Interview with Colin Warner

Interview with Colin Warner

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I am familiar with the story of Colin Warner from two sources, one is Carl King, his childhood friend who worked for his release from prison for twenty years, and finally succeeded. He showed that Colin was innocent of the charge of murder on which he had been convicted. The other source is the movie that was made about the case. One has be wary of taking the movie as fact. It changes names and other facts in order to make a good drama. So I was glad to have the chance to talk to Colin directly. We met on Wednesday September 18 at Meme's restaurant opposite the Black Lady Theatre where the movie was to be shown the next evening. I asked Colin where he lived when he was arrested in the 1980's. He was then at Prospect Place near Nostrand Avenue right in the middle of Crown Heights. He had come to Brooklyn from Trinidad when he was twelve in 1974. When Colin walks around the neighborhood, he lives in several different times at once – Crown Heights in the late 1970's, then again when he returned after his release in 2001 when he was in his late thirties, and then now in his fifties. One can see it in his eyes and face; he is registering changes and remembering his past all at once. He had his child, a boy, on February 1st, 2002, one year to the day after he got out of prison. His daughter was born in 2006 around the same time he decided to move down to Georgia where he lives now outside of Atlanta. He found out about Georgia when a friend invited him to a conference there. He says he immediately fell in love with the place.

I asked several questions about prison, and Colin told me he made many friends there, and he was convinced that some of them were innocent just as he was. Having friends was part of the resistance to the place that worked to dehumanize the inmates. To reach out and befriend others was a way of staying human and maintaining human feelings. Many of these people are friends to this day. However, Colin did not want to join one of the “gangs” in prison. Groups would stick together for protection and company, but they usually were very hostile to other gangs and had fights. Colin wanted all his relationships to be one-on-one, to talk to an individual and avoid “tribes.” Another way of surviving was to embrace one's identity. Colin was Rasta when he came into prison, and the authorities shaved off his dreads. However, Colin and other inmates insisted Rasta is a religion and eventually in the late 1980's the Rastas could grow dreadlocks and engage in their rituals. This was important. So was studying. Colin took courses in Liberal Arts and eventually got an Associate Degree. Reading, thinking and discussion were all significant to survival. And then there was Katherine Antoinette; she knew Colin from the neighborhood, worked closely with Carl, came to love Colin and married him in prison. For their relationship to flourish in such harsh surroundings was a kind of miracle. And the marriage has lasted even through other tragedies as well.

On the other hand many people were dehumanized by the experience and treated others accordingly. Colin said it would be hard to choose who was the worst – the guards or the inmates. The guards hated and feared the prisoners and often became sadistic, using their power to irritate, humiliate, behave in an arbitrary manner, and physically attack them. They too were a tribe, and one member would never report a fellow guard. Colin was once on the phone talking when the guards killed an inmate in the next room. No one paid for the crime. However, many inmates were just as degraded. Colin told of one who defecated into cups, which he kept in a line in his cell. If someone passed whom he didn't like, he would throw the feces at him. There were constant feuds between different groups and many of these feuds were carried out through violent attacks. There was a little industry of inmates making weapons used for defense and offense. Colin was no stranger to these fights, but he says he came out of prison without “wounds.” By this he means he received no obvious scars and he can walk and talk like a normal man, but more than that, I think he also means he was not deformed psychologically or spiritually. Indeed, Colin says that prison turned out to be a “blessed event.” I was incredulous and asked him to explain. He says that when he went into prison he was an introvert and an isolated person. Prison turned him into a talker. In the two days I saw Colin, he talked to dozens and dozens of people, and I was struck by how well he connected with them. People wanted to talk to him, they came to the movie, they made contributions, and they liked him. Colin cannot watch the movie about himself. He saw it once when it came out and makes it a point not to see it again. However, he says the movie gives him a “platform,” and he is a man on a mission.

He believes in connecting with people, helping them to be empathetic and open. He particularly likes to talk to young people, telling them to avoid street life, to have friends and believe in right and wrong, to help others. However, this is a message he wants to convey to everyone. Colin has a building in Brooklyn that is open to homeless people, and he has an organization called Handshake to get young people involved in community affairs.

Colin is, I believe, a pacifist by temperament. He told me that when he had children, he decided never to hit them. Instead his way of correcting them is to talk to them, to talk a lot. Recently his daughter got fed up with the talk and sucked her teeth at her father. He was angry, but it just led to a long talk on the importance of listening and showing respect. Later on his daughter invited a cousin over, and Colin heard her telling the cousin what happened. She was upset, but also thinking and figuring out the situation. Violence has plagued Colin's life, all the violence of street life when he was growing up, the violence in prison and more. Both his younger brother and father were murdered and Colin's son drowned in a swimming pool July 4, 2015. Colin has been subjected to so much, but his answer is to never raise his fist.

This does not mean that Colin is not argumentative or incapable of anger. He is very critical of Norman, the actual murderer who was offered a deal after the hung jury – 2-6 years in prison and the case against Colin dismissed. Colin believes Norman should have paid for the crime, and this was the lowest sentence he could have received. However, Norman did give a deposition in the end, saying Colin had nothing to do with the murder. Colin went before the parole board three times forcefully defending himself as an innocent man. Not being willing to admit to contrition doomed his chances for parole, but speaking the truth to power did not seem pointless. Just before his fourth appearance in 2001, Colin was released. On the other hand, Colin sometimes likes anonymity; in the town in Georgia where he lives, most people do not know his story, and Colin is glad to have that privacy. Still Colin has just now applied for citizenship knowing that that may not be granted under the Trump administration. However, it is an endorsement of what is good in the United States. Colin has been back to Trinidad and says he will no longer go there. He regards it as place of unbridled corruption. Both the warden and assistant warden of a prison he visited were murdered at the orders of an inmate in the prison. The U.S. is at least a place of possibilities, and Colin is all about what is possible.

He is the beneficiary of a man who worked tirelessly to free him, an extraordinary act of friendship. Being human was raised to some high spiritual category, and Colin himself remained human – another extraordinary act. These two men provide an example that shows what is possible in the most difficult circumstances. Depression, despair, hopelessness, cynicism, exhaustion, corruption, fear – all these could have won out, but they didn't. Instead these two men remained decent and worked hard to see to it that decency prevailed.

– John DeWind

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