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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criminal justice, faith, institutions, outsiders, prison

Keeping Kosher in Prison

The Daily Beast:

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!’

Read more…

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blindness, outsiders, writing

Running Blind

An essay I worked on *feverishly* for weeks is now up on the Hairpin. It’s about jogging in America’s biggest cemetery. Bonuses include: rare eye ailments; Gangnam Style; desiccated squirrels; sustainable farming; people whose last name is Fuck; and, you guessed it, my adulterous parents. What, you don’t understand how I was able to combine all that? You gotta read it.

Every morning, when the massive, black iron gates open, I jog past the ragged stonewalls towards the old mausoleums. I jump over tombstones and weave past undertakers. Western Queens doesn’t have a big park with old trees and ponds; what we do have is Calvary Cemetery, America’s largest graveyard. Wedged between the Brooklyn-Queens and the Long Island Expressways and carelessly dissected into four jagged parts, Calvary borders Sunnyside, Woodside, and Maspeth. With more than three million burials, it is big enough to accommodate my lifelong fears of death and dying, of seeing too much without being seen.-1

I am an Anxious Person. I am Anxiety. Give me a cold, and I see myself dying from lung cancer. Give me a kitten, and I’ll think of its agonizing demise. Give me love, and I see death. Yet my fear cannot hold me back. Gates beg to be scaled, kittens want to be held, and oceans have to be crossed. Calvary is where the heimlich, the familiar and homey, meets the unheimlich, the uncanny, the hidden that has to be kept out of sight. This was the first thing I saw when I arrived in New York from Germany. Since then, I have walked that precarious line. Narrowing my world to accommodate my fears has never appealed to me. I like to give my fears ample space. I want them to become complete, so I can fully understand them; so I can move on from one fear to the next.

Read more…

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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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art, interview, outsiders

A Talk with a Modern-Day Petroglyphist

My second piece for Hyperallergic, out today:

Three years ago, the artist Kevin Sudeith left New York City to create stone carvings on immovable rock outcroppings across Canada and the continental US. A modern-day petroglyphist, he has also created more than two dozens images on rocks in undisclosed locations in New York. While this isn’t exactly legal, it can be viewed as a kind of thoughtful and permanent graffiti. (And speaking of illegality and disclosure: When I buried my cat Mietzi in my Queens backyard, Sudeith carved a tombstone for her.)

Sudeith’s work primarily documents the lives and stories of people who live near the carving sites. Other petroglyphs pointedly contrast with the ancient subject matter of his art form by depicting satellites and space vehicles.

In a world exceedingly characterized by high-speed technology, virtual reality, and surveillance, Sudeith’s carvings of human narratives — of human struggles and rewards — unfold slowly, both in their making and in that they’re meant to be discovered rather than exhibited. The narratives on stone beg to be touched and felt, but for the most part are hard to access. The relative inapproachability of the works collides with an art world that believes it can access (and acquire) everything at its fingertips.

Kevin Sudeith’s first solo show of pigmented impressions of his carvings, photos, and time-lapse video opened earlier this month at 308 at 156 Project Artspace in Manhattan. I spoke with him about the exhibition and his work.

Sabine Heinlein: What’s in your backpack?

Kevin Sudeith: My van is one big kit. For carving, I have two backpacks: one for heavy duty tools and one for lighter power tools and hand tools, as well as chalk for drawing compositions. There is a photography kit for shooting time lapse and a big beanbag with colors, brushes, pressing tools, and an old-fashioned painters palette. I have a large and a small tent, a tub of cooking supplies, and a couple of Persian rugs because they’re great for camping. Then there’s the general survival kit with compasses, knives, first aid, and a gun, and the tuck sack with yogurt, homemade jerky, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, cured meats, nuts, dried fruits, and homemade preserves from friends.

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Kevin Sudeith, “Original European Settlers,” Ingomar, MT (2010)

SH: It seems like much of your work is based on narratives you discover coincidentally. How do you come up with your motifs?

