The guards have confiscated my notebook and pen. I’ve surrendered my purse and my cell phone, and my hand has been stamped with blacklight ink. I pass through a metal detector and two locked and barred doors. I’m walking into a maximum-security prison with nothing but my driver’s license and a locker key.
For the past three years, I’ve thought a lot about rehabilitation. One question in particular nags at me: How do you assess it? Can an individual declare himself rehabilitated, or must a judgment be handed down by an expert who has consulted protocols, metrics, checklists, and “best practice” white papers? Another question that troubles me is how you weigh concern for rehabilitation against the need for retribution, particularly when the crime is murder.
I am here to attend the graduation ceremony of the prisoner who has occasioned these thoughts. In the summer of 2016, this journal published “The Murderer’s Mother,” an essay written by John J. Lennon, then serving part of his twenty-eight-years-to-life sentence at the notorious Attica Correctional Facility, in upstate New York. I later found out that the essay had come out of a creative writing workshop conducted in the prison by a Bard College professor. Lennon had learned about our journal from an edition of Best American Essays, and when his submission landed on the desk of our editor, he deemed it “an impressive moral reckoning…clean and true,” and decided to publish it.