Aleem and I are talking about faith at a metal picnic table on the cellblock tier. On a flatscreen, CNN talking heads are blabbing about impeachment, something about fairness and justice. The Covid-19 apocalypse hasn’t yet begun. The cell bars are gray, men wandering up and down the tier are mostly black, and I’m white. Aleem is a leader in the Muslim community here. He’s fiftyish and tall and light brown and sports a kufi and a beard. I ask Aleem how his faith has helped him cope while doing time, and why he thinks guys become Muslim in the joint.
“Guys take their shahada for different reasons in prison,” he tells me. “Some do it to lean towards the largest body for protection.”
For Aleem the good character he developed is a result of his faith. He doesn’t get high, curse, look at porn, or masturbate. He exudes humility that he didn’t have before prison. A Brooklyn crook who used to pull heists, Aleem grabbed moneybags in the diamond district, stuck up drug dealers in the hood.
“We are the preordained guys,” Aleem tells me. “We don’t say, had I not done that thing, this other thing would not have happened. We say whatever happened good is Allah’s doing, and evil comes from our own hand.”
Aleem constantly asks Allah for forgiveness for the sins he committed with his own hands. It’s called tawbah. When he looks inward, taking his own inventory, it’s called muhasabah.
Aleem asks to whom I credit my success.
“Uh, me . . . ?” I said, promptly feeling small for giving that answer.
“When brothers look at you and see what you’re doing,” Aleem tells me, smiling, “we say Allah has blessed you.”
I never wanted to be the guy in prison who claimed redemption by touting religion. Over the past eighteen years of my incarceration, I’ve heard plenty of guys quote scripture and drop Jesus’s name, swearing he was going to work a miracle for them. I’ve seen white dudes turn Muslim and grow big beards and wear kufis, saying, “assalamu alaikum.” Not me. I love a clean shave and I have good hair that I like to gel up. In his search for identity, a guy in here can go from gangbanger to Five Percenter (black dudes who believe they are gods), to Muslim, to Protestant going to Sunday chapel services and shouting “Hallelujah!” To the cynic, religious conversions in prison are an eye-rolling cliché.
Then there’s the tale of Frankie, a guy from Brooklyn with mob connections. Frankie was almost done with a fifteen-year stint for pulling heists when he was indicted with other gangsters for several old murders. Rumor had it that when he was pulled down to Rikers Island, the New York City jail, Frankie was in his cell on his knees praying and crying. Soon after, Frankie flipped and became a government witness. So that was the gossip among the knockaround white guys back upstate in New York prisons – Frankie found God and flipped. “When I seen him on his knees praying with tears running down his face,” I remember one of the fellas saying, “I knew he was no good.”
Today I live in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison just thirty miles up the Hudson River from New York City. It’s a coveted spot to serve time in, thriving with college and drama and music programs. Before, I was in Attica and Green Haven and Clinton Dannemora and solitary. When you do a lot of time, you wind up serving it in various prisons. Get in trouble in one joint, cuffed, chained, off to solitary, then transferred to another joint. I used drugs, smuggled them too, had fights. I even took a shiv to my chest six times and was left for dead in the exercise yard. That was before I got sober in an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group and learned my craft in a creative-writing workshop.
These days I’m at an impasse. I’ve built a career as a journalist and writer, and it may look like redemption on the outside, but it doesn’t feel like it on the inside. I’m more depressed now than ever before. I tell myself it’s because I’m ready to go but unable to leave. But it’s also about the always-present threat of a relapse and an oversized ego, which over the years has been edging God out.
Growing up, I lived in a housing project in South Brooklyn. Mom hustled hot dogs, cheated on her taxes, took out student loans in different names – all to send me to private schools. Everything she did, she told me, was so I could have better opportunities to be successful one day. Grandma used to take me to church on Sundays. But after her Great Dane bit my face, I stopped visiting, stopped going to church. For years, I would stay with a nice Jewish family on the weekends. They wanted me to get circumcised and marry a Jewish girl one day. I spent Yom Kippur and Hanukkah with them, wore a yarmulke, and mumbled prayers. They wanted to adopt me. Mom said no. My dad wasn’t around. I learned he committed suicide when I was ten.
