Nov. 20, 2015
WEST HAVEN, CONN. -- Randall Horton should have had an easier life. Although he was the great-great-grandson of slaves, both of his parents went to college, were school teachers and believed strongly in education. And he was accepted to one of the top-rated historically black colleges, Howard University in Washington, D.C.
But his story took an unexpected turn. Instead of becoming a scholar, Horton became a homeless drug addict, international cocaine smuggler and a convicted felon.
Today, he is as he puts it, prisoner turned professor. A published and acclaimed poet. A Ph.D. and an associate professor of English at the University of New Haven.
He is also is now the author of “Hook: A Memoir,” which will be released Nov. 30. A book signing and reading will take place at the University of New Haven Campus Store, 300 Boston Post Road, on Wednesday, Dec. 2 from 11 to 2 p.m. and will feature free pizza and soda.
“My life trajectory has differed from most people,” he says. “I wrote the book because of that and because I knew there are individuals within our society who needed to hear my story, to understand that a person can overcome difficult circumstances caused by bad decision making.”
Horton, a resident of New York City, never knew he had a talent for writing. He didn’t do much of it, in fact, until he was incarcerated.
“Prior to prison I didn’t write much at all, let alone do any kind of serious reading,” he says. But while he was awaiting trial in Montgomery County, Md., he entered a program called Jail Addiction Services for Substance Abusers in hopes of getting a shorter jail sentence.
“I became involved with a group therapy session led by Patricia Parker who worked at the Department of Human and Human Services,” he recalls. “I was required to write essays every night based on writing prompts given that day. Many of these prompts asked deep, meaningful questions about behavior and responsibility, and I tried to answer them honestly. Writing those essays taught me the power of language.”
A few of those essays appear in the memoir. His work did help with an early release, too, and Horton progressed through a bachelor’s degree at the University of the District of Columbia to a master’s degree at Chicago State University and a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Albany.
Horton’s decline from college student to drug dealer was fairly quick, but not really predictable. “Certainly, as a kid I made some bad decisions,” he says, “but nothing that would dictate that drugs and prison would be my path. My parents weren’t strict, but they believed in discipline.”
When he got to Howard, one of his roommates had a father who was a drug smuggler for the Columbians. “Things escalated quickly,” he recalls. “I was introduced to money and the fast life. What got me hooked was the illusionary idea that I could live like that forever.”
Prison, ironically, turned his life around. First, it forced him to give up drugs. But it also provided him with resolve. “I made up my mind drugs would not be the final chapter of my life,” he says. “What I learned most from prison is that you not only go to prison, but you take your family with you. I realized I was not only slowly dragging myself down into a gutter, but my family was tagging along for that manic ride as well. All I could think about in prison was, if ever given the chance, I would strive very hard to be a productive individual, to make those who loved me, proud of me.”
His advice for young people now is that even what seem to be small decisions can alter your life forever. “Think long and careful about each decision you make. Do not succumb to peer pressure, social status and material things. Do not be afraid to be an individual. Make your own cool.’”
Now, Horton’s goals are to continue writing – he has written three published books of poetry, been recognized by a rare grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and is a member of the prestigious Cave Canem, which promotes African-American poetry - and contributes to the discourse on the Prison Industrial Complex.
“I want to use my story as an example of what can be achieved in the face of arduous circumstances,” he said. “Every day, men and women are released from prison back into a society that would rather erase and render them silent. I want these individuals to understand that even after being labeled a convicted felon for life, there is hope. I want to dispel the notion connoted by the words ‘convicted felon’, which are associated with people who are long past paying their debt to society.”
The University of New Haven is a private, top-tier comprehensive institution recognized as a national leader in experiential education. Founded in 1920 the university enrolls approximately 1,800 graduate students and more than 5,000 undergraduates.