Heinlein is a Pushcart Prize-winning writer who spent more than two years at the Castle, a prominent halfway house in Harlem, where she met convicts who were preparing for the outside world.
Heinlein explains the origins of the book:
“A few years ago I set out to learn how New York’s reentry organizations help former prisoners navigate freedom. I talked to clients and staff and observed programs at nonprofit agencies with Pollyanna-ish names like STRIVE (Support and Training Results in Valuable Employees), CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities) and the Fortune Society. The Fortune Society is New York’s most prominent and comprehensive reentry agency. It offers substance abuse treatment to ex-offenders, as well as computer, cooking, fatherhood and ‘job readiness’ classes. Fortune, as it is commonly known, also runs a halfway house in West Harlem nicknamed the Castle. I clearly remember the first time I visited the Castle, its schist rock facade sparkling in the sun. With its miniature lookout towers, its arched windows and the bright crenellations that top some of its walls, the Castle resembled a Gothic bastion. One could easily imagine a muddy moat separating those who had committed serious transgressions—those who had been stigmatized and locked away for most of their lives—from the rest of the world.
“To shed light on the struggles of the 700,000 men and women who are released from U.S. prisons each year, I followed three residents of the Castle for several years. Angel Ramos, the protagonist of my book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison, spent 29 years in prison for strangling a young girl in an abandoned building in East Harlem and for trying to kill a co-worker. At the Castle, the 47-year-old befriended two older men, Bruce and Adam, who had also spent several decades locked up for murder. Over the course of more than two years Angel, Bruce, Adam and I spent a lot of time with each other. I accompanied Adam when he bought his first winter coat in 31 years and visited different ethnic restaurants and cafés with Bruce. I helped celebrate Angel’s ‘first’ birthday and was there when, on Halloween, the halfway house residents turned the Castle into a haunted house. Together, the men and I explored the neighborhoods of their youth. We talked about murder, remorse, shame, love, loss and prison. (Sooner or later our conversations inevitably returned to prison, where the men had spent most of their adult lives.)
“One of the most revealing experiences the men shared with me was their seemingly endless track through New York’s job readiness programs, a requirement to qualify for housing subsidies, welfare and the agencies’ employment referrals. This is what I saw.”
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 got out, he had big dreams. He felt like a young man. He wanted to get an apartment, a job, and a woman. “I’ll find me a girl with kids. I don’t care.” He just needed some time to adjust to the world, some time to breathe and wander. Angel passively granted parole the authority to structure and control his life. He stoically accepted his parole officer’s decision not to extend his evening curfew. The officer had said she would prolong the curfew to nine o’clock three months after his release but then inexplicably changed her mind on the ninetieth day. He seemed almost indifferent when he was denied a pass after his Upstate Quaker community awarded him a grant to spend a few summer days at a spiritual retreat in Silver Bay. “I already got over it,” he told me the day after the decision was made. “Everything positive is discouraged.”
One summer evening, as we sat in the Castle’s backyard, Angel fumed, “I have all these people running my life and none of them is competent. If you think about it, I’d be one of the last guys you want to stress out.”
This comment struck me as odd. It reminded me of what went through his mind when he killed Olga. “Look what you made me do!” he thought to himself when she went limp. It was as if the responsibility to keep his impulses in check lay outside of him. While I could relate to his anger about a reentry system that was, at times, Byzantine, useless, and even counterproductive, I did not understand how it could be the system’s responsibility to prevent him from snapping again.
Right after his release Angel was forced to join a long chain of “job-readiness” classes. Welfare gave Angel $134 in cash every month, and Shelter Plus Care, a housing subsidy program of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, contributed $260 towards his $475 monthly rent at the Castle. The remaining $215 was covered by the Welfare Department (renamed Human Resources Administration, or HRA, to emphasize its new objective). To be eligible for the $215 HRA rent subsidy and the $134 in cash, Angel had to embark on a seemingly endless journey through a maze of institutions. In search of support, he patiently trudged through many of New York’s state and nonprofit agencies that render services to ex-offenders.
Angel’s day at WeCARE (Wellness, Comprehensive Assessment, Rehabilitation, and Employment) began at nine o’clock in the morning. He was assigned to the “fast track,” meaning that he was ready, willing, and able to work. Between 9:00 and 10:15 a.m. he was supposed to work on his typing skills and refine his résumé, a task he had finished weeks earlier. Without further assistance he was then expected to look for jobs online.
