Two Murderers Say There's An Upside To Spending Decades In Prison

Inmates exercise california prisonReuters/Lucy NicholsonInmates exercise at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California, June 3, 2011.

My book’s protagonists Angel, Bruce, and Adam are convicted murderers who spent between 24 and 31 years in prison. The three men were paroled to the Castle, a halfway house in West Harlem, in 2007. I followed the men for over two years to chronicle their struggles in the free world.
From the chapter “Growing Old,” in which we celebrate my protagonist Angel’s first birthday on the outside at a restaurant in the East Village.

At the restaurant the conversation revolved around the usual topic: prison. On the one hand, the three men all agreed that prison was evil and robbed them of much of their lives. On the other hand, Bruce and Angel both said that prison also had good parts. Angel praised prison for the structure it offered him, a structure he had never known growing up.

“I wouldn’t give up the experience,” Angel said.

“Jail taught me how to appreciate life,” Bruce added. “It made me a man.”

The men often spoke about their lives and inner growth in prison as if they would have never had the opportunity to grow had they remained free. This made me sad.

As he often did, Adam remained quiet. It was in these quiet moments that I felt a deep connection to him. These moments summed up all the sorrow, the lack of opportunities, the lost years, and the wish to be able to start all over under more favourable circumstances. But where do you even begin at this point in life? You might as well remain quiet.

Angel, Bruce, and Adam did not celebrate their birthdays while in prison. Hardly anyone did. What was there to celebrate? That you were born and that you took another person’s life? That you were locked up for an indeterminate length of time? Birthdays in prison reminded the men about the passing of time. About getting older without getting out. It reminded them of what they didn’t have, things like love, money, and decent food. Where birthdays were about getting presents, about being loved and celebrated, prison represented the ultimate absence of those things.

Having ignored his birthday for so long, Adam’s old age took him by surprise. “At the halfway house everybody is trying to launch a new life for themselves,” he told me. “It’s over for me. I’m going on 70-five years. If I’m lucky I can squeeze 20 more years out of this. If I’m extremely lucky. If I get 10 more years I’m lucky.”

When Adam was released, it was spring. He would go to the park across the street from the Castle and sit on a bench overlooking the Hudson River. It was warm and bright, and he could smell the grass. He would see the barges passing by; New Jersey’s river communities lie sleepily on the other shore. It should have been paradise. But instead, he sat on the bench and cried, the tears running down his gaunt cheeks.

“What are you crying about?” he asked himself. He had no answer. It must have been autumn when he finally realised: In prison time stood still. There were hardly any chronological reference points. No one ever mentioned his age. He never felt old. There were no women who’d label him “too old.” In prison there were no birthdays and no children he could have observed growing up. It was life in a timeless vacuum.

From “Among Murderers: Life After Prison” by Sabine Heinlein. Reprinted with permission from University of California Press.

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