Among Murderers, rehabilitation

Toilet paper

My editor at University of California Press recently asked me to check the phrasing on one of my protagonist’s prison certificates. Does it really read “Certificate in Computer Operator,” as quoted in my manuscript? I double-checked; it does.

As I looked through the pile of certificates—which originally were going to be included in my book—I was once again astounded by their design. I wondered who came up with (or chose) the ornate frames and lettering. How could they miss the irony?

Angel Ramos took every opportunity that presented itself to prove his successful rehabilitation to the parole board. Yet he was denied parole seven times. When he was finally released after more than 29 years, he thought that the letters of support and certificates he had gathered would help him on the outside as well.

Angel believed he had come a long way. At 18, he couldn’t read or write. He wet his bed and suffered from uncontrollable outbursts of anger. He then murdered a 16-year-old girl. But at 47, he had gotten a high school diploma, studied at college level, attended multiple anger management workshops and become a Quaker. He even graduated from Narcotics Anonymous groups and drug treatment programs, despite never having had a substance abuse problem in his life. In his duffle bag he carried a folder brimming with endorsements. But in the outside world these credentials counted for little. “Irrelevant,” he said, when he first showed me his certificates. “They might as well be toilet paper.” After all, he had a serious criminal record, which anyone could easily access online, and virtually no outside work experience. He did earn a computer operator degree from Sullivan County Community College in 1995, but since he was never employed in this capacity he had little opportunity to practice what he learned or keep up with the constant changes in the field. Besides, who in the world would want to hire a murderer?

Look at the certificates below and remember how much hope and hopelessness lies hidden behind their extravagant designs.

Standard