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 Hamilton 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.
The merits of the writing were immediately obvious: The second-person narrator deftly situates readers in the world of his mother around the time of his birth. What follows is an intensely personal and clear-eyed account of the forces that shaped a bright but troubled youth, impelling him toward the crime for which he now feels, as a mature adult looking back on his actions, he can never sufficiently atone. Even more impressive is the author’s sensitive portrayal of his mother, torn between shame and a growing pride in her son’s determination to change his life, mainly through writing. By the time Lennon’s essay came to us, he had already published pieces in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and The Marshall Project, and he would go on to produce revelatory work for other distinguished publications, including Esquire, New York Magazine, and the New York Review of Books.
In the fall of 2016, Lennon was transferred to Sing Sing Correctional Facility, on the banks of the Hudson River. Sing Sing is known as a model prison. Thanks to its location (an hour from Manhattan) and an enlightened administration, the prison hosts frequent goodwill tours by state bigwigs as well as an unusual variety of inmate programs, ranging from TEDx Talks and college courses to Carnegie Hall–sponsored performances and other cultural events. On any given day, Lennon, with the tacit approval of the superintendent, might be joining a radio discussion panel by phone, conducting a press interview, or meeting with his literary agent. Recently, he was the uneasy subject of a true crime series produced by a major cable network. He has made a specialty of covering the treatment of prison inmates with serious mental illness, and was nominated for a National Magazine Award for “This Place Is Crazy,” an investigative report published in Esquire in 2018. Lennon has a lighter side as well—he has contributed features to Men’s Health on prison-yard workouts and the delicacies of conjugal visits. He even covered soprano Joyce DiDonato’s 2018 Sing Sing performance for Opera America.
Lennon handles all of these projects with the help of an extensive network of friends, family, and colleagues on the outside. He does not have access to a computer, although he does have a website and a Twitter account, and he calls out daily to catch up on his e-mail. When he writes in his cell, he sits on an upturned bucket and uses a typewriter with a 7,000-character memory, his bed serving as a desk. When his back can no longer take the strain, he switches positions and puts the typewriter on the bucket. He takes notes by hand and types them up at the end of the day; for many years, he hid these notes in piles of file folders in case his cell was unexpectedly searched (or “tossed,” in prison parlance).
In the midst of writing, editing, and juggling deadlines, Lennon is also a student. I am here, in fact, to watch him process with forty-seven other Sing Sing prisoners to receive a bachelor’s degree from Mercy College, in Lennon’s case, in behavioral science. For the most part, the commencement is like any other: academics in regalia, graduates in caps and gowns, the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” encouraging speeches, handshakes, and diplomas. There are also differences. The ceremony starts late because of a fatal fentanyl overdose on the tier the night before. Although they are dressed in their own shirts, the men all wear the same prison-issue green trousers with elastic waists. Ties are passed out only inside the visitors’ room and handed back at the end of the day. The class valedictorian is serving twenty years to life for second-degree murder. Lennon himself killed a fellow drug dealer and attempted to dispose of the body off the Brooklyn docks. Another classmate escaped the death penalty by agreeing to serve fifty years to life for the death and dismemberment of his lover.
Lennon entered prison in 2001 at age twenty-four with, in his words, “a ninth-grade education and not an ounce of character.” He wrote his first memorable story at thirteen, while a student at boarding school. “Witness” was a vivid glimpse of treachery and deceit told from the perspective of Benedict Arnold’s cane. (The story won him a savings bond, which he gave to his mother, although he later stole it and fenced it, using the money to buy candy.) But it would not be until Attica, in a writing class taught by a fedora-sporting professor, that he would discover that there were compelling stories all around him and, more importantly, that writing about them might serve as a way to come to terms with what he had done.
