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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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.

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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.

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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, institutions, rehabilitation

The Slow-Moving World of Prison at Twitter Speed

I recently came across a blog project run by volunteers at the infamous San Quentin prison in California. The blog is part of The Last Mile, which calls itself a “startup accelerator program” and claims to “train selected inmates for eventual employment in a paid internship program within the Silicon Valley technology sector.” It teaches prisoners “specific skills related to verbal and written communication, business formation and operation, presentation skills, and computer proficiency.” This doesn’t seem much different from the promises made by CEO and STRIVE, the organizations I visited several years ago while I was researching my book. What all the “work readiness programs” I encountered have in common is that they do not (and maybe cannot) prepare the men for what awaits them in the actual world. The Last Mile website is sort of cluttered, and I couldn’t find out how exactly the organization prepares the men for the myriad challenges of the “outside” job market—background checks, minimum wage labor (if lucky), discrimination, and a highly competitive and rapidly changing technological field, to name just a few—but I hope that it will be able to prove its successes in an independent study.

What I find interesting about The Last Mile is its concept of blog posts written from behind bars. (The organization also has a Twitter account with the handle @TLM that features tweets from behind bars.) From my correspondences with prisoners and ex-prisoners I know that time moves excruciatingly slowly when you’re locked up, and I find it thought-provoking to contrast this slow-moving, inverted world with our fast-moving, ephemeral digital world.

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Among Murderers, literary journalism, rehabilitation

The first chapter of Among Murderers is up online!

The first chapter of Among Murderers is up online!

My publisher University of California Press has posted the first chapter of my forthcoming book Among Murderers: Life After Prison online. Click here and go to “Read Chapter 1” (link on the upper right corner).

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Among Murderers, literary journalism, rehabilitation

How my book Among Murderers came about

I was born and raised in Germany and immigrated to New York two months before 9/11. I was ready, but New York was not. I chose New York because it was known for its determination, industriousness, and speed, (and, of course, its neuroticism). I was practically raised by Woody Allen and share these qualities. But now that I had “come home,” New York lay in ashes. Unlike most New Yorkers, I had a hard time dusting myself off and picking myself back up. For a long time I remained paralyzed. I half-heartedly applied for jobs I didn’t want, and because I couldn’t find work I started to take pictures of people sleeping in public places. The city was a carousel that seemed to spin faster each day, and I envied those sleepers who had allowed themselves to check out. I wanted to sleep and never wake up.

When I finally did find work, it wasn’t what I had hoped for. For three years I taught poor inner city students to write and take photographs. Few of them appreciated my two-hour commute to New York’s and Newark’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods. The children had bigger problems. It seemed that the sense of social defeat passed on to them by previous generations was so intense that it was impossible to shed within a single lifetime. More often than not my students were raised by their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, or in foster families; their fathers were mostly absent, many of them in prison. The few hours I would see my students each week did not allow me to break through to them.

Having written for German newspapers in the past but lacking a solid knowledge of American journalism, I decided to go to school. Robert Boynton, the director of NYU’s magazine journalism program, had just come out with The New New Journalism. Boynton had interviewed 19 literary journalists about their craft, among them Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Susan Orlean, Alex Kotlowitz, and Jon Krakauer. These writers, along with their forebears Joseph Mitchell, George Orwell, Marvel Cooke, Susan Sheehan, and Truman Capote, became my heroes. Proposing to write about New York’s unemployed, I applied to Boynton’s honors class and was accepted.

In late 2005 I set out to learn what New Yorkers who don’t work do with their time. This marked the beginning of my descent into the Byzantine system of New York’s job readiness programs. Over the course of the next several years I talked to the clients and staff of organizations with Pollyanna-ish names like STRIVE (Support and Training Results in Valuable Employees), CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities), and the Fortune Society. Most clients of the Fortune Society, STRIVE, and CEO were people with extensive rap sheets—and most were out of luck. Few had ever learned to strive for anything, and it is safe to assume that neither will they ever become CEOs.

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