Among Murderers, interview, murder, rehabilitation

Among Murderers on Jefferson Exchange

Today I was interviewed by Geoffrey Riley on Oregon’s NPR affiliate Jefferson Public Radio. The call dropped three times during the one-hour (live!) interview, and I was searching for words more than usually. But somehow—miraculously—I survived. You can listen to the interview by clicking on the image below.

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

institutions, prison, rehabilitation

A World Inverted

I highly recommend reading Leslie Jamison’s essay “Fog Count,” on visiting her pen pal Charlie Engle in a West Virginia prison. Published this month in The Oxford American, the essay ponders America’s baffling prison rules and its vague, yet cruel philosophies of punishment and remorse. What I found most memorable is the way Jamison describes her own struggles with the divergent perspectives of author and subject. Engle and Jamison quite literally live in two separate worlds, and however close Jamison tries to get to Engle’s world, a huge gulf always remains between them. (Even though Engle is housed in one of America’s minimum-security prisons which, generally speaking, treat their inmates—who are often convicted of white-collar crimes—more humane than maximum-security facilities.)

Jamison’s piece struck a chord because in less than two weeks I will visit a pen pal at Attica, America’s most notorious maximum-security prison. While my pen pal, who has been serving time for murder for more than forty years, appears to be looking forward to my visit, I have ambivalent feelings. I still get chills remembering my last prison visit several years ago. How I was absorbed by this inverted world the moment the gates shut behind me. How forgotten, fearful and lonely I suddenly felt. One step and I was completely cut off from the outside world. Not only did prison look different, it also smelled and sounded different. The light situation was like nothing I had experienced on the outside. If it reminded me of anything it was a morgue.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Jamison’s excellent essay (but you should really read the whole thing):

“There were rules about movement and rules about hygiene and rules about possession. Too many possessions could be a fire hazard. You were allowed five books and one photo album. Hobby craft materials had to be disposed of immediately after use. Finished hobby crafts could only be sent to people on your official visitation list. There would be no postal harassment by hobby craft.” Continue reading

institutions, prison, rehabilitation

Inside Stories

Excellent article by Beth Schwartzapfel about journalists’ lack of access to U.S. prisons in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Schwartzapfel writes: “Prisons are an abundant source of scoops and stories for enterprising reporters. Life “behind the walls” is rich with drama and moral complexity, and departments of corrections are as badly in need of journalistic sunshine as any other government agency. But to cover them is difficult. They are, of course, closed institutions, meant to lock some people in and keep others out. Reporters often “don’t know how to get access, or they’re refused access and they throw up their hands,” says Michele Deitch, a University of Texas law professor who specializes in prison oversight. Even those who can get in must navigate a complicated relationship with correctional administrators whose goals and needs are often at odds with their own.”

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.


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’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.


Continue reading

poverty, prison, rehabilitation

Prison and the Poverty Trap

The New York Times recently featured an article by John Tierney about the connection between incarceration and poverty. This is the first article in the series “Time and Punishment.” While Tierney’s point is certainly important–“A stint behind bars tends to worsen job prospects that weren’t good to begin with,” he writes — it doesn’t surprise me one bit. Incarceration stigmatizes, reduces earnings, destroys families, hurts children, negatively affects communities, costs billions of dollars and impacts the mental and physical health of the (formerly) incarcerated. Here’s an excerpt from Tierney’s piece:

WASHINGTON — Why are so many American families trapped in poverty? Of all the explanations offered by Washington’s politicians and economists, one seems particularly obvious in the low-income neighborhoods near the Capitol: because there are so many parents like Carl Harris and Charlene Hamilton.

For most of their daughters’ childhood, Mr. Harris didn’t come close to making the minimum wage. His most lucrative job, as a crack dealer, ended at the age of 24, when he left Washington to serve two decades in prison, leaving his wife to raise their two young girls while trying to hold their long-distance marriage together.