A subdivision of HRA, WeCARE operates on a yearly budget of roughly $50 million. According to its website, WeCARE serves more than thirty thousand men and women in the New York Metropolitan area. It claims to be “a highly successful new paradigm in the delivery of welfare to work services.” WeCARE, the site explains, “helps public assistance applicants and recipients with complex clinical barriers to employment, including medical, mental health and substance abuse conditions, to obtain employment or federal disability benefits.”
Although his intake form states that Angel “does not appear to have psych [sic] related work restrictions,” he was stuck in WeCARE’s system for a full three months.
Like its acronym, WeCARE appeared friendly at first. Its walls were painted in lush spring colors and adorned with posters of flower bouquets. It seemed almost merry—all burgundy, mint green, and yellow, brightly lit and clean. Its classrooms were outfitted with rows of black state-of-the-art flat-screen computers. But after having spent several weeks filling out forms seven hours a day, reading handouts listing the characteristics of good job behavior, practicing his typing skills, listening to daily lectures about budgeting and applying for jobs online, Angel realized, “This is not about me.”
He had met people who had gone through more than four twelve-week cycles (or one year) of WeCARE workshops and still hadn’t found a job. Angel started to loathe WeCARE. “It’s a waste of my valuable, valuable time,” he said. “Let me put it like this: if they gave me the choice to smash my hand on a door or to go to this class, I’d smash my hand.” He complained about the windowless rooms and the six minutes it took him to get out of the building if he wanted to smoke during his fifteen-minute break. Once passionate about computers—in prison he took every opportunity he could to work with them and had even learned how to write computer programs and build databases—he quickly started to detest them. About WeCARE he said, “It’s the first time in my life that I’m in front of a computer screen and bored to death.”
Work has traditionally been seen both as the main method and the desired result of rehabilitation. The idea was first directly expressed and experimented with in the Auburn prison, founded in Upstate New York in 1817. Through quiet, collective work, vocational training, religious education, and discipline the Auburn authorities claimed to reform the prison’s inmates. The Auburn system became the standard of American prisons in the decades that followed.
It was not until the end of World War II that penologists, experts of prison management and criminal rehabilitation, began to assess and classify criminals to determine the exact nature of the individual’s criminality and to prescribe therapeutic, academic, and vocational “treatment” accordingly. But this “rehabilitative ideal” stagnated in the mid-1970s, when New York sociologist Robert Martinson concluded in a seminal survey that “with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts . . . have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.” Martinson’s claims meshed with the get-tough approach of the following years and lengthy incarceration replaced rehabilitation as the favored way to protect society.
While work is important, there is little evidence that work in itself reduces recidivism. When I spoke to criminal justice experts about ex-offenders, rehabilitation, and work, they all seemed to agree: work alone is not going to do it; people aren’t criminals because they don’t have a job; to keep people out of prison, one has to apply a holistic approach, using methods that have been scientifically proven to work. Yet government and community organizations like WeCARE, CEO, and STRIVE put their primary focus on work. And even those agencies that do offer a more holistic approach to rehabilitation—like the Fortune Society and the Doe Fund—use work as a signifier of practical and moral success. The Doe Fund’s workers sweep city streets wearing blue uniforms adorned with an American flag and the slogan “Ready, Willing & Able.”
Compounding the fact that work alone does not work, job opportunities for ex-cons are scarce. While WeCARE claims to find work for welfare recipients, its job bulletin board was unpromising. The day I visited, the large board featured two job offerings (both for a medical billing assistant), which Angel confirmed was the average number posted at any one time. The welfare recipients in Angel’s class had to rummage for work on their own. Angel did what he could by posting his résumé, registering for job alerts, and applying for jobs on NYpost.com, careers.com, careerbuilder.com, indeed.com, craigslist.org, and numerous other websites. He responded to postings for low-wage positions such as maintenance worker, janitor, mail-screening associate, clerical assistant, front desk clerk, customer service manager, and youth counselor. From the more than two hundred applications he sent out in ten weeks, he received only one callback but didn’t get the job.