By then, we’d moved to Hell’s Kitchen, a seedy neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan. My stepfather told intoxicating stories about the Westies, a murderous Irish mob from his era. Mom introduced me to AA. She was a pothead, not a lush, but she loved the spiritual principles of the program. Therapy and church, all in one. She went to meetings and used words like denial and disease and humility. She advised me to practice the Serenity Prayer in my head, all day long. But Mom was also a chronic relapser. Weed wafted from her room. Stoned and red-eyed, she’d still spout recovery jargon. I’d call her out and she’d tell me to shut up and don’t take her “inventory.” Angry, rebellious, resentful, I’d run the city streets. I drank 40s and smoked blunts with the corner kids. Nothing was more important than their acceptance. I went to rehab, therapy, juvie. I became a criminal. Then I crossed the line.
It was hard to feel remorse as I was soaking in all that regret.
In 2002, I was on Rikers Island, charged with murder. I did it – I shot him. We were young, living the drug-dealing lifestyle. We were friends, as much as friends can be friends in the life . . . until we weren’t. After the first trial ended in a hung jury, I spoke to a priest and told him I did it, that the plea deal offered was fifteen years to life. He told me to take it. I didn’t. I was convicted at retrial and sentenced to twenty-eight years to life. I felt like my life was over, nothing left to hope for. It was easier to just become this . . . this thing, this life, this prison persona. It was hard to feel remorse as I was soaking in all that regret.
I spent nine years in Attica, site of the 1971 uprising in which forty-three people lost their lives. Racist guards. Miserable prisoners. Nasty business. That’s what Attica was. But two volunteer programs there helped me. Attica’s AA group met twice a week, in the auditorium. It wasn’t exactly a safe space. Gang guys would sit in the back rows, politicking and scheming. Others sat together in different rows, jerking each other off. Those of us who came for recovery sat up front. The volunteers were generous and kind, bringing in literature and Folgers coffee and cookies and serenity. The opposite of alcoholism, a volunteer once told me, was human connection. I had to trust in God and clean house. I prayed, read recovery literature, helped others, became more self-aware, and made the amends I could. I stayed sober, no bad habits, for years.
Around the same time, in the Attica writers’ group, taught by an alumnus of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I learned to write. Most didn’t realize the opportunity the workshop offered. We do that a lot, us prisoners, squander opportunities and then complain we never had any. A half dozen of us met twice a month in an otherwise deserted school building with yellowing educational posters taped to the walls. We sat in desk-chair combos, in dry institutional heat, hanging onto our instructor’s words, seeking his approval. We read pieces from Best American Essay collections and observed the prose and unpacked the writers’ intentions. We workshopped our own pieces, too, critiquing, competing, resenting. In the end, we became better writers, some of the guys publishing in literary magazines.
In 2013, I opened an essay with a description of the murder I committed: “It was swift and cowardly.” Broadening the scope, I offered ideas for gun control. Some in the workshop said that using a real murder for material, even if it made me some kind of authority on an important issue, was lurid and ethically complicated. But I didn’t want to be coy with the reader about my crime. I fiddled with that essay for months. Then I mailed it to The Atlantic, and to everyone’s surprise – especially mine – it was published. I took that clip and used it to get in the door at other magazines, building a career as a prison journalist and writing about my peers and the culture inside one of the most brutal prisons in America.
But had the right person not happened to read my letter, had it been lost or tossed aside in a slush pile, I doubt I would have had the same success. I took a shot, I got lucky, and I put in the work. Was this all God’s design? Beats me. Perhaps God gave me vision and chutzpah. Perhaps he left it to my free will to figure out how to balance ambition and success with humility and grace.
