Death-Row Inmate Dedicates His Life to Saving At-Risk Youngsters


The inmate’s eyes soften when he talks about his work with children.

Stanley “Tookie” Williams, co-founder of the notorious Crips, regrets--regrets big--that he can’t do more, teach more, save more children. He takes as an insult the query whether rescuing one youngster’s life is enough. It’s not nearly enough for him.

His time is limited, and he knows it. Williams, 45, has spent the last 18 years on San Quentin’s death row for killing four people during two robberies.

It all started in Los Angeles, where in 1971 he founded a gang with his pal, Raymond Washington. They met in high school and decided to create an alliance to combat gangs on the east side, where Washington lived, and on the west side, where Williams lived.


“We had to band together against them to protect each other and to protect our family members, our loved ones,” Williams says. (His friend was killed by a rival in 1979.)

Even then, at only 5 feet 10 inches tall, Williams weighed 300 pounds. When lifting weights added bulk, he picked up the nickname “Big Took.”

With no father at home, Williams turned to kids on the streets as role models. Rock, a friend’s older brother, spoke with pride of the years he spent in Soledad, Folsom and San Quentin prisons--”gladiator schools,” he called them.

“He said prisons were places where a man could prove his toughness to other men who were equally tough,” Williams wrote. “Rock was a good storyteller. Now I see that he was too good.”

These days, Williams warns young people away from gang life: Do as he says, not as he did.

“If all I can save is one, then I consider myself a failure,” he said recently by telephone. “This problem exceeds far more than one person. I’d rather be able to assist thousands, hundreds of thousands, if it’s possible. Oh, no, that’s not enough for me.”

Williams works from a 9-by-4-foot cell, writing his books, answering letters from children and talking to anyone who will listen: politicians, police, reporters.


He still cuts an imposing figure, even in prison-issue denim. He hunches over in a metal folding chair, speaking between bites of a sandwich--occasional relief from cafeteria food. His close-cropped hair is graying at the temples. He speaks quietly, chooses words carefully.

He doesn’t glamorize prison life. In his latest book, “Life in Prison,” published by Morrow Junior Books, Williams gives no-nonsense insight into life behind bars. Young Adult Library Services Assn. placed it on a list of 74 titles for “reluctant readers.”

“What Stan shows is, prison is often glorified in inner cities,” said Rosemary Brosnan, executive editor at Morrow. “His first books . . . really made an impact, saying what no one else is saying.”

Williams writes a few pages, then dictates them during 15-minute phone calls to journalist Barbara Cottman Becnel, who edits his work. His first work was published in 1996.

“Tookie Speaks,” a series of eight books aimed at elementary school pupils, serves as an anti-gang primer. Teachers, librarians and counselors gobbled them up.

A principal in South Central, Barbara Lake of West Athens Elementary School, says fifth-graders actually asked to take textbooks home. No other set of books had prompted parents to jam the school’s switchboard, wondering where they could buy copies.

Williams’ latest book, aimed at sixth-graders and up, is blunter, edgier. In “Life in Prison,” he details day-to-day life behind San Quentin’s walls, writing of fear, boredom and more. He describes meals, strip-searches, visits, fights:

* “I have been locked up nearly 20 years, and every day of my incarceration I have been homesick. . . . My homesickness even makes me feel sick to my stomach.”

* “It’s very humiliating to have guards watching us closely to make sure none of us is breaking the rules by touching, or being touched, too much.”

* “Sometimes the roar is so great in here it hurts your eardrums. In fact, the only time it’s truly quiet is when everyone is asleep. That’s why I wake up early, around 4:30 a.m., to do as much studying as possible before the other inmates start their day.”

* “Neither inmate wants to see the other one naked. So while we say hello to each other, we avoid direct eye contact because we’re embarrassed.”

Williams tries to deliver subtlety, not sermons. He hopes to offer kids productive ways to spend their time, real alternatives to gangs. Williams endorses education and regrets ignoring his own. For him, school was the chance to make plans for the weekend. Had he taken school seriously, Williams says, his life might have been different.

Earlier this year, Kathy Miller, a teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Rock Island, Ill., read the latest book to her sixth-graders. Reaching inner-city students is crucial. “So many of them are just like Stanley was at that age. They have the same mentality that they’re going to end up in prison someday,” she said.

Williams is now at work on the Internet Project for Street Peace, connecting at-risk youth in California and South Africa. Joanna Flander Thomas, the project coordinator, works with young prisoners in Cape Town. She says “The Americans” is one of South Africa’s largest and most violent gangs, imitating their namesakes’ dress and behavior.

“He will be a credible witness,” Thomas said. “I have no doubt that he will get attention just because of who he is.”