His $1.15-per-hour prison wages didn’t even cover the bills for the phone calls and marathon bus trips to visit him. Struggling to pay rent and buy food, Ms. Hamilton ended up homeless a couple of times.

“Basically, I was locked up with him,” she said. “My mind was locked up. My life was locked up. Our daughters grew up without their father.”

The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America’s incarceration rate has risen to be the world’s highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.

“Prison has become the new poverty trap,” said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist. “It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”

Among African-Americans who have grown up during the era of mass incarceration, one in four has had a parent locked up at some point during childhood. For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.

No one denies that some people belong in prison. Mr. Harris, now 47, and his wife, 45, agree that in his early 20s he deserved to be there. But they don’t see what good was accomplished by keeping him there for two decades, and neither do most of the researchers who have been analyzing the prison boom.

The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has quintupled since 1980, and a major reason is that prisoners serve longer terms than before. They remain inmates into middle age and old age, well beyond the peak age for crime, which is in the late teenage years — just when Mr. Harris first got into trouble.


guns, murder, prison, rehabilitation

Taking Forgiveness (And Guilt) One Step Further

I just read Paul Tullis’s recent article “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” in the New York Times Magazine. I have thought a lot about remorse and forgiveness, and there are a couple of things I’d like to comment on.

Tullis’s piece talks about the role forgiveness played for Andy and Kate Grosmaire, whose 19-year-old daughter Ann was shot dead by her boyfriend Conor McBride. As it is often the case, the article’s most amazing statements can be found in the quotes of the sources, particularly the victim’s mother Kate. Demonstrating her willingness to meet with and forgive her daughter’s murderer, she says, “I knew being together rather than being apart was going to be more of what I needed.” At another point in the article Tullis quotes Kate as saying, “I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment—as a murderer—I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.” Later we hear Kate say, “I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it. Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.”

I found this sentiment admirable and telling because we often think of forgiveness as a means of helping those who are guilty, when it actually serves—or “preserves,” as Kate said—oneself.

While I admire the Grosmaires’ generosity towards their daughter’s murderer, I also wondered about their motivation. Tullis remarks at the margin that the family is religious. When I was researching my book I noticed that the notion of forgiveness always seems to be tied to religious views. (One of my subjects converted to Islam while incarcerated, another one became a Quaker.) For humanistic and psychological purposes, I wish we could “free” forgiveness from its religious constraints and allow it to permeate our daily lives. It should really be considered one of our general values as human beings that help us to “[be] together rather than [be] apart,” instead of something God ordered us to do. Continue reading

institutions, mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Issa Ibrahim’s Memoir of Madness

I have been posting some things about metal illness, race, discrimination, and violence lately. Some of these posts were inspired by my conversations with people at a New York State mental institution, particularly the artist, musician and writer Issa Ibrahim. Issa’s story interested me for various reasons. He became ill with paranoid schizophrenia in his early twenties. At 24, in a bout of paranoia and fear, he took his mother’s life; his illness had him convinced that she was possessed and needed to be exorcised.

At his trial, Issa pled insanity and spent almost twenty years locked up in a mental institution. He was released to an outpatient residential facility for the mentally ill three years ago.

“It was an accident,” Issa repeats every time the deadly incident comes up in our conversations. More than twenty years after the tragic event Issa is still torn by remorse and the ongoing struggle of trying to understand what happened to him over the course of the 47 years of his life. Issa’s complex emotional landscape is reflected in his work; his parents—his father, who died of cancer shortly before Issa became sick, was a jazz musician and his mother was a painter—have always served as an inspiration and an encouragement for his work.


Chain of Command, 1994


Cancer & Homicide, 1996

Last time I spoke with Issa, he explained how his work, when at its best, allows for a sense of forgiveness and peace. “I feel a connection with my mom,” he said as we sat in his room over coffee and cookies. “I just [feel] her presence, or at least a sense of forgiveness, a sense of ‘you’re doing all right, son.’ And so now, whenever I finish a particularly good painting or a particularly good song [and] it’s really better than I thought it could ever [be], I’ll stop for a moment and say, ‘thank you, mom, thank you.’ I feel like a sense of peace in that, more so that she’s forgiven me. It’s a sense of calm within myself finally; part of her lives within me.”

