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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institutions, poverty, prison, rehabilitation

Passport to Success?

Several years ago I was assigned to write an article for Harper’s Magazine about CEO, the Center of Employment Opportunities, and one of the reentry organization’s clients, Vanetta Washington. The article ended up being “killed.” I was never able to forget Vanetta’s dilemma, her hopelessness, anger and humiliation. When I sifted through my files and came across the original “Passport to Success,” so I decided to post it here:

A long-overlooked epidemic is reaching combustion point: Mandatory sentencing put millions of Americans behind bars and now they are coming back. There are currently five million people on parole or probation, and this year alone some 700,000 prisoners are expected to come home. If past studies are an indication, more than half of them will eventually land back behind bars. No one knows for certain how to rehabilitate these disenfranchised masses. Prison has long decimated their opportunities for improvement, shifting the burden to the communities in which the men and women are released. Having grown enormously in size and number, community-based nonprofit organizations have been testing various rehabilitative methods. One of the largest of these organizations is the Center for Employment Opportunities in New York. This agency tries the most austere, traditional and popular method of rehabilitation on several thousand ex-offenders each year. Its mission brochure, “The Power of Work,” suggests that putting ex-offenders to work upon their release and teaching them punctuality, discipline, respect and presentability increases their self-confidence and their chances of staying free. To promote and monitor these standards, the organization issues its “clients” a Passport to Success—a report card to be worn around their necks and checked off by supervisors at the end of each workday.

CEO_Passport_Cover

A 42-year-old former crack addict, Vanetta Washington was paroled in 2006 after having served yet another sentence for drug possession. A spotty work history, the surge of criminal background checks and various occupational bars have made it virtually impossible for people like Washington to find legitimate employment. She turned to the Center for Employment Opportunities, whose acronym CEO is meant to be “an aspiration for [its] clients.” “They promised me a lot,” Washington told me. Like thousands of other job seekers with criminal records, she had to first attend a job readiness class, which, depending on the program provider, lasts from a couple of days to four weeks. At CEO’s three-day class the students are instructed to take off their baseball caps and do-rags. They are taught how to fill out job applications and to respond appropriately to the questions of potential employers. In mock interviews the students practice shaking hands and smiling and looking into people’s eyes. They learn to take off their “game face”—the impassive survival mask of the ghetto. They become skilled at speaking about their convictions in a remorseful, non-threatening manner and learn to lie in the honesty test conducted by some .CEO_Passport_a

After graduating from Life Skills class, Washington received her Passport to Success and a pair of state-issued boots ironically like the ones she had to wear at Rikers Island. In the transitional work phase, which lasts up to 75 days, CEO employs its program graduates to clean and maintain state agencies and their jurisdictions. It promises to help find its clients permanent employment if their Passport can prove that they show up to work on time, clean and well-groomed, follow orders and value their work. CEO has grown into a burgeoning business that now serves as a national and international model. It is consulted by agencies from all over the world and its concept has been replicated by Pecan’s Workout program in the UK. Most importantly, its unsentimental philosophy is in line with that of the government, which provides most of its funding.

CEO_Passport_b

CEO’s approach echoes the old saying “idle hands are the devil’s playground.” Work has traditionally been seen both as the main method and desired result of rehabilitation. But some academics are skeptical. “Unemployment only has a modest correlation with criminality,” says Edward Latessa, a criminologist at the University of Cincinnati who assesses programs like CEO. Latessa refers to methods that don’t consider the specific needs and risk factors of ex-offenders and lack sufficient long-term evidence as “correctional quackery.” While work is important, studies have shown that people are not criminals because they are unemployed; they are criminals because they suffer from drug addiction, mental health issues and anti-social attitudes, and because they are unable to escape poverty and their criminal environment. The Fortune Society in New York is one of the few organizations that addresses these risk factors. The agency provides supervised housing as well as educational, mental health and employment services to ex-offenders. The 60 beds in its halfway house and the 4,000 people it is able to serve per year, however, are a mere drop in the bucket.

CEO_Passport_c)

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Among Murderers, baking, prison, rehabilitation

The Institutional Junior: Cheesecake, Prison-style

As I dragged myself to the grocery store on this rainy Saturday morning I started thinking of Bruce’s cheesecake. Bruce is one of the protagonists in my book Among Murderers, and one of the first things I heard about him was that he had a way with cheesecake. Rumor had it that it was celebrated in all of the prisons in upstate New York. The cook at the halfway house in West Harlem, where I had started interviewing ex-prisoners a few months before Bruce’s release from prison, called Bruce “The Institutional Junior.” In prison, Bruce would bake cheesecakes most weekends, particularly during football season. He used a regular pan and the little stove in his cell. He put a lifter on the stove to keep the cheesecake from burning and let it sit there for about an hour and a half. Sometimes he added a can of mashed-up sweet potatoes “to turn the color.”

“I used to do it for therapy,” Bruce explained to me, when I inquired about the recipe.

