THERE'S AN INTERSECTION IN QUEENS that I’ve passed through many times. Heavy with the steel of suspended subway tracks, smoky with exhaust fumes from cars and buses heading on or off the nearby Queensboro Bridge, noisy with the combined rumbling, Queens Plaza is controlled chaos. Navigating it on foot is especially harrowing, as it means making your way through a maze of scattered traffic lights and crosswalks, as well as a well-meaning but ultimately ugly little concrete park. For many people, however, the trip is inevitable: six subways converge here, if you count the lines that stop just up the block at Queensboro Plaza, and eight city buses.
One of those buses, the Q100, is the only form of public transportation to or from Rikers Island, a floating jail complex whose daily population averages around 14,000 — 14,000 people awaiting trial or transfer or serving sentences of less than a year. Some people claim Rikers to be the world’s largest penal colony. You can get there on the Q100, from Queens Plaza.
You can also return to the city, reenter the land of the living, by bus. The Q100 drops you off right in the plaza, amid the subway lines stretched out in either direction. Or you can transfer just outside of Rikers to the Q101, which stops in the plaza before heading on to Midtown Manhattan. This is where the Q101 picks up both “the women and children on their way to visit the men in Rikers Island,” as Sabine Heinlein writes in her new, compelling work of narrative nonfiction, Among Murderers: Life After Prison, and it is “where convicts become ex-convicts, as the shuttle buses from Rikers drop them off at all times of the day.”
The ex-convicts are the people Heinlein is concerned with. In Among Murderers, her first book, she befriends and follows three of them, all men of color convicted for murder who’ve served long sentences, as they reenter society: Angel, 47-years-old (all ages are from 2007, when Sabine met them), in prison for 29 years; Adam, 72, in prison for 31 years; Bruce, 52, in prison for 24 years. “Bruce, Angel, and Adam began to hang out because they could relate to each other,” Heinlein writes. “Combined, they had spent eighty-four years behind bars, more than an average lifetime.”
Okay, but if we’re being honest, we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves already. The first question — the one you may not want to admit to, the proverbial elephant in the room — is “why?” Why should we care about these people — not just any prisoners, victims of arcane tax or drug laws or wrongly convicted innocents, but real murderers?
There are many ways to answer this. From a place of human empathy — they are people, after all. From a place of fear — they’re out on our streets, walking alongside us, liable to snap. Or from a place of practicality, where the numbers, if you don’t already know them, are staggering: in 2009, there were more than 5 million people on probation or parole in the United States. Another 2.3 million people were behind bars. And nearly 730,000 were released from prisons that same year. Put simply, and as a growing chorus of books, articles, and studies have argued recently, incarceration is not something we can afford to ignore, either materially or morally.
Heinlein captures quite effectively the practicality of her project. As she writes in the introduction:
If millions of Americans were affected with a dangerous virus that cost us billions of tax dollars, destroyed families and livelihoods, and left a large part of the population homeless and mentally ill, no one would question the government’s attempt to find a long-lasting solution.
But she puts a larger premium on empathy, even knowing the stakes. “In terms of empathy, murderers are obviously very low (if not lowest) on our list of priorities,” she writes. “It is infinitely more comfortable to reduce murderers to numbers than to try to understand their lives.” We should care about Angel, Adam, and Bruce, she explains:
[B]ecause they address our values as human beings and as a collective society. Who deserves forgiveness, and who is willing to forgive? Do we consider punishment temporary or eternal? Should our personal history ameliorate the consequences of our errors? How much can we blame our parents and our environment for our missteps as adults?
In other words, you can learn a lot about a society by how it treats its murderers.
Murderers. One of the most crucial aspects of Heinlein’s book is its swift deconstruction of that eye-catching word used in its title. Who or what makes a murderer? The same term has been branded by the state onto Angel, Adam, and Bruce, but the natures of their crimes are vastly different. Angel fits the traditional definition best, having killed a friend with his bare hands. Adam, on the other hand, took part in a robbery gone wrong: one of his accomplices shot and killed two guards. Bruce got into a fight with a man who harassed his friend: he shot the aggressor, aiming for the shoulder but hitting the chest instead. To assume that because these men are all convicted murderers, they share certain qualities or DNA is a mistake. To assume that because they’ve all killed someone, they are horrible people, is too. What seems to unite them more than anything else is the fact that they’ve all spent decades in prison, an experience that’s changed their lives just as much as the crimes that brought them there.
This is, in fact, the biggest triumph of Heinlein’s book: the ability to turn “murderers” — gregarious and attention-seeking Angel, contemplative and insecure Adam, reserved but resilient Bruce — into people. She doesn’t shy away from discussing the murders or her own feelings about them, including when she learns the unsettling truth about Angel’s crime, but she manages to do so while keeping us involved and, even more impressively, invested. By the end of the book, we know quite thoroughly what Angel, Adam, and Bruce have done and how they have or haven’t grappled with it, but by some combination of artful storytelling and the unstoppable human inclination toward happy endings, we still want them to succeed. We don’t want them to end up homeless, or commit crimes and land back in prison; we’re rooting for them, even though they’re murderers.
