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Among Murderers

Among Murderers: Life after Prison

Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Among Murderers
    Book Description:

    What is it like for a convicted murderer who has spent decades behind bars to suddenly find himself released into a world he barely recognizes? What is it like to start over from nothing? To answer these questions Sabine Heinlein followed the everyday lives and emotional struggles of Angel Ramos and his friends Bruce and Adam—three men convicted of some of society’s most heinous crimes—as they return to the free world. Heinlein spent more than two years at the Castle, a prominent halfway house in West Harlem, shadowing her protagonists as they painstakingly learn how to master their freedom. Having lived most of their lives behind bars, the men struggle to cross the street, choose a dish at a restaurant, and withdraw money from an ATM. Her empathetic first-person narrative gives a visceral sense of the men’s inner lives and of the institutions they encounter on their odyssey to redemption. Heinlein follows the men as they navigate the subway, visit the barber shop, venture on stage, celebrate Halloween, and loop through the maze of New York’s reentry programs. She asks what constitutes successful rehabilitation and how one faces the guilt and shame of having taken someone’s life. With more than 700,000 people being released from prisons each year to a society largely unprepared—and unwilling—to receive them, this book provides an incomparable perspective on a pressing public policy issue. It offers a poignant view into a rarely seen social setting and into the hearts and minds of three unforgettable individuals who struggle with some of life’s harshest challenges.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95477-9
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-20)

    By talking and hanging out with murderers, child molesters, burglars, drug dealers, and robbers, I entered a parallel world unfamiliar to most of us. Although these former criminals are among us, our lives rarely intersect. What is life like for those who have spent several decades in prison and are released into a world in which people and places they once knew have ceased to exist? What is it like to start over from nothing? And did prison succeed in making them see the error of their ways?

    I was still working on my master’s degree at New York University’s...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Freedom Day
    (pp. 21-30)

    And just like that, that was that. No sense of being at all,Angel wrote in the spidery script of a nine-year-old. He titled the new page in his diaryFreedom Day, March 29th 2007.He was dazed by the abrupt shock of having dropped from one sphere into another in a matter of seconds. The course that had taken three decades to unfold had suddenly advanced with blinding speed: Attica’s prison gates closed behind him.Freedom.

    The prison van took him to a gas station, where he boarded the public bus to New York.Freedom?He looked around. Some...

  6. CHAPTER TWO At the Garden
    (pp. 31-38)

    Adam was released to the Castle at the end of April of 2007. He had served thirty-one of his twenty-five-years-to-life sentence for two counts of second-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, and an attempted escape. I met Adam at the Albany advocacy day in May where I had also met Angel. What I first noticed about him was his meticulous attire. Fashion had always been very important to Adam. A seventy-two-year-old Muslim convert, Adam wore classic secondhand wool sweaters and wire-rim glasses that complemented the color of his silver beard. His wardrobe showed off his athletic build and broad shoulders. His graceful...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Street Code
    (pp. 39-50)

    On May 25, 2007, Bruce was released to the Castle. He met Angel and Adam at the first Morning Focus meeting, where residents discuss their plans for the day. It was difficult not to notice the new resident. Bruce was a towering six-foot-six, dark-skinned man with a clean-shaven head. At fifty-two, he had hands the size of dinner plates and heavily scarred wrists from an old childhood burn injury. He wore big, square glasses with bulky frames and pop-bottle lenses that were given to him in prison. His outdated-looking glasses gave him away to anyone familiar with New York’s reentry...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Talking Murder
    (pp. 51-58)

    Angel seemed mad. I had already apologized twice for being late and didn’t know what else to do. When I arrived at the Castle one day in late June of 2007, Angel was sitting alone in the backyard reading one of his old poems. Full of pathos, his poems’ main themes expressed his wish to break out of his former self, his isolation, and his attempts to enter our world, if only spiritually.What do I owe you Oh My Society that you punish me so?one of them read.What rights under heaven do you claim to do with...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Poster Boys
    (pp. 59-69)

    I first learned about the Castle through Rich, a former drug kingpin who had served ten years for three counts of armed robbery. Rich represented himself as one of the Fortune Society’s poster boys. He gave me my initial tour of the premises.

    Rich rushed down the stairs to welcome me, wearing a red button-down linen shirt, baggy blue jeans, and Timberlake boots. He smelled of aftershave. At first his angular features seemed almost brutal, but the impression quickly faded when he cracked up at his own jokes.

