Among Murderers, interview

My favorite prison books

For her article “Beyond ‘Orange is the New Black’: 8 eye-opening prison books” Carolina Miranda interviewed Patricia Zamorano, Pete Brook and me for the Los Angeles Times:

Like a lot of people, I got sucked in by the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black”: the totally backstabby soap operatic twists, Lea DeLaria’s comedic awesomeness as Big Boo, the luminosity of Samira Wiley as Poussey (memo to execs: please cast her in everything!), all of the inventive tampon sculptures, and the fact that there exists a buzzed-about show with a bunch of African American women and Latinas. (…)

“With all of that in mind, I thought this represented a perfect time to take a look back at the body of literature about incarceration. Rather than choose the books myself, however, I’ve turned to three cultural figures who are interested in the topic of prisons, and they each share works that they consider insightful or influential. They include…

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Among Murderers

YIPPIE! AN IPPY!

I am extremely happy to announce that my book Among Murderers: Life After Prison has won a 2014 Gold IPPY Award in the category current affairs/social issues. To see the full list of winners, click on the image below.

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Among Murderers, criminal justice, fantasies, institutions, murder, press, prison, rehabilitation, writing

Maximum Sentence

Just out on The Paris Review Daily:

I mailed a copy of my book Among Murderers, about the struggles three men faced when they returned to the world after several decades behind bars, to Richard Robles, a pen pal serving an indeterminate life sentence in New York’s Attica Prison. Prison reading and mailing policies are designed to reinforce the feeling of punishment. Family and friends cannot simply send books; they have to come directly from the publisher or an online bookstore. Most prisons only allow paperbacks—Attica, a rare exception, permits hardcovers. I couldn’t find detailed mailing instructions on Attica’s website, so I called the prison. “Send it through the publisher—and don’t hide no weapon in it,” the employee blurted. Richard wrote me that he almost had to return the book.

[My] name wasn’t on the “buyer’s side” of the invoice. The guard said something about a new rule that prisoners have to buy the book. But as you can see I did get it, after another guard said something to him. Miracles, right?

I did consider it a small miracle when, a few weeks later, I began to receive letters from men who had borrowed the book from Richard. Prison is a dark world far away from ours, and communications travel slowly. We may have forgotten “them,” but they never forget us. My book quickly made its way around Richard’s cell block; several prisoners mailed me their reviews, chronicling their ambitious attempts at self-improvement and their struggle to prepare themselves for a world that doesn’t want them back.

Richard_selfportrait_cl_w

Self-portrait by Richard Robles, pencil, 2013

Continue reading…

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Among Murderers, interview, murder, rehabilitation, writing

The Rumpus Interview

…with yours truly. Look at Amanda Green’s beautifully written introduction to the interview:

There’s a tragedy that my family doesn’t like to talk about, so naturally I’ve always been drawn to it. In the late 1970s, my dad’s older brother James was shot and killed by a friend of a friend. In one version of the story, it starts with a verbal altercation. My mom says it happened on a dark road in South Texas. James was in the passenger seat of a friend’s car when the killer pulled up beside them and shot James point-blank in the head. He was twenty-one years old.

I’ve wondered about James for years—what really happened that night, who he might have been if he hadn’t been killed. I never thought of the young man who shot him and the years he spent in prison. When we think about crime, we immediately envision the victims—the wounded, the dead, and their grief-stricken survivors. We forget about the other life that has been irrevocably changed. For the criminal, murder is a life-long sentence, even if granted parole.

James’s murderer went on trial and was sentenced to prison. Eventually, he was released. If he is still alive, he must be around sixty years old. I sometimes wonder what happened to him. What kind of life does he lead, and how does he feel about having taken my uncle’s life? Is he tortured by guilt, or does he still try to justify what happened on that dark road in Texas more than thirty years ago?

“In terms of empathy, murderers are obviously very low (if not lowest) on our list of priorities,” Sabine Heinlein writes in her book Among Murderers: Life After Prison. She spent more than two years at the Castle, a prominent halfway house in West Harlem, following three native New Yorkers who took other people’s lives. Her subjects Angel, Adam, and Bruce were released after serving several decades in prison. Among Murderers depicts the challenges the men encounter on their journey to freedom, from finding work to forging new relationships to forgiving themselves. It also explores the various ways the men live with their remorse. In the tradition of Susan Sheehan’s A Prison and a Prisoner and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, Heinlein puts a face to a population that evokes strong feelings while remaining largely unfamiliar. Among Murderers is an eye-opening look at life after prison and our society’s thirst for vengeance.

Read the interview here.

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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? Continue reading

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Among Murderers, literary journalism, review

Among Murderers on LONGREADS

“Job Readiness,” chapter 7 of Among Murderers, is this week’s Member Pick on my favorite literary journalism aggregator, LONGREADS. (Love the illustration by Kjell Reigstad, by the way!) Here’s my introduction to the feature:

“A few years ago I set out to learn how New York’s reentry organizations help former prisoners navigate freedom. I talked to clients and staff and observed programs at nonprofit agencies with Pollyanna-ish names like STRIVE (Support and Training Results in Valuable Employees), CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities) and the Fortune Society. The Fortune Society is New York’s most prominent and comprehensive reentry agency. It offers substance abuse treatment to ex-offenders, as well as computer, cooking, fatherhood and ‘job readiness’ classes. Fortune, as it is commonly known, also runs a halfway house in West Harlem nicknamed the Castle. I clearly remember the first time I visited the Castle, its schist rock facade sparkling in the sun. With its miniature lookout towers, its arched windows and the bright crenellations that top some of its walls, the Castle resembled a Gothic bastion. One could easily imagine a muddy moat separating those who had committed serious transgressions—those who had been stigmatized and locked away for most of their lives—from the rest of the world.
 
“To shed light on the struggles of the 700,000 men and women who are released from U.S. prisons each year, I followed three residents of the Castle for several years. Angel Ramos, the protagonist of my book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison, spent 29 years in prison for strangling a young girl in an abandoned building in East Harlem and for trying to kill a co-worker. At the Castle, the 47-year-old befriended two older men, Bruce and Adam, who had also spent several decades locked up for murder. Over the course of more than two years Angel, Bruce, Adam and I spent a lot of time with each other. I accompanied Adam when he bought his first winter coat in 31 years and visited different ethnic restaurants and cafés with Bruce. I helped celebrate Angel’s ‘first’ birthday and was there when, on Halloween, the halfway house residents turned the Castle into a haunted house. Together, the men and I explored the neighborhoods of their youth. We talked about murder, remorse, shame, love, loss and prison. (Sooner or later our conversations inevitably returned to prison, where the men had spent most of their adult lives.)
 
“One of the most revealing experiences the men shared with me was their seemingly endless track through New York’s job readiness programs, a requirement to qualify for housing subsidies, welfare and the agencies’ employment referrals. This is what I saw.”

Read an excerpt here.

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