Among Murderers, literary journalism, prison, rehabilitation, writing

The Big Lacuna

The following is an essay submitted to me by a prisoner at Attica. Dean Faiello wrote to me a few months ago after reading my book Among Murderers: Life After Prison. Since then we have exchanged some letters discussing prisoner rehabilitation. The chapter “Job Readiness”  of my book deals with rehabilitative programs facilitated by New York reentry organizations such as STRIVE, CEO and the Fortune Society. Serving time for running an unauthorized medical spa and causing the death of one of his clients, Dean Faiello now runs a program at Attica that teaches prisoners business skills. Aware that prisoners are barred from many professions and low wage employers commonly run background checks, Dean knows that most ex-felons will not be able to find employment once they are released. That’s why he encourages his students to open up their own landscaping, web design or construction businesses. When I asked him what other rehabilitative programs are offered to prisoners at Attica, he sent me his essay “The Big Lacuna,” a version of which recently appeared in the print-only Canadian Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. I was so taken by his perceptiveness and his literary voice that I asked him if I could share it.

In short, rehabilitation is virtually absent in prison, even though educational and cognitive behavioral programs have been proven to lower recidivism rates dramatically. Instead, punishment continues to be the focus. Considering that 95 percent of prisoners will eventually be released and that two thirds of them will eventually land back in prison, it is insane that our society cares so little about what happens to those whom we lock up. Dean’s essay offers a rare insight into an inverted world that has become almost entirely inaccessible to the general media.

The Big Lacuna

By Dean Faiello

Under a steel-gray sky, behind Attica’s concrete wall, a grizzled counselor arrived at his office with a paper cup of coffee—black, two sugars. Seated behind a brown faux-wood desk, in a sterile, unadorned office, he booted up his computer. The inbox held a message from Albany. Sipping the somewhat bitter brew, he opened the e-mail.

It was a memo from the Commissioner: “Department of Corrections and Community Supervision counselors will no longer be referred to as ‘counselors.’ Effectively immediately, the new title shall be ‘Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator.’ Furthermore, inmates shall be referred to as ‘offenders.’ These changes in policy will be discussed at administrative meetings in each correctional facility. See the schedule below for further information.”

The counselor noted that Attica’s meeting would be Monday morning in the chapel. As he unconsciously fingered the blue nametag on his shirt pocket, he looked out the narrow window of his office. A steady drizzle had begun to fall.

Although it seemed to be a matter of semantics, as an inmate who is serving time at Attica prison I could understand the Department’s reasoning for the change in titles. DOCCS staff doesn’t provide counseling per se. They coordinate inmate participation in prison programs. However, due to few openings in those programs, especially at Attica, such coordination often consists of merely informing prisoners that they are on a waiting list.

Yet I was hopeful that the new emphasis in rehabilitation signified a change in direction—that rehabilitation would be recognized as an important part of incarceration. Perhaps it would be just as important as the punishment, which appears to be Attica’s priority.

My optimism was short-lived. On the day of the administrative meeting to discuss the changes in titles for counselors and inmates, the entire prison was locked down. No “offenders” were allowed out of their cells. The school building was closed; classrooms were empty. Alcohol and substance abuse programs were shut down. The library was dark. Recreational yards were silent except for the keening cries of seagulls circling and diving for scraps of food.

The guards offered no explanation as to why the cells remained locked. I stood at my gate, dressed, ready for work at my assigned work program. The prison was eerily silent except for the banter of inmates who sat in their cells, wondering what was going on. I took off my boots and lay on my bunk, reading Ralph Ellison’s brilliant novel, Invisible Man.

About an hour later, my neighbor’s cell gate cracked open. An officer yelled down the gallery, “Get dressed. They want you in the chapel.”

Since my neighbor worked in the mess hall, which also served as the chapel, I didn’t think much of it. When he returned after only twenty minutes, I asked him what was going on.

He laughed. “What a bunch a dumb-asses. I go down to the chapel, and all these civilians are sittin’ ’round, starin’ at each other. They tell me, ‘The sound system doesn’t work. Can you fix it?’ So I look at it. There’s no power to it. They didn’t know how to turn the damn thing on. So I flip the switch, test the microphone. It works. What a bunch a ‘tards.”

“Well, how long you think they gonna be down there?”

“Probably all day. They’re just getting started.”

At noon, the clomp of boots indicated that an officer was walking down the gallery.

