Penned from Prison

Letters by David McCallum, an innocent man who spent three decades incarcerated for kidnapping and murder

Photograph courtesy of David & Me
David McCallum, photographed in 2010, in a prison visitor room overlooking a watchtower.
Photograph courtesy of David & Me
David McCallum, photographed in prison in 2010.

On October 27, 1985, two sixteen-year-old boys, David McCallum and Willie Stuckey, were arrested in Brooklyn for kidnapping and murder. They were both sentenced to twenty-five years to life; the principal evidence used for conviction was a pair of confessions where each implicated the other.

In 2005, McCallum wrote to a nineteen-year-old university student in Toronto named Ray Klonsky. This sparked a friendship in which the two sent around a hundred letters back and forth.

Last April, Klonsky—who is now a filmmaker—and a Canadian collaborator, Marc Lamy, premiered their documentary, David & Me. The film is about the unlikely relationship between Klonsky and McCallum, and an innocent man’s fight to be exonerated.

In October, a New York Supreme Court judge agreed with the state’s assistant district attorney, who called the confessions “the product of improper suggestion, improper inducement, and perhaps coercion,” and said that no evidence linked the two men to the crime. After nearly twenty-nine years behind bars, McCallum walked out of the court a free man. (Stuckey died in prison in 2001.)

This March 18, David & Me will be re-released with an updated ending on TVO. What follows are excerpts adapted from letters McCallum wrote to Klonsky while incarcerated.

November 28, 2005

Dear Ray,

I want to give you a synopsis of who I am, and what are my intentions of writing you. I met your dad nearly two years ago by reading an interview he conducted with Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Me and your dad have become really good friends, and I was hoping that we too can become friends, because ironically, I was around your age when I came to prison. I believe that you can help me, by simply lending me your ear for a little while.

You see Ray, I have never been to college before, nor has anyone in my family so I am hoping that you share some of your college experiences with me, because I lost my teenage years, and all of my young adult life to this place because I was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I was not an angel out there, and even at the age of fourteen, I found my way to crime, and I’d be lying to you if I tried to put it on someone else. I had a lot of terrible so-called friends, who did horrible things to people, but I was just as guilty as they were because I had a choice to walk away but I didn’t. Most of my friends that I hung around with are dead and in prison. But me, well, I have a chance, because I am more than confident that when I am eventually released from this place, I will be ready to live a productive life. I even have plans to attend college.

December 21, 2005

People have a tendency to glorify prison as if it is a country club or something. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel the pain of being in here locked up like an animal, and make no mistake about it, that is exactly what it feels like. Here in prison, we have a lot of want-to-be tough guys, but you know what, there are no tough guys in prison, man. As prisoners, we are quick to jump on each other, mostly over bullshit, however when we come off visits after seeing our family and friends, we have to be strip-searched before we are allowed to leave the visiting area. Well, these same gangsters don’t say a word when the officers asked them to spread ’um! You have no idea how humiliating that is man, so if you ever run across people who try to glorify this place, enlighten them a little bit, young man.

I remember the time when I was a year into my incarceration, and my girlfriend informed me that she could no longer do this. Naturally, I was crushed, because I really thought that I would not be here this long. My only purpose is to get out of prison, Ray, and I can do without the distractions, because let’s face it, girls/women can be a distraction in a place like this. I am not for one second suggesting that it is not okay for a man in prison to have a woman in his life, but she has to understand that she is not your first priority: freedom is.

March 23, 2006

To know what is going on inside my head is to ask yourself if mental torture is something you will ever want to experience. Even after twenty-plus years of incarceration, I do not want to believe that I am still here. I have visions of reliving my years over again, as if I were never here. I am scared that the adjustment period back into society is going to be a nightmare. I think about when I will first hear a police siren, how I will respond to that. Hope is all I have left, Ray, and without it I would have been done a long time ago. As long as I can breathe, I will hold on to hope, because right now that is the most important word in the world to me, because hope inspires freedom.

April 15, 2006

There are many dark days in this place, but I try not to push my problems on other people because I don’t want to drag them down with me. I sometimes feel as though I am stuck, and that as each year goes by, I feel as though nothing is happening. For example, it is starting to get hot, which can be brutal in a place like this, especially in the facility law library, where I spend most of my time. It could be ninety-five degrees outside, but here in the law library, it is usually seven degrees higher because there is absolutely no ventilation system installed, which in my opinion, is done systematically to discourage those who are truly trying to get out of prison. It is frustrating because I feel like acting out on this shit, but I have to look at the bigger picture. In other words, when I put all this shit on a scale and weigh it, it does not compare to my freedom, so I am forced to swallow a lot of bullshit, man.

Then, we have these new corrections officers fresh out of the academy, who parade around the prison trying to act tough and shit. The thing is, I have been incarcerated for twenty-plus years for a crime that I did not commit, and now, I have to put up with their crap, from people who were probably not born when I started this.