In prison Angel thought that it wouldn’t be too hard to find a job once he got out. He believed he had come a long way. At eighteen he hadn’t been able to read or write. He wet his bed and suffered from uncontrollable outbursts of anger. At forty-seven he had studied at the college level. He told me he had read several thousand books. He earned numerous certificates while incarcerated—aVocational Appliance Repair Certificate, a Certificate of Proficiency of Computer Operator, a Certificate in Library Training, an IPA (Inmate Program Assistant) II Training Certificate, and several welding certifications—but in the outside world these credentials counted for little.
“Irrelevant,” Angel said. “They might as well be toilet paper.”
Angel had a serious criminal record, which anyone could easily access online, and virtually no outside work experience. He earned a computer operator degree from Sullivan County Community College in 1995, but since he was never employed in this profession, he had little opportunity to practice what he learned and to keep up with the constant changes in the field. Rehabilitated or not, Angel could not find a job.
* * *
From 10:30 to 12:30 the WeCARE students listened to lessons on work ethics, budgeting, time management, and analytical thinking. One exercise taught how to use an ATM machine. A sheet walked the students, many of whom did not even have bank accounts, through the various steps of withdrawing and depositing money. Another one of the exercise forms laboriously explained what interest rates are and then asked the respondent to calculate the yearly interest for eight consecutive years on a beginning balance of $9,000, an amount that for welfare recipients must seem like a mockery.
At WeCARE Angel’s tedious morning routine repeated itself between 1:30 and 5:00 p.m. with more job hunting, résumé building, and typing. These afternoon hours were the worst. Although Angel acknowledged that many of his fellow students were “broken” and might benefit from WeCARE’s curriculum, to him the lessons seemed superfluous. WeCARE, “the giant superstructure of sucking up souls,” made him angry. According to his and Bruce’s description, WeCARE amounts to a babysitting service for mentally challenged adults. There was no drive, no concrete goals, no individual encouragement. “At WeCARE they are very professional in not listening to you,” Angel said.
Adam had been able to avoid WeCARE. He didn’t depend on public assistance because he received monthly Social Security “survivor” payments from his late wife, Marietta, the woman he was married to when he went to prison. After he went away, Marietta broke up with him, but she never divorced him.
Bruce, however, got stuck in the system as well. He carped about his fellow students’ hygiene, their lack of motivation, and the dearth of attractive women in his class. “The women there were busted,” he said. “When you come out of prison after twenty-four years, you don’t want to see these kind of women.” He then went on to praise WeCARE’s good-looking female employees, acknowledging that he considered them off-limits. But no matter the drawbacks, once HRA referred you to WeCARE, a job was the only way out.
Sometimes the students at WeCARE had to practice mock interviews in groups of two and then evaluate each other on one of the copious forms given to them each week. Angel was bored stiff. He had long perfected his interview skills and his résumé while most of his fellow students were still barely able to form a clear sentence. And, in fact, Angel did stand out. The day I picked him up from WeCARE I hardly recognized him. He blended in with the crowd of business people rushing around Hudson Street and seemed out of place among his fellow students. WeCARE required its students to abstain from wearing baseball caps, do-rags, T-shirts, and sneakers. The suit had, of course, been Angel’s idea. I noticed that he had yet again shaved off his mustache. Many of WeCARE’s students were missing teeth, were covered in faded tattoos, and had visible scars. Most looked as if they had just gotten out of bed.
As Angel and I returned to the Castle, just in time to comply with his seven o’clock curfew, he performed an imaginary job interview for me. We sat down in the backyard, and I asked him whether he would prefer to change into something more casual, but he insisted on keeping the suit. He first explained how to respond to the two most critical questions on job applications if you’ve spent the last thirty years in prison. One question referred to past employment, and the other one asked, Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
“You put down the penal code of the crime—125.5 for murder, for example,” Angel explained. “Don’t put the crime itself. Write: ‘Will explain further at interview.’ This is a place of business, and you don’t want people to gossip. This shows, ‘I’m looking out for you already.’ That’s a technique. ‘Imagine how I’m going to look out for you once I do work for you.’ It’s great psychology. Plus, people get interested. They want to know, ‘What the hell is 125.5?’ You want the guy to talk to you. Then it’s your time to sell yourself. When he asks you about the crime, you go, ‘Well, when I was eighteen years old, I got involved with some bad people. Somebody died; I was convicted of murder, and I was given life.’ Not fifteen-to-life. Life! ’However, I was released for good behavior. While I was in there, I did this and I did that.’ You go through your spiel. You talk about your social skills, your soft skills, your hard skills. You calm that person down. In other words, I went to jail, and it’s not a big deal. You shouldn’t be afraid of me. Once you see that on his face, it’s no longer an issue. You move on to getting that job. What skills can I bring to this job? What can I do better than the other fifty applicants? I bring a whole different perspective. I think outside the box. I work harder than most guys. I love working. I’ve proved that I’m worthy of work. I can handle difficult people. I’ve been handling difficult people all my life. I have people skills. Then he sees that I’m not typical. I’m already blowing your bubble what prison is all about. It’s all marketing. So when they ask you what was your last employer, I write Department of Correctional Services. Yes, I did work for the Department of Correctional Services. It’s not the whole truth, but the literal truth.” Angel had not given up hope.
