criminal justice, faith, institutions, literary journalism, murder, prison, violence

My Brother’s Keeper

It is rare that I promote my work–I’m bad at that–but this one is more urgent. In fact, it is quite literally a matter of life and death.

I’d like to bring to your attention my February cover story for Pacific Standard Magazine, “My Brother’s Keeper: When her brother is sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit, one woman takes on the corrosive culture of capital punishment.”

The article describes Terri Been’s fight to save the life of her kid brother, Jeff Wood. A 44-year-old man with a learning disorder and mental health issues, Jeff has languished on death row in Texas for the past 22 years. During trial, Jeff, who drove the getaway car in a robbery, was allowed to basically represent himself. He received no mitigation, and the prosecutor, Lucy Wilke, used the notorious “psychiatrist” James Grigson, also known as Dr. Death, to prove to the jury that Jeff will “with absolute certainty kill again” (even though, as you will learn in the piece, everyone agrees that he never killed anyone in the first place). Grigson agreed to testify, even though he never even met Jeff, let alone examined him.

It is no exaggeration when I say that I have never written a more important, more traumatizing and more time-intensive piece.

Jeff’s execution–his second execution date, in fact–was stayed in 2016 because of the taint of Grigson’s testimony. (His first execution, in 2008, was stayed because of his mental health issues.) Jeff’s family is expecting the courts to respond to their Habeas Corpus petition in the coming weeks. There are two possible outcomes: Either he will be granted a new trial or he’ll receive a third execution date.

I hope you’ll consider my article about Jeff and his family’s struggle.

(Photos by Jérôme Sessini)

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art, gender, photography, stereotypes, violence


The Guardian

Photo: Evan Schwartz

Photo: Evan Schwartz

Captain Wright, one of the subjects in transgender artist Ria Brodell’s paintings, lived until his death in 1834 with Mrs Wright and an abundance of rabbits. They were “respectable gentlefolks”, according to Brodell’s extensive research. When Captain Wright died, his neighbors were astonished to learn that he had a body that would be assigned as female. Demoted to a “creature” by the newspaper, his body attracted a crowd of curious spectators. Captain Wright is one in Brodell’s series Butch Heroes, which reimagines historic men who were assigned as female in the format of Catholic holy cards. The portraits – some of which are currently on view at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle as part of the show Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects – are touching and amusing at times. They speak eloquently to the fraught history and present of the transgender community.

It’s an interesting moment for trans art in the US, as arts organizations large and small are finally bringing recognition to an ingenuous people and powerful movement. The Museum of the City of New York features Gay Gotham, a show that chronicles queer creative networks in 20th-century New York, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum for Gay and Lesbian Art is in the process of nearly doubling its footprint. It also recently created the Hunter O’Hanian Diversity Art Fund to collect artworks from primarily female and transgender artists. Yet Donald Trump’s election has given the LGBTQ community new reasons to fear for their safety. Mike Pence advocates for “gay conversion therapy” and Trump has pledged to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, which would give businesses and landlords the right to discriminate against gay and transgender people. Since the election, 43 anti-LGBTQ incidents have already been reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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criminal justice, poverty, prison, racism, review, stereotypes, violence

Some Thoughts on Neurocriminology

Adrian Raine’s article “The Criminal Mind” has been buried in a pile of must-reads on my nightstand for months now. When it was first published in April 2013 in The Wall Street Journal, I was too busy with the release of my book. And frankly, I was also a bit afraid. Last night, though, I finally unearthed the article and read it.

Of course I knew from my own research that neurocriminology receives far more funding than environmental psychology of violent behavior, but I’ve always been wary of it. I thought that to look at the brain as the cause of criminal behavior was misleading and dangerous. Why? Crime and incarceration affect a disproportionate number of people of color. The conclusion that the make-up of one’s brain causes a person to become a criminal may suggest to some that African Americans are by nature more violent than white people. It would bring us precariously close to the 19th-century pseudoscience of Phrenology, which claimed that we could recognize a criminal by his physical features. Furthermore, I was—and still am—worried that the increasing focus on the physical traits of criminals lessens our interest in crime-causing factors in the environment, factors that can potentially be changed. We can fight poverty, the easy accessibility of guns, bad schools and a dysfunctional family background, but our brains? Good luck with that! I also wish society would take at least some responsibility for people’s actions.