I’d show up at AA meetings, bragging to my sponsor where my newest story was about to appear. He’d say unbelievable. I’d say you better believe it. We’d chuckle, and he’d shake his head and ask about my recovery and tell me that the pursuit of prestige was dangerous for people like us. I soon relapsed. The high I was getting from publishing wasn’t enough. I’d pop the muscle relaxers issued to prisoners with bad nerves. They made me feel woozy and inebriated. I’d laugh and lap the yard with my scrappy friends, who seemed much less fun when I was sober. A pack of Newports had me drifting through the day, smoking, smiling, writing. I’d imagine the voiceover guy from Front Line saying “John J. Lennon is a brilliant writer and journalist.” I’d think up story pitches, daydream about how the layout would look in the well of a glossy magazine. The pills wouldn’t show up in urine tests. My image was safe. It was all good.
It wasn’t. Relapse is tormenting, especially after experiencing real recovery. You live in self-doubt and fear of being found out. When you trade years of sobriety and serenity for false pride and a quick buzz, it feels like all the work you’ve done on yourself has been for nothing. When you stop talking to God in the morning, life seems less substantive. Your old behaviors and attitudes return, almost instantly.
When you trade years of sobriety and serenity for false pride and a quick buzz, it feels like all the work you’ve done on yourself has been for nothing.
But at the same time that journalism fed my big fat ego, doing the work demanded that I focus on the people around me. My first subject was Leonard H. Benzin, a sexagenarian bank robber who had colon cancer. He had a colostomy bag and lived a few cells down from me in Attica. When he changed his bag, a foul odor drifted from his cell. He lived in a state of constant humiliation. He told me about his tough childhood, his abusive alcoholic father, how he ran away from home and became addicted himself. He had children from whom he was estranged. He was disgusted with his life. One time, when Lenny and I were both waiting in the bullpen to attend a support group, other prisoners started reacting to a faint sewage-like smell, apparently coming from his bag. Lenny sat on the bench shamefaced.
I wanted to place readers there in the scene with us, to get to know Lenny and feel the emotions I had felt. I’d draft pieces in my cell, clunky typewriter on my lap, back burning, poking away at the keys for hours, material flowing. When my cheeks got hot and my eyes got watery, I knew the reader was going to enter his story, as I had.
Lenny’s profile, “Dying in Attica,” was the first essay published when The Marshall Project launched in 2014. The project is a nonprofit dedicated to online journalism about criminal justice issues, founded by a former hedge-fund manager and run by a former New York Times editor. I went on to write several other reported pieces meshed with memoir, some of them nominated for awards. Success went to my head even more, perhaps because my work was becoming relevant, and I lived in a place that was a constant reminder that I was irrelevant.
It’s a perplexing world, prison. You get head-patting praise for staying out of trouble. They move you to an honor block, give you more privileges, a toaster, a microwave. Graduate from college, and prison administrators shake your hand. Facilitate prison programs for twenty-five cents an hour, and you’ll build relationships with administrators. But build a real career as a journalist, and administrators seem to think you have some sort of nefarious agenda. Their lack of recognition makes me smug – while curiously, validation humbles me. When journalist colleagues affirm my efforts, it reminds me to be poised and professional and to keep doing the work.
But it’s my peers whose support means the most to me. I had a friend in Attica, Thomas, who was black with big muscles and a bright smile. He loved Jesus Christ, and I used to envy the grace he got from the relationship. He offered to introduce me. So I wrote the Attica chaplain, changed my religion from Catholic to Protestant, and attended services with Thomas on Sundays. Men, hands in the air, yelled “Thank you, Jesus!” A band played music. A choir sang. It was pure joy in the joint. One time the rev asked the people in the pews who hadn’t already to accept Jesus in their lives. I did it, I accepted him, and I felt his spirit. I swear I did. Then I peeked through a watery periphery to see if any of my cronies saw me, on my knees, crying.
Other times, though, I’d get annoyed. When Thomas said Jesus was going to work a miracle and get him out, I didn’t think that was what the relationship was about. It wasn’t a practical expectation. Thomas’s post-conviction appeals, like mine, were exhausted. Like me, he killed a man with a gun in a drug-related murder. Clemency was his only shot, I told him, and that was political. Nothing to do with Jesus.
