THIEF! The Gutsy, True Story of an Ex-Con Artist
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
From the Belly of the Beast
Seth Ferranti Interview
The traditional Mafia is still big news and the public’s fascination with the mob and criminal behavior shows no signs of letting up. While glorifying the gangster isn’t what Mob Speak is all about, we continue to present various criminal viewpoints without editorializing. Our role is to let our readers discover what makes criminals tick—hear their story—firsthand.
Such is the case with Seth Ferranti, currently serving a 304-month stint in federal prison for peddling marijuana and LSD. Seth is a first-time, non-violent offender. During his incarceration Seth founded Gorilla Convict Publications. He’s also a regular contributor to Don Diva magazine originally written for prisoners and gangsters but now enjoys a much broader reader base. He’s earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Iowa University and is currently working toward his Masters degree from California State University.
Seth has been the subject of numerous interviews including my good friend, Ron Chepesiuk on the website New Criminologist. From reading Seth’s books I found him to be an intelligent and articulate writer who wraps his considerable knowledge of the street in the language of the hood. There’s no doubt that Seth Ferranti knows what he’s talking about.
MS: Your research speaks volumes about your desire to get the facts straight. While incarcerated in federal prison, you wrote three books: Street Legends Vol. 1, Street Legends Vol. 2 and Prison Stories, based on real personalities. What motivated you to write the books?
SF: For the Street Legends series (Vol. 1 and 2) I wanted to do for the black and Latino gangsters of the crack era what writers like you are doing for the mob stories. I have read a lot of the mafia true crime books and have found them all fascinating. But I noticed there weren't many on black and Latino gangsters so I decided to fill that void. these are figures that have been lauded in the lyrical lore of hip-hop and I was locked up with a lot of them so I had access and I found that a lot of them wanted to tell their stories so I came up with the street legends concept. I just did like writers do with the mafia books except I switched it up a bit. It’s still true crime though. Prison Stories was my attempt to show the time that I was doing in the feds in the ‘90s. I had read In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbot and Hothouse by Pete Early and I wanted to show the world what the time I was doing in the feds was like. I believe I captured it very well in Prison Stories. Just as Street Legends captured the ghetto icons memorialized in hip-hop.
MS: In your various publications, a name that crops up regularly is Don Diva magazine. For those of you who haven’t heard of Don Diva, the Washington Post stated, “Don Diva is a magazine a bout gangsters that is published for gangsters -- and for wannabe gangsters, imprisoned gangsters and folks who just want to experience the excitement of gangster life without getting shot or going to prison, which is, alas, the fate of most of the gangsters Don Diva profiles.” Tiffany Chiles, whose husband Kevin Chiles was released from prison in 2003, launched the magazine in 1999. Don Diva bills itself as “The Original Street Bible.” What role does the magazine play in your life, Seth?
SF: I was in FCI Fort Dix in 1999 writing a sports newsletter/paper for the intramural sports leagues run in the prison. Some guys had transferred in from FCI Allenwood where Kevin Chiles was doing time. He was looking for writers for Don Diva which he had just started. The guys, who were homeboys of his from Harlem, saw my writing which was posted in the housing units. It was just sports stuff from the prison leagues, basketball and stuff like that, commentary and game reports. They liked the way I wrote and approached me. They told me about Kevin and the magazine. Also there were some dudes on the compound that Don Diva wanted to interview. So I interviewed them, wrote the articles and sent them to Tiffany. I have been writing for Don Diva ever since. They have promoted my work and it has been a productive relationship.
MS: You’ve done considerable research for your books, website and blog. How do you accomplish this considering you lack access to important individuals and resources?