Raine’s article, however, does justice to the complexity of the issue. A Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Anatomy of Violence (Pantheon, 2013), Raine concludes that “genetics and environment work together to encourage violent behavior.” A child who is predisposed to violent behavior due to his genetics does not necessarily become a criminal; there are plenty of environmental factors that can make up for neurological “handicaps.” Proper nutrition may play a role, for example: Raine writes that studies have shown that Omega-3 supplements in the diets of young offenders reduces serious offending by about 35%. And even if a child’s brain doesn’t show any abnormalities at birth, exposure to environmental toxins, physical abuse and emotional deprivation—a lack of love and a supportive social environment—may alter his brain chemistry, causing him to commit acts of violence. As a result, an initially healthy brain can turn into one that causes impulsiveness, a trait that has long been recognized as a leading cause of violent behavior. Lead is neurotoxic, according to Raine, damaging the prefrontal region which regulates behavior. “Rising lead levels in the U.S. from 1950 through the 1970s neatly track increases in violence 20 years later, from the ’70s through the ’90s.” He concludes, “No other single factor can account for both the inexplicable rise in violence in the U.S. until 1993 and the precipitous drop since then.” Continue reading

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

art, racism, violence

A Black Outsider Artist in a White Art World

(This piece originally appeared on

By Sabine Heinlein

I recently went to the National Arts Club to watch All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, a documentary about a 68-year-old African-American outsider artist, which is currently being screened at various locations in New York.

I had come across Rembert’s leather paintings at the most recent Outsider Art Fair. I was struck by the artist’s decorative, almost ornamental treatment of gruesome subject matter. Rembert’s multihued cotton-field paintings depicting women and men performing tedious, backbreaking labor are almost cheerful, considering the theme of racial oppression and injustice. His repetitive handling of characters and paint gives his work a patterned feel reminiscent of some children’s books. Yet the contrasts are fierce and unforgettable. The painting “All Me II” (2002) portrays countless prisoners in a chain gang holding baby blue hammers for breaking rocks. While there is something whimsical about the depiction of the prisoners, the way they are crammed onto the leather canvas, their bodies interlocking, suggests the iconic images of Auschwitz’s mass graves. People considered dead while still alive.

The narratives of Rembert’s impoverished childhood, his time in prison, and the emotional and physical torture he had to endure at the hands of whites are all drawn from his “photographic memory,” as the artist explained during the Q&A following the screening of All Me at the National Arts Club. Joining Rembert on the panel were the filmmaker, Vivian Ducat, her husband and producer, Ray Segal, and Sharyn Grossman, the club’s chairwoman, who had organized the event. Rembert should by all rights “be an angry man,” Grossman said, “but he is a happy human being.” As if trying to fit America’s complex and violent race relations into a comfortable frame, Grossman repeated her statement almost verbatim twice before the end of the panel.

Why did this notion make me uncomfortable? Because I wondered whether this primarily white audience would still like Rembert if he were angry. Would we shun him? Lock him up?

Winfred Rembert answering questions at the National Arts Club (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Winfred Rembert answering questions at the National Arts Club (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

There was another, more immediate notion that made me sad. In the film, Rembert appears to be respected and well liked in his African-American community, but it is clear that his work does not get the same recognition there as it does from the predominantly white, art-loving community that has adopted him. “I would love to be recognized by my own people,” Rembert said to the audience at the Arts Club.

After having written a book about three former prisoners of color, I have to admit that I find myself very sensitive to racial incongruities. Many of my concerns played out during the Q&A. It was evident that the predominantly white audience preferred to ask art-related questions rather than confront the artist’s dire subject matter.

Referring to the repetitive dots of white paint in his cotton-field paintings, a woman in the audience asked Rembert whether he had ever seen “the aboriginal paintings with the white dots.”

“No, ma’am, I have not,” Rembert responded politely.

“Have you ever been to an art museum?” another white woman wanted to know.

“Ten years ago I didn’t even know who [Horace] Pippins was,” he responded. “I’m just now trying to see what other artists are doing.”

Someone else asked whether his methods have changed over the years. Rembert explained that his paintings have become more colorful because until recently leather dyes — regular paint tends to crack on leather — were only available in very limited colors.

“The color white just came along in the past five years,” he said.

Rembert literally works through his torturous memories from rural Georgia. Repetitive, relentless, perfectionist, and clean, his paintings have a ritualistic, obsessive-compulsive quality. (The artist, by the way, travels from his home in New Haven to his exhibitions in New York with a large piece of marble so he can punch, carve, and stamp dots into leather at night in his hotel room without waking his wife, Patsy.)

Winfred Rembert, "The Lynching" (1999), panel 1 of 3, dye on carved and tooled leather, each panel: 35 x 33 in (click to enlarge) (image via

Winfred Rembert, “The Lynching” (1999), panel 1 of 3, dye on carved and tooled leather, each panel: 35 x 33 in (click to enlarge) (image via Hudson River Museum)

Rembert suffered from alienation and torture at the hands of whites for almost as long as he can remember. As a child his mother was told, in front of him, by one of the white brothers who owned the convenience store in his hometown that her son would “never be a damn thing.” His “mama” advised him that “if white folks do you wrong, let them do it.” In the ’60s, Rembert took part in civil rights demonstrations and was arrested and lynched. In the film he graphically describes how he was tied up and hung, and how one of the white cops carved into his genitals with a knife. It was when the blood ran down his legs that he remembered his mama’s advice. He survived the experience, only to be sent to prison.