Issa has traced his 20-year-long incarceration in his paintings, music and writing. In March 2012, he self-published a multimedia memoir, titled 330.20 after the Criminal Procedure Law that follows a verdict or plea of “not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect.”

There is much to show and to write about Issa, but for the purpose of this blog he and I decided to feature a small multimedia compilation, including an excerpt from his memoir that addresses the seemingly racially-motivated hierarchies inside the institution. The two paintings we chose are “Chain of Command,” which also deals with this topic, and “Cancer & Homicide,” which depicts Issa’s last memories of his parents. The song “Go Tell ‘Em Like it Was” was recorded and mixed in the room of his outpatient residential facility.

(For an excerpt from Issa Ibrahim’s memoir 330.20: A Memoir of Madness scroll down.)

Song: Go Tell ‘Em How it Was

From Issa Ibrahim’s memoir 330.20: A Memoir of Madness: 

I don’t feel I have much in common with the Mahatas [Mental Health Treatment Aids] who are mostly abusive dullards and virulent racists, to boot. This bothers me because the staff is mostly black and they tend to abuse and victimize the white patients and the minorities who are just too sick for them to form a kinship with. The staff would watch the patients during “prime time,” when the professionals are on duty, and pretty much allow them to work out their relative issues in the safety of this asylum. That is, until the weekend. All the patients were conditioned to dread Saturday morning because this is when the ward staff would come in, put their feet up, eat their sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches with light and sweet coffee delivered from the local deli and begin exacting punishments for long forgotten misdeeds during the week. Continue reading

mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Mental Illness, Medication, and Race

I’ve been reading Jonathan Metzl’s book The Protest Psychosis (Beacon, 2011). Metzl writes that both black and white psychiatrists in the U. S. diagnose schizophrenia in African-American men at rates four to five times more than other groups.

Metzl noticed a shift in the public image of gender and race in the 1950s and 1960s. While in the 1930s and 1940s schizophrenia was often associated with white, middle class housewives “whose schizophrenic mood swings resulted from domestic strife or emotional isolation,” in the 1950s and 1960s ads for the antipsychotic drug Haldol showed “angry black men with clenched, Black Power fists in urban scenes whose symptoms of social belligerence required chemical treatment.”

Metzl’s book shows how drug companies, researchers, individual doctors and the DSM-II from 1968 perpetuated common stereotypes involving gender and race.

“Researchers used DSM-II criteria to uncover hostile aspects of black schizophrenia with civil rights demonstrations. Meanwhile, studies conflated black schizophrenia with Black Power in order to illustrate evolving understandings of the illness as hostile or violent, or used long-standing stereotypes about manic, crazy black men to demonstrate ‘new’ forms of schizophrenic illness.”

“Yet the DSM-II functioned as an implicitly racist text because it mirrored the social context of its origins in ways that enabled users to knowingly or unknowingly pathologize mental illness. This was because the 1960s was an era when the notion that large groups of people acted in hostile ways while rationalizing their aggression as a justifiable response to the attitude of others was a tremendously powerful social message. But that group was not schizophrenia; it was people who were black.”

According to Metzl, in medical charts from 1960 to 1975 black schizophrenic patients were consistently labeled as “hostile,” “aggressive,” threatening,” “dangerous,” “suspicious,” and “belligerent” and were said to have “issues with police [and] authority figures.” (White patients, on the other hand, were more likely to be described as “cooperative,” suicidal,” “depressed” and “withdrawn.”)

This made me wonder about—and hopefully pay more attention to—the ways in which contemporary drug companies, psychological studies and individuals conflate and abuse issues like race and gender when illustrating and analyzing mental illness.

Here some illustrations from The Protest Psychosis: