From Another World weaves memoir with investigative research to explore the lives of four members of a poetry workshop I ran at Green Haven in Stormville, NY, in 1976-77. Each of the four experienced failures in the criminal justice system, police abuse, and finally, the cathartic power of literature. The short section below highlights Salvador Agron’s transformation in prison, as well as the very different points of view, still visible in America, about people in prison and rehabilitation.
“Echo of a Rumble:” Letters to Sal
One of the first cracks in the cement gates of Green Haven for Sal was a letter-to-the-editor he wrote that became an op-ed piece in the New York Times on January 29, 1975, with the title “Echo of a Rumble”. It was a major breakthrough for Sal more than a year before the workshops. I wasn’t aware of Sal’s letter in the seventies. But reading it for the first time more than thirty years later, it struck me as a telling summary of his miserable childhood and his terrible crime, with a yet more compelling discussion of his rehabilitation.
Here are just a few excerpts:
In the ‘50s more so during the latter parts, the wave of teen-age gang violence was rampant in New York City. It was very difficult to remain passive under such (an) atmosphere. One either fought or one became the punching bag of rival gangs. Violence only engenders more violence, and this was the case in 1959 when the culmination of gang violence took its toll and youthful energy was not properly directed by the civic and social agencies in the New York City area.
For a boy, as I was then, with the mentality of a twelve-year-old child, during a time of social transition, without the proper guidance, there was not much that I could have done to prevent what occurred…
Prison has been a hard life for me, but in spite of the system that it is, I have managed to use it to my advantage and betterment. Perhaps this is due to something that I learned while I was in the Sing Sing Prison Death Row, at the age of seventeen.
During one of my highest spiritual moments, a time in which the soul is able to see the complete past of one’s existence or life while facing the shadows of death, it occurred to me that one must do his best to take evil and turn it into good.
It is due to this acknowledgment of life and reality that I have been able to maintain the little humanity that was left within me and working at it in the face of backward surroundings, I have been able to cultivate my humanity and increase the value and respect for all human beings.
I have learned how to write poetry, received my high school equivalency, put legal petitions together in block letters…
The article was attributed to Sal with his inmate ID number: By Salvador Agron 16486. It was placed beside an ad for Blue Cross Blue Shield and below an editorial by a young woman at Yale who was hoping to make ‘fantasy’ her major, along with other editorials on France’s policy in the Middle East and divides within the Democratic party.
Sal’s letter generated an outpouring of public sentiment that provided a cross-section of American attitudes toward those behind bars at the time. In fact, he got quite a few encouraging letters ranging from those just expressing support to those seeking to help him in various ways. Some of the most positive letters came from clergymen and educators.
Here are just two of the many representative comments.
A clergyman wrote, It surely is a poignant story and your way of telling it was beautiful and deeply moving.
The chairman of a college English Department wrote, I have read your ‘Echo of a Rumble’ which appeared in The New York Times several weeks ago, and I am very favorably impressed with your case, and so are many of my students. If you tell me what sort of books you would like, I will see what I can do towards supplying them. I entirely agree, from the evidence at hand, that rehabilitation certainly seems to have worked in your case.
But not all the letters were nearly as kind or sympathetic. Some were frankly horrific. In my view, the most memorable of these ‘letter-attacks’ wasn’t actually a result of Sal’s article. The letter that follows was dated December 7, 1974, nearly two months before the New York Times piece. It was written on pink stationery in blue ink by someone who seemed to have a personal vendetta against Sal. (The underlining is entirely the work of the letter’s author.)
Brave Cape Man,
You must have felt very brave stabbing two boys to death, who couldn’t fight back! I’ll never forget the ‘wise-guy’ smirk on your face, as I saw it on T.V.
You felt like a hero, didn’t you?! Why didn’t you fight with your HANDS? You came back to kill those 2 boys, with a knife! You dirty, rotten rat! Your helpers are as guilty as you are and they should be there with you, too.
I hope the ghosts of the two boys you murdered will haunt you in your sleep. Their families should tear you to pieces, you scum. I hope you rot there until 1993!
This next letter dated January 30, 1975, was written in direct response to Sal’s editorial. It is different in tone and intention from the other three cited here in that it’s more descriptive of the general public reaction rather than being primarily a single individual’s perspective for or against Sal. This despite its evident sympathy. But what really singles it out is the second paragraph, which rather dramatically, but tersely, presents a vivid personal memory of prison abuse.
Dear Mr. Agron:
I read with interest your letter, or should I say, excerpts from your letter, which was published in the Times on 1/29/75. And captioned “ECHO of a RUMBLE.” Your letter also was the subject of one of those N.Y.C. radio shows on the above date, where the announcer makes a comment on some current matter and different people phone in and agree or disagree with his point of view. I only listened to the show from 12 to 1: P.M. during my lunch hour, but since the announcer was critical of your letter, in that he stressed the point with regard to the victims in your case, the vast majority of people who phoned him during the short period I listened to the show thought as you do, how much time is enough and what useful purpose will society gain by further confinement, now that you are 31 years of age and have done a great deal educationalwise etc., perhaps you may have been listening to that particular radio program yourself.
Now I had one other purpose in writing you this letter and it has to do with you or your companion in the case. In 1965 either you or your companion were confined in the “Tombs,” if I recall correctly on either the 7th or 8th floor, one evening at visiting time, two N.Y.C. so-called Correction Officers administered a brutal assault on whichever one of you were there, for no apparent reason, these two officers after wrestling you to the floor stomped you with their feet and after you lost consciousness, one of the officers still kept kicking you about the head and neck and stopped only when all the inmates awaiting their visits started screaming. Well, I reported this incident to the then Commissioner of Correction and went so far as to report the incident to the F.B.I. who contacted me and I made a signed and detailed statement of the incident, however, I was never called before any Grand Jury. Did you ever file any action relative to the above incident?
Wishing you the best of luck.
The “Tombs” is the colloquial name for the Manhattan Detention Complex in lower Manhattan. But Sal wasn’t there, he was in Green Haven in 1965. The victim in this terrible beating was his “companion,” Tony Hernandez, the “Umbrella Man.” Despite the unintentionally ironic ending, I can only imagine Sal’s horror in being presented with a scene that produced screams from inmate witnesses nearby. Yet another expression of brutal mistreatment that could well have reinforced his desire to make his exodus from prison as soon as possible.