The truth involved another thing that had bothered Angel since he got out. As a Quaker he made a pledge to himself not to lie, and behind bars this was rarely a problem. If he didn’t want to work for a day or so, he was allowed to stay in his cell. In prison he felt he was his own man—within obvious parameters, of course. He was used to these parameters. Outside, however, he realized that lying, or at least bending the truth, was a crucial part of getting by. He knew that the only way out of WeCARE, either temporarily or permanently, was to lie. He was aware that he could go to the doctor, for example, and demand a waiver. Posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, OCD, or claustrophobia, all common ailments among people who had spent large parts of their lives locked up, might have worked. But Angel knew that he was able to work and wanted to find a job. Besides, he felt like he wasn’t suffering from these ailments at the time. So he had to sit in the windowless classrooms until he couldn’t stand it any longer. After the twelve-week cycle was over and another one was about to begin, Angel decided to quit.
As soon as it got wind of his decision, HRA threatened to cut off his $215 rent supplement and his cash allowance. Yet with the help of the Fortune Society, Angel managed to convince HRA that the organization
’s job placement program was a valid replacement for WeCARE. He signed up for Fortune’s Career Development class. Bruce and several other Castle residents would be there, and so far Fortune had not disappointed him.
* * *
Fortune’s Career Development classroom was located on the seventh floor of a tall building on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. From the hallway the classroom’s glass front revealed bile-green walls, ragged brown carpeting, and an opposing wall of large windows covered entirely with shades. Two dozen chairs were arranged in rows facing a white board and a television set. A printout on the door read:
THROUGH THESE DOORS
WE GUARANTEE ONE THING . . . TOUGH LOVE
EVERYTHING AFTER THAT
At Fortune, Tough Love was administered by instructor Mitch Brown, a black man with a hulkish frame, a shaved head, and two meaty rolls on the back of his neck. On his left arm Brown had a prison tattoo of a scroll listing the names of his many children, followed by “Daddy loves you.” During his lunch break he told me that he was on parole until 2011. In his last stint he spent fourteen years in prison on a variety of robbery charges, adding that he had engaged in criminal activities since he was thirteen. He served time for selling drugs, carrying guns, and committing assault. “I multitasked,” he said with a laugh, turning to his fellow instructor, with whom he shared an office and who also had served time for robbery. “You hear me?” he called out, cracking up. “I said I multitasked.” His colleague chuckled as he scarfed down his Cheetos.
Brown thought his prison experience served as a credential. While incarcerated he earned prison certificates in Youth Aid, Child Advocacy Counseling, andParenting. ”All I got, I got while I was locked away,” he said. While “locked away” he also worked with youths at a Scared Straight program. “They were just like me. That was hittin’ home,” Brown explained. When I asked him about his decision to go straight, he said that we all grow, but for some it takes time.
At the Career Development Workshop at Fortune, Brown was confronted with a wide variety of ex-offenders. Angel’s class included teenagers who were sent to comply with their ATI (Alternative to Incarceration) program, former drug addicts, men and women who were mentally ill, and men who, like Angel and Bruce, had spent a large part of their lives locked up for murder and were determined to get their lives together. Like the instructors at WeCARE, Brown worked largely from sheets that categorized skills needed in the workplace. 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 asDecision 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 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.” Brown periodically interrupted his lecture to write up those who had fallen asleep or to lecture Mr. Stevens, a seventeen-year-old who seemed to be perpetually late to class. (I was not able to find out Mr. Stevens’s first name. Brown tended to address men by their last name and women by their first name.)