Storytelling comes with a price. Incarceration is noise, smells, violence, powerlessness. Navigating what Lennon calls the “upside-down kingdom of prison” requires constant vigilance, tact, and bravado. In the local pecking order, a crime like his wins near-universal respect. But inevitably there are bruised egos and jealousies, among both inmates and guards, when an inmate meets with success beyond the confines of the prison—in Lennon’s case, when word gets out that he’s published a big article. He’s been challenged for going soft and—the supreme insult—turning into a civilian. “Other prisoners think I know all these people on the outside, at the New York Times, whatever, and that I can’t be trusted,” he says. “I’m privy to criminality that I don’t participate in. Context and green pants make you appear to be one thing. Some people in here are still at that point on their trajectory, and others are further along.”
Although I have talked to Lennon frequently, the commencement is our first face-to-face meeting. He’s taller than I expected, and verging on diffident. On this occasion, he and his fellow graduates appear so—there’s no other word for it—normal. Articulate, well-mannered, and energetic, they are clean-cut men surrounded by their extended families. I meet several of Lennon’s professors, one of whom has urged him to go on to the Mercy College master’s program. At one end of the room, an elaborate catered meal is in progress: first, breakfast pastries, followed by a lunch, three huge sheet cakes, and ice cream. Prisoners walk away with two or three heaping plates, some of which they bag to take back to the tier. The atmosphere is tentatively festive, with an undertone of tension running through the room. Or maybe it’s just awkwardness. “Commencement is seeing prison at its best,” Lennon says, smiling. “The families, the catered food, the chance to mix and mingle—for a few minutes, we remember what it’s like to feel human.”
When I had entered the visitors’ room that morning, the first things I noticed were the individual tables decorated with colorful tablecloths, framed photos of the graduates, and signs reserving a table for each graduate’s family. How nice, I thought, someone cared enough to make this room look so welcoming. At 3 p.m., a guard’s voice crackles over the loudspeaker: “Visiting hours are now over. Inmates will remain at their tables.” I say goodbye to Lennon and his family and join to queue to leave. As I look back, each graduate is sitting in a single chair, at a single table. What had been an atmosphere of conviviality has reverted to one of surveillance, management, and control.
Lennon has never tried to avoid the issue of his crime or the fact of his guilt. In his articles and in our conversations, he admits his shame and acknowledges the correctness of his punishment. Recently, he wrote an apology letter to the victim’s family, and he plans to donate a portion of his earnings to a victim’s fund. Disciplined and ambitious, he has more than a little ego (an aspect of his character about which he is funny and astute). Although he often inserts autobiographical elements into his essays, he goes even deeper into self-revelation in a recent piece for the New York Review of Books. His first years in prison were ugly, he relates, little different from his life as a street thug: drugs, manipulation of his family, trash-talking, and empty posturing. It was during six months in solitary that he discovered the prison writings of Jack Henry Abbott, a convicted murderer whose critically acclaimed autobiography became his ticket back to the outside world—where he promptly committed another murder. “When I read Abbott’s words,” Lennon writes, “they resonated with my hate for myself and everyone around me.” From romanticizing Abbott’s actions to eventually grasping the full gravity of his own, Lennon discovered that writing was a way out—out of his own head, out of ignorance, out of the paralyzing violence of prison culture, and eventually, he hopes, out of prison.
Lennon speaks frequently of his esteem for Bryan A. Stevenson’s 2014 book Just Mercy, in particular, the author’s deeply held conviction that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” That phrase, invoked numerous times during the Sing Sing commencement, is something of a creed for prisoners. More than hollow uplift, it is a call for reassessment, not only in the prisoner’s own self-reckoning but also in society’s thinking about its approaches to crime and punishment. At this point in our highly retributive era, we have proven ourselves far better at punishment than rehabilitation, although federal initiatives such as First Step and Second Chance indicate modest but important shifts toward greater concern for the recovery of the prisoner. This is particularly important for the ex-convict who needs something more to look forward to than the first meal in freedom and a halfway-house apartment. Stevenson implores the prisoner to reckon with who he was when he committed the lowest act of his life, to live again its worst moments and to call himself to account for it—and then to move beyond it. Just as the prisoner is called on to consider himself and his actions in all their particular fullness, so we on the outside might feel called on to examine our own intentions when we reflect on the fate of those we incarcerate.