And avoiding homelessness and recidivism are no small things. Heinlein takes us meticulously through the process of reentry, which for the three men is guided by the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping ex-cons get on their feet. Angel, Adam, and Bruce all manage to secure beds at the Castle, Fortune’s only halfway house in New York, a feat that immediately puts them in a better position than most. “The reality is that the phone at the Castle rings all night long,” Heinlein writes in a parenthetical. “The reality is that between 30 and 50 percent of parolees are homeless.” The Castle provides shelter, a basic support system including daily counseling sessions, and clues and tips for reentering society. In exchange, the men adhere to curfews, are drug tested daily, and must log 35 hours a week of “productive service,” which can include paid or volunteer work, vocational classes, or job hunting.
Yet the process involves much more than what Fortune can or could offer, even if it had unlimited funds. One of the most eye-opening parts of Among Murderers is watching the men struggle with the most mundane tasks: crossing the street, visiting an ATM, going shopping. “There is five boxes of cereal and I don’t know which one tastes good, so I just walk away,” Angel says early on. Later, after he’s learned how to grocery shop, he and Adam offer Bruce (the last one to gain his freedom) tips, beginning with (in Heinlein’s words): “Number one: To avoid confusion and terror, you have to make a shopping list.”
Food is a big theme of the book. The majority of Heinlein’s conversations with the men revolve around meals or snacks, whether she’s taking them to a Mexican restaurant or picnicking with homemade rhubarb cake. These culinary adventures, it should be noted, do not always go well: the rhubarb cake isn’t sweet enough, according to Bruce, and at the restaurant, the men don’t know what to order. They usually end up either mimicking her choice uneasily or, if one of them manages to pick for himself, the others follow his lead.
Heinlein uses the situations wisely, writing them with a dry wit that lightens her weighty subject matter and offers up telling details. “To prepare a typical prison dinner, Bruce would put rice, calamari, octopus, and beans in a trash bag and drop the bag in a heavy-duty bucket filled with water,” she writes. “Then he would put a ‘stinger’ — a spiral, water-heating device into the bucket and go out into the yard for an hour.” This, she explains, was better than mess hall food. Still:
Although the rules Angel and Adam had determined for him helped somewhat, he still had to decide what he wanted to eat. If not octopus and calamari in a bucket, if not tuna or peanut butter and jelly — then what?
Throughout the book Heinlein relies too heavily on questions to involve the reader, with some of them coming to seem like an easy way out or a rhetorical device stretched thin; here, however, that “then what?” is pitch perfect. After decades in prison, where nearly every decision down to the smallest detail is made for you, it’s not just freedom that the men are grappling with, but the scope and scale of it, the incredible, unknowable number of unknowns. “[In prison] I ran my life for the most part,’” Angel tells her at one point.
Of course there were cops and walls. But they were like environmental factors. You come to accept them. [Outside] I don’t know what the rules are. I don’t know how to behave. I have no way to judge anything. I know how to survive in prison, but it’s not a prison out here.
Unknowns are also the key factor standing between the men and what’s generally taken as the ultimate sign of successful reentry: employment. Heinlein chronicles Angel’s increasingly frustrating and hopeless trek through a series of job readiness and placement classes, experiences that would be hilarious if they weren’t so depressing. He starts out with WeCARE, an organization that helps “public assistance applicants and recipients with complex clinical barriers to employment,” and is driven crazy by the inanity of the tasks assigned him. (He and Bruce deem it “a babysitting service for mentally challenged adults,” in Heinlein’s words.)
He next moves on Fortune’s Career Development class, which is called “Tough Love” and taught by an ex-con named Mitch Brown, who appears to lack any qualifications for his position. Heinlein writes, again with her biting humor:
On the third day Brown read each of the roughly forty different skills on his list, laboriously explaining the characteristics employers valued in employees, such as Decision Making and Leadership. After three hours he was barely halfway through the first list. Because Brown had a hard time coming up with a synonym, he went off on a tangent. ‘Prioritizing Needs . . .’ he began. ‘Imagine, if you go to the store and you feel like having ice cream. But you ain’t got no money. And you also want some meat. What do you do?’ He elaborated for five minutes before he got to Efficiency. But Brown didn’t just stick to the lists. He also sprinkled in some personal advice. ‘You gotta tell your chum when his breath smells like shit,’ or ‘You gotta speak better verbally.’
This is the man tasked with helping Angel find a job.
Then again, it’s not clear how helpful any career instructor would be, even if he were better qualified and adopted a more individualized approach, since practically no one will hire ex-cons. Heinlein describes the structural problem:
In the United States it is illegal to discriminate against people based on their criminal history, yet no one — or almost no one — will admit that they don’t hire murderers. In Angel’s, Adam’s, and Bruce’s cases there is a but for every positive assumption. [. . .] Murder denotes a total inability to consider the consequences of one’s own actions, which, of course, is one of the most important traits for any job applicant.