Brown wrote “Mr. Stevens” on the board below a line that read “500-word essays” and ordered him to stand in front of the class. Mr. Stevens, whom Brown also called “Youngie,” wore a T-shirt that showed a roaring lion festooned with rhinestones. His pants hung so low that he had to walk and stand with his legs slightly spread. His head also hung low, and he had difficulty looking into Brown’s eyes. During the first five minutes of Brown’s lecture Mr. Stevens didn’t move; he just snorted at irregular intervals.
“How is it you don’t get here on time?” Brown prodded.
“Help me understand.”
“Look into my eyes!”
“Pull up your pants.”
Mr. Stevens snorted.
“I’m walking you through the day. How long does it take you to take a shower?”
“Come back when you are ready.”
Mr. Stevens’s attitude was not much different from mine when I was a teenager. Maybe Mr. Stevens was a nice kid if taken seriously and not embarrassed in front of a class of adults. Brown sent Mr. Stevens out of class to see one of his coworkers. Mr. Stevens eventually returned and soon received a second write-up on the board for nodding off. Mr. Stevens’s essay on responsibility had now grown to one thousand words. Not surprisingly, Mr. Stevens didn’t return the next day.
Bruce thought that Brown enjoyed provoking people with “his essay shit.”
“This guy is what we call in prison a bozo,” he whispered into my ear.
Unlike Bruce and Mr. Stevens, Angel was repeatedly praised for his professional outfit. Occasionally he snapped open his black leather briefcase, which was still overflowing with documents, to pull out a piece of paper or add yet another. The briefcase still contained some old questionnaires from WeCARE. Some questionnaires were left blank and others were filled with his childlike chicken scratch, brimming with spelling errors.
Mr. Stevens, Angel, and Bruce were not the only men at Fortune with exceptional needs. At one time I sat next to Xavier, a Hispanic man in his fifties who had spent two decades in prison for drug trafficking and conspiracy. We got along well and talked several times during the break and once for an hour over the phone. Xavier was polite, well read, and educated. He had been trained in prison to develop software for the military. Now released, the military didn’t want him, and much of what he had learned was too specialized to be applied to other fields.
Then there was Mr. Xu, a fifty-seven-year-old Chinese man who spent one year in prison for operating an illegal gambling joint. Mr. Xu seemed to have problems following the class. When he didn’t respond to one of his questions, Brown asked him, “What language you speak?”
“You know they speak different languages in China,” Brown explained to the class. “Like Mandarin and Korean.” He called in Jen, Fortune’s Chinese American intern, to translate.
“Ask him,” Brown said, “if he understands me.”
Jen translated. “He says he understands about 70 percent, but he can’t write in English.” Jen was sent back out and Mr. Xu was ignored from then on. When he fell asleep in class in the afternoon, Brown yelled, “Gotcha!” and wrote his name on the board. He now owed a five-hundred-word essay, due the next day, about the importance of staying awake in class.
After class I spoke with Mr. Xu. He actually spoke English quite well and didn’t have a problem understanding when addressed slowly. He told me how his conviction changed his life. “It turned my family around 180 degree,” he said, gesturing as if flipping a plate upside down. He then pulled out a piece of paper. Since he couldn’t write in English one of his classmates had written down a couple of sentences for him: I’m sorry that I fell asleep in class. It will not happen again. Mr. Xu chuckled and said that he would just write these two sentences over and over until he reached the required word count.
Mr. Xu told me that he didn’t even require a well-paying job. On his (imaginary) job application form, which he filled out with the help of another student, he wrote, “Restaurant. Wherever there is a job. Okay. Cooking, cleaning, whatever.” I later asked him whether it would be easier to apply for a position in a Chinese restaurant and he started stuttering. “My face, my face…” He touched his face. I looked at him and wondered what was wrong with his face. “How can I explain?” he said. “My face…” After some back-and-forth I understood that because of his conviction, Mr. Xu had lost face in the Chinese community.
