WithAmong Murderers: Life After Prison(University of California Press, 2013), Sabine Heinlein offers a stark and brave look at the new lives of three recently paroled murderers, and their struggles to reintegrate into society. Having lived most of their lives behind bars, these men struggled to cross the street, choose a dish at a restaurant, and withdraw money from an ATM. In this chapter, “Freedom Day,” we meet Angel Ramos, new to freedom but seemingly adrift in an unfamiliar world.
And just like that, that was that. No sense of being at all, Angel wrote in the spidery script of a nine-year-old. He titled the new page in his diary Freedom Day, March 29th 2007. He was dazed by the abrupt shock of having dropped from one sphere into another in a matter of seconds. The course that had taken three decades to unfold had suddenly advanced with blinding speed: Attica’s prison gates closed behind him. Freedom.
The prison van took him to a gas station, where he boarded the public bus to New York. Freedom? He looked around. Some of the guys on the bus reminded him of the loser mind-sets he had just left behind in Attica. Loser mind-sets who told the same street stories over and over. Tales of how they robbed old women and dealt drugs, how much money they once had, and what cars they used to own.
“Tell me you own a business,” Angel would tell them. “That would impress me.”
The people on the bus all struck him as surprisingly young, and it was then that Angel realized that somehow, somewhere along the line, he had gotten old. More than half of his life had passed. He had spent twenty-nine years behind bars for committing one murder and attempting another. He was forty-seven now.
As more people got on the bus Angel nervously scooted over on his seat, removing his bags to make space. He could see the Manhattan skyline on the horizon. Looks goooood! he wrote as the bus entered the Lincoln Tunnel.
When the bus pulled into Penn Station, Angel was tempted to ask the driver for permission to get off. Even the tiniest decision—such as moving without someone else’s approval or order—made him feel uneasy. This is taking some getting used to, he meticulously jotted down in his diary.
And just like that, that was that. When Angel got off the bus at Penn Station, he had No sense of being at all. He had no idea who he was or what he had become.
Angel had secured a bed at the Castle, a halfway house in Morningside Heights, West Harlem, that houses sixty former prisoners. The Castle is one of three New York locations operated by the Fortune Society. Apart from residential services, the Fortune Society offers its formerly incarcerated clients job-readiness and cooking classes, computer tutoring, substance-abuse treatment, and father- and motherhood programs.
Located at the corner of Riverside Drive and 140th Street, the Castle stands out in the neighborhood. It was built from large schist rocks excavated when the first subway line in New York City was constructed, and its façade sparkles with the rocks’ characteristic jagged but glittering surface. With its miniature lookout towers, its arched windows, and the bright crenellations that top some of its walls, the Castle resembles a Gothic bastion. It overlooks Riverbank State Park and the Hudson River, which adds to its charm. One could easily imagine the Castle being surrounded by a muddy moat.
A piece of wood bearing the number 630 dangled near the gigantic wooden entrance door on Riverside Drive. Whenever new residents tried to straighten the crooked sign—which was frequently—it always slid right back. The heavy wrought-iron hinges screeched as Angel opened the door.
Angel was carrying his duff el bag in one hand and a music keyboard in the other. He was worried about his keyboard being stolen. After all, he didn’t have his own cell anymore; he would be sharing his room with five other ex-cons.
Angel went to his new room to take a hot shower. When he stepped out of the bathroom, he noticed a full-length mirror. All he’d had in his prison cell was a ten-inch mirror. This was the first time in almost thirty years that he saw himself fully naked, that he saw his body in one piece. He turned around slowly to inspect himself.
Angel Ramos has narrow, warm eyes; a wide, knobby nose; and potter’s clay skin, tinged with copper. Thin strands of gray make his dense, black hair sparkle. His unkempt mustache looks like weeds. In some spots it overlaps his ample lips; in others it is sparse, revealing the skin underneath. Angel is short—just about five feet tall—and he has become stocky. His neck has gotten meatier, and he has grown love handles.
“Oh my God,” Angel said to himself. “I got fat.” He promptly decided to “eat less, move more.”
