all I could take. I would not ask another Church member for anything in order not to interfere in their lives anymore. I felt also that we were being too burdensome myself, but things just seemed to be going wrong in every area of our lives.
Now I know how Job felt. However, I did not stand still in the Lord
as he did.