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.


Self-portrait by Richard Robles, pencil, 2013

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discussion, fantasies, murder, prison, rehabilitation, review, writing

The Murderer and the Manuscript

Amazing story in the New York Times about the winner of a mystery-novel contest who is in prison, serving a minimum of 30 years for murder.

“Just before Labor Day in 2011, Toni Kirkpatrick, an editor at Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, picked up her phone and called an unfamiliar number with a Southern California area code. She was hoping to deliver good news to a man named Alaric Hunt, the newest winner of a debut-detective-novel writing contest, jointly sponsored by Minotaur Books (another St. Martin’s imprint) and the Private Eye Writers of America. The contest has a good track record — a past winner, Michael Koryta, a 21-year-old phenom, has since published 10 successful thrillers — and it also comes with a substantial prize: a $10,000 advance and a guaranteed publishing contract for the book that has been submitted.”

Cuts Through Bone

blindness, fantasies, literary journalism, podcast, rehabilitation

Pomp and Circumstance on The Drum

Click on the image below and listen to my award-winning essay “Pomp and Circumstance” on The Drum, “a literary magazine for your ears.” In “Pomp and Circumstance” I  follow Edwin, a young blind man from Staten Island, as he learns to navigate New York independently. (The podcast opens in a new window; click on the play or download button.)

Among Murderers, fantasies, gender, prison, writing

Your Love, Locked up

Shortly after receiving a letter from a prisoner I know asking me if I could find him “a wife, not a girlfriend” online, I came across Melody Wilson’s essay Love Behind Bars: Why did a nice girl like me date an inmate? on I have thought and written about the distorted fantasies prisoners conjure in their cells: the ways they imagine the free world, its women, jobs and daily life. I was never quite able to fully understand why some women seek out men behind bars. Why? Adam, one of the men I profiled in my book, said it quite fittingly: “Most women who come into prison with the idea of developing a relationship with a prisoner have problems developing a relationship with men on the outside,” he said. “And that cuts down on the kind of people you come in contact with.” (p.107) For this reason he had decided to stay single while serving three decades behind bars.

When I read Wilson’s essay, the following paragraphs offered additional insight from the perspective of a woman who had dated a prisoner:

The physical boundaries between me and Justin only served to release us from our inhibitions; nothing was off limits. Writing to him freed me. After all, who was he to judge?

Eventually, Wilson’s relationship with Justin fell apart. She explains,

Our relationship went wrong in much the same way other long-distance relationships do: We grew apart. Things that I had always known about him began to bother me more and more. Justin had never graduated high school, and he hoped to keep working in his dad’s tire shop when he was released. I still wanted more than that. I wanted more than he could give me, I realized.

It is interesting that Wilson understands this to have been a phase, and admirable that she outgrew it. She became a writer, and dating an inmate is only one of many interesting narratives that make up her life. Today she likes tigers, books, cooking and travelling, and is training to compete as a figure skater.

fantasies, gender, mental illness, outsiders, prison, stereotypes

Gender Swap

If you do a lot of reporting at society’s margins—namely prisons, halfway houses and psychiatric institutions—the importance of fantasy to your subjects becomes painfully evident. Talking to prisoners and mental patients I have learned to appreciate their fantasies. Sometimes I envy them. For example, one of my subjects always talks about food he would like to eat. He has never been out of the country and he frequently asks me about German and Austrian cuisines. We talk about different dishes until our mouths water.

Inspired by my conversations with outsiders, last semester I assigned a gender-switch essay to my freshman students at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. I asked the girls to imagine themselves as boys and vice versa, and to write about the constraints and freedoms of the opposite sex.

The male students hated the assignment. “I almost cringed because being called a woman is considered an insult to me and to many other guys I know,” one boy wrote in a typical response. “If I was forced to be a girl for a day I really have no idea what I would do cause I like doing the things I do now as a guy, I like going to the gym, playing sports and eating as much as I want without the worry of being called fat.” I didn’t know what I should be more worried about: the boy’s gender stereotypes or his run-on sentences. Most boys were so resistant that I hardly got them to write at all.

To be fair, there was one exception: the brave gay student who, after we read Terrence McNally’s play “Andre’s Mother,” decided to come out to his close-minded Philippine parents. In his essay he reveled in fantasies about maxing out his credit card at Victoria Secret, trying out tampons and eating Nutella while on his (or her?) period.

All of my female students said they often felt constrained by their gender and by the expectations tied to it. They had to be home earlier than their younger brothers, were expected to be more chaste and were forced to do more chores around the house. The girls were also sick of the prospect of earning less than their male counterparts—a topic we had explored a couple of weeks earlier.

Most of the girls’ essays made me sad. But there was one that made me laugh out loud. The girl, who chose to remain anonymous, decided to imagine herself in her brother’s skin and mind for a day. With her permission I edited her essay and submitted it to the college’s literary magazine, The Underground.

It begins like this:

If I Were a Boy

My name is Leonardo Vasquez, but my friends call me Trump. I’m a light-skinned Dominican. I stand at 5’11 and the ladies love my light eyes. The first thing I did this morning around six AM was text all my ladies a good-morning message. I make them feel special but in reality I have a chick for every day of the week. I mean, what do you expect? I am young, handsome and I live on my own. I have a main bitch in my life, my Siberian Husky Amber.

To read the whole essay click on the image below.