Longreads always has the best reading lists! Michelle W. compiled four articles by Kevin Pang, Daniel Genis, Drew Harwell and Graeme Wood that deal with food consumed and produced by American prisoners. Just click on the image below and start reading!
From the ancient Greek, Metanoia means “changing one’s mind.” It happens that one of the main characters in Dean’s essay is our mutual friend Richard Robles, who has gone through a remarkable transformation in the 50 years he has spent in prison. Richard and I have corresponded for the past eight years, and I have had plenty of opportunities to see how he has developed and grown. It pains me to witness Richard’s unrewarded attempts at self-improvement. Since journalists have lost almost all access to prisons, Dean’s essay is one of the few documents we have that allow us a glimpse into a world that is, for the most part, hypocritical, senseless and cruel.
For more of Dean’s writing, purchase Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America (Michigan State University Press, 2014), an anthology edited by Doran Larson. Fourth City features over 70 essays written by prisoners all across the U.S.
By Dean Faiello
I watched Richard Robles, sitting just outside his cell, create a lush, stately oak tree using watercolors and a small, inexpensive brush. I could see the details of each leaf. Yet Richie has been nowhere near a tree for fifty years. The closest tree is far beyond Attica’s massive concrete wall, in a world inaccessible to Richie. The last time Richard enjoyed freedom, the Beatles were on tour in the U. S., and LBJ was in the White House.
I struggled to reconcile the artistic, sensitive Richie with the deranged killer portrayed in New York City newspapers during the Sixties. While he sat at a brown Formica table, Richie’s belly hung over his green sweatpants, his swollen ankles mottled by blue and purple veins. At seventy years of age, his health was frail. Brown plastic bags of medications littered his prison cell.
For about a year, Richie and I were neighbors, our cells separated by just six feet. We shared our frustrations over Attica’s inanity. The parole board wants prisoners to take drug abuse and anti-violence programs before granting them freedom. Yet Attica’s waiting lists for those programs hold over two thousand names. Some men have been incarcerated for more than twenty years before getting the opportunity to take State mandated programs.
Rehabilitation is not a prison priority. Even though drug use contributed to my crime, I was incarcerated for eight years before being granted the opportunity to participate in a State drug program. Further, reentry to society is hampered by the inadequate preparation that inmates receive to succeed outside of prison. Richard Robles’s vocational training is for a computer program that no longer exists. I’ve received no vocational training whatsoever. In a world that communicates at the speed of light using email, texting, and Skype, I toil at a typewriter.
Yet, I strive for self-improvement. For nearly four years, I’ve worked toward a two-year degree in a college program. Embracing change, I attend Alternatives to Violence Project workshops and meditation sessions. I sit cross-legged on moldering black mats in an antiquated classroom where the ceiling tiles dangle precariously and the chalkboard is speckled from years of use, and disuse. In a futile search for recent works, I visit the prison library. The newspapers are weeks old. The Dewey decimal card catalogue collects dust. When I arrive at the school building that houses the library, most of the classrooms are dark; the desks are vacant.
Achieving an education in prison can be a lengthy, frustrating process. The waiting lists for vocational and GED programs hold many names. New York State no longer funds higher education -for prisoners. Richie Robles was among the last of the students to participate in the Inmate Higher Education Program (IHEP) before Governor Pataki terminated its funding. Now, prison college programs are privately funded by compassionate philanthropists. As a result, there exist only a handful of such programs. A very small percentage of New York’s prisoners are enrolled. At Attica, less than two percent of the population is working toward a college degree. Self-improvement in prison is a challenge.
Yet prisoners are not unique in their struggle for change. Human nature resists that which is new or different. Change is uncomfortable, stressful and difficult to achieve. A genuine transformation—a change in behavior, attitude and thinking is hard won, and can require many years of hard work and dedication. The slightest change in my daily routine can throw me off balance. I may logically know how to handle a sudden complication, but emotionally, I resist. Change causes me anxiety.
As I watched Richie Robles patiently create a sylvan scene with watercolors, I had no doubt that he has undergone a transformation. Bald, overweight, and infirm, he is no longer the out-of-control heroin junkie who murdered two women during a drug-crazed binge. After fifty years in prison, he is a college graduate who worked in Attica’s vocational shop making memorial plagues for Corrections Officers who have died. After a religious epiphany, Richie converted to Quakerism and attends prison Quaker meetings every Friday night. He mentors young men who have just arrived in prison, and teaches them artistic skills. When I was taking a college art class, he helped me with a charcoal and pencil portrait, patiently demonstrating the technique of chiaroscuro.