SF: Actually I think being in here is easier because I can just walk through my unit and find criminals from this town or that town. Whoever I am researching a story on its very easy to find someone who might know them or know of their legend. Just because they are from the streets or from that area. Let’s say I am doing a story on a ghetto icon from New York I can walk down the block and talk to someone from New York and get all the street info and rumors on that person. The newspaper stuff I get my wife, who acts as my manager slash secretary slash agent slash editor slash publisher, to download from Lexus Nexus and print out for me and the court records are easy because they have extensive law libraries in prison. So actually being where I'm at is a plus for researching. That’s crazy yes? But I am relentless too and I never take no for an answer and if I am blocked doing something I am trying to do, I find a way around it.
MS: A constant theme in your books is the parallel between the traditional Mafia and those whom you call Street Legends, gangsters who have achieved great fame or popular renown. The quote “we only kill our own” was coined by the traditional Mafia but it was not true of them, nor is it true of the so called Street Legends, both of whom killed plenty of innocent bystanders. Care to expand on this?
SF: A lot of the stuff about loyalty and honor and all that is bullshit for real. I have learned that a lot of these so called stand-up guys and street legends are really psychos, not people you'd want to have over for dinner. It goes right with the whole Godfather themes. It’s a glorification, a romanticism. I didn't create these legends. I just perpetuate them. I put them on paper. It goes back to the whole Billy the Kid thing. I mean who was Billy the Kid? He could have been some snot nosed punk. But look at his legend. That is my medium. That is my passion. I bring the legends to life. Sometimes it’s easier to look at the legends than to look at the real people but I try to give an accurate portrayal buying into the mythology but at the same time destroying it when necessary. I do it from the criminal side though. I am not a mainstream journalist upholding the government angle. I take a look at these legends, their lives and crimes, from all angles. I try to draw an honest and real perspective that can take readers into these peoples’ lives and circumstances. But I don't sugarcoat it when a guy is a killer I give him his due.
MS: Put slightly differently, few would argue that finding a way out of oppressive poverty can be a noble quest. Does that justify the taking of innocent lives even by accident?
SF: I wouldn't say that anything justifies taking an innocent life. But in our world stuff happens. Who am I to judge? I just try to tell the story. I see myself more as a historian. But my history is not colored by facts. I report the story from all angles and give an honest perspective. Life is precious but the fact of the matter is people die every day for all different types of reasons and it’s not pretty. Life is cruel and ugly. That is a fact. But speaking from the criminal side, a man who doesn't snitch on his comrades is noble. Maybe he killed some innocents, on purpose, no, does that lessen it? No. It is what it is. I could go on about casualties of war and all that but I won't. Death isn't pretty but when you carry and use a gun it’s an occupational hazard. But taking innocent lives is never justified. Even in war.
MS: The fascist dictator Benito Mussolini said, “I would rather live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a lamb.” With the exception of Frank Matthews who apparently still avoids capture and perhaps a few others, the Street Legends seem to share a consistent character arc. They live large, leave their mark, then sit out the rest of their lives in a prison cell, many with no hope of parole and little outside contact. Most say they have no regrets. In your opinion, are a few years of glory, fame and fortune worth spending the rest of your life incarcerated?
SF: At the time most would say yes but after 20 years in the belly of the beast most would say no. It’s all a matter of perspective. Some dudes live for that rush, that recognition, that fame. But in the end was it worth it? Most would say no. But most would say they are men of principles too and taking the time for upholding those principles are what they are doing. So in the big scheme it’s about principles. If someone raped or hurt my wife or children would I kill them? Yes, I would, because I am a man of principle. So if you can understand that then you can understand these men who burn brightly and flame out. It’s all about being able to look yourself in the mirror and being comfortable with who you are and your circumstances in life, whatever they might be. But I think too that as younger men these guys don't realize the consequences of their actions. They are risk takers, they are gamblers—but the stakes they are playing for are their lives.
MS: Let’s get more specific. Are you alleging that because Kenneth ‘Supreme” McGriff conducted himself with finesse, it exonerated him from all the stuff he did?