“C.O., what time we comin’ out?”

“Dunno…”

At 1:00 PM, the officer returned with a clipboard to take the chow list. “Beef cubes” were on the menu. I stayed in my cell until 3:00 PM when the 3 to 11 shift came on duty, and the cell gates opened. No one ever explained to us why the prison was locked down.

I had an uneasy feeling about the administration’s new emphasis on rehabilitation.

About a week later, I met with my counselor for my quarterly review. A sheet of paper with his new title printed in large font, “Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator,” was taped carelessly to his computer. The usually brief meeting serves as an opportunity for me to review my correctional status:

Security level: max

Transfer Status: not eligible

Mandated Programs Status: wait-listed

I’m required by DOCCS to complete two rehabilitative programs—ART (Aggression Replacement Training) and ASAT (Alcohol & Substance Abuse Therapy). I would really like to participate in those programs. I’ve been wait-listed for five years. However, each of those programs has over one thousand men on its waiting lists.

According to my rehabilitation coordinator, most likely I will never see those programs while I am at Attica. Presently, there are only two ART classes running, with fifteen men in each class. Approximately 120 men per year complete the program. At that rate, it will be nine years before the current waiting list is exhausted.

And that doesn’t include the 1,200 new inmates that arrive at Attica every year.

The situation in the ASAT program is even direr. Presently, 1,200 men are on the ASAT waiting list. However, there is only one ASAT counselor. Sixty men per year complete the program, which means it will take 20 years to exhaust the current waiting list. There used to be two ASAT counselors. The other one quit and went to work at another prison. So did the ART counselor.

The exodus of Attica’s rehabilitation coordinators—there are presently four vacant positions—creates a problem not only for the administration, but for us offenders as well. Fights break out at Attica nearly every day. Most likely, those men need the ART program. The officers, who risk injury every time they have to respond to an altercation, would also benefit from more anti-violence programs.

Even those of us seemingly unaffected by a fight in another block are impacted by prison violence. When an alarm sounds, all corridor movement stops. Programs are halted. Classes may be interrupted. The schedule of the entire prison is set back, sometimes causing men to never reach their assigned programs. I’ve seen men miss an opportunity to speak with the Deputy Superintendent of Programs, their rehabilitation coordinator, or attend religious services because 1,000 feet away two men punched each other in the face.

One would think, in view of these ramifications, that the administration would welcome programs taught by volunteers—community members willing to donate their time and efforts to help prisoners, officers and the administration to maintain a peaceful environment. The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) is a nationally recognized program designed to do just that. It is taught at hundreds of prisons throughout the U.S. Yet Attica refuses to pay the salary for one officer, for the three days of the program, so that AVP can take place in Attica’s visiting room. Instead, AVP is permitted to take place only four times a year—when the school is shut down, its classrooms are empty, and standard officer coverage is available.

I wonder what the cost is to the prison for the infractions and hearings needed for those involved in fights, for maintaining special housing units for prisoners convicted at those hearings for fighting with weapons. And what about the sick leave and the medical costs for officers injured breaking up those altercations?

AVP succeeds at reducing prison violence through a very simple method: communication. The first time I participated in one of the workshops, I was surprised to find that much of it involved fun exercises like pantomimes, musical chairs and tossing funny-shaped balls and bean bags. At first, I thought this is silly. What’s this got to do with reducing prison violence? But I slowly came to see that the familiarity and camaraderie built during AVP exercises help to form friendships, communication skills, patience and empathy. Much of the program also involves dealing with serious issues like racism, misconceptions and stereotypes. However, simple things like nicknames for the participants stayed in my mind. Months after I had attended a workshop, I ran into a fellow participant in the mess hall. Immediately, I recalled his nickname: Shinin’ Shelley. We greeted each other, smiling and laughing like we were still in an AVP workshop.

In order to help maintain relationships and skills built during workshops, the AVP volunteers conduct monthly maintenance meetings. Open to all prisoners who have participated in AVP workshops, these meetings reinforce the principles learned through the program.

I often wonder what Attica would be like without its army of volunteers—without the AVP workshops, Cephas meetings (a prisoner support group created in response to the 1971 riot), meditation classes, religious studies, Alcoholics Anonymous and Grief Support meetings. What if the volunteers were to tire of the problems associated with getting in and out of this prison; the at times hostile reception at the front gate; the requirements for medical clearances; the hassles of being fingerprinted; the frustration of driving hours to get here and back home only to be told, “There’s no gate clearance here for you. Try again next week.” How much uglier and more violent would this place be?

