Maximum Sentence


Arts & Culture

How prisoners perceive—and misperceive—life in the outside world.


Richard Robles’s self portrait, 2013

I mailed a copy of my book Among Murderers, about the struggles three men faced when they returned to the world after several decades behind bars, to Richard Robles, a pen pal serving an indeterminate life sentence in New York’s Attica Prison. Prison reading and mailing policies are designed to reinforce the feeling of punishment. Family and friends cannot simply send books; they have to come directly from the publisher or an online bookstore. Most prisons only allow paperbacks—Attica, a rare exception, permits hardcovers. I couldn’t find detailed mailing instructions on Attica’s website, so I called the prison. “Send it through the publisher—and don’t hide no weapon in it,” the employee blurted. Richard wrote me that he almost had to return the book.

[My] name wasn’t on the “buyer’s side” of the invoice. The guard said something about a new rule that prisoners have to buy the book. But as you can see I did get it, after another guard said something to him. Miracles, right?

I did consider it a small miracle when, a few weeks later, I began to receive letters from men who had borrowed the book from Richard. Prison is a dark world far away from ours, and communications travel slowly. We may have forgotten “them,” but they never forget us. My book quickly made its way around Richard’s cell block; several prisoners mailed me their reviews, chronicling their ambitious attempts at self-improvement and their struggle to prepare themselves for a world that doesn’t want them back.

Having corresponded with Richard for years, I already knew he was an intelligent, thoughtful writer. But I have to admit that the other men’s reviews—so insightful, thought provoking, and well written—surprised me. And what surprised me even more was that I was surprised. Had I expected less of the men because they murdered another human being and have been in prison for ten, fifteen, twenty-four, or fifty years? Had I really believed that the parole board bases its decision on the prisoners’ rehabilitative progress or potential? Our inability to forgive reflects our own lack of empathy more than the prisoners’. On some fundamental level, it is hard for us to trust that whatever primal impulse causes someone to murder can really be overcome.

These reviews provided a thoughtful afterword to my book: they raise important questions about the more than 100,000 individuals currently serving indeterminate life sentences in the U.S.

This year marks Richard’s fiftieth in prison for the murder of two young women. One of the most shocking crimes of its era, it was dubbed “The Career Girl Murders,” alluding to the dangers that await young women who move to New York. In the decades that followed, America implemented a tough-on-crime stance that didn’t consider forgiveness or rehabilitation. If we would only lock up all the potential Richards of this country, we would be safe; any prisoner who wanted to embark on the arduous journey of rehabilitation was on his own. He had to come to terms with his guilt, his shame, and, most importantly, his remorse in an environment detrimental to happiness and progress. Richard wrote,

Remorse is a tough subject. It’s complicated by the human desire to avoid pain and punishment, which is actually stronger, I think. It includes feelings of shame and guilt. Then there’s the drive to rehabilitate oneself and change. It is complex and confusing. One has to take an honest look at himself and get rid of that “bullshit ego.”

I first met Richard in 2007, when I visited the Quaker prison ministry in Attica as part of my research. That Friday night in December, we sat across from each other in a circle surrounded by several other convicted murderers and three Quakers who led the ministry. Richard looked ashen and frail, and yet I could see something glowing in him.

When I first Googled his name after my return to New York, I struggled to put the two faces together. One was an old man who told me of his conversion to Quakerism and his frustration at trying to draw the hands of a young girl playing the cello. The other was a young junkie who stabbed two women to death during a burglary gone awry. After several years of intimate correspondence with Richard, I managed to assimilate these two images into a more cohesive picture.

Richard read my book in two or three sittings and then shared his thoughts:

I found it very honest and real. I think it will be an eye opener for those who have the misconception that parole is freedom. I’d like to see it as mandatory reading for all first offenders because they often think “parole is freedom” and are quickly, very negatively struck with profound disappointment when reality smacks or kicks them in the face.

Along these lines I would have liked to see more about the unrealistic expectations prisoners fantasize about in prison—and how fantasies inhibit reform/rehabilitation efforts. I think you tried to portray that but I’m not certain the average reader could get it. You portray a prisoner as saying “Expect the unexpected.” I’d rephrase that to “Expect to be disappointed in every dream you conjure in prison.”

I knew that prisoners often have unrealistic fantasies about job opportunities and women on the outside. Richard once asked me to tell him about my experience as an image processor at a publishing house in New York. He is proficient in Photoshop; he used to work an engraving machine in prison, making plaques to commemorate guards who had died. He hoped that, if released, he could land a job similar to mine. At the time, I didn’t tell him that I doubted that a publishing house would hire anyone who spent fifty years in prison for murdering two young women. Should I have quashed his hopes? After all, fantasies of freedom—of women, family, and work—help prisoners survive. I wondered if a more realistic outlook would prevent disappointment and, in turn, recidivism.