    “You look good, hon,” he said, beginning the Castle tour. The first...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Dinner with Bruce
    (pp. 70-78)

    One of the first things I heard about Bruce was that he had a way with cheesecake. Rumor had it that it was celebrated in all of the prisons in upstate New York. Aazim called Bruce “The Institutional Junior,” referring to the Brooklyn restaurant famous for its cheesecake. In prison Bruce would bake cheesecakes most weekends, particularly during football season. He used a regular pan and the little stove in his cell. He put a lifter on the stove to keep the cheesecake from burning and let it sit there for about an hour and a half. Sometimes he added...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Job Readiness
    (pp. 79-96)

    Angel felt like throwing a brick. A few weeks after he was released, he began to experience anxiety in closed spaces. Whenever he was inside the Castle, he found himself cleaning obsessively. Something he had suppressed began to creep up in him. But what? He wiped surfaces and picked up little pieces of paper and cigarette butts. He was astonished by his own behavior. Obsessive cleanliness wasn’t a problem he had had in prison, and he was determined to find out its motivation.

    Angel thought that once released from prison he would be a free man again. When he first...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Prisoners Still
    (pp. 97-103)

    In the summer of 2007 the Fortune Society worked hard to distract its residents from their daily plight. Sugar, music, and trips to the water park were offered to take the sting out of New York’s relentless summer heat.

    The fund-raiser and anniversary event was followed by a health fair, where residents and their families ate mounds of cake with neon-colored frosting in the air-conditioned cafeteria, while outside on the empty lot vendors offered information on health care. Teenagers and adults filled their pockets with condoms wrapped in foil adorned with the colorful logos of New York’s subway lines, while...

  13. CHAPTER NINE The Penis Dialogues
    (pp. 104-109)

    In the early fall of 2007 Adam fell in love with Minnie Leonardt. Adam savored Minnie’s name, pronouncing it as if each letter were a different type of candy. He had been planning to take her out to dinner for weeks now. But each time I asked him about his plans, he said, “I got to get up enough courage.” He usually added, “Minnie Leonardt…,” and paused, engrossed in his thoughts. “Minnie is nice. She knows how I feel about her. I like Minnie a great deal.” Then he yawned as if the mere thought of the challenge exhausted him....

  14. CHAPTER TEN At the Barber
    (pp. 110-120)

    A dried corncob hung by the entrance of Odri’s Beauty Salon. The jet-black hair that covered the floor merged into a dense black fur as it reflected on the mirrored ceiling. Turquoise tiled walls and cabinets brought to mind the colors of the Caribbean. Awkwardly taped to one of the mirrors was a crucifix. A dried apple sat on the shelf. Someone had cut a hole in the wall to accommodate the tv, which was tuned to a game show that competed with tropical love songs from the radio.

    Angel went to the barber once a month when his hair...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Causalities
    (pp. 121-128)

    One day I sat in the Castle cafeteria waiting for Bruce. I was chitchatting with Greg, an older residential aide with a few sharp teeth that jutted out between large gaps. Greg had lived at the Castle a long time ago. When I told him I lived in Sunnyside, Queens, he proudly proclaimed that he knew the neighborhood like the back of his hand. To prove it, he listed every fast-food restaurant on Queens Boulevard between 39th and 47th Streets.

    “There is McDonald’s at 39th Street,” he said. “Then comes Burger King at 40th and White Castle at 43rd. I...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE The New Coat
    (pp. 129-138)

    Adam, Bruce and I were on our way to the Men’s Wearhouse. It was a fall day in 2007. The season’s first snow, salt, and sun had bleached the asphalt a glossy light gray that reflected on the buildings’ street-front glass. For half a day New York looked brand new.

    “We meant to ask you a question,” Adam said as we were crossing Sixth Avenue. “Under which circumstances would you commit a crime?”

    “Self-defense?” I said, well aware it was a feeble response.

    “Nah,” the guys said. “That ain’t no crime.”

    I had to agree.

    “So you never committed a...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN A Haunted House
    (pp. 139-143)

    The chain of vibrant events at the Castle continued throughout the summer and into the fall. One afternoon in October, the preparations for its annual Halloween party were in full swing. Like the previous year, the residents were busy turning their halfway house into a haunted house. Outside, a long line of children snaked around the corner. Inside, the men set up the dj booth and created the path of horror through the conference room. This year’s theme was “The Obstacle Course.” Kids were invited to climb through a narrow black aisle that curved through the building’s ground floor. They...

  18. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Waiting for Nothing
    (pp. 144-158)

    As the clerk at New York Supreme Court rummaged through the files to sort out the public documents I had requested, I caught a glimpse of a black-and-white photograph of a young man as it disappeared between off-limits documents. I couldn’t restrain myself. “Could I please take a quick look at that picture?” I asked. The clerk grunted and briefly pressed the two-by-four-inch photograph against the window separating us. I tried to take in as much as I could in the few seconds he gave me.