Angel’s resolution proved unnecessary. A few weeks after his release, he had already lost ten pounds. He had shed weight just by walking and worrying about everyday decisions. He felt time slipping and desperately tried to keep up. Each day presented him with a flood of entirely new experiences. When Angel walked around New York during his first months of freedom, he trudged up and down sidewalks and went in and out of subway stations. He tripped over potholes, stumbled over trash, strolled on grass, and hiked up and down the hills of Harlem. This was an entirely new experience. He was walking on uneven terrain. In prison the ground was flat, and his feet had grown accustomed to his state-issued work boots. But outside he didn’t seem able to break in his new Timberland boots, let alone the dress shoes he bought. His feet were killing him.
In his first weeks of freedom Angel went to the Welfare Department, the Salvation Army, and the Division of Parole, where he had to report on a weekly basis. On Sundays he walked to Riverside Church to attend his Quaker meetings. Once he ventured east on 115th Street to visit the site of the house where he spent the first few years of his life. It was gone. But the house in which he had killed his victim was still there. The Castle was only a half-hour walk from the house where an outburst of anger had changed his life forever. Two minutes—thirty years—half an hour! Did time fly, or did it stand still?
Surely, Harlem had changed for the better, but parts of it remained gritty. Many of its residents were now locked up. Both East and West Harlem now held several “Million Dollar Blocks,” city blocks in which the concentration of currently imprisoned residents is so dense that states are spending an excess of a million dollars a year in incarceration costs.
Young men with pit bulls were hanging out in front of bodegas. Trash spilled from black plastic bags piled up on the curb. Teenagers sat idly on garbage cans alongside the multilane roads that cut through the neighborhood. On Broadway, just around the corner from the Castle, Elvira M.’s Barbershop stood across from Jendy’s Beauty Salon, mere steps from Odri’s Beauty Salon. With the same repetitive frequency there were Chinese takeout joints, discount stores, and signs that prohibited littering, loitering, ball playing, and spitting—to no avail. On the corner of 137th Street a pediatrician shared a building with McDonald’s, the royal blue lettering of the doctor’s sign trumped by a large spinning cheeseburger. Single-room occupancies offered dingy accommodations to down-and-out men, and lonesome signs and banners proclaimed enigmatic messages of the past: Phase Piggy Back, O’Jay’s Telephone Answering Service, and No Service Available. The tenor was interrupted here and there by tree-lined blocks and nicely renovated brownstones with flowering boxes.
A Question of Rehabilitation
Angel and I first met in May 2007 on the bus that took us from the Albany advocacy day back to New York City. I had come to report on the event and on the proposed revisions in health care, housing, work, and voting rights. He was one of dozens of ex-cons campaigning for legislative changes for those with criminal records. There were then five million Americans on parole and probation, and in excess of seven hundred thousand people were being released from prison each year. When I sat down on the seat next to Angel, I noticed that his name tag read “Angle.” When I commented on the typo, he laughed and briefly released his stuffed backpack to throw his hands in the air. “Angle . . . Angel, what does it matter? I’m dyslexic, so for me it reads right.” We shared a laugh, and I asked him what he carried in his big backpack.
“Money, Id, parole release papers, a sweater, a sewing kit, a toothbrush, an extra shirt—you never know if you might have to spend the night or if the bus breaks down or if . . . I tend to be overly prepared,” he said, excusing himself. Having spent twenty-nine years locked up, Angel had no idea what to bring for a daylong excursion, so he brought everything he could think of. My question opened a valve. He talked for the next four hours without taking a breath.
After Angel mentioned the length of his sentence, I asked the inevitable: “What were you in for?”
“I killed a friend in an argument,” Angel said, adding somewhat apologetically, “I had just turned eighteen.” I envisioned a bar fight between two drunk teenagers. Things must have gotten out of hand, I thought. I caught myself giving Angel the benefit of the doubt because of his charming demeanor, his eloquence, and his outspokenness. I would have plenty of time in the future to ask him more questions. I decided to start with whatever Angel was willing to share.
By his own reckoning Angel had changed. Wasn’t that what imprisonment, punishment, and rehabilitation were all about? Had prison made Angela better human being? Would we forgive him for his crimes and welcome him back into our world?
Until his release from prison Angel had considered himself prepared for freedom. He had found God and redemption. He had accumulated countless letters of recommendation from his Quaker friends for his appearances in front of the parole board. The letters asserted that he was ready to be released. He was “corrected,” no longer a risk to society but a contributing member.