Without volunteers, the Department of Correction has very little to offer me besides a cell, a mattress and a toilet. Of the 2,200 men at Attica, nearly one third have no program whatsoever: no access to schooling, no prison job, nothing to do except go to the yard or watch Cinemax and TMZ.

Prisoners have few options. Simply reading a book at Attica requires enormous patience. The library holds only twelve men at a time. Because of its limited hours, 150 men can visit it over the course of a week. Since call-outs are repeated each week, that means 2,000 men can’t get there, standing little chance of reading a novel or even a newspaper.

Our families are prohibited from sending us books due to inane package room rules. On my prison salary of seven dollars a week, buying books is prohibitive. My prison pay is spent on stamps, deodorant, and food. Because of the State’s fiscal crisis, those seven dollars must also go toward t-shirts, socks and underwear.

In order to deal with the frustrations of prison life, DOCCS created a new program called “Thinking For Change,” tagged with a cute acronym: T4C. Intended for inmates with no program, it emphasizes techniques for dealing with the correctional environment, such as embracing patience and transformation. But after conducting a few twelve-week modules, Attica shut down the program, citing a lack of manpower—even though only two counselors were needed, four hours per week, to run the program.

Evidently, Attica’s administration wasn’t too concerned about change.

In an effort to provide education to prisoners, at no cost to the administration, an inmate organization called PULL (Prison Urban Leadership League) proposed a writing class. Volunteers from SUNY at Buffalo—professors with masters and doctorate degrees in English—offered to come to Attica to teach writing skills. The syllabus consisted of classes in spelling, grammar, and sentence construction, with the goal of essay writing. The curriculum indicated the study of renowned writers, like Hemingway and Steinbeck, as well as essays by prison writers, such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The administration said they weren’t interested in such a program, denying SUNY professors the opportunity to teach Attica’s prisoners.

My first experience with volunteer programs, over five years ago, was a creative writing class taught by an English professor, Doran Larson, from Hamilton College. He would drive three hours to reach Attica. The class presented a real challenge to me because I had never done any creative writing. My only writing experience consisted of high school essays—not exactly erudite works of brilliance.

After first arriving at Attica, while I languished in my double-bunk cell with no program and no prison job, an inmate passed by and saw me holding a collection of works by Edgar Allen Poe. As I read The Cask of Amontillado, horrified by the sounds of bricks and cement forming a permanent prison, he interrupted my reading and asked if I was interested in attending a writing class. Without pausing for careful consideration, I said, “Sure!” I was desperate to participate in anything that would free me from my dark cell.

I had to wait about a month before attending the class, so I filled my many vacant hours by writing about something that had deeply affected me: my mother’s death from ovarian cancer. The writing was slow—and painful. I had to stop after each sentence. But as the clumsy paragraphs gradually formed pages, my thoughts on the horrific experience began to clarify, giving me insight on a hazy, alcohol- and drug-infused period of my life.

By the time I attended the writing class for the first time, I had a small pile of pages, disparate thoughts scratched onto a yellow legal pad. After submitting my first draft to Professor Larson, I expected to get it back with some minor corrections. I hoped to move on to another subject, something less painful. Instead, I had to labor through five more drafts, revisiting my mother’s deathbed many times. Yet, after one year of frustrating toil, when I nervously held a magazine containing my published work, the thrill gave me new purpose, a raison d’être.

I soon realized that volunteer programs were my only avenue for self-improvement. The creative writing class motivated me to become a voracious reader, devouring collections of essays and short stories, tackling novels by Hemingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. My vocabulary slowly grew, augmented by The New York Times crossword puzzles, a Webster’s dictionary and a Roget’s thesaurus (references Hamilton College had generously donated to the writing class).

My educational path led me to another volunteer program at Attica: the meditation class. I only had a vague idea of what meditation entailed—mystical gurus sitting cross-legged on thin mats, their serene vibrations spreading across continents in an attempt to effect world peace.

I was fascinated by the concept of inner peace. I had my doubts whether I could ever achieve such a thing, but if its pursuit would get me out of my cell, away from the swirling chaos and raucous din that pervades prison, I was all for it. I soon found myself cross-legged too, motionless and in pain, on moldering black mats in a decrepit classroom painted a dentist-office green. After some practice, struggling to rein in my agitated mind, the resentments to which I had clung for many years began to dissolve. The anger encoded in my DNA, my immanent hostility toward the world, abated. Antipathy left my body, escaping through the steel casement windows of the meditation room, absorbed by the fat clouds of a tangerine sunset.

