On death row, an author and Nobel nominee

The mattress pads in the death-row cells of San Quentin State Prison are unusually thin.

But former gang godfather and convicted murderer Stanley "Tookie" Williams has made that a virtue. He rolls his up tight, binds it together with shoelaces, and sets it on end. From that makeshift stool, using his metal bed frame as a desk, Mr. Williams writes books for children, warning them of the life he led and now rues.

"I have to ad lib," says Williams in a phone interview from his cell. "You do a lot of that in here."

Indeed, Williams's life has been full of ingenuity and surprises. But perhaps none so great as the recent announcement that he has been nominated for next year's Nobel Peace Prize by a member of the Swiss parliament.

Williams is co-founder of the Crips, a gang rooted in

1971 South Central Los Angeles but now with copycats scattered around the globe.

But it's what Williams has done from a 4- by 9-foot cell - his home for the past 19 years - that has brought him a Nobel nomination. He has created a cottage industry of programs to help at-risk youths in the United States and abroad to avoid gang life. He's written nine books and created several anticrime programs run by the nonprofit Neighborhood House for North Richmond, not far from San Quentin.

While Williams's works have received wide recognition, including support from corporations like Kraft Foods and funding from the US Department of Justice, honoring him as a Nobel nominee is controversial and sure to play into the national debate over the death penalty.

For opponents of capital punishment, Williams's accomplishments are testimony to the power and usefulness of a life turned around.

For supporters of the death penalty, the nomination is the ultimate affront to victims everywhere. Williams was convicted of four murders, which he denies committing.

Reverse role model

For Tandrea Nix, a sixth-grader in tan pants and a black nylon jacket, Williams is a kind of reverse role model.

Tandrea is one of more than 50 children who spend their after-school hours in a converted duplex apartment building in North Richmond, a community with an ever present whiff of oil in the air, thanks to nearby refineries, and a per capita annual income of $4,500. The children are participating in a project begun by Williams and administered by Neighborhood House that provides mentoring and resources, like Internet access, to spread an antigang message.

In a dim upstairs room with windows covered by metal mesh, Tandrea is reading aloud from one of Williams's books to a group of children bused here from their homes after school. Tandrea explains Williams's message to a visitor simply: "It teaches us not to grow up like him."

Growing up for Williams meant an early introduction into the tough street life of South Central Los Angeles. He and his mother moved there by bus from Louisiana in the early 1960s. His first exploration of his new neighborhood led to a fight with the local bully, an experience Williams says convinced him that being bigger, tougher, and stronger than the next guy were the keys to survival.

At 17, Williams and a friend founded the Crips gang, which begat heightened street violence and, ultimately, a couple of robberies and four murders that landed Williams on death row. He is appealing those convictions by requesting new evidentiary hearings.

Slow conversion

Williams's transition from gang leader to gang opponent was not sudden. Gang affiliations and animosities follow their members into prison, and San Quentin authorities were immediately suspicious of Williams.

Convinced he was behind a budding gang power struggle, prison officials sent Williams to "the hole," a place where even minimal prison liberties are denied, where he stayed for seven years.

It was there, says Williams, that the conversion began.

"It didn't happen overnight," he says. "It wasn't an epiphany. It was gradual, and that's what made it more effective - not like one of those crash diets where it doesn't last," he chuckles.

"He's proof that someone can change the direction of his life and give a good example to other young people," says Mario Fehr, who, along with five fellow members of the Swiss Parliament, put forth Williams's Nobel nomination.

Williams is soft-spoken and, while not formally educated, clear and articulate. He credits God for making his life productive, and voracious reading for his impressive vocabulary. His favorite books: the Bible, the dictionary, and a thesaurus.

Williams's work and conversion have been given a strong helping hand by Barbara Becnel, executive director of the Neighborhood House. They met when she sought him out as a source for a book she is writing on the history of L.A. gangs. She became a conduit for his programs outside prison, including the books, which he dictates to her over the phone. She edits them and does the leg work to see them into print.

Ms. Becnel's initial quest for a publisher in the early 1990s failed. Only one was interested, but wanted a blood-and-guts inside account of gang life, which Williams rejected. She then took the idea to a National Booksellers Convention in Chicago, where she literally walked from booth to booth. She found a taker, and the series of books was published in 1996.

Another book, "Life in Prison," was published in 1998, and presents a harrowing account of prison existence that has been applauded by juvenile-justice officials, as well as educators and young people.

Becnel says Williams gets no proceeds from the books. Rather, earnings are funneled into his antigang activities. Williams founded the Internet Project for Street Peace, a Web site that allows at-risk youths to talk to each other in chat rooms. Right now, the network involves American teens talking to Somali immigrants in Switzerland. Eventually, the program will connect with black youths in South Africa, too.

Gang life in the style of South Central L.A. has clearly gone global. Becnel recalls her astonishment on a trip to South Africa, when she visited Pollsmoor Prison, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, and noticed prisoners making hand symbols identifying themselves as followers of the Crips.

Little sympathy

Because of his murder convictions, as well as the thousands of lives damaged by gangs, Williams gets no sympathy from victims-rights groups and death-penalty proponents.

"We work very hard not to allow murderers to become celebrities. We find it insulting to the victims, because it just casts the victims aside," says Jan Miller, president of Citizens Against Homicide. Whatever good work Williams is doing today, says Miller, cannot negate his earlier crimes, nor should it affect his punishment.

Mr. Fehr, the Swiss Parliamentarian, makes clear that the Nobel nomination is intended to honor Williams, as well as call attention to the injustice of the death penalty. "This will help push the death-penalty debate to a higher level," says Fehr from Zurich.

Of course, winning the Nobel Prize remains a long shot for Williams, who is just one of more than 100 nominations. But in terms of the debate over the death penalty, simply being a nominee will heighten the controversy that is sure to follow if Williams's legal appeals are exhausted and his execution scheduled.

Aside from the morality argument against the death penalty, Williams embodies a different, more pragmatic contention. If his life now accomplishes a social good, supporters argue, why end it?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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