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. (She’ll be speaking about the book this Thursday at the Mid-Manhattan Library.)
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."
Among Murderers, Chapter 7: Job Readiness
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.