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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Among Murderers, review

Review in The Times Higher Education

An insightful (and flattering) review of Among Murderers by Glasgow criminologist Laura Piacentini, published today in The Times Higher Education. I couldn’t be happier!

“When it comes to the world of imprisonment, never let it be said that commentators have exhausted all possible areas of exploration, or that nothing “new” can be said. Studying the prison world requires conscious determination, vigilance of emotions and nuanced understandings that crime and punishment are layered with symbolic sociological meaning. The prison is a peculiar site where modalities of power are nefarious yet subject to complex shifts between captives and custodians. We are interested in prisons because of cultural imperatives towards order, social control and, indeed, re-establishing the purity of people who are the most hidden and “leper-like” in society: prisoners. But what of life after prison?

“Reading Sabine Heinlein’s Among Murderers: Life after Prison was a real pleasure. This is an ambitious book in which the author aims to provide much more than a descriptive story of fractured lives scarred by incarceration. Moreover, she asks the searching questions that have taxed sociologists for decades: how do people who have been anonymous and remote from the social world for many years learn to re-enter it and live conventional lives? A second, dominating theme of this book is: what constitutes successful rehabilitation in the minds of murderers released from prison?

“The academic gaze that is cast over the prison world is often none too subtle in indicating the presence of profound suffering, torment, struggle and isolation. Heinlein’s particular skill is to apply a beautifully literary narrative to the still-hidden world of three former offenders.”

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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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Among Murderers, review

LARB Review

This Memorial Day got even better: Today Jillian Steinhauer’s excellent essay about my book Among Murderers was published in the LA Review of Books, and I am jumping up and down with joy (literally). Here is my favorite excerpt from her insightful review (but you should really read the whole piece!):

“Murderers. One of the most crucial aspects of Heinlein’s book is its swift deconstruction of that eye-catching word used in its title. Who or what makes a murderer? The same term has been branded by the state onto Angel, Adam, and Bruce, but the natures of their crimes are vastly different. Angel fits the traditional definition best, having killed a friend with his bare hands. Adam, on the other hand, took part in a robbery gone wrong: one of his accomplices shot and killed two guards. Bruce got into a fight with a man who harassed his friend: he shot the aggressor, aiming for the shoulder but hitting the chest instead. To assume that because these men are all convicted murderers, they share certain qualities or DNA is a mistake. To assume that because they’ve all killed someone, they are horrible people, is too. What seems to unite them more than anything else is the fact that they’ve all spent decades in prison, an experience that’s changed their lives just as much as the crimes that brought them there.

“This is, in fact, the biggest triumph of Heinlein’s book: the ability to turn “murderers” — gregarious and attention-seeking Angel, contemplative and insecure Adam, reserved but resilient Bruce — into people. She doesn’t shy away from discussing the murders or her own feelings about them, including when she learns the unsettling truth about Angel’s crime, but she manages to do so while keeping us involved and, even more impressively, invested. By the end of the book, we know quite thoroughly what Angel, Adam, and Bruce have done and how they have or haven’t grappled with it, but by some combination of artful storytelling and the unstoppable human inclination toward happy endings, we still want them to succeed. We don’t want them to end up homeless, or commit crimes and land back in prison; we’re rooting for them, even though they’re murderers.”

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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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Among Murderers

Last Night at BookCourt…

We had a great turnout at my book launch event at BookCourt in Brooklyn last night! The book sold out and I couldn’t have hoped for a better crowd. Thanks to everyone for coming. I am touched. I love you guys! (Photos by Carrie Villines, unless otherwise noted.)

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(Photo by Christine Kuan)

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(Thanks to Emmy Cordero for this picture of Pistol and Petunia, two former foster bunnies of mine)

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