Beyond the prison gates

Hard lives after hard time

Life After Murder

by Nancy Mullane

Public Affairs, $26, 384 pp

Settling in at an Emeryville, Calif., seafood restaurant for lunch, two friends consult their menus. For the person on one side of the table, the selection is typical, the dishes come as no surprise. For the person on the other side of the table, the menu's panoply is overwhelming: an option overload. The underwhelmed diner is This American Life reporter Nancy Mullane; her lunch guest is Jesse Reed, a rehabilitated parolee, fresh off a quarter-century-long stint for first-degree murder.

"There must be a hundred choices on the triple-fold-out glossy menu," Mullane writes in Life After Murder: Five Men In Search of Redemption, describing this lunch. "He's panicking a bit, turning the menu around in his hands, opening and closing it, mumbling a little under his breath, 'I don't know.'"

Reed is one of five convicted murderers, housed at San Quentin State Prison, whom the author tracks on the uncertain path from parole-board purgatory to strings-attached freedom over the course of four years.

In 1980, Richie Rael and a neighbor fell into a fistfight with young hitchhikers they picked up after a baseball game; Rael didn't know that his neighbor was packing a blade — and that he wasn't afraid to use it, making Rael an accessory. In 1982, Eddie Ramirez tagged along on a beer run-turned-stickup, which resulted in an accidental homicide. In 1984 and 1985, respectively, Reed and Donald Cronk accidentally killed men in robberies. In the summer of 1988, in a jealous rage, Phillip Seiler blew away a man who was having an affair with his wife.

There are differences in how each of these men found himself incarcerated, but certain unfortunate commonalities color their individual experiences: drug addiction, alcohol consumption and bad luck among them. As their lengthy sentences wind down, intersections of a more positive nature emerge: They've learned trades, earned degrees and certificates, and established themselves as substance-abuse counselors and scared-straight mentors to troubled teens.

Not surprisingly, parts of Life After Murder are dense. Corrective-sentencing debates and sobering penal statistics can be heavy going, but they also shed light on the lives on Mullane's subjects, revealing, for instance, that post-pen murder rates are significantly higher among parolees who didn't serve time for murder than for those who did. We also learn that the distance between the annual cost of an Ivy League education and the expense of providing shelter, food, and medical care for a California prison inmate isn't as far apart as one might think.

Mullane probes the 150-day gulf between a positive parole board ruling and the California governor's decision to accept or reverse it — a situation in which the state's senior elected official routinely dismisses, in a few minutes, years of rehabilitation, research and legwork done by the prisoner, the attorney and the board. When the author encounters Cronk in San Quentin after Arnold Schwarzenegger reverses his parole decision, "the self-confident posture of the past few months has evaporated. His shoulders are curved forward, his eyes dull, his face shiny and pale."

Of course, freedom doesn't always manifest itself according to the prisoners' dreams. When Reed is able to return to his family, their illicit lifestyles pose a risk to his parole. Seiler — whose two sons are in prison — crashes with his mother for a few months before she suddenly evicts him. And decades spent on a hard prison mattress leave Cronk with chronic neck pain that makes holding a job next to impossible. All the patient, expectant lovers and steadfast former employers in the world aren't enough to fully ease the assimilation into a free society and a dismal economy.

Life After Murder is as much a study of jarring re-entries as it is a chronicle of redemption and hope. But it's also the story of Mullane's own transformation from frightened observer to cheerleading sympathizer.

The Nancy Mullane who dines easily with parolee Reed, invites convicts home for dinner with her family, and finds herself emotionally invested in their triumphs is a far cry from the woman who approached San Quentin with such quavering timidity in the opening chapter — a woman acutely aware both of her own vulnerabilities and the imperviousness of surroundings which were, for her, only temporary: "Behind us, the back side of the steep wall is topped with rows of razor wire looping around and around like an unwound, lethal Slinky." Reading along — at home, out and about, somewhere you choose to be — you may find yourself undergoing a similar change.

Raymond Cummings writes for City Paper in Baltimore where this originally appeared. Send comments to [email protected].

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