TURNED 21 IN PRISON 

Kevin Pelot struggles to articulate the thoughts fermenting inside him, sealed in the cask of prison life

Before dawn on Christmas Day 1996, in a narrow trailer in Pevely, Mo., Kevin Pelot shot and killed his mother's abusive boyfriend, Brian Swan ("Pevely Diary," RFT, May 28, 1997). Charged with first-degree murder, Pelot could have been sentenced to life in prison without parole. The jury found him guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter because he'd been defending himself and his family. He's been incarcerated since the summer of 1997 and was recently transferred to the new Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, Mo. Now 22, Pelot's tanned, tattooed and, after hours of lifting weights, cut. Embarrassed by the dorky gray perma-press prison garb, he cancels it out with a shaved head and a goatee. For photos, he stands ramrod-straight. Waiting to be transported, he paces. His speech is riddled with profanity and prison slang, but he apologizes for it with every other sentence: "You get a way of talking in here."

You also get a way of thinking — about race, about masculinity, about the society outside the walls.

RFT: You look a lot different than that pale, scared, skinny 19-year-old.

Pelot: Well, I've had to grow up in prison. You have a lot more time to think about how you carry yourself. You have to be able to stand on your own two feet here, because 90 percent of the people are trying to manipulate you for some reason. There is a white-slave trade sexually, but that's for the weak. These youngsters come in, they are scared, they have seen all the prison movies. A lot of times the institution will allow that to happen, just to placate the black inmates.

How many different places have you been sent since you were incarcerated?

Fulton to Boonville to Farmington to here. I got into a little trouble at Boonville: These black guys kept jumpin' me because I wouldn't bow down to 'em, so I went and got me a piece of steel. Then they rolled me to Farmington. They got a big scam at Farmington; they put you on this six-month contract, then they throw you out on the Hill, where these guards are messin' with you. Farmington is the fullest prison. If they don't keep the hole full, they don't have enough beds. So if you get one writeup, you spend 90 days in the hole and your contract starts all over again.... Farmington's all baby-rapers and fucking child molesters. People like myself, who were for real defending the family unit, which is a crime nowadays, are doing the majority of their sentence. But child-molesters will get probation or go through a special program.

How much more time do you have to serve?

My release date's 2003. They're hardly letting anybody out early anymore. They want to be able to justify building more prisons.... Bowling Green now is Level 4 (medium security), but they're supposed to put a death fence around it. Right now they're trying to get a riot kicked off so they can lock us down, make it Level 5. So they hassle everybody, get the tension up, throw a Muslim or a Moor in with a Klansman until somebody gets pushed to their limit.

You used to be something of a civil-rights advocate. Have your political and racial views changed?

Politically, I'm an advocate for the liberties of those established as state citizens by the Declaration of Independence. I embrace my culture, and I promote its preservation. Nowadays, if you're white, society prefers you to feel so guilty about that that you deny your culture. In times before mass-media influence, your strength was in your culture — your people. Personally, I agree 100 percent.

Do you ever think about Brian Swan?

Yeah, I do. I resent the fact that he forced me to do what I did, that and all the pain he put my family through. On the other hand, I'm sorry that another man's life had to end. At one time, I had endless respect for Brian Swan. He seemed like an honorable man who physically defended my mother. (One of Swan's first acts was to beat up her previous abuser). But the drugs and alcohol ruled his life and caused him to do some pretty nasty things to the people I love.

Would you fire the gun again, if you had a chance to do it over?

If my other option were the brutalizing and possible murder of my family, of course I would. See, I felt like I had exhausted every other resource available to me. The police weren't helping (they'd been called to the trailer on multiple occasions, yet they'd released Swan without consequence the very morning of his death). There is only so much a 19-year-old kid can do.

How's your family doing these days?

My sister, Danielle, has a 4.0 average in college. She's doing better than she ever has. My mom has her own house; she does a man's work; she is doing great with Eddie (now 5, the son of Michele Pelot and Brian Swan). But I still don't believe to this day she's ready to date.

How does it feel to have killed? Right or wrong, that's a powerful act.

I think it's more powerful in somebody else's eyes than the way I view it. I'm not gonna let it govern the way I react in every situation. I've been told I'm lucky that I didn't get life, and some people say I should have had a medal. I don't think I really agree with either one.

What's the prison culture?

This is a society mostly of respect. If you disrespect somebody or you get disrespected, there are consequences — unlike on the streets. As a whole, it's a polite place. You bump into somebody, it's, "Excuse me." With respect come strength of character and honor. There are people in here whose word is as good as any contract. That's so rare outside these walls, it's almost nonexistent.

Do you feel different from the other inmates?

In whose eyes? As far as the Department (of Corrections) goes, I'm not even a person, just a number. They very rarely research somebody's background before they get in here. As far as the way I look at myself, I don't know. I'm getting to the point now where I'm starting to feel like there is no difference.

Do you believe rehabilitation's possible?

The only true form of rehabilitation is education. But now all they have is a bunch of classes like "anger management," which don't work. They generalize too much. Besides that, any other type of rehabilitation's going to come from within. Problem is, the system doesn't have any accurate way to get inside somebody's head and know when they have hit that point.

Are the caseworkers any help?

(He rolls his eyes.) They run around issuing violations if your furniture is not lined up right or your desk is in the wrong place. It just gets you to where you feel like no matter how hard you try you can't stay out of trouble, so you figure, screw it, I might as well just do something to be deserving all this grief.

What do you do all day?

(Gov. Mel) Carnahan's got a six-hour work day for the inmates, but there's not enough jobs to facilitate that many hours of working, so they have a bunch of people who just stand around and look like they're working. I'm on the yard, supposed to be pickin' up cigarette butts.

Is life better at a brand-new facility with new corrections officers?

The people that run things like this usually have degrees in sociology. They go through training. (Heavy irony, heavy sigh.) I'd rather be at one of the older, dirty, beat-down penitentiaries, because the old-time cops make the rules, leave you alone and let you serve your time.

What advice would you have for a young inmate fresh off the bus?

"Shut up and pay attention to what goes on around you. Don't get in debt. Mind your own business. And if you want to avoid problems, stick with your own kind." Besides that, as long as he is not easily intimidated, has some heart, common sense and a somewhat hard head, he'll make it.

He'll have problems, but he'll make it.

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