When I had nothing to read because the prison library was inaccessible (closed nights and weekends), Richie lent me books. I read about meditation, Buddhism, the Quakers, and Viktor Frankl’s theory of logotherapy—finding meaning in life. Richie’s books inspired me to write an essay about prison rehabilitation and transformation: ‘The Phoenix.’ I entered the piece in a writing contest. Although I lost, the contest sponsors liked my essay and printed it in a collection of prison writing called ‘The Hard Journey Home.’ Continue reading
Daniel Genis in The Concourse about how prisoners spend their time:
Leisure time, unstructured and purposeless, generally makes up most of an American prison inmate’s day. Most convicts are just sent to the yard, where they socialize, exercise, play games and sports, and make their deals. Entire lives are spent in the incarcerated world, typified by the sexual compromises and prominence of violence that most free men and women never have to consider. But those extreme elements aside, prisoners eat and work and live as best they can within their limitations. A friend of mine sentenced to 25 years at the age of 60—he was once an actor, before drunkenly stabbing his best friend to death with an SS dagger, of all things (both were Jews)—came to terms with the inevitability of dying in prison and found peace. He began painting for leisure. It’s not a great life, but it’s a life nevertheless, and most death row inmates would beg for it.
Pep, the dog who was sentenced to life in prison in 1924 for killing Pennsylvania governor’s cat
The Daily Mail Online, by Daniel Miller
He was known as the Pennsylvania cat-murderer, a vicious hound sentenced to life imprisonment at Eastern State Penitentiary for the grisly killing of the governor’s moggie. In his prison mugshot from 1924, he is seen with ears drooping backwards, an identification number hanging form around his neck looking decisively guilty.
According to newspapers stories at the time, Pep the Black Labrador attacked and killed a cat belonging to the wife of Pennsylvania’s then governor Gifford Pinchot.
Showing absolutely no remorse for his despicable crimes, Pep was sent down for life with no chance of parole.
But he was framed. Pep was actually entirely innocent, and his actual offence was nothing more serious than chewing the cushions of the sofa on the governor’s front porch.
The account of him killing the cat was entirely fictitious, made up by a newspaper reporter taking a touch more than his fair share of journalistic licence.
A Jewish Ex-Con Recalls Keeping Kosher with the Faithful in Prison
By Daniel Genis
As of 2014, 1,500 of New York’s 56,000 prisoners are Jews that keep kosher. If you really believe that all 1500 were avoiding pork before they got behind the wall, you’ve got another thing coming. I am a real Jew, albeit a bad Soviet one, and know something about the community of Jews in prison.
Prison is much more receptive to skinheads and the Nation of Islam, than it is to Jews; and the cops I encountered weren’t too fond of us either. I had to decide very quickly, upon arrival, whether I would practice or not. But my Bar Mitzvah rabbi survived the camps, camps he could have probably avoided because of his Aryan looks. How could I forget his dictate to always be proud to be a Jew, even in circumstances when it might not seem to ones advantage? Perhaps the prisons of New York state were not quite what he meant, but in the end practicing my faith and never denying it only sharpened my will and sense of self. And the community inside, which clings to its rituals and traditions, is strong and cohesive enough that it draws curious new converts. Only in America do prisoners convert to Judaism. Poor old Yakov Smirnov would have said, ‘Vat a country!’
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.
Self-portrait by Richard Robles, pencil, 2013
Sometimes this country demoralizes me. This was the case when I read Natasha Vargos-Cooper’s insightful and thorough article “I Shot Dad” on BuzzFeed. Her article tells the story of Joseph Hall, a 10-year-old who shot his father, the leader of a neo-Nazi movement after a lifetime of abuse and neglect. This January the now 12-year-old Californian boy was convicted of murder. He faces several decades in prison.
Not only does Vargos-Cooper detail the disturbing events leading up to Hall shooting his father and the inability of Child Services to remove the child from this poisonous environment, she poses some excellent moral questions that the American criminal justice system has long refused to confront:
“What drives a 10-year-old to murder? Does Joseph bear less of the blame if he was physically abused? What if he was not abused but just neglected? What of the other thousands of children who have case files, the ones who are ritually tortured by their caretakers but do not kill? Is the only difference between them and Joseph the easy access to firearms? Or was Joseph condemned before he was even born, marinating inside a womb basted with methamphetamines and heroin?
“Even if he is not considered psychotic, could the act of murder by a 10-year-old be anything other than a sign of some sort of mental illness? (…)
“(…) In the end, what real individual responsibility can be assigned to any child forced to lead the life imposed on Joseph? What chance of a normal life did he ever have?”
I would like to extend Vargos-Cooper’s excellent questions. What about a murderer who is 18 (the age of my book’s badly abused protagonist)? Or even 25?
Criminologists who have examined the psychological dimension of violent crime—Don Andrew, Francis Cullen, Cheryl Jonson, Edward Latessa, Alexander Holsinger, Christopher Lowencamp and Paul Genreau, for example—have long warned of so-called criminogenic risk factors. Continue reading