The classroom-hallway situation reminded me of a fish tank. Because the wall bordering the hallway was made of glass, those inside could see what was going on outside and vice versa. I watched job developers rushing by to access the file cabinets in the hallway and instructors lecturing misbehaving students. I tried to decipher intricate handshake rituals between Fortune employees and clients: grip, clasp, hook, slap, pull, and bump. Or hook, pull, slap, clasp, and bump. Often the adjacent offices were bursting with laughter and chatter. The classroom door constantly opened and closed. Job developers called out students for evaluations; Ron Harris, Brown’s boss, stepped in to see how the class went; and whenever Brown would see a former graduate walk by who had managed to find a job, he waved him in to give a quick motivational speech.
Brown distributed job applications among the students without further instructions. I noticed that they rarely asked what they were supposed to do. They simply bent over and started writing. After half an hour Brown collected the applications. He created three piles. The “hell no” pile, the “maybe” pile, and the “I’m gonna work with you” pile. Mr. Xu’s application landed in the “hell no” pile. “You ain’t starting a poker business in my restaurant,” he said, adding that you weren’t supposed to put down your crime on the job application. Angel already knew that the penal code and “will explain further if granted interview” was enough, and Brown tossed his application in the “I’m gonna work with you” pile. When asked whether there was a slight chance that an employer would consider the penal code evasive and become suspicious, Brown said, “No, it makes ‘emcurious.” It is important to note that except for a short stint at STRIVE, another job placement agency for ex-offenders, and his few months at Fortune, Brown had virtually no outside job experience. He seemed to take a certain pride in this. “I never worked a day in my life,” he said to his students. “My rap sheet? You can flip mine like…” He made a gesture as if unfurling a long scroll.
The blind were leading the blind, I thought. But then again, who else is going to offer Brown a job? If Fortune advocates the employment of ex-cons, naturally the first step was to hire someone like Brown and give him a second chance.
Another staple of Fortune’s Career Development class was the so-called mock interview. Again Brown introduced the exercise with some practical advice. “What do you respond if an employer asks you, ‘Why should I hire you?’ Say, ‘I’d be an asset to your company,’ ” he said, and wrote access on the board. He paused and looked at the board. “How do you spell asset?” he asked the class. “A-S-S-E-T,” one student volunteered. Brown gave a couple more examples of exemplary interview behavior: do not extend your hand before the interviewer extends his; do not take a seat unless offered one; and put some tissue in your pocket to wipe your sweaty hands. (He later distributed yet another list, this one with supposed reasons why employers decide not to hire applicants. Among the twenty-four examples on the handout were Limp-fish handshake; Has dirty hands or face; Has a persecuted attitude (“They are out to get me!”); Too much concern for salary; Lacks career plan; and Has re-communication skills (which, according to Brown, described an applicant who repeated the same thing over and over again). Brown believed his students should say, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir,” and wear a shirt—preferably “white, light blue or chocolate gray”—and tie to the interview. On the fourth day of class he finally considered his students well enough equipped for the mock interview. He counted and divided them up into pairs. Lisa, a middle-aged woman who kept nodding off in class, remarked that she didn’t have a partner.
Brown pointed at me and said, “You go with Sab-, Sab-, Sab- …” Before I could pull my chair up to Lisa, Brown waved me over to ask if I could control the class while he stepped out. “Keep it down, ya know,” he added. I told him that I would feel uncomfortable with this responsibility and sat down with Lisa to practice.
Lisa looked like a bride in her white dress trimmed with frills and lace. The illusion, however, was seriously jeopardized by a little green towel she occasionally produced in order to wipe her face. She also compulsively filed her nails. Without looking up, she said, “Okay,” signaling me to start the interview. Lisa’s responses to my questions were incredibly slow and labored. Asked about a situation she handled particularly well in her last job, she proceeded to tell me a convoluted story about the nursing home where she was sent for community service after one of her last convictions for shoplifting. The crux of the story was that when one of the patients asked her to smuggle some booze into the nursing home, Lisa reported it to her supervisor. “I think I handled that well,” she said proudly.
The next day Lisa offered codeine pills to one of her fellow students who had complained of a headache. Later that day she was accused of stealing some subway cards. Brown had forgotten the fifteen cards, which were supposed to be distributed among the students after class, having left them on a classroom chair. Lisa noticed the cards and dropped them off with one of Brown’s coworkers, who realized that three were missing. When confronted, she said, “If I had stolen the cards, I would have taken all of them.”
