• Andrei Schiller-Chan

How a Wrongfully Convicted Man Became my Mentor


David McCallum III at Otisville Correction Facility. Image courtesy of Ray Klonsky & Mark Lamy “David and Me” (2014)

A single letter to Rubin “Hurricane” Carter changed my life. I was throwing a letter out to sea in a corked bottle, in the hope the universe may answer.


In a weird tangled tapestry, it started out with a song by Bob Dylan, “The Hurricane”, the famous protest written by the man himself and Jaques Levy for the exoneration of Rubin. The next thread was Rubin’s autobiography in which he spoke of a wrongfully convicted man of 29 years, David McCallum III, in whom I write of today.


The Hurricane


Rubin Hurricane Carter was a former wrongful convictee of 19 years. He is also a proud owner of the middle-weight boxing championship title, and subject of the academy award-nominated film with Denzel Washington,The Hurricane. He was the founder of the Association for the Wrongly Convicted and Innocence International. David McCallum was a 16-year-old boy born in New York, who falsely confessed to a crime he didn’t commit and was subsequently exonerated 29 years later. He went into prison the same year as Rubin came out. Rubin’s last purpose in life was to free David McCallum and wrote what was called his ‘Dying Wish in the New York Daily. He didn’t live to see him on the outside, but if not for his editorial, David’s exoneration may have been a few years delayed.



My time with Rubin


In writing to Rubin, it was an honest account of myself and a letter of gratitude. My pipe-dream was to one day meet the man, and I thought that was how it was to remain. I was wrong.


I wrote to him at a time when I was in a crossroads of battling teenage depression. I believe something inside me felt enough was enough and I discovered a sleeping strength. And in this battle I decided after many years of locking myself away to the world; that the only way to help myself, was to open myself up and start to connect with other people and fulfill my responsibility as a human “becoming” (as Rubin states) in this world.


I wanted to believe that there was a goodness in this world and that we can, as humans, rise up from our frog ponds. And we can. Writing that letter to Rubin was a freeing act. One thing Rubin instilled in me when I met with him & John Artis in his home in Toronto two years ago was developing an aim, one that gives you a purpose and direction in life. Once you have a direction, it is easier to accept the tide and currents life throws at you, without trying to fight against it. This is called Acceptance.


With sublime gestures Tragedy reveals to us how the whole world of torment is necessary so that the individual can create the redeeming vision, and then, immersed in contemplation of it, sit peacefully in his tossing boat amid the waves. F. Nietzsche

At the time my letter arrived in Toronto, Rubin was in hospital battling cancer that would end up being the cause of his death. His assistant and co-founder of Innocence International, and a man I have come to admire with all my heart, Ken Klonsky, showed him the letter and replied back to me personally as Rubin was too sick to do so at the time.


In this letter, Ken gave me David’s prison address as I wanted to reach out to him also. David was in Arthur Kill Correctional Facility awaiting movement to a new prison further out in upstate New York at the time I wrote him my first letter. Here was a man, wrongly incarcerated, who had a redeeming vision like that left behind by Socrates, for in his own words and actions he overshot that glorious pedestal by saying: “I would rather die, than admit guilt to something I didn’t do, and that’s the truth”. (David and Me, 2014). He taught me the meaning of Responsibility.


David’s integrity, beauty and will to survive is still a profound and miraculous achievement I have ever personally witnessed on this earth. A great friendship was to evolve with a man I had never met, that lived across the pacific ocean, incarcerated behind concrete walls and barbed wire.


I have four years worth of letters between David and me; all the envelopes that accompany his letters I would keep. One thing I recall he said he said to me was:

We must not allow our lives to become more important than the air we breathe.


I have learnt much from David, but none more pivotal than how to love, and why to love, and finding grace and gratitude in your life. To really know yourself is the most valuable thing, and in a house of violence that is all you really have. Most of us live in mental prisons dictated by ego and fear, and our prison system is the hidden symptom of the illness that affects our society, our earth, its wilderness, its creatures.