SF: Supreme is an honorable dude. But I speak as a criminal because my ideals are different than those from society. He upheld the code, omerta, and never snitched. He embodies what all this gangster stuff has been glorified as and romanticized as. He is the real deal. That is rare these days. That is why I write about these dudes to honor what they are. It's the principle I am recognizing. But supreme is a criminal. A drug dealer and shotcaller from the jump. His organization was the first to deal crack exclusively and his actions, direct or indirect, caused a lot of tragedy in the hood. He made money off of other peoples misery. That is true. I can put it all in perspective. That doesn't take away from who he is. How many political leaders and even presidents of our own country have made money off the misery of others? That is the American way. I don't think supreme is evil. I think he is a good hearted person that just got caught up in a violent world in one of the most violent epochs of American history—the crack era. Was it pretty, no. But it’s history. Hip-hop has celebrated his legend and I have put it in book form for any readers who wish to indulge in it. That's all it is. Nothing more nothing less. The man is serving a life sentence in one of the harshest prisons ever conceived. So he is paying the price for his glory and legend. He hasn't been exonerated from anything.
MS: Forget the movie American Gangster which is the subject of another blog entry. What’s your take on Frank Lucas?
SF: For me personally Frank Lucas is a fraud. He incorporated other peoples life events and sold them as his own. He is a scam man, a hustler. But to give him his due he sold the story and got paid. But he is a fraud and he is a snitch. I have no respect for a dude like that. But I liked the movie. I like that it got made. I like that it raised the profile for this whole black gangster movement that I am a part of. But Frank Lucas didn't have to steal other peoples stories to sell as his own. That is wrong.
MS: From your book Street Legends Vol. 1 you said “…Anthony Jones, the king of Baltimore, is still silent. Denied access to the mail, phones and visits he sits at ADX Florence, the federal supermax , under the tightest of security in permanent lockdown by court order.” Perhaps it’s like the moth that’s drawn to a flame. What’s the motivation when the convicted perps are nearly 100% guaranteed to spend their lives in jail?
SF: I think the motivation is their circumstances that they are trying to rise up out of. Their environment. Maybe that is all they know. I can make excuses but in reality people just get caught up in their life. Like I said before they want the recognition, they want the fame, they court the controversy. They bring it on themselves. They are the moth drawn to the flame.
MS: Many families, whether they admit it or not, have a relative who is somehow connected to the illicit drug trade. My own now deceased brother was a mule in Miami for Columbian drug traffickers in the ‘70s. He was on the run from the FBI a good part of his life, taking on menial jobs even though he excelled both in languages and math. I often wonder what he might have become if he chose a different path.
Like my brother, you seem to have multi talents: intelligence, energy and drive that would make you successful in any walk of life. What’s your story?
SF: I moved from California to Virginia as a teenager with my mom and stepdad. I was angry, I was rebellious but at the same time I wanted attention. I wanted to be popular. The area was very affluent, Fairfax, Virginia, the kids I met there had money to spend and they wanted drugs. I bragged that I could get them so they brought me several thousand dollars to buy them. I called my cousins in California and had them sent to me overnight. This started my life in smuggling. Three years later at the age of 19 I was supplying marijuana and LSD to about 15 colleges in 4 states. It wasn't something I planned, it just happened. By the age of 22 I was sentenced to 25 years on a continual criminal enterprise charge. I am still in shock at it. But I have done the time. I have walked it down. Now I am almost ready to go home.
MS: You said, “A better life awaits us” In Street Legends Vol. 2. What do you mean exactly?
SF: You know I write for people in prison. That is my audience. I wrote that for them. It means better life awaits us when we get out.
MS: To paraphrase, you’ve said: All true Legends are visionaries and accept both sides of the coin…the good and bad and take full responsibility for their actions. Are you saying that people don’t choose a way of life, but rather are chosen?
SF: No, I am not saying that. I am saying that to be the type of person that becomes a legend you have to have some kind of vision or scope that is bigger than yourself. You have to be able to become bigger than the sum of your parts and accept all that comes at you. You have to hold your own and carry your weight. You can't put your problems on someone else. To me that is admirable and honorable and that is what the legends I write about epitomize.