Bruce thought that the situation was Brown’s fault. He should never have left the
cards unattended. He leaned back and whispered in my ear, “You knew I was a snake when you brought me home. You are dealing with people who have a criminal nature!”
When Brown thought that the class had practiced the interviews enough, he sent everyone into the lounge and asked them to wait for a more “professional” mock interview. This time the interview would be conducted by Ron Harris, Brown’s boss, and recorded on video, so the students could watch and critique one another. The video room was a small office space unsettlingly similar to a police interrogation room. A large rectangular light was mounted on the ceiling directly above a plain wooden desk. The only decoration on the otherwise bare walls was a calendar with a picture of mountain goats. Lisa was called in. She had put away the nail file but still carried her green towel. She continued to avoid eye contact. Her answers to Harris’s questions appeared to be as slow as before. “She needs help. She definitely needs help,” Harris declared after she stepped out.
When I returned to the lounge, Mr. Xu was still waiting to be called in. He was under the impression this was going to be a real job interview and was crushed when I told him it was just another practice. He had been sure that Fortune already had a job waiting for him.
At Fortune the main emphasis was put on how to behave during interviews and how to fill out forms, whereas little or no attention was put on what the men and women were capable of doing for a living—let alone what they wanted to do for a living.
In class Angel was continuously praised, and no one actually knew how jumbled and unpredictable his career wishes were. He would go from studying political science to business to computer science to architecture to becoming a youth counselor or janitor in a matter of days. Unlike Bruce—who told me during one of the breaks that he wanted to go into maintenance, preferably at night, when no one could look over his shoulder and he was all by himself—Angel seemed overwhelmed by the prospect of having to make his own decisions. He was waiting for someone to steer him in the right direction.
Angel faced Fortune’s Career Development class with the same sense of acceptance he initially had for HRA and WeCARE. Although he thought that while in prison Brown had mainly worked on his muscles and had yet to divorce himself from jail culture, Angel believed that Fortune would help him find a job. But halfway through the two-week program he admitted that he was no longer sure if he even wanted a job. But if he had a choice, he would prefer to work with computers. “At least you can’t hurt them,” he said.
It was another hot summer evening, just a few minutes past seven o’clock, when Angel and I retreated into the Castle’s backyard to snack on cookies and strawberries. We were the only ones outside, the others preferring to cool off in their air-conditioned rooms. Angel ushered me to two lounge chairs facing away from the bars that separated the backyard from 140th Street. If being indoors made you anxious and if you didn’t want to be reminded that there were parole regulations hindering you from taking a stroll over to the nearby park, the bar, or the ice cream parlor, this was the only place to be.
Angel started talking about being afraid to take someone to a dark alley. Take whom? To what dark alley? What if, he asked, someone followed us? What if the other person were harmed because he had chosen to go through the alley? What if he were unable to provide protection? What if he had failed in his leadership?
Again he started talking about prison and how much more protected he felt while locked up. Angel didn’t mention that he was afraid of others. He seemed to be afraid of himself. In prison he was protected from himself.
I was reminded of the many rules WeCARE and Fortune had established for their clients and how some of them echoed the regimen he had experienced in prison. None of the classes addressed Angel’s, Bruce’s, and Adam’s fears. Perhaps a job-readiness program isn’t designed to deal with these kinds of fears, but the work environment may very well be one of the most strenuous places we find ourselves. Crumbling under pressure and losing control on the job is not farfetched: according to the Department of Labor, almost two million Americans report having been victims of violence in the workplace each year. (In fact, murder is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace.)
“Job readiness” and work could be starting points to explore the men’s needs and fears. There are no guards on the job who keep you in check. Your performance is constantly being measured and compared.
In addition to the fear of causing harm to another human being, an ex-con might simply be overwhelmed by the countless unfamiliar rules that accompany his or her personal and professional life on the outside. What if you accidentally broke a rule because you weren’t aware it even existed? In prison if you lost your job, you were still fed and clothed. You would always have a roof over your head.
“[In prison] I ran my life for the most part,” Angel said, just as we had finished our cookies and strawberries. “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.”
*Some of the names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
Excerpted from Among Murderers: Life after Prison, by Sabine Heinlein, published by the University of California Press. © 2013 by Sabine Heinlein.
Illustration by Kjell Reigstad