In America, the recidivism rate is 90% and disproportionally habituated by minorities. More than 200 people at Guantanamo Bay were held indefinitely without contact to the outside world, families were never notified of there whereabouts, and held without Habeus Corpus. In Australia, our Indigenous prison population, according to the ABS, is fifteen times higher than non-indigenous with a large recidivism rate, not to mention our indefinite detention of refugees on Manus Island.


Wrongful convictions are born where fear, racial prejudice, tunnel vision, and ignorance reside. To change the system each individual must start to awake and change himself and then allow that change to become externalised. Perhaps, this, after all, was what freed David.



Meeting David For the First Time


Meeting David at Otisville Correctional Facility was a surreal experience. The prison is far from Manhattan, how hard it must be for families to visit their sons. In these "rehabilitation" centres, I wonder if rehabilitation really is at the top of their priorities? I had money behind me and even I found it difficult and expensive to make the journeys there; not to mention that it takes a whole day.


In walking into the prison, the circumstances really hit you, huge fences with barbed wire and inmates walking down the road dressed in Green, like cattle cross an animal crossing; these prisons are designed to reduce the soul of a man to nothing and sometimes that is exactly what they take and we wonder why inmates keep coming back.

If ‘rehabilitation’ centres worked, America would be the safest place on earth. - Rubin Carter

You give your name and go through several security stations before being seated at a numbered table in the giant hall. It was a sad sight to see all the other inmates with their families, there was a lot of love, and much sadness that the visit had to end. I remember one moment before David walked in, and I was looking at an old African American couple. The majority in the hall were African American and Hispanic, most of them were very young. But this old couple caught my attention because of their body language.


Displays of affection are strictly guarded so the families are limited to hugs and hand-holding. This couple sat at the table for fifteen minutes, not saying a word; the man was old and very heavy, dressed in the dark green garb, and held his wife’s hand in his and looked in her eyes the whole time, as she did the same. The amount of longing and love generated could have lit the world in light for many years.


His wife then got up to go to the vending machine. The man looked at his wife when she walked across the hall full of depth and longing. I told this story to Rubin and John and both exclaimed:


Ohhhh, yeah we know THAT look. You just want to absorb everything about her, the way she looks, the way she walks, what she smells like, so when you gotta go back to your cell you’ll have her in there with you.

And then David walked in. He was shorter than I expected, with a solid build. It felt like a dream, just like picking up a conversation we had only yesterday. I’ll never forget our first meeting, we talked for 3 and a half hours. I felt humbled by the whole experience and also a deep sense of communion with nature and the world because I was able to connect with a man behind barbed wire. We talked about his family, travel, what the "internet" is, girls, it was only in the last visits that we started to talk about more of the harder things that were stressing him; like the conditions, parole hearings, and if his spirit can keep up the endurance. To keep to your innocence, when all they want to hear is that you're guilty and that if you confess they’ll let you go, requires something special when you can think of what you’re missing on the outside. I wanted to help my friend in any way I could. David did not give in to complacency, nor let the circumstances dictate his character: to not be swept into the violence and drugs that prison invigorates, demonstrates real humanity and wisdom.


THE EXONERATED


The Exonerated was a play I directed in 2015, premiering for the first time in Australia. It’s a story taken and interweaved from real interviews and manuscripts of six wrongfully convicted prisoners that have were exonerated. It’s a shocking and intense play, with some of the greatest acts of endurance you could imagine. I did the play for David & Rubin. If it wasn’t for David I would never have known about it. It jumped out at me at a bookstore I went to before heading to the prison. I read one line, and knew this was a story I had to do. Although not chronicling David’s own personal life, I hoped to raise awareness and use the stage to petition a review of David’s case. He was freed 3 months after I booked the venue. Another miracle.



Ray Klonsky and Marc Lamy's award winning documentary can now be viewed on online here.

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