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Our Longreads Member Pick:
Among Murderers (Chapter 7), by Sabine Heinlein



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Introduction

This week's Member Pick is a chapter from Among Murderers, a new nonfiction book by Sabine Heinlein, published by University of California Press, examining the lives of criminals as they prepare to re-enter society. Heinlein, who was recently awarded a Pushcart Prize for her Iowa Review essay "A Portrait of the Writer as a Rabbit," explains the origins of this chapter, which focuses on "Job Readiness":
 
"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."


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Among Murderers, Chapter 7: Job ReadinessSabine Heinlein | University of California Press | 2013 | 25 minutes (6,132 words)Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

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.


*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.

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