KS: I had a vague invitation to Ingomar, MT, population: 7. I was eating breakfast in the cafe when a man in his 70s barks out, “WHOSE VAN IS THAT OUT THERE!?!” I jumped up to say, “Oh, that’s mine … ” He bellowed, “WHAT ARE YA SELLIN’?!” I told him I’m an artist, and he looked at me real hard and said, “Are you drawing unemployment?” Surprised, I stammered, “No! I live by my own means.” I showed him my portfolio, and he said, “I’ve got some rocks. I’ll take you out there.”

He had the best rocks for 100 miles, and we became great friends. I helped him with his farming, and he let me camp and carve on his land. A few weeks later, when I was showing his son my carvings, he asked whether I could carve his grandparent’s wedding photo. His grandparents were the original European settlers on the land where I was working. His grandfather had come from Czechoslovakia in 1905 and homesteaded in Montana. He wrote back to Czechoslovakia, and his village sent him a girl. They were married at the train station and a photo was taken. They were married for 50 years and had nine kids.

Another time I was making a jerky and cheese sandwich in my van when a guy in a ’70s Suburban pulled up for a chat. He asked me if I do memorials or gravestones. (Oddly, this had not occurred to me.) He said a little girl was buried on his land, and he wanted to mark the spot. I thought it was his niece or granddaughter, but it turned out she’d died in 1904, as her family passed through town. No one knew her name, only that her parents were artists. As the sun set over the glacial moraine, he showed me the one big stone that seemed to adorn three graves. Before I left town I carved “Daughter of Artists 1900–1904” in the pouring rain.

Read more…

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fantasies, gender, mental illness, outsiders, prison, stereotypes

Gender Swap

If you do a lot of reporting at society’s margins—namely prisons, halfway houses and psychiatric institutions—the importance of fantasy to your subjects becomes painfully evident. Talking to prisoners and mental patients I have learned to appreciate their fantasies. Sometimes I envy them. For example, one of my subjects always talks about food he would like to eat. He has never been out of the country and he frequently asks me about German and Austrian cuisines. We talk about different dishes until our mouths water.

Inspired by my conversations with outsiders, last semester I assigned a gender-switch essay to my freshman students at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. I asked the girls to imagine themselves as boys and vice versa, and to write about the constraints and freedoms of the opposite sex.

The male students hated the assignment. “I almost cringed because being called a woman is considered an insult to me and to many other guys I know,” one boy wrote in a typical response. “If I was forced to be a girl for a day I really have no idea what I would do cause I like doing the things I do now as a guy, I like going to the gym, playing sports and eating as much as I want without the worry of being called fat.” I didn’t know what I should be more worried about: the boy’s gender stereotypes or his run-on sentences. Most boys were so resistant that I hardly got them to write at all.

To be fair, there was one exception: the brave gay student who, after we read Terrence McNally’s play “Andre’s Mother,” decided to come out to his close-minded Philippine parents. In his essay he reveled in fantasies about maxing out his credit card at Victoria Secret, trying out tampons and eating Nutella while on his (or her?) period.

All of my female students said they often felt constrained by their gender and by the expectations tied to it. They had to be home earlier than their younger brothers, were expected to be more chaste and were forced to do more chores around the house. The girls were also sick of the prospect of earning less than their male counterparts—a topic we had explored a couple of weeks earlier.

Most of the girls’ essays made me sad. But there was one that made me laugh out loud. The girl, who chose to remain anonymous, decided to imagine herself in her brother’s skin and mind for a day. With her permission I edited her essay and submitted it to the college’s literary magazine, The Underground.

It begins like this:

If I Were a Boy

My name is Leonardo Vasquez, but my friends call me Trump. I’m a light-skinned Dominican. I stand at 5’11 and the ladies love my light eyes. The first thing I did this morning around six AM was text all my ladies a good-morning message. I make them feel special but in reality I have a chick for every day of the week. I mean, what do you expect? I am young, handsome and I live on my own. I have a main bitch in my life, my Siberian Husky Amber.

To read the whole essay click on the image below.

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