criminal justice, institutions, literary journalism, outsiders, prison, public policy, Quakers, rehabilitation, writing

Metanoia

jpegI am honored and excited to feature an essay by my prison pen pal Dean Faiello on my blog.  The voices of prisoners are rarely heard–and rarely are they as articulate and beautiful as Faiello’s.

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.

Metanoia

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

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literary journalism, outsiders, reading, review, stereotypes

Of Long-Winded Female Writers and Role Models

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Just out on The Hairpin (very fitting considering the title of this blog):

One recent morning I awoke cranky and tired due to one too many Cosmos and a third night of insomnia. My first book was published a few months ago and I naively thought I would finally have some time to relax, some time for “pure happiness.” But it suddenly seemed like the real work had only begun. For months now I’ve been struggling with… let’s call it exhaustion. Yet again the difficult question loomed: how do we writers experience and accept obstacles without being buried alive?

As I sat on the couch griping, my husband tossed me The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan (1917-1993), an old-time New Yorker writer of the kind they don’t make anymore. Or if they do, theNew Yorker doesn’t publish them.

“You’ll love it,” he said. This would not be a workday, I resolved guiltily. I grabbed the book and one of the cats and went back to bed, sulking.

I was surprised to catch glimpses of an answer to my question in Brennan’s short sketches of life in New York, the city she called “half-capsized (…) with the inhabitants hanging on, most of them still able to laugh as they cling to the island that is their life’s predicament.” Somehow her short profiles of the invisible, the fragile, the mean, the lost and the lonely—the seen-but-immediately-forgotten—lifted my mood. They are the types we run into on the subway or at the bodega, mostly bypassing them, the way we try to bypass our own opaque emotions. In Brennan’s work a broken heel, a sudden rainstorm, a collapsed stranger, provide a window into her complex inner and outer worlds.

Read more…

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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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blindness, fantasies, literary journalism, podcast, rehabilitation

Pomp and Circumstance on The Drum

Click on the image below and listen to my award-winning essay “Pomp and Circumstance” on The Drum, “a literary magazine for your ears.” In “Pomp and Circumstance” I  follow Edwin, a young blind man from Staten Island, as he learns to navigate New York independently. (The podcast opens in a new window; click on the play or download button.)

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interview, literary journalism, mental illness, murder, prison

Longform Radio Journalism, with Laura Starecheski

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Laura Starecheski at the U.S./Mexico border (credit Bob Torrez)

Recently, while accompanying one of my interviewees to an apartment go-see, I met Laura Starecheski, a reporter for NPR’s State of the Re:Union. As it turned out, Laura and I had chosen the same subject! (Or maybe the subject had chosen us?) As I was watching Laura do her job—geared up with huge headphones, recorder and mic—I was struck by how different our journalistic approach is. After the go-see, while having lunch at a little Guyanese restaurant way out in Queens, we realized we had a lot in common. Laura, too, has done feature stories on prisoners, immigrant communities and the mentally ill. She often follows her subjects for months, sometimes years. And most importantly, she seems to genuinely care about her protagonists.

Laura has created stories for The World and Latino USA and won a Third Coast Silver Award for Best Documentary for her story “Goat on a Cow,” which aired on WNYC’s Radiolab. She was a National Health Journalism Fellow at the USC Annenberg School and most recently received a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.

I’m thrilled that Laura agreed to answer some questions about “longform radio reporting.” (A reverse interview with me by Laura will follow).

Sabine Heinlein: For your Ozarks story, which aired on State of the Re:Union in May 2012, you followed the family of CJ Mahan who is serving a life sentence for murder in a maximum-security prison in Missouri. How did you find the family?

Laura Starecheski: I found the Mahans through a program called 4-H LIFE that teaches inmates how to be better parents. The program works with mothers too, but I was curious about the particular challenge of fathering from behind bars—especially in a maximum-security prison with long sentences. How do incarcerated fathers stay engaged with day-to-day parenting? How do their kids relate to them? The 4-H LIFE staff put me in touch with the Mahans and helped facilitate the process of getting permission to record and take photographs inside the Jefferson City Correctional Center during one of their meetings, which happen just once every two months.

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Cindy and CJ Mahan and daughter Carlie

SH: What did it feel like to go to prison and talk to the Mahans? Did you get to meet and observe any other prisoner families? What was the setting like?

LS: Once we were inside, I saw ten loving, excited and emotional families flood into the room for the 4-H meeting. I wished we had enough time to do stories on every family. Each one was so different. There was a man whose sister had brought her kids to visit from another state; a young father with two daughters being raised by their grandparents while he served his time; an older man everybody called “Uncle Walt” who didn’t have family but was sort of a patriarch to the whole group. The stakes at the meeting felt very high. The inmates must earn a place in the prison’s “honor wing” just to be a part of the group. That alone can take years, and they can lose the privilege at any time for any infraction. I got the sense that many of the inmates worked extremely hard to stay out of trouble so they could attend the special 4-H meetings, where they could share hugs and laughter and feel like they were truly parents for a few hours. Almost everyone in the room had broken down and cried—in gratitude, in frustration, in love—at least once by the time the meeting was over. I also felt that in that room I was more welcomed as a reporter (and a person) than most of the other places we reported across the Missouri Ozarks, which was a striking feeling.

