Late of an April evening in 1974, Rubin Carter was sitting at the small desk in his five- by seven-foot cell in Rahway (N.J.) State Prison, reading the manuscript of his autobiography, when he picked up that faint, familiar scent of menace in the incarcerated air. The man had spent nearly half of his 37 years behind bars—the past seven for a triple murder that he vehemently insisted he had not committed—and in the course of time he had learned to read, like a second language, the quietest shifts in mood and rhythm inside prison walls.
Carter looked at his watch. It was past 10. He went to the door of his cell. Outside, the lights were still on in his wing. Rahway ran like a timepiece, and one of the things a man could always count on was the dimming of the houselights at 10. In the second language, lights off beyond that hour was good; lights on, bad. "It meant that something extraordinary was going on," he says.
Carter was the leader of the Rahway Inmates Council, a group of jailhouse rockers working for prison reform. That very day Carter had presided over a peaceful, if unauthorized, meeting in the prison rec hall, urging inmates to air their grievances through the council. He sensed he was in trouble for that. Indeed, Rahway was preparing to ship him back to Trenton State—the maximum-security prison where he had previously done time—on charges of inciting a riot.
"I knew they were coming to get me," he says. "I didn't have to hear rumors."
That left him but one thing to do.
Quietly he picked up his footlocker, his standing locker, his desk—every movable object in his room except his bed—and stacked them against the door of his cell. He then stripped off his shirt and denims and pulled on his sweatpants and sweatshirt, the one with the hood to cover his shaved head. Fearing an attack of Mace, he uncapped a jar of Vaseline and swabbed his neck and face with jelly, spreading it in thick gobs around his nose and eyes. He was ready.
It was surely no wonder, in this hour of maximum danger, that he should choose to face the enemy on the terms he understood best, gleaming and hooded in a very small space. Back in the mid-1960s, Rubin (Hurricane) Carter had been the No. 1-ranked middleweight fighter in the world—a fierce, unembraceable attacker with a hard body, a mastiff's courage and a left hook that whistled as it worked.
Carter lost his only shot at the middleweight title on Dec. 14, 1964—a 15-round split decision to champion Joey Giardello. Nearly two years later he was training for his second chance, against champion Dick Tiger, when he and a former high school track star named John Artis, a college-bound 19-year-old who had never been in trouble with the law, were arrested in Paterson, N.J., for the June 17, 1966, slaying of three whites in Paterson's Lafayette Bar & Grill.
For all the years that Carter would spend in prison for that crime—from 1967 to '85, from the first day of his confinement at Trenton State through his extraordinary metamorphosis at Rahway, through two demonstrably tainted trials to his final vindication and walk to freedom—he would proclaim his innocence by living in contempt and defiance of his keepers. On first entering Trenton he refused to surrender his wristwatch and ring; to shave his goatee, as prison rules required; to work at any of the prison jobs. As punishment he spent three months in The Hole, his first of many descents into that airless, sepulchral dungeon. When they finally raised him up out of The Hole, he refused to wear prison clothes. He refused to undergo psychiatric evaluations. An angry recluse, he ate his meals alone in his cell, heating up cans of soup with a small copper coil. Late into the night prisoners could hear him tapping at his antediluvian typewriter, a manual Underwood left to him by a parolee, pecking out his story in the long, impassioned cadences of his rage.
Now, on this April night in 1974, he sat on his bed, looking like some deranged warrior peering out from the hollow of his cowl, his black face smeared with translucent war paint, listening for the sound of boots marching along the tier. They came about three o'clock. "With Mace and chains and shackles," Carter recalls. "Fifty of them, all lined up out there. Guards in their full riot gear."