Bruce’s therapy consisted of: 6 oz. cream cheese, 8 oz. sour cream, 1 tbsp. vanilla extract, 1 can condensed milk, and 2 cups sugar. For the crust Bruce crushed plenty of graham crackers and mixed them with butter. Bruce perfected his recipe through a “trial and error process.” After he moved from prison into the halfway house, he was nervous about the outcome of his cheesecakes. After all, he wasn’t accustomed to using a regular oven.

To make his first cheesecake in the free world, one August morning in 2007 Bruce got up at 5:00 a.m. and sneaked down into the deserted halfway house kitchen. He was relieved when the cheesecake turned out well and other residents asked for more. Once he saved me a piece. While I ate it he stared intensely at me, as if trying to determine what grade I would give his cheesecake by my facial expression. Without exaggeration, on a scale from 1 to 10, I would give it a 10.

So on this glum December morning I decided to brighten things up a bit by making Bruce’s cheesecake, prison-style.

The ingredients where easy to find—and possibly cheaper than in the prison commissary, which tends to be much more expensive than many stores on the outside.

I followed Bruce’s recipe. The batter tasted good but the crust came out a bit greasy. I’m not a seasoned baker and could have used Bruce’s advice here. And I have to admit that I cheated a bit by using parchment paper and a cake form.

This is how I propped up the cheesecake over the flame: some bricks with a cheese grader on one side to level out the different sizes of the bricks. Common sense told me to put some aluminum over the openings to distribute the heat more evenly. (I soon took it off because my husband said he smelled something burning. There was a black hole in the middle of the cheesecake with black smoke coming out of it!)

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Among Murderers, rehabilitation

Toilet paper

My editor at University of California Press recently asked me to check the phrasing on one of my protagonist’s prison certificates. Does it really read “Certificate in Computer Operator,” as quoted in my manuscript? I double-checked; it does.

As I looked through the pile of certificates—which originally were going to be included in my book—I was once again astounded by their design. I wondered who came up with (or chose) the ornate frames and lettering. How could they miss the irony?

Angel Ramos took every opportunity that presented itself to prove his successful rehabilitation to the parole board. Yet he was denied parole seven times. When he was finally released after more than 29 years, he thought that the letters of support and certificates he had gathered would help him on the outside as well.

Angel believed he had come a long way. At 18, he couldn’t read or write. He wet his bed and suffered from uncontrollable outbursts of anger. He then murdered a 16-year-old girl. But at 47, he had gotten a high school diploma, studied at college level, attended multiple anger management workshops and become a Quaker. He even graduated from Narcotics Anonymous groups and drug treatment programs, despite never having had a substance abuse problem in his life. In his duffle bag he carried a folder brimming with endorsements. But in the outside world these credentials counted for little. “Irrelevant,” he said, when he first showed me his certificates. “They might as well be toilet paper.” After all, he had a serious criminal record, which anyone could easily access online, and virtually no outside work experience. He did earn a computer operator degree from Sullivan County Community College in 1995, but since he was never employed in this capacity he had little opportunity to practice what he learned or keep up with the constant changes in the field. Besides, who in the world would want to hire a murderer?

Look at the certificates below and remember how much hope and hopelessness lies hidden behind their extravagant designs.

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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, institutions, mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Blackbird Minstrels of Asylumia

I’ve recently been spending time with patients and staff who provide and/or participate in cultural day programs at a state mental institution in New York City. In line with my first book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison, I want to find out which methods of “rehabilitation” currently predominate and how individuals create communities within institutions. How do they bond and how do they distance themselves from those they don’t want to associate with? How do staff, patients and volunteers survive the daily challenges they face, individually and as a group? Having interviewed inmates and staff in the institution’s farming and art programs, I’m also interested in the remaining traces of earlier “rehabilitative” methods. I’m not sure yet whether this will lead to a story or another book (or both), but I do know that I want to continue to convey the daily lives of people at society’s margins to the general public.

Naturally, my ears perked up when a friend mentioned Benjamin Reiss’s Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture. I was particularly absorbed by the book’s second chapter, in which Reiss writes about a troupe of blackface performers that assembled within the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica in the mid-19th century. The group called itself the Blackbird Minstrels of Asylumia.

The idea of rehabilitating mentally ill patients by forcing them to participate in debating societies, lecture series, literary journals, dance and dramatic groups came about in the early 19th century. Culture, it was discovered, could be used as a therapeutic tool—and as an opportunity for surveillance and discipline. Under the aegis of culture, authorities attempted to enforce societal norms and standardized, moral behavior, and those who were forced to carry this “ideological baggage” were easy prey. Mental patients in state institutions are for the most part severely sick, isolated and, incapable of resistance.

Here is how Reiss reflects on the irony of white schizophrenics in burned cork and grease performing for patients and staff in the New York State Lunatic Asylum:

“In masking themselves, the outcast actors imitated figures who were equally outcast—the slaves and urban Northern blacks who were tarred by blackness much as the actors themselves were stigmatized by the label of insanity. They enacted scenarios of slave life for the ultimate captive audience; and under the watchful eye of the asylum authorities, they turned a famously unruly form into a spectacle of their own capacity for self-control.”

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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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