I have no desire to appear in front of a parole hearing because I cannot see myself admitting to guilt and showing remorse for something that I did not do. It goes against everything we are fighting for.

January 26, 2006

When I came to New York, it was a time that reflected how bad things were for everybody who lived in my neighborhood. All my friends seemed to have the same problems. The racial makeup of where I lived was so diversified, it really did not matter to my friends, because we saw one another for who we were. That also gave me a perspective that I carry with my to this day: racism is something that is taught in the homes of people, whether it is black people teaching their children to hate others, or white people teaching their children the same. In New York, I never had to worry about that because my parents taught my siblings and I that it is important to treat people the same way you would want to be treated. That is a lesson I will never forget, man.

I am flattered that you would want to write about my story, Ray, however I will only agree to it on one condition. That you take it seriously and not treat this tragedy as some run-of-the-mill type of story. Put a face to my pain, man, but more importantly, make it as much about you as about me. We are talking about a real life tragedy here and I fully expect you to speak for me, and how what happened to me can help others. You are my voice, man, and I am depending on you.

I am learning to transcend my thoughts beyond this prison wall and I am finding it to be a wonderful experience. You need to understand that I like escaping from this place mentally, because I do not see myself as a prisoner, man. I have committed no crime to be here. As far as I’m concerned, I am being held captive—like an animal.

September 24, 2009

Waiting for this decision is excruciating, man. This whole experience has been a struggle. Sometimes, I don’t know how I have been able to navigate this situation for so many years. There are many days when I get really frustrated, because I know that I should not be in here, and having to deal with the bullshit that comes with it.

Outside of the government in this country, prison is the most corrupt system in existence. This system is designed to keep you in here and also to keep you coming back. I don’t recognize this place as the Department of Correctional Services as it wants to be called. Instead, it does nothing to correct a person. The success stories you hear or see coming out of prison are self-inflicted, meaning inmates have taken the initiative to achieve success on their own. This is the New York prison system. The ultimate goal of prison is to create an atmosphere that makes it conducive to coming back.

May 20, 2010

I hope this letter finds you doing well. As for me, I am trying to pick up the pieces of carcass the parole board left me weeks ago. As usual though, I am in the midst of getting myself back on the road with yet another fight. It seems that my life consists of fighting. As you can imagine, I was devastated by the decision. I thought that I had an excellent chance to be paroled. I akin my situation to a pinball machine, where I am being bounced from side to side by the judicial department, and now the division of parole. I am not sure if they are trying to break me or not, but I do know that no matter what, I have to remain focused. I have really had enough of being treated this way. I am innocent, and the evidence in this case points to that. Thankfully, after a few days, I was able to somehow get back on track. I am feeling much better than I have in weeks.

June 7, 2010

I want to thank you for the motivation and inspiration you provided for me in your previous letter. I cannot emphasize enough how much you uplifted my spirits. I mean, my spirit was at an all-time low and needed some positive energy. I needed to get back on the road to freedom and liberty. I believe I found that energy because of you. Your words of encouragement were so right on, it would have been impossible for me to ignore. I won’t give up, man. The truth is that I cannot bring myself to do that. I will say that there was truly a tug-of-war waging inside of me, competing for every ounce of strength I had left. You are right, it is not only about me, but my family and the circle of support I have built around me.

I am going to fight my way out of here. I have been fighting for more than half of my life. However, a part of being a human being is getting discouraged about adverse situations, but it is how you handle those situations that will likely define who you are as a person. I have a strong will, and if God has chosen me for this experience, I would hope that I am doing what I have to do to survive. I am glad to be an inspiration to a lot of people. However, I want to say that a lot of people have been an inspiration to me as well. I look at my experience both ways in terms of my family, friends, and legal supporters. I will never take sole credit for how I am handling this. It is not in my DNA to do that.

November 23, 2011

It has been a long time since we were in communication and writing you this letter is actually good therapy for me. Not because it will provide me with an opportunity to vent some of my frustration, but to let you know that I am feeling a certain way. To say that I am becoming angry and bitter would be an understatement. I am getting to the point where I think it is best to leave this process alone, because it does not seem to be working.

I don’t want to become some bitter person, but it is becoming nearly impossible to avoid because I am seeing what this is doing to me psychologically, emotionally, and physically. I have always managed to rebound from this feeling, but each time it becomes harder and harder.

February 28, 2013

I’m getting ready for another parole hearing in April. I’m not sure if I can say anything that would change the outcome of their decision because I think they want me to confess. Sure, I can improve upon my presentation, but at the end of the day, will it really matter what I say, or how I say it?

I love all my biological brothers, and I must say that I love you as if you are one of them. You’re a special dude, man! I know your natural tendency is to downplay what you mean to me, but I have to tell you this is coming from the bottom of my heart. I will never forget what you have done for me, ever! You have a life out there, but yet you find time to help me in ways that you probably don’t realize.

The Walrus