criminal justice, institutions, murder, prison

One mean mutt

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.

Read more…

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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.

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Self-portrait by Richard Robles, pencil, 2013

Continue reading…

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discussion, fantasies, murder, prison, rehabilitation, review, writing

The Murderer and the Manuscript

Amazing story in the New York Times about the winner of a mystery-novel contest who is in prison, serving a minimum of 30 years for murder.

“Just before Labor Day in 2011, Toni Kirkpatrick, an editor at Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, picked up her phone and called an unfamiliar number with a Southern California area code. She was hoping to deliver good news to a man named Alaric Hunt, the newest winner of a debut-detective-novel writing contest, jointly sponsored by Minotaur Books (another St. Martin’s imprint) and the Private Eye Writers of America. The contest has a good track record — a past winner, Michael Koryta, a 21-year-old phenom, has since published 10 successful thrillers — and it also comes with a substantial prize: a $10,000 advance and a guaranteed publishing contract for the book that has been submitted.”

Cuts Through Bone

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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, interview, murder, rehabilitation

Among Murderers on Jefferson Exchange

Today I was interviewed by Geoffrey Riley on Oregon’s NPR affiliate Jefferson Public Radio. The call dropped three times during the one-hour (live!) interview, and I was searching for words more than usually. But somehow—miraculously—I survived. You can listen to the interview by clicking on the image below.

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guns, institutions, murder, prison, rehabilitation, violence

Let’s keep asking questions about Joseph Hall

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

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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.

CJ_Carlie_Cindy_4HMeeting

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.

CIndy_CJ_Laura_4HMeeting

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, murder, violence

Returning home

Last semester I taught at a college in the Bronx. While the college is located in a “good” neighborhood (in Riverdale), the 231st Street subway station where I had to transfer to a bus to take me there isn’t. Kingsbridge is very depressing. The bus did not come in 10-minute intervals as the schedule promised, and I had to take a livery cab three times during the semester (each costing me $15) to make it to class in time. There was always fresh vomit at the bus station; an old, Eastern European man whose legs were so bad that he could barely walk stood at the corner with two “We Buy Gold” signs tied to his torsos; an African American woman whose body was ravaged from years of drug use or disease could often be seen picking through the trashcan in front of Dunkin Donuts. This reminded me of a scene that didn’t make it to the final version of Among Murderers describing a dilemma many ex-cons face: having to return to the same crime-ridden and sad neighborhoods where they committed their crimes.

The passage describes a visit to the neighborhood in the Bronx where Bruce, one of the book’s protagonists, murdered a stranger in an argument in front of the Monte Carlo liquor store 29 years ago. A few months after his release from prison he moved not far from the crime scene.

“Beyond 125th Street I was the only white person on the train.

“I’ve been sleeping on a prison floor for the last three days,” a man who entered the train car at Grand Concourse told the crowd. “I’m hungry, I’m stinking. I need soap. I can’t even smell myself.” As if reading my thoughts, he added, “I know, this is too much information. But I can’t eat any more of these peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they hand out at church. If you don’t believe me, give me food. My stomach is growling. Twenty-five cents, 50 cents, a dollar… Whatever you can afford.”

I pulled out a dollar and handed it to him. He took it, gingerly, to avoid our hands touching. Other people gave him money, too. He left the car with five or six dollars and the parting words, “And I don’t know if there’s any mothers in this car… God bless and happy Mother’s Day.” A black woman wearing a pink nursing uniform slipped him another dollar.

I took a seat next to a couple in their 40s. The woman had nodded off, her head slowly easing down toward her knees. She drooled onto her already stained jogging pants. Her partner nudged her as the train emerged from underground. “Look how it’s raining!” he said.

It seemed I had traded the sunny skies in Manhattan for clouds and heavy rain in the Bronx. The woman next to me made a halfhearted attempt to turn and look through the window behind her, but she quickly lost the struggle against her leaden eyelids.

Continue reading

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murder, racism, violence

Vintage book ads

To celebrate the publication of my book Among Murderers: Life After Prison, my brother-in-law gave me Dwight Garner’s book Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements. As I leafed through it I came across a number of books that, in one way or another, have informed my work on Among Murderers. Their authors were concerned with racial inequality, marginalized groups, crime, violence, counterculture, poverty, and, significantly, a writerly approach to life. Most of these vintage ads speak for themselves, but one warrants a short explanation. I’m including Emily Post’s Etiquette because Angel Ramos, one of my book’s protagonists, mentioned its importance to him. Angel was raised in poverty by a violent, schizophrenic mother, and it was Post who taught him proper behavior while he was incarcerated.

downout

voodoo

nativeson

etiquette Continue reading

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guns, murder, prison, rehabilitation

Taking Forgiveness (And Guilt) One Step Further

I just read Paul Tullis’s recent article “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” in the New York Times Magazine. I have thought a lot about remorse and forgiveness, and there are a couple of things I’d like to comment on.

Tullis’s piece talks about the role forgiveness played for Andy and Kate Grosmaire, whose 19-year-old daughter Ann was shot dead by her boyfriend Conor McBride. As it is often the case, the article’s most amazing statements can be found in the quotes of the sources, particularly the victim’s mother Kate. Demonstrating her willingness to meet with and forgive her daughter’s murderer, she says, “I knew being together rather than being apart was going to be more of what I needed.” At another point in the article Tullis quotes Kate as saying, “I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment—as a murderer—I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.” Later we hear Kate say, “I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it. Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.”

I found this sentiment admirable and telling because we often think of forgiveness as a means of helping those who are guilty, when it actually serves—or “preserves,” as Kate said—oneself.

While I admire the Grosmaires’ generosity towards their daughter’s murderer, I also wondered about their motivation. Tullis remarks at the margin that the family is religious. When I was researching my book I noticed that the notion of forgiveness always seems to be tied to religious views. (One of my subjects converted to Islam while incarcerated, another one became a Quaker.) For humanistic and psychological purposes, I wish we could “free” forgiveness from its religious constraints and allow it to permeate our daily lives. It should really be considered one of our general values as human beings that help us to “[be] together rather than [be] apart,” instead of something God ordered us to do. Continue reading

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