Thomas, who is still serving his sentence, knows where I need a spiritual reality check in turn. He knows my struggle with serenity and success, my cynicism and my ego. Even since my transfer a few years ago, he and his wife have kept in touch. This past Christmas I received a card from her: “I’m proud of you and the work you’ve been doing – we’ve been following.” It ended with this: “Make time for God.”
I recently spoke to a mental health worker. I asked about maybe going on an antidepressant but was concerned that fiddling with neurotransmitters would affect my creativity. He recommended that I get back into recovery literature and get closer to God. I respected him for telling me that, and not putting me on pills.
There’s no hiding from people in recovery.
I’ve been attending meetings again here in Sing Sing. I never wavered from believing in the AA script. I’ve seen enough miracles in the rooms to keep from becoming a cynic towards the program. There’s no hiding from people in recovery. They know me too well. I still say the Serenity Prayer in my head throughout the day, and another prayer every morning:
God, I offer myself to Thee – to build with me and do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, Thy Way of Life. May I do Thy will always!
When I went away to prison, my mother was mad at me for what I had done, for squandering those opportunities she had created for me when I was younger. Today she’s proud and amazed, but worried for my safety. Mom, who is seventy-four, suffers from Parkinson’s. She is frustrated that I haven’t submitted an application for clemency. “Can’t you just ask?” she says, her voice thick with emotion. “Can you do that for me?” When I hear her impassioned pleading, emotion runs through my body, too.
But I haven’t asked. Maybe it’s pride. Maybe I don’t ask because I don’t want to allow another man to invalidate me with a denial and break my mother’s heart. Why is one person “granted” clemency over another? Shouldn’t clemency be “earned”? And yet, I understand how in certain instances mercy can be powerful when it is given to those seemingly undeserving of it. Faith is perhaps at play here, faith that the recipient will be affected by the grace of mercy; but then, of course, there should be mercy for the vulnerable.
Since the Covid-19 crisis, I have been publishing, tweeting, and talking on my podcast about the conditions on the inside, asking that Governor Andrew Cuomo release the elderly. This virus has killed so many innocent people on the outside. In prison, it seems unavoidable that we will all get it, and it will kill many of us. I hate to have to grovel for mercy for my peers, but I feel summoned to do so.
I ask Aleem, who is fifty-five, if he has any fears about Covid-19. He is concerned, he tells me. He has two years left and doesn’t want to get sick. “Inshallah, we’ll all be OK . . .” I’ve been hearing Muslims say that for years now, but had never asked anyone what it meant. Aleem tells me it means “If God wills it.” While I still don’t know that God has designed all the plot points of my story arc, I do know that I should rely on him as I continue to plot them out.
Although the virus can and does take anyone, I’m forty-three and healthy and do not live in fear of Covid-19. I have already faced death. I took those ice picks to the chest more than ten years ago. It was payback for the guy I killed. I suffered a punctured lung.
I thought about my life up to that point, how I had accomplished nothing, how I might die and nobody but my poor mother would care.
There was a moment when I was holding my chest, piercing pain, stumbling. Everyone in the yard was ignoring what they had just seen. I thought about my life up to that point, how I had accomplished nothing, how I might die and nobody but my poor mother would care. I made a deal with God. If he would get me out of that jam, I would pursue a meaningful life.
He held up his end, and I hope he sees that I’m trying to hold up mine.
About the artist: In 1985, Anthony Papa was convicted of possession and sale of narcotics. Despite his status as a nonviolent, first-time offender, Papa received a sentence of fifteen years to life. He served twelve years in Sing Sing before he was granted clemency in 1996. During his incarceration, Papa earned two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s from the New York Theological Seminary. Papa began to paint while in prison: “I use my art as a means of visually translating the deep emotional responses of the human condition. My life choices forced me to discover my hidden artistic talent. In the same way I try to make that intuitive connection with the viewer of my art by living through my work, breaking down barriers that separate us from truth.”
John J. Lennon is serving twenty-eight years to life at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. He’s a contributing editor for Esquire and a contributing writer for The Marshall Project. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, Sports Illustrated, and New York Magazine, among others.Learn More