The question of their self-control is what keep murderers from being hired — and here is one of the few points in the book when our sympathies are torn between the characters we’ve grown to like and the society that discriminates against them. Not wanting to hire a convicted murderer seems understandable. Even the men themselves are afraid of these unknowns: Bruce expresses frequent concerns about his ability to keep himself in check, particularly living in a neighborhood so similar to the one where he grew up, and goes so far as to ask Heinlein why her husband lets her interview him alone at night.
Still, the reentry organizations place a bullish emphasis on work as a key component of successful rehabilitation, despite the lack of evidence that work actually reduces recidivism, and so the men end up in what Christopher Glazek, in n+1, called “a diabolical catch-22”: they are told they must work but can’t find jobs. By some seemingly miraculous circumstances — and here Heinlein could offer more detail and insight, as to how this happened — they all eventually do, except the work is exclusively within the reentry world, whether counseling newly released prisoners (Adam) or working in the Castle’s kitchen (Bruce).
And what about the emotional aspects of reentry and rehabilitation? How do the men feel about the crimes they committed, and how do they live with them? These are inevitably harder questions to answer, and all Heinlein can offer are pieces of conversations and her own judgments. Her analysis feels mostly astute, although at times she imposes an artificial neatness on realities that are clearly more complicated.
Adam, the oldest of the group, has spent a lot of time pondering his crime and trying to rehabilitate himself. He recounts how, in a Shakespearean turn, the ghosts of his two victims began to visit him in his prison cell and help him figure out how to perform “acts of contrition.” Bruce, on the other hand, lives constantly with his guilt pressing down on him. In one of the most moving passages in the book, he tells Heinlein:
“You take a life, you can’t bring that back,” he told me. “That’s something you got to live with, man. You go to bed with it, you get up with it, you carry it. It’s something you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life.” He added, “You gotta learn how to carry it.”
Angel, meanwhile, who undoubtedly committed the most severe of all the crimes, doesn’t seem quite as concerned with or repentant. He talks about remorse but also seems self-involved and distanced from the murder, which Heinlein finds troubling. “I never really saw Angel grapple with what he had done,” she writes. “I always felt something was missing.” In the end, she comes down harshly on him while letting Adam, whom she relates to more, off the hook perhaps too lightly, especially when he says, “I would put that gun back in my hand” to avoid sleeping on the streets.
There’s no tested way to measure rehabilitation — even materially, it’s a difficult task, and emotionally, it’s next to impossible. Is leaving your crime in the past, as Angel has done, a way of moving forward, or is it just a form of denial? Does successful reentry necessarily encompass remorse? Can the physical and mental aspects of rehabilitation be separated?
Provisionally the answer may be yes, but most people would probably say that the only way to truly rehabilitate criminals is through a combination of both. And Heinlein’s book is most incriminating in revealing the near impossibility of that. On the surface, all three men appear to be successful by the end of the book, having found work and managing to live on their own (Angel largely with the financial support of his new wife). But there are firm limits in place, ensuring that success will always be tenuous. As Darryl Pinckney wrote in a review of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow for The New York Review of Books, “To have been in prison excludes many people of color permanently from the mainstream economy, because former prisoners are trapped in an ‘underworld of legalized discrimination.’” Many of these men will never be able to vote, they may always need public assistance, and they’ll have trouble ever finding better jobs. How far can they progress when they’re forced to remain second-class citizens? As Bruce says to Angel at one point, “We experience a form of rejection.”
Mandatory therapy would at least be a good place to start. But here we come back to that starting question, of why we should care about convicted murderers anyway. Because if you can’t bring yourself to care, then the system we currently have in place seems just fine. Angel, Adam, and Bruce aren’t homeless, they aren’t addicts sleeping on the street; isn’t that good enough, considering they killed people?
Maybe — but the sticking point is that Angel, Adam, and Bruce represent a lot more than themselves. (And it’s to Heinlein’s credit that although she says she wants to present an uninterrupted narrative, she sprinkles in enough context to make this clear.) They stand for a society that segregates its cities, exposes children of certain skin colors to incredibly higher levels of crime, drugs, and violence, and then punishes those children when they grow up and succumb; a society that throws the offenders in prisons, where they have barely any contact with the outside world and no recourse for abuses of their rights; a society that, when their terms are up, tosses them out into the world and offers them, at most, the chance to live with permanent discrimination and discouragement, often in neighborhoods just as bad as the ones they came from. Pretty much all we offer criminals is a chance to be forgotten. And considering one in every 31 adults in this country is deemed a criminal in some way (think about it: you know 31 people, and 31 more), that just isn’t good enough.
Jillian Steinhauer is a senior editor of the art blog Hyperallergic and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.