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.

STRIVE, CEO, and the Fortune Society are part of a growing net of reentry organizations that helps former prisoners ease back into freedom. The goal of these agencies is to rehabilitate their clients—to restore their livelihoods and prevent them from going back to prison. After spending large parts of their lives locked up, these men and women need a roof over their heads, medical care, and a job—any job, really. But what they needed most was individual attention and love.

I must have interviewed at least fifty former prisoners before I finally found a main subject: Angel Ramos. Angel’s horrific crime and his extraordinary journey to freedom, his willingness to let me accompany him to his programs and to share with me even the most mundane details of his life, made him the perfect subject for this book.

Shortly after his release Angel met Bruce and Adam at the Castle, a prominent halfway house in West Harlem. All murderers, the men became friends. Angel, Bruce, and Adam had spent eighty-four years behind bars combined, more than an average lifetime. Initially, I thought I would follow the three men during their first year of freedom and then write my book. But I quickly realized that after twenty or thirty years in prison “rehabilitation” happened slowly. I didn’t want to conduct a series of traditional sit-down interviews and listen only to predigested experiences. And I wasn’t interested in describing “the approach” of institutions that claim to rehabilitate by promising their protégés low-wage labor. My protagonists’ attempts at rehabilitation happened on the subway, at the barber salon, onstage, at the park, at a Halloween party, at work, and over dinner, and I wanted to be there when things were happening. I ended up shadowing Adam, Bruce, and Angel for more than two years—from spring 2007 into the summer of 2009—and continued to check in with them periodically in the years that followed. My goal was to provide a visceral sense of their odyssey from prison to freedom. I couldn’t have predicted what their new experiences in the free world entailed—their obstacles, the things that puzzled them about “our” world, what delighted them, what scared them, and, perhaps most surprising, what they missed about prison.

The men’s stories point to our society at large. For the longest time we have tried to hide from view this significant part of our population. Now that these former criminals are returning to our society, we need to redefine our stance. Do we allow for the reintegration of murderers, assailants, robbers, and rapists, men and women who have been convicted of dreadful crimes? What do we need to take into consideration as we craft policies that seek to reform and redeem former prisoners? I believe that the most trivial details can expose the most complex psychological circumstances and mysteries of human life. Among Murderers: Life After Prison is composed of my observations and conversations in the hopes of opening up an honest dialogue about crime, rehabilitation, and reentry.