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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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.

Richard_selfportrait_cl_w

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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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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criminal justice, police, poverty, prison, public policy, racism, rehabilitation

Turning Points

Let’s hope David Cole is right when he writes that “we are at a turning point in confronting the excesses and injustices of America’s criminal law.” In his NYRB blog post “Getting Past ‘Tough on Crime’,” Cole sums up recent criminal justice achievements across the country:

The coincidental delivery on August 12 of Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech calling for measures to reduce overincarceration and racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and federal judge Shira Scheindlin’s 195-page opinion declaring the New York Police Department’s aggressive “stop and frisk” practices unconstitutional have led some to suggest that we are at a turning point in confronting the excesses and injustices of America’s criminal law. In fact, the turn began some years ago. Both Holder’s brave speech and Scheindlin’s powerful decision reflect a growing recognition over the past decade—in law and in politics—that something is fundamentally wrong with the enforcement of criminal law in America.

Racial injustice in the enforcement of the law, and its disturbing consequences, have been with us for centuries. As President Obama reminded the nation in his remarks after the conclusion of the Trayvon Martin trial last month, “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” African-Americans today are far more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison for drug possession, even though studies consistently find that whites and blacks use illegal drugs equally. African-Americans are only 13 percent of the general population—and about the same percentage of those who use and sell drugs. Yet African-Americans account for roughly 35 percent of those arrested on drug charges and 53.5 percent of those entering prison for a drug conviction. Much of the rise in the nation’s prison population over the past forty years has been fueled by drug convictions, and African-Americans have borne the brunt of the policy.

But there are encouraging signs that we are moving away from the worst of these practices. While the nation’s incarceration rate has skyrocketed since the 1970s, in the last three years the state prison population has decreased. The drop in 2012 was the largest yet. And racial disparities are also diminishing.

Continue reading…

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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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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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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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