Worse, the parole system fosters unrealistic expectations. Like many other prisoners, Richard has been encouraged to amass dozens of documents to prove his rehabilitation. His parole folder is brimming with college and work-training certificates, as well as letters of recommendation from spiritual friends and even from prison administrators. Richard has long since served his minimum sentence, twenty years. His 15th parole hearing is scheduled for May 2014. It is unclear what he could or should have done differently to be released. Every other year he is denied parole because of “the nature of [his] crime”—a fact he will never be able to change—and advised to continue to work on his rehabilitation. No concrete guidance is ever offered.


A certificate from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility.

New York, of course, isn’t the only state with arbitrary or senseless prison policies. I corresponded with Tony Davis, who has been in prison in California since he was eighteen; he, too, has been denied parole many times. At forty-two, he teaches his fellow prisoners empathy in a victim-awareness class and facilitates a peer health program. (The few self-improvement programs available in prison are mostly run by prisoners, not by people with degrees and outside work experience—yet another absurdity.) Tony wrote,

I truly believe that Angel has not addressed the full understanding of remorse and has not fully dealt with the pain of his childhood. I had concern with a lot of the stuff he said. The book really made me understand how messed up the system is and not just on the west coast but everywhere.

Like the subjects in my book, Tony has struggled to unlearn the “street code” he grew up with. He has painstakingly acquired alternative behaviors in an environment that continues to be governed by the law of street. It was Richard who analyzed the street code’s consequences behind bars and the mechanisms prisoners employ to avoid violence:

Often in prison violence occurs after a person is “dissed.” However, quite frequently he will discuss it with friends, in an attempt to be dissuaded from “having to” retaliate in a violent manner. Some so-called friends will advise the guy “You have to stick (stab) the offender”—while real friends will advise the person to forget about it. It’s all a matter of “saving face.”

I’m specifically thinking of a recent occasion when a man of Egyptian heritage asked me what he should do after he was dissed. He comes from a middle class upbringing in Egypt where (I suspect) they don’t have the American ghetto values. But he did learn the “Street Code” during his 20 years in American prisons … He asked me what he should do. I advised, in Quaker manner, to avoid violence and further, if possible, pointedly avoid any future interaction with the individual.

It occurs to me that these people asking “what should I do” is #1 the desire to evade violence and #2 the desire to ascertain that they will be “accepted” if they don’t react violently (i.e. their own need to be accepted is very strong).

Richard is seventy-one years old; he has often served as a mentor to his mostly younger friends at Attica. He tenderly calls his thirty-five-year-old buddy, Jason Rodriguez, “a baby.” Jason, who has served fifteen years of a thirty-seven-to-life sentence, often visits Richard in his cell to discuss politics and philosophy. Jason wrote to me:

I became depressed at times and felt like the way things are going now, in this system, I could end up [like] Brooks, the character out of the movie Shawshank Redemption who couldn’t reconnect with society and committed suicide. I started questioning the true essence of remorse, rehabilitation, and the whole process of corrections; what society deems fit when they’re looking in from the outside at a bunch of papers [and] data … I share, and am grateful for, your sentiments on page 18: “Each man’s story—his needs, desires, risks, failures and moral responsibilities—calls for a highly individualized approach.”

I myself get scared at times and don’t want to socialize or be around the majority of these prisoners; I live among them and see, for the most part, who they truly are and it scares me.

Soon after Jason’s letter arrived, I heard from Dean Faiello, who killed Maria Cruz in 2003 after misrepresenting himself as a dermatologist. He buried Cruz’s body under his New Jersey garage and fled to Costa Rica. Eventually, he was extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Perhaps self-recognition is what vexes and frightens me. In an effort at full disclosure, I must tell you that I too was convicted of a heinous crime, the details of which are chilling. As a result of my callous actions, a beautiful young woman lost her life.

Despite my efforts to change—facilitating prison programs like The Alternatives to Violence Project, meditation and HIV education; participating in Attica’s college program; struggling for six years with the craft of creative nonfiction in Doran Larson’s writing workshop; attending AA and religious services—despite the battle to achieve enlightenment and transformation, I am haunted nightly by memories of Maria Cruz, her final moments. She may forgive me, but I cannot.

If we consider murder innately unforgivable, we have to ask why we give a prisoner the chance to prove his rehabilitation in front of a parole board every two years after he’s served his minimum sentence. To have his hopes squashed? To punish him even further? The only way we can empathize with murderers is by allowing ourselves to get to know them—not only as criminals but as the people they become in the years that follow.

A recent Pushcart Prize winner, Sabine Heinlein is the author of the narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison.