Among Murderers: Life after Prison by Sabine Heinlein

Laura Piacentini ponders the power of the penal system to destroy a prisoner’s sense of self

June 6, 2013

When it comes to the world of imprisonment, never let it be said that commentators have exhausted all possible areas of exploration, or that nothing “new” can be said. Studying the prison world requires conscious determination, vigilance of emotions and nuanced understandings that crime and punishment are layered with symbolic sociological meaning. The prison is a peculiar site where modalities of power are nefarious yet subject to complex shifts between captives and custodians. We are interested in prisons because of cultural imperatives towards order, social control and, indeed, re-establishing the purity of people who are the most hidden and “leper-like” in society: prisoners. But what of life after prison?

Reading Sabine Heinlein’s Among Murderers: Life after Prison was a real pleasure. This is an ambitious book in which the author aims to provide much more than a descriptive story of fractured lives scarred by incarceration. Moreover, she asks the searching questions that have taxed sociologists for decades: how do people who have been anonymous and remote from the social world for many years learn to re-enter it and live conventional lives? A second, dominating theme of this book is: what constitutes successful rehabilitation in the minds of murderers released from prison?

The academic gaze that is cast over the prison world is often none too subtle in indicating the presence of profound suffering, torment, struggle and isolation. Heinlein’s particular skill is to apply a beautifully literary narrative to the still-hidden world of three former offenders. We meet and closely follow Angel, Adam and Bruce, the protagonists in this unfolding story of how former prisoners “fix themselves”. The life stories of these remarkable men are told and retold by Heinlein, who interacts with them over two years at a halfway house in West Harlem, New York, writing herself into their stories in an honest, sometimes cynical and anxious, but never cold, way.

The methods she uses are certainly journalistic rather than academic, yet they also pay tribute to some of the best sociological scholarship and, I think, her approach takes this book beyond a mere journalistic document. In her presentation of the stories of Angel, Adam and Bruce, Heinlein does not offer a spectacle of their ruptured paths post-prison. Instead, an empirical enquiry is presented that lends itself to the searching, probing intellectual question of: what is to be done with punishment when it is so painfully and acutely dislocating?

Although the book would have benefited from a more up-to-date analysis of the theoretical scholarship on rehabilitation, this shortcoming is relatively minor. While it is not embedded in theoretical reflection, this eloquent account of post-prison chaos calls to mind Erving Goffman’s pioneering 1967 essay “The nature of deference and demeanor”, in which he reminds us that individuals do not participate in a social life as a total person but in terms of a special capacity or status, in short, as a special self. While Among Murderers takes the reader into the imagined pasts of the protagonists, it does not (and cannot) explain everything. But to paraphrase Goffman, we meet individuals whose totality of self is in constant struggle with the totality of incarceration. This book, therefore, is more than a tribute to the men interviewed: it asks us to test ourselves on our capacity for forgiveness and then to consider penal power’s capacity to destroy the self.

Among Murderers: Life after Prison

By Sabine Heinlein
University of California Press, 256pp, £19.95
ISBN 97805202859 and 9780520954779
Published 5 March 2013

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