June and I grew up together in the Woodridge neighborhood of Northeast Washington. He was a year older and one of my best friends. Until one day last spring, I hadn't seen him in eight years; for while I was finishing high school, graduating from college and working as a rookie reporter, June was serving 20 years to life at Lorton for first-degree murder.
Rosevelt Whitaker Jr. is his full name. June is short for junior. In prison, he adopted Islam and became Rosevelt Whitaker-El. On June 9, 1974, he shot and killed a man during an attempted robbery. June said it was self defense, that the man was about to shoot him, so June pulled his trigger first, three times. The prosecutor said it was murder.
June, then 17, had no previous criminal record. Hoping to be sentenced as a youth, he pleaded guilty to felony murder in Superior Court in October that same year. He was sentenced as an adult by Judge Joseph M. Hannon. Hannon ruled that June must serve three to five years at a D.C. Department of Corrections youth facility before going to Lorton to complete the 20-to-life punishment. He can't be paroled until he has served 20 years.
In 1977, he escaped from one of the youth centers by hiding in the rear of a maintenance truck. Within hours, he was captured, labeled a security risk and subsequently sent to Lorton's maximum security facility.
There's nothing really super about June. But there is something profound about being reunited with a guy who was like a brother to me years ago, a guy who committed murder on the streets of Washington, to go into his cell and look at him and see the deepness in his eyes, to feel the struggle that he has experienced and to reflect and to think, "Damn, circumstances could have sent me there, too."
I suppose I have something in common with all of the young guys at Lorton who are from D.C. It's not just that we are black men in a white man's world, exerting ourselves the best we know how, but we grew up under similar circumstances; we're from the same city, which is nothing but a large neighborhood to me. A Mildewed Dungeon
Some of these guys I've seen on the street. I know some of their brothers and sisters. We faced common alternatives in gaining dignity and achieving a sense of self and manhood.
Lorton. When I was a child, it was something I had heard about vaguely. I envisioned the place as a mildewed dungeon, a cold cage, a decrepit, eerie island. And happy-go-lucky June, who was from a stable, middle-class home, was not the kind of dude that anyone in my neighborhood expected to wind up serving time for murder. He was no different from most of the young men in my old Northeast stomping ground, located near Brookland and Hyattsville, Md. In a mostly middle-class environment, with many homeowners and hard-working adults to emulate, most of us nevertheless got into some wild, dangerous, sometimes illegal (but never violent) things on a regular basis. It was exciting being just one step ahead of getting caught. It seems foolish to me now, at 24. But as a boy, I felt that toying with trouble was great adventure.
To keep from getting bored, teen-agers in my neighborhood smoked marijuana, dropped pills and drank liquor. Some lifted Playboy from the 7-Eleven store, fled from police cruisers on minibikes (which were illegal to ride on city streets) and set small fires in the woods. To us, this wasn't hard-core delinquency. To us, this was Huck Finn in the streets of D.C., and June often played Huck.
In a psychiatric evaluation requested by June's attorney, Peter R. Kolker, a week after the murder, a psychiatrist, Dr. Harold Kaufman, said that the motive force behind June's actions was an abnormal and unconscious need "to be viewed as a hero and strong man by his peers."
Back then, June was a frail, lanky boy with long, bony fingers, a high-pitched voice, a fluid sense of humor and a sharp mind. The girls liked him. The guys were ambivalent toward him. He wasn't good at sports. Still, we all admired his quick wit and his innate ability to fix bicycles, cars and go-carts. Many of the daring things he did--such as performing stunts on his minibike--amazed and challenged us.
At about 13, he had a Washington Post newspaper route. He rode a sleek, wooden wagon to deliver papers. His house on Quincy Street in Northeast was the meeting place for me and several other paper carriers. June taught us younger boys how to fold and throw a newspaper like a pro.
I always liked being around June. He usually handled things well, rarely got into anything that he couldn't get out of. Luckily, I was not with him the night he committed the murder. I very well could have been. June told me recently that he had thought about stopping by my house on that summer night to ask me to go with him. At the last moment, he decided against it, he said. I'm glad he did. On the spur of the moment, I might have gone along. That's the kind of thing that seems to have happened to many inmates at Lorton. Although it was a relatively small factor overall, 11 percent of the inmates who responded to a Washington Post poll said they had gotten into trouble because they went along with a friend.
June is both typical and atypical of many of the prisoners at Lorton, based on the findings of the poll of 238 inmates, an examination of the records of 429 inmates and interviews with numerous criminal justice officials.
Unlike most, he is a first offender and grew up in a middle-class family that lived outside one of the major neighborhoods where the bulk of Lorton's inmates lived before going to prison.
But he is typical of the growing number of younger persons who are imprisoned for the most violent crimes and who are heavily influenced, some say, by present-day material factors.
"They're tougher younger, and part of it goes to the permissiveness in our society, our life styles and the role models they see," said Judge Fred B. Ugast, head of the criminal division of the D.C. Superior Court.