While the view from that second floor classroom was inspiring, the reality of prison education soon set in. Many men, once their initial curiosity was satisfied, lost interest. They weren’t willing to do the work. Some men, frustrated by the inability to even step foot in classrooms because of limited space and long waiting lists, gave up. The meditation room could only accommodate twelve men. The creative writing class offered seats for only eight men. Some programs offered no seats whatsoever. The Sex Offender Program (SOP) has not existed at Attica for over five years. The IPA (Inmate Program Associate) class, which teaches men to facilitate rehabilitative programs like ART (Aggression Replacement Training) or GED study, has not been offered in sixteen months. I don’t know if all this is a result of prison retribution or simply apathy.

Teaching fellow prisoners has transformed my life. Facilitating programs has given me a sense of accomplishment, a chance to improve my self-esteem—something that has suffered greatly as the years of incarceration have accumulated. Unfortunately, many prisoners who seek that same opportunity have no access to it. The desks are vacant. The chalkboard is blank.

It is worth noting that higher education has an impact on recidivism rates. The rate for those who leave prison without a higher education degree is about 60 percent. Those who obtain a college degree while incarcerated have the lowest rate. The Bard Prison Initiative offers college degrees at five New York State prisons; less than two percent of its 150 graduates have returned to prison. One has to, of course, take into consideration that those who sign up for educational programs might be more motivated to change than those who turn down the opportunity. While these possibly overly optimistic numbers have to be taken with caution, they certainly offer us an idea of the impact educational programs can have on an individual’s life.

During the eighties and nineties, politicians like Ronald Reagan and George Pataki cut prison educational programs. Pataki ended New York State’s Inmate Higher Education Program (IHEP); Congress eliminated Pell Grants for inmates. Nationally, the three hundred prison college education programs dwindled down to three. Not coincidentally, the rate of recidivism soared to 68 percent. Societal demand for retribution boomeranged. Instead of educated, rehabilitated ex-offenders returning to their communities, unchanged men left prison and picked up where they left off—committing crimes like burglary and drug dealing in order to survive. Without an education, they stood little chance of finding employment. Society shot itself in the foot.

The get-tough-on-crime attitude resulted in high unemployment in and economic deterioration of inner cities. Further, the skyrocketing cost of mass incarceration—$60 billion a year—ballooned state budgets, driving up property taxes and state income tax rates. All of society suffered by footing the bill for America’s more than two million prisoners. A study by the Pew Institute demonstrated that one dollar invested in inmate higher education reduced prison costs by two dollars. Yet America’s hell-bent desire to punish prisoners obfuscates these facts.

Approximately 95 percent of all prisoners eventually leave prison and return to their communities. If you were to ask anyone, whom they would prefer for their new neighbor—an angry, bitter, uneducated, unemployed ex-con or an educated, motivated, transformed ex-offender—the answer would be obvious. Yet resentment towards criminals obliterates clear thinking and common sense. If logic prevailed, ex-offenders would not be prohibited from holding jobs such as hair cutting, nursing, teaching or health care. Ex-offenders would be eligible for subsidized housing so that neither they nor their children become homeless. As U.S. citizens, ex-felons would be allowed to vote. Yet in many states ex-offenders are prohibited from these things. Jobless, homeless, and rejected by society, it is no wonder that half a million men and women return to prison every year. High rates of recidivism prove that mass incarceration does not offer rehabilitation. Our penal system is an abject failure.

Faced with battling an intransigent administration in a feckless environment, Attica’s Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator leaned back in his office chair. As he went to take another sip of his coffee, he noticed the paper cup held nothing but cold dregs. He decided that it was time for meaningful change. He typed a letter and sent it to the printer. Once it emerged, he proofread it and signed it. He powered down his computer, shut off the lights, and locked his office door. Before heading home, he dropped off his letter of resignation on the Superintendent’s desk. As be walked toward the front gate, he felt lighter, as if he had shed some pounds. An electric motor whirred as the iron gate slowly opened. Walking toward his car, he looked at the sky and noticed that the weather had changed. The rain had stopped, and the clouds were clearing. He got in his car and left Attica’s parking lot for the last time.

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