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Among Murderers, murder, violence

Returning home

Last semester I taught at a college in the Bronx. While the college is located in a “good” neighborhood (in Riverdale), the 231st Street subway station where I had to transfer to a bus to take me there isn’t. Kingsbridge is very depressing. The bus did not come in 10-minute intervals as the schedule promised, and I had to take a livery cab three times during the semester (each costing me $15) to make it to class in time. There was always fresh vomit at the bus station; an old, Eastern European man whose legs were so bad that he could barely walk stood at the corner with two “We Buy Gold” signs tied to his torsos; an African American woman whose body was ravaged from years of drug use or disease could often be seen picking through the trashcan in front of Dunkin Donuts. This reminded me of a scene that didn’t make it to the final version of Among Murderers describing a dilemma many ex-cons face: having to return to the same crime-ridden and sad neighborhoods where they committed their crimes.

The passage describes a visit to the neighborhood in the Bronx where Bruce, one of the book’s protagonists, murdered a stranger in an argument in front of the Monte Carlo liquor store 29 years ago. A few months after his release from prison he moved not far from the crime scene.

“Beyond 125th Street I was the only white person on the train.

“I’ve been sleeping on a prison floor for the last three days,” a man who entered the train car at Grand Concourse told the crowd. “I’m hungry, I’m stinking. I need soap. I can’t even smell myself.” As if reading my thoughts, he added, “I know, this is too much information. But I can’t eat any more of these peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they hand out at church. If you don’t believe me, give me food. My stomach is growling. Twenty-five cents, 50 cents, a dollar… Whatever you can afford.”

I pulled out a dollar and handed it to him. He took it, gingerly, to avoid our hands touching. Other people gave him money, too. He left the car with five or six dollars and the parting words, “And I don’t know if there’s any mothers in this car… God bless and happy Mother’s Day.” A black woman wearing a pink nursing uniform slipped him another dollar.

I took a seat next to a couple in their 40s. The woman had nodded off, her head slowly easing down toward her knees. She drooled onto her already stained jogging pants. Her partner nudged her as the train emerged from underground. “Look how it’s raining!” he said.

It seemed I had traded the sunny skies in Manhattan for clouds and heavy rain in the Bronx. The woman next to me made a halfhearted attempt to turn and look through the window behind her, but she quickly lost the struggle against her leaden eyelids.

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murder, racism, violence

Vintage book ads

To celebrate the publication of my book Among Murderers: Life After Prison, my brother-in-law gave me Dwight Garner’s book Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements. As I leafed through it I came across a number of books that, in one way or another, have informed my work on Among Murderers. Their authors were concerned with racial inequality, marginalized groups, crime, violence, counterculture, poverty, and, significantly, a writerly approach to life. Most of these vintage ads speak for themselves, but one warrants a short explanation. I’m including Emily Post’s Etiquette because Angel Ramos, one of my book’s protagonists, mentioned its importance to him. Angel was raised in poverty by a violent, schizophrenic mother, and it was Post who taught him proper behavior while he was incarcerated.




etiquette Continue reading

guns, mental illness, police, violence


I’ve recently noticed that has been posting an increasing number of articles concerning America’s mass incarceration, police brutality, lack of gun control and appropriate health care for the mentally ill. Among the many interesting stories about these urgent—and interconnected—issues one stuck out in particular: In “Half of people shot by police are mentally ill, investigation finds,” Natasha Lennard sums up a study conducted by two newspapers from Maine. She notes that “a lack of police training in crisis intervention as fueling the problem, undergirded by a lack of oversight and accountability.”

Lennard’s article about police officers shooting mentally ill people reminded me of journalist and documentary filmmaker George Stoney, whom I had the privilege of meeting a couple of years ago, shortly before he died at the age of 96. Stoney, most famously known for the invention of public access television, worked relentlessly on illuminating (and improving) the lives of the forgotten. Of his many works, one of my favorites was “Booked for Safekeeping” (1960), a short film that advises police on how to approach mentally ill people.

One hint: Guns did not play a role. Neither did injury or violence. Instead, calm talking, patience, empathy, and gentle physical contact once the disturbed person was ready to allow the officer to approach him.

What I take away from Stoney’s movies is that we have to begin solving problems before they escalate and before anybody gets hurt, killed or locked up.

We have to ask ourselves why a first-world country doesn’t offer more nonviolent intervention, such as proper and readily available mental health care and apt police training and oversight.

Here’s part of the article by Natasha Lennard:

An investigation by the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram has found that a disturbingly high percentage of individuals shot by police suffer from mental health problems. There are no federal statistics on police shootings of mentally ill people, but according to the investigation published this week, “a review of available reports indicates that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.” Continue reading