Stop what you’re doing. Go into your bathroom. Sit there. For two hours. Don’t take anything to read or listen to. Don’t have anything with you. Just sit. See how long you can stay there before you start to feel claustrophobic as the walls seem to move in.
How long can you stand the isolation? One-hour? Two? Or are you ready to escape after a few minutes?
Now, imagine being in that restricted place for two decades.
Willie Bosket has lived in the same size enclosure for twenty years. As a boy of 15 in 1978, he murdered several people on New York’s subway. Even before the murders, he was a legend with a lengthy criminal record. By Bosket’s admission, he committed more than 2,000 crimes. Two-hundred of those were armed robberies.
Bosket pleaded guilty to murdering a transit employee and was sentenced to 5 years in a youth facility as he was just 15. The light sentence would bring historic changes, and New York would become to the first state to change juvenile laws. Today, the law which allows persons as young as 13 to be tried as an adult is called the Willie Bosket law.
When Bosket was released, he returned to crime and bounced between jail cells and the street until eventually getting a life sentence in 1989.
When he was captured and put in prison, Bosket attacked guards and threw feces on them. In one case he made a shank with a piece of metal torn from the bottom of the typewriter prison authorities gave him to type his legal cases. Grinding down one end into an ice pick form, he stabbed a guard — almost killing him.
Bosket now occupies the most solitary confinement of any inmate in the entire nation. New York prisons built a special cell, just for him. Guards call him Hannibal Lecter as in the movie, “Silence of the Lambs.”
Bosket is in a kind of Plexiglas cage. The iron bars to his cell are covered so he can’t throw anything out, and he’s not allowed to have books, newspapers or magazines. Radio and TV are denied him, and he is under CCTV observation 24/7. The keepers are not permitted to speak with him.
The light fixtures were removed from his cell because he ate the bulbs just to show how fierce and violent he was.
Today, Bosket, 55, still has 70-years in solitary confinement ahead of him. If he lives long enough, he will be 125-years-old before he is returned to the general population and released from the fate of the most solitary prisoner in the country.
“All God’s Children,” written by Fox Butterfield, is Bosket’s story. Butterfield, a native Virginian, was one of four New York Times reporters who took part in the Pentagon Papers project. The project which detailed the secret history of the Vietnam War is now the focus of a hit movie starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.
Butterfield spent almost 300 hours interviewing Bosket for the book. Speaking through pinprick-size holes in the Plexiglass it was difficult to hear and be heard Butterfield said during an interview with The New York Times. “The pinholes are covered with layers of heavy wire mesh used to protect houses in the country against raccoons,” Butterfield said.
Bosket is held in prison in New York state’s Catskills Mountains. The Woodbourne facility was the most secure facility where they could continue Bosket.
The dustjacket from the book says, “A timely reissue of Fox Butterfield’s masterpiece, All God’s Children, a searing examination of the caustic cumulative effect of racism and violence over 5 generations of black Americans”
Butch: Bosket’s Father
Butch was deserted by his parents when he was yet an infant and was reared by a grandmother. As she worked as a laundress for a white family, Butch was left to fend for himself during the day.
Bosket came from a long lineage of murder and crime. His father, Butch, was locked up at age 9 and sent to the same reform school at which Willi would later reside. Later in life, Butch, who was very smart, became the first inmate ever to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from college while in prison.
When Butch was finally released, he got two jobs. One working as a computer programmer for an aerospace company in Milwaukee and the other job training undergraduates in computer science at the University of Wisconsin. Before long, Butch was re-arrested on a sexual assault and returned to prison.
In 1985, Butch escaped with the help of a female friend who disguised herself as a prison nurse. Butch found himself in a gun battle with law enforcement and shot it out. When he was down to his last two bullets, Butch put the pistol to his girlfriend’s head and killed her. Then he turned the gun on himself.
James was born in South Carolina and taken to Augusta, Georgia as a young child. As a young adult, James got married but moved away quickly and abandoned his wife as well as Butch. A few months later Butch’s mother left and he grew up on the dusty streets of Augusta in the most deprived part of town.
James took a train to Washington DC and began robbing stores. Not a good thief, James was caught many times and put behind bars for armed robbery.
In the end, James died a free man. Liver disease, caused by alcoholism, killed him when he was about 57.
Put was born in 1889 into a sharecropping family. Pud’s father had been a slave and Pud was his first child as a freeman. The 1890s were the worst years to be black in American history. It was the height of lynching, Jim Crow laws were passed, and segregation was the religion of choice by the whites. One of Pud’s cousins was the first man hung in the county and Pud was there to see it all.
Pud’s real name was Clifton. Pud was short for Pudding, a nickname he got as a boy. Being a sharecropper meant Clifton and his family were destined to be poor and abused by the white farmer who would whip him. One day Pud just got tired and turned on the white man as he was preparing to beat Pud. Grabbing the whip from the man’s hand, Pud said, “Don’t step on my reputation.”
No white person would hire him again. Pud turned to robbing stores and ended up on the chain gang.
When Pud was released in 1924, he got a job carrying moonshine liquor from a still and worked with a white man. One evening the white man was teaching Pud how to drive. Both were drunk that Sunday morning when the vehicle crashed and both were thrown out of the car. Later when they were found, they were lying side by side, dead. Between them was an empty jar of corn whiskey.
Pud’s father, Aaron, was born a slave in Maryland or Virginia. No one is quite sure. As a young slave boy, Aaron was chained, sold and ended up being bought in South Carolina. Aaron and his family were purchased and sold numerous times with one of the owners named ‘Bosket” — the origin of their surname. A few years later, the family was sold to Francis Pickens who would lead South Carolina into secession as governor. It was Pickens who ordered the shots fired on Fort Sumter.
Willie Bosket will be eligible for parole in 2062. He will be 100. Today, Bosket refuses to concede defeat. “I’m not broken and never will be,” he says.
“I was born with nothing. I grew up with nothing. I don’t have nothing now, and I never will have nothing. No one can take ‘nothing’ from you.”