But the matter of Angel’s assumed correction was somewhat mysterious. In 1993, after serving fifteen years of his life sentence, he first became eligible for parole. He was denied. Every two years after that Angel would present his ever-growing folder to the board, but each time he was slammed with yet another two years. He was denied parole six times. For twenty-nine years the parole commissioners considered his release “incompatible with the public safety and welfare.” Then, suddenly, after the seventh parole hearing, the board spit him out into our world.
When Angel first went to jail in 1978, the food wasn’t too bad, and the correctional officers were, for the most part, “all right.” He liked the “old-time career criminals” who took him under their wing to protect him from “booty bandits.” (Angel liked to say “booty bandits”; it made him chuckle.) Back then he may have still been able to attend a variety of rehabilitative programs, but for the longest time Angel didn’t think he “needed fixing.”
Over time the prison food became unbearable and “the cops” dictatorial. The state decimated its rehabilitation programs. In the 1980s the crack epidemic swept in thousands of “crazy people who,” Angel said, “turned prison into an insane asylum.”
When he finally felt ready to consider what had led him to violence and murder, the only programs available were run by other inmates and outside volunteers. “For the most part,” he said, “rehabilitation was up to myself.”
But if he was ever going to be released, Angel had to somehow prove his successful rehabilitation, despite a lack of opportunities and the dubiousness of the remaining programs. The folder he carried in his duffel bag brimmed with ged, college, work training, and Narcotics Anonymous certificates(although he claims to have used marijuana only “recreationally” when he was a teenager). He had attended “transpersonal counseling,” which was run by a volunteer social worker who encouraged inmates “to look at their inner child.” He also went to a slew of Alternative to Violence meetings and to Life Skills programs run by fellow inmates and outside volunteers.
Leaving the task of rehabilitation to the inmates themselves wasn’t a fluke; it had become the norm. These programs were not scientifically proven to lower recidivism, but one had to do something. The folder needed to grow.
In 2005 Angel was required to attend Aggression Replacement Training at Attica prison. He graduated from a one-hundred-hour program that focused on social skills, anger control, and moral reasoning and prides itself on reducing recidivism. But after almost three decades in prison he didn’t feel safe trusting the state. For twenty-nine years he had endured society’s unwavering punishment. “Justice without mercy,” he said, adding, “By that time, I had already done the work.”
The Transition to Freedom
Free at last—away from the regimentation of prison—Angel was discovering where “rehabilitation” would really begin: on the bus, on the street, on the job, and in society’s judging eyes. He would have to find out for himself what it really meant.
In the summer months following his release I began to accompany Angel on his walks and to his appointments. His struggles appeared mundane. In the mornings Angel didn’t know what to eat. “There is five boxes of cereal and I don’t know which one tastes good, so I just walk away. Besides, food tastes different today than it did in the past. Everything tastes different,” he said. His eyes flitted left and right, as if toggling among choices.
Angel preferred apricots, plums, and steak over apples, mashed potatoes, and tuna. In prison he had a pale apple every day and tuna prepared in everyway possible. He had no intention of ever eating tuna again. “Fuck fish altogether,” he said, laughing.
But in his first weeks out, plums and apricots were hard to find. Not only did Angel have to face children screeching and women talking on cell phones in high-pitched voices, he also had to cross the street to go to the store. And for Angel there were a hundred decisions involved in crossing a street. The mere idea gave him a headache. There were people on either side of him, and he didn’t know whose example to follow. Which way do I go? Do I follow this person or that person? he remembered thinking. “I was using too much brainpower to make the decision.”
If it were simply a matter of ridding his diet of the foods and dishes he hated, life would have been easy. But discarding one thing always meant having to choose another. The first time Angel went to the Fairway Market in West Harlem to buy spaghetti sauce, he was outright terrified. There were hundreds of different spaghetti sauces. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He fled back to the Castle without buying anything and put all thought of making spaghetti out of his head.
“I have to learn how to shop,” he told me. “How do you buy a suit? How do you go about making a doctor’s appointment?” For similar reasons he chose to abstain from having sex. “I just wouldn’t know what to do,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s all too overwhelming.”