MS: The Robin Hood analogy crops up often with regard to how the Street Legends are viewed, i.e., rob from the rich and give to the poor. The drug lord Anthony Jones allegedly said to the neighborhood youth, “Don’t use drugs; don’t sell them.” He was also known to help friends with college tuition and more. Yet he was a vicious killer tied to a dozen murders. Sure these guys threw crumbs to the neighborhoods poor the same way that Al Capone doled out Thanksgiving turkeys. But can you say that they did all this for altruistic reasons? It seems more like savvy public relations.
SF: I think it’s more a matter of you help your own. Yes, they poisoned their communities but they helped too. They tried to outweigh the bad that they did. But it’s not like they were killing innocents although some inevitably get caught in the crossfire. If you are a criminal or a player in the game, death or jail is often the result. These people live life large while they can and then pay the ultimate consequence. They just try to spread some of the love around while they can so they will be remembered fondly. I don't think it is an active attempt at public relations though. It is just human nature.
MS: Almost everyone on the streets seems to idolize these dudes. I get the point of Death before Dishonor meaning they didn’t rat anyone out, an admirable trait. But what a price to pay for a few flashes of glory. Can you explain?
SF: These dudes came from the gutter. They didn't have nothing. I can't even imagine how they lived or what life was like for them. Can you? They lived and grew up in poverty and degradation. Their whole culture has been criticized and they as black men have faced racism from day one. So it is hard for me to explain. I have attempted but I can't really understand. I just try to keep it as real as possible and authentic and honest. Maybe the temptation to live like a king for even only a minute was worth the risk for them. That is all I can say on that.
MS: Apparently, the 1980s was the heyday for illicit drug sales such as cocaine and heroin in the U.S. One of the Street Legends dubbed Boy George said “Drugs are the biggest generator of money in this country, so how could the game be dead?” What’s the drug situation like today? If it’s in decline, what’s killing it?
SF: I don't think the drug situation has been killed. Illegal drugs are probably still the biggest money maker in this country. But for the blacks and Latinos the crack era was like prohibition for the Italians. A lot of guys got rich overnight. They say the game is dead because with the war on drugs and the proliferation of snitching it’s hard to get in and out with your money. That’s what they mean when they say the game is dead. The object of any game is to win and if you end up in prison with a life sentence or dead in the gutter then obviously you didn't win. The best and the brightest in the drug game used to win. Now that isn't so much the case.
MS: From what I’ve heard, the prison system in this country sucks. It’s run by a corrupt, greedy lot (gee, just like on the outside!) and rehabilitation is a joke. If you agree with that view, how would you change things? What can we all do to change the prison system? God knows…we pay enough to keep guys in there.
SF: I think they should have a type of reward or good time system instead of the current system where you have to do 85% of your time. There should also be something in place for first-time, non-violent offenders. They should have more education and programs. Right now the prison system is just a warehouse for men. A place of employment to prop up rural economies. It is all wrong. It would take a lot to make it right but it could be done. There is no oversight and staff face no consequences for their actions or inaction, be that as it may. I do believe that some people belong in prison and the crimes they commit are not redeemable—they should never be let out. But a lot of people are in here for very minor stuff. The war on drugs is a joke. I have 17 years in for non-violent crimes committed when I was a teenager. That is crazy.
MS: What would you like to add that we haven’t covered, Seth?
SF: Check out my blog, order my books, let me know what you think about the work that I am doing. I welcome all comments and critiques. My new book THE SUPREME TEAM: The Birth of Crack and Hip-hop, Prince's Reign of Terror and the Supreme/50 Cent Beef Exposed is coming out in March 2011. Check it out and watch out for my Gorilla Convict releases this year. Thanks for the interview and take care.
MS: And thank you for a thought-provoking and candid interview, Seth. Mob Speak wishes you all the best.