"They get a weapon," Ugast said, "and say, 'It's him or me, and it ain't gonna be me . . . . I want what I want and I don't care whose it is.' "
At 16, June began secretly experimenting with a .22-caliber handgun that his parents kept in their home for protection, he said. His mother Claree said she knew he knew where it was but didn't know he was using it. He said he went into the woods at the top of Bunker Hill Road NE to shoot the gun once. Carrying the Gun
"Why? To see if it had any kick to it," he said. "It didn't. It was just like a little cap pistol, but it was real accurate."
Once, he said, he carried the gun to Taft Junior High to avenge a friend. He pulled the gun on some students, then he "got paranoid." He said, "I just wanted to let them know I had a gun . . . and I didn't want them messing with my friend." The others ran when they saw the gun.
The next time he and the gun skirted with danger was at Phelps Vocational High School, when June set out to get back at three guys who had "chumped" him the day before when he didn't have the gun. He spotted his assailants walking outside the school, slammed on the brakes of the car, opened the door and aimed the gun in their direction. He said he aimed just above their heads, fired three shots but hit no one.
Yet having shot a gun at a human being, June was no longer a first-time gunman.
"After that, I figured if my downfall had to come, it was going to be because of that gun. It was easy to shoot and I had gotten used to carrying it around with me. I didn't do no trembling with it anymore. If something were to come down where I was to get in a tight jam and I had that gun with me, I was going to use it," he said.
He said he wished he'd been arrested right then for carrying the weapon because he might have learned his lesson earlier and a man's life would have been saved. Entering the Prison
About 25 miles from the old neighborhood, maximum security sits on a hill like a massive fortress. Walls about 40 feet tall. Armed guards. Steel gates. An eerie, hollow echo sounds each time an iron door slams shut.
I enter the prison on a cloudy morning. I look at the walls and bars and say to myself, "My God, five minutes here is bad enough. What has eight years of this hell done to June?"
When we were youths, June was always in a good mood. When June came to the prison interview room and peeped through the window on the front door, his attentive eyes now looked like those of a reclusive philosopher. He wore a Muslim taqiyah or skullcap, and he sported an intimidating, thick black beard, yet he flashed that same old boyish smile.
I found him confident, calm and alert. At six feet and 153 pounds, he is slender yet strong. He walks quickly in long steps across the prison yard.
For the first time in a decade we shook hands. He extended his right hand and I slapped mine into his palm. Our hands clenched, then we gripped each other's thumb in the traditional soul brothers' shake that was popularized in an era when we were little boys trying to become men. We pumped the grip several times.
"It's good to see you, man," I said. We looked dead into each other's eyes. He nodded.
"It's good to see you, too, Eddie Sargent," he said, his once high-pitched voice now deep.
Just then, an old guy, a convicted murderer whom I had just finished interviewing for the Washington Post survey, stood up and greeted June with a slap on the shoulder. The old guy, a Christian religious leader, said June was a religious leader, too, a Muslim. "Yeah, this is June Bug!," he said, smiling at June as he would a cherished grandson.
June smiled at him and nodded his head. We slowly released the grip.
Suddenly, I had a flashback of the good old days when we used to crack jokes and shoot the breeze. And as he turned and walked to one corner of the room to take off his coat, I smiled, took a deep breath, then shook my head.
It was the first of five interviews and I kept thinking, "This is really heavy. Eight years ago we were two carefree teen-agers. Today, we are two men--June's a prisoner, dressed in black combat boots, blue knit cap, green sweat jacket and blue work pants. I'm a journalist, clad in a business suit, pen and notebook in hand.
June said that he has learned a great lesson in prison: "I've learned that this ain't no place to be. This place may look like a playground, but it ain't nothing to play with."
He said he is full of regret and that he agonizes over the shooting, the guilty plea, the punishment. They were all mistakes, he said. "I acted out of impulse," he said of the shooting, which grew out of a dispute over money. ". . . I hate that it had to go down that way. But I can't change what has already happened."
He's seen a lot of guys come and go and some come back again. But, he said he tries not to think about his freedom too much because it only leads to anxiety and depression.
Though his exterior is calm, June said there is a bomb deep within him that he hopes won't explode. "You've got to be strong in here, man, or this place will drive you crazy. Being human, you're going to feel the time passing, the loneliness . . . . But you can't let the pressure get to you.
"I know people out there who knew me think about me every once in a while, and they probably say to themselves, 'Man, June's been in there for eight years, I know he must be . . . wild . . . now. He was wild when he went in. I know he must be a monster now.' But, tell them I ain't no monster, I'm a man," June said. Surviving
"The key to surviving in here," he said, "is being in a unified group." He said he enjoys studying and teaching with a group called the Moorish Science Temple. Aside from that, he said he has survived by knowing when to mind his own business, when to use his wit, his gift of gab and his intuition.
As far as rehabilitation is concerned, he said, "Lorton don't rehabilitate you. You can only be what you will. You rehabilitate yourself. I know what I did was wrong."
"Tell your mother June sends his love," June said softly at the close of our first interview. "Tell her that I'm glad that I didn't get you involved in that incident. We walked right past your house that evening, Eddie Sargent." Next: How Lorton works.