    It was Angel’s mug shot and the only existing picture of him as an...

  19. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Growing Old
    (pp. 159-165)

    When I asked Angel what he would do on his “first” birthday on December 10, 2007, he just shrugged and said he hadn’t given it much thought. It was his forty-eighth birthday, exactly thirty years after his last birthday on the outside.

    His friend Mae and I decided to throw him a little birthday party. Angel had known Mae for a long time, and he considered her a real friend. But I wondered how much Mae and Angel actually shared. Clearly, Mae knew a lot about Angel’s life, but what did Angel know about Mae? I felt like I knew...

  20. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Silent Forgiveness
    (pp. 166-178)

    I was driving up to Rochester in a rental car to attend the Friday night Quaker meeting at Attica prison and to meet some of Angel’s friends. It was shortly before Christmas 2007, and the bare mountains lined with leafless trees looked like the heads of sick, balding men. The snowflakes were too small, too fast, and too many to evoke Christmas but still too few to hide the depressing grayish-brown tinge that dominated the landscape. I could not find a radio station that featured anything other than bad country music, Christmas carols, or Christian sermons. I passed towns that...

  21. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Lies and Good Luck
    (pp. 179-188)

    “That’s a great dog.” Bruce pointed to a German shepherd being walked as we stepped out from the Castle one late afternoon in spring 2008, roughly one year after his release from prison. Bruce began talking about the job interview he had gone to earlier in the day.

    “I lied,” he said matter-of-factly as we walked down Broadway. “When they asked what I was convicted for, I said ‘robbery.’ They are going to find out anyway,” he said sadly.

    The interesting part to me was not that Bruce had lied. He didn’t go to the interview planning to lie. An...

  22. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Sex, Love, and Race
    (pp. 189-197)

    Adam sat in his small, windowless office at the reentry organization where he had begun to work part-time in the summer of 2008. His main job was to connect prisoners with outside services but generally he tried to help where he could. His door was always open. He enthusiastically waved me in and suggested I sit down. He was almost done. Next to him sat a client.

    Adam’s computer mouse flitted back and forth across a torn-out piece of carpet whose pattern matched the one on the floor. He painstakingly typed something for his client, mouthing each word, then misspelling...

  23. CHAPTER NINETEEN From Attica to Broadway
    (pp. 198-206)

    While Bruce and Adam plodded on, one step at a time, Angel’s new life zoomed to lightning speed. Angel had moved in with Tanya at the beginning of 2008. By April he had secured himself a job at the Fortune Society and become a small media star.

    “From Attica to Broadway!” he shouted on the phone one evening as I headed home from my day job. He had come up with a title for my book. “We are going to Broadway!” he continued. “Er … Off-Broadway.” He could hardly contain himself.

    Angel had begun starring in a stage play called...

  24. CHAPTER TWENTY The New Home
    (pp. 207-214)

    One Saturday afternoon in late February of 2009, Bruce invited Adam and me to visit him. Bruce had recently moved out of the Castle. The Fortune Society had helped him find an apartment in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx. His new home was roughly twenty-five blocks north of where he had committed his crime.

    Bruce was afraid I might get lost and suggested I call him once I got off the subway. My instinct told me to take the staircase on my right up from the subway. There were no signs indicating that the staircase had collapsed, and...

    (pp. 215-220)

    Bruce now worked two jobs. On weekdays, for seven hours a day, he worked as an aide in the kitchen of the original Castle, where he cleaned appliances, served hot food, and prepared sixty bologna and turkey sandwiches for the residents. On Fridays and Saturdays between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., Bruce sat on a plastic chair by the side of the road wearing an orange security vest, guarding the construction site of “the new Castle.” Altogether he worked fifty-one hours a week. At ten dollars an hour he made a little over $2,000 per month before taxes. Needless to...

  26. Epilogue
    (pp. 221-232)

    It is July 2011, roughly four years after Angel, Bruce, and Adam were released from prison, as I make my way up to the Castle. Adam now has a studio apartment at Castle Gardens, Fortune’s new, green complex for housing ex-cons and other low-income people from the community. Castle Gardens was finished in the summer of 2010. Adam meets me downstairs in the slick, new reception area and whisks me upstairs to his studio. The apartment is “not much bigger than a cell,” he notes, but it is bright and clean and looks out on a little rooftop garden where...

  27. NOTES
    (pp. 233-238)
    (pp. 239-244)