Angel found himself staring at a piece of fabric for hours at a time, intrigued by its texture and pattern. When he walked through the park, he did goofy things like sniff roses and exhale with a loud “Aaaah!” He sometimes looked in the mirror just to greet himself. “Hi!” he would say with a laugh, waving at his reflection. Things that might cause other people to curse and stomp could make his day. He fondly remembered stepping on dog poop on one of his first days out. Every once in a while, seemingly unaware, he spit out little verses. “I’m a Latin from Manhattan, but I have the sweets for Brooklyn.” In these moments I almost expected him to start skipping.
In his first weeks of freedom Angel became obsessed with doing laundry in the washing machine and with washing dishes. Which knob do you turn and when do you turn it? Do you first soap all the dishes and then rinse them or do you do one piece at a time? How much did you pay for the rag, how much for the piece of soap?
Angel was tired during the day, yet at night he didn’t sleep well. His body missed the one-inch mattress and the steel slat he had grown accustomed to. The door of his room at the Castle kept opening and closing all night long. In prison, waking up in a split second was a survival reflex. “The door opens and you automatically wake up,” he said. “When somebody comes in your cell and you lay in bed wrapped up in sheets, you can’t defend yourself. You are very vulnerable.” But at the Castle, to be awakened by every little screech and knock got downright annoying.
Despite his struggles, or maybe because of them, Angel’s favorite word became beautiful. In the first weeks out he said “beautiful” so frequently that it sounded like someone trying to convince himself that life could really be so. He often said, “Every person is beautiful until proven otherwise.” And for good measure he sometimes added, “Then they are still beautiful; I just can’t be around them.” Angel found Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” which he read on a subway ad, so beautiful it brought tears to his eyes. He enunciated each word with the heed and force of a sculptor carving stone. It quickly became apparent to me that words mattered to Angel. For twenty-nine years words were all he had. Keeping his word had become as important to him as being able to read and write. Words could fill voids. They could be used to foster relationships. They could keep him busy on long, boring days and help him reach beyond prison walls. Angel discovered that he, too, could write poems, make jokes, and conquer the hearts of strangers. Words could win trust and impress people. With the help of words physical anger could be converted into aggressive enthusiasm. Best of all, words could serve as scaffolding, holding in place and obscuring a personality on the verge of collapse.
I came into this world not knowing anything, Angel’s poem “The Dance of Wonder” begins. Then I found wonder in taste, sound, and the exploration of my body. / But that did not last.
Together Angel and I explored the city of his youth. We rode the subway, went to Central Park, and walked along the banks of the Hudson River. One of our early trips led us to MoMA. Angel found Picasso’s Violin and Grapes “so beautiful, it gives me chills.” Gauguin’s island women reminded him of family, Richard Serra’s steel sculptures of “stuff ” he had to clean in prison. At first, Angel always relied on me as his guide. When I took three steps to the right, he would hurry to follow suit. When I turned around, he turned around, too. This was unknown territory to him, and he approached it with an odd mixture of impulse and vigilance. When we passed a stone sculpture by Brancusi, he said, “I want to throw it in the water and ride it.” He then went on to examine parts of the escalator welding and its seams with his eyes and his hands. He had learned how to weld in prison and explained to me how he looked at things from an “engineering point of view.” He told me that out on the streets he was haunted by imperfections on license plates. Better than most people he knew how a perfect license plate should look. (After all, every New York State license plate has been made at the Auburn Correctional Facility, the prison where Angel served part of his sentence.)
After quickly formulating some James Bond scenarios to account for a helicopter that hung from MoMA’s ceiling, Angel looked out the window to study the neoclassic architecture of an adjacent building. “If I had billions and billions of dollars,” he mused, “I would build a mile of columns in the desert as a symbol of strength.”
But, suddenly, Angel got tired. He yawned. It was already three o’clock in the afternoon, and he, ever fearful of delays, was eager to get back to the Castle.
This is the Angel I first got to know. He was an intriguing character. He was popular among his Quaker friends and among the Fortune Society’s employees. But some of the halfway house residents regarded him with suspicion. Some of the men ridiculed him behind his back. I, too, could feel a tension within him, a cord pulling in two directions. How could such a nice, funny guy have killed “a friend”? There must be more to it—a hidden side, a dark corner. There was a lot to explore. It was easy to talk to Angel because Angel did most of the talking. He seemed to take a certain pride in revealing even the smallest details of his life to me. For now, I decided to just let him talk.
Reprinted with permission from Among Murderers: Life After Prison by Sabine Heinlein and published by University of California Press, 2013.