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

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criminal justice, press, prison, public policy, rehabilitation

The Too-Many Prisoners Dilemma

“Prisons are a vast, undercovered but important beat. Why we need more criminal justice coverage” is an excellent article by Dan Froomkin. It laments the lack of coverage of America’s incarceration epidemic by the mainstream media and explains what reporters could (and should) do about it.

I excerpted some quotes from the article that I found particularly eye-opening.

” ‘Too often, no one’s being quoted who doesn’t have a government paycheck, who doesn’t have an investment in mass incarceration,’ Wright [a former prisoner who founded the Prison Legal News] says. (…) Wright is particularly peeved that the New York Times doesn’t have a reporter assigned to the topic. ‘We’ve got two and half million people locked up. Doesn’t this merit a beat?’ ”

” ‘What I see in my work that isn’t as clearly portrayed when I read media stories is that most of the people in prison are not serial killers and child molesters,” [Deborah Golden, the acting director at DC Prisoners Project] says. “Most of the people I meet are really cool, interesting people who usually had a very crappy shot in life. Some people made really tragic mistakes. Some of them made mistakes that lots of people I know made, they just turned out differently, because they got caught.’ ”

“To the extent that the public gets exposure to that kind of message right now, it’s mostly from popular culture. Sesame Street’ this summer introduced a character whose father is in jail, part of an initiative that includes special Muppet appearances at prisons when children are visiting their parents. And one of the most riveting and discussed shows on television right now is the Netflix series ‘Orange is the New Black, which casts its flawed but hardly terrifying female inmate protagonists in a compelling and sympathetic light.”

” ‘If you want to write about prisons, write a couple of stories, and then you’ll get letters, and you’ll find issues,’ Green [Frank Green, who covered prisons full time for the Richmond Times-Dispatch] says. “In fact, I’m probably the last person in the newsroom to get handwritten letters.”

” ‘I don’t think people realize the amount of money involved,” says Lukachick [reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press]. ‘Even if you don’t care about the people—and you should be caring about everybody—we’re talking about billions of taxpayer dollars.’ ”

” ‘No one demands better from our prison officials,’ says Wright.”

” ‘But Drucker thinks what’s needed is something more. ‘I think there’s an apology owed these people,’ he says. And if society is ready to admit its mistakes, and acknowledge how harmful this process has been for the families, he says, then what’s required is ‘a way to sever the tie between them and the criminal justice system, period.’ “

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Among Murderers, press, rehabilitation

The Page 99 Test

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Marshal Zeringue, asking me to contribute an entry for his blog The Page 99 Test. Zeringue asked, “Is Ford Madox Ford‘s statement “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you,” accurate for your book? This sounded like a fun exercise! Here’s what I wrote:

When I first opened Among Murderers to page 99, I was disappointed; it mentions my main subjects only in passing. Re-reading the page, though, I noticed that it encompasses some of the book’s most important themes. In the chapter “Prisoners Still,” I had come to the halfway house to hang out with my book’s protagonists. But Angel (who had just been released from prison after serving 29 years for strangling a young girl) was off to a welfare appointment and Adam (who had served 31 years for organizing a robbery that cost two men their lives) had to go to Grand Central to exchange a train ticket. Unexpectedly ending up at the halfway house by myself, I decided to wait and see what happened. I knew that situations like these taught me things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

This is how I fell into the hands of Aazim and his wife Mahdiya. Aazim is the halfway house’s blind cook and, like Angel and Adam, he had spent large parts of his life locked up. I never found out what Aazim’s crime was, but unlike Angel and Adam he made me uncomfortable. That I felt so differently towards my characters illustrates an important point: no two ex-cons are alike, and each person deserves individual attention and care.

I was shocked to learn how unprepared most ex-cons I spoke to were for life outside of prison, and Aazim was not an exception. Prison offers few rehabilitative programs to help offenders see their errors and put them on the right track. For the most part rehabilitation is up to the individual, and as a result, many turn to religion to find support and redemption.

Both Aazim and Mahdiya had converted to Islam while incarcerated. Islam is an uncomplicated religion with strict gender roles, they told me. Mahdiya, who had been abused as a child and had grown up without boundaries, emphasized the structure and security Islam provided. Aazim liked that Islam allowed polygamy, and, to my surprise, Mahdiya agreed with him. “It might help at times,” she said. “You don’t feel like having sex when you are pregnant. I’d rather have my husband sleep with a legitimate person than with a stranger.”

Aazim and Mahdiya’s relationship illustrates another important fact: Insecure about their new world and afraid of society’s judgment, ex-prisoners often feel out of place among people who have never been to prison. For the most part, they don’t talk about their crimes, yet they silently share a particular code.

Among Murderers, on page 99 in particular, offers glimpses of a world unfamiliar to most of us and presents the opportunity to begin an honest dialogue about crime, rehabilitation, and reentry.

Click on the image below to read page 99 of Among Murderers.

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