When we interviewed CJ Mahan alone in a separate room, though, I got a glimpse of what life in the rest of the prison must be like. It was clear that CJ was bound by the rules of day-to-day life on the inside, no matter how much he longed to be a full-time father and husband. He had a reputation to uphold, and it seemed to be an incredible challenge for him to stay away from the fights and violence that dictate much of the social order. His desire for another future, outside, was intense and palpable to me. And yet even as a temporary visitor, the razor wire and heavy doors of the prison seemed to enclose a universe that felt almost impossible to escape. Getting access to any prison to report these days is difficult, but some day I would like to do a story that could shed some light on that world of life on the inside.

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Laura recording Cindy and CJ Mahan at the 4-H LIFE meeting

SH: I recently watched you interview one of your subjects. I noticed that, while we may ask the same questions, the answers to those questions vary (if not in content than in emphasis). Some people appear to become self-conscious in a very particular way. Do you feel like people respond to you in a certain way because you’re wearing headphones and holding up a microphone? Do you think there’s a difference in how a subject responds to a radio reporter as opposed to a print reporter? Continue reading

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Among Murderers, literary journalism

NYFA talks to yours truly…

NYFA’s Lara Hidalgo interviewed me about my new book Among Murderers: Life After Prison, about unforeseen, writerly challenges, journalistic integrity, cats, bunnies and make-up! The interview is part of the organization’s series Meet A NYFA Artist:

First of all, congratulations on your forthcoming book Among Murderers: Life After Prison. Will you introduce the book and explain what inspired it?

Thank you! I think at the heart of this book is my interest in the human struggle. Questions like, ‘How do people overcome obstacles?’ and ‘How do you start over from nothing?’ have always been tremendously important to me. When I moved to New York I had no friends and no job. New York is a very competitive city where you are defined by what you do for work, so I became interested in New Yorkers who didn’t work. I talked to trophy wives, retirees, mentally ill people and people who had lost their jobs. I started visiting so-called “job readiness classes” run by reentry organizations and talked to the student ex-cons and to the teachers (often ex-cons themselves). Through these classes and the organizations that offered them I saw that there was so much missing from people’s lives, so much at stake and so many obstacles that needed to be addressed. I felt like someone had to talk to these people and tell their stories. I wanted to show how people got to this point in their lives.

How did you choose the book’s three protagonists?

I interviewed a lot of ex-cons at various organizations until I found my book’s main characters. While reporting on a reentry event in Albany I met Angel. I sat next to him on the bus back to New York City. Angel had spent almost 30 years in prison for a horrible crime he committed as an 18-year-old. He was funny and charming, but I also noticed that he had an edge, a tension in him. He seemed like the perfect subject.

At the halfway house Angel became friends with Bruce and Adam. There was this sense that they could relate to each other not only because all three of them were men of color, had grown up in New York and had spent several decades locked up. They also related to each other because they had taken another human being’s life.

I noticed that the men dealt with their experiences in entirely different ways. They each had their own idiosyncratic approaches to life. I hope that the readers of my book will really “get to know” Bruce, Adam and Angel. Only if we understand that we are dealing with real people—not statistics, “clients” or “survey participants”—will we be able to address America’s reentry crisis.

Will you share with us an especially memorable experience you had with Angel, Bruce or Adam in the course of working on this book?

There are many, but I often think of our trip to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. One of the many parole stipulations forbade the men to leave the five boroughs, so we were coming up with stuff we could do in New York. Adam said that he had read about Williamsburg while incarcerated, something about how Williamsburg is the new East Village. In prison he had this scrapbook into which he would paste articles about places he wanted to visit. I lived in Williamsburg when I first moved to New York, so one weekend afternoon I met with the three men at the subway to give them a little tour. We went to a bagel café and to the waterfront, looked at graffiti and walked south to Williamsburg’s Hasidic neighborhood. The trip helped me understand how hard it is to relate to the outside—“to master your freedom”—after 20 or 30 years behind bars, and how difficult it is for former prisoners to make independent decisions. I also felt how difficult it is for us and for them to accept people who are different. Adam always talked about his “prison armor” and how he couldn’t find the zipper to remove it. I felt that society had its very own “armor,” which it is incapable of taking off..

What unforeseen challenges, if any, occurred in writing this book, and how did you deal with them?

Narrative nonfiction books have very specific challenges. You have to adapt to people’s ways, and your subjects have to adapt to you. The goal is always to make a meaningful connection with the other person. But each situation is different, so flexibility is very important, and so is a certain “social fearlessness.”

I always felt that—despite the difficulties of being a female writer doing narrative nonfiction about the downtrodden at a time where publishing houses are struggling for their existence—there are plenty of rewards. You are getting into another person’s mind and into his life! That’s a huge privilege. And it’s a learning experience, an adventure. Sitting in front of the computer or on the couch, writing, thinking, reading, and wearing your old gym pants is a tremendous privilege. If you have a cat and a rabbit next to you, as I do, it’s an even bigger privilege. Of course, eventually you have to get up and make some money because the animals are not pulling their weight. Continue reading

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