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.

The Last Mile also partners with Quora, the social media site that promises to deliver answers to people’s questions by connecting them with professionals and others with first-hand knowledge. Evidently someone on Quora asked, “What does it feel like to murder someone?” and David Monroe, one of the inmates affiliated with The Last Mile answered:

“This is a really hard question to answer because of the complexity and raw truth.  Not many people are willing to accept the hard truth, while not many people are willing to tell it either.  Here we go.

“People murder people for different reasons which makes things complex, but the nerve to actually commit this act is where the raw truth comes into play.  The truth is that people murder other people because they are hurt inside and are struggling to deal with their emotions maturely.  The term “hurt people hurt people” is not a new concept.  However, I only learned of this term five or six years ago.  I spent the first 10 years of my incarceration trying to fully understand what led me to take another person’s life. I was only 15 years old at the time of the murder, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it nor identify the emotions behind it.  I would tell people that I murdered him because of peer pressure and that he disrespected me and he was a threat to me because he was from a rival gang.  But after hearing this term and understanding its meaning the light came on. I was hurt.” Click here to continue reading.

For the prisoner, I believe, “What does it feel like to murder someone?” is an important and often neglected question, and not because its answer may satisfy the morbid interest of a law-abiding reader. As I interviewed prisoners and ex-prisoners I realized that hardly anyone in prison dares acknowledge and deal with the feelings of guilt and remorse that accompany crime. Once released, prisoners, and murderers in particular, are forced to confront the black hole of their last 20 or 30 years. “That’s one thing [prisoners] don’t discuss: the crime,” Bruce, one of my book’s protagonists told me, though it’s easy to tell if someone was locked up for murder. “If you got 20 to life, then they know you had to have a homicide.” He explained that prisoners are snitches and that in prison he had to constantly watch his back. The last thing he would admit to were his struggles and weaknesses. Unfortunately, in-depth therapy virtually doesn’t exist in prison, and even the Quakers, who pride themselves for their tolerance and openness, told me that they are not interested in a prisoner’s past. In that sense, The Last Mile blog can be seen as a real—and much needed—opportunity for prisoners to share their struggles, guilt and feelings of remorse.