Life After Murder: A Review


Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption by Nancy Mullane (PublicAffairs, $26.99)

Will the stain of murder ever be removed from the soul of the perpetrator? There are many people in our society who are responsible for the death of another human being, and never face a judge or experience the confinement of a six foot by eight foot cell. Horrific events may occur during military combat or in the line of duty, and terms such as justifiable homicide and negligent behavior are used to minimize loss of life. The punishment for violators of this ancient law ranges from nolle prosequi to the death penalty.

This book, Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption, introduces the reader to several individuals hitting their head against the prison gate. They are “lifers”, a large category of men and women in US prisons with parole eligibility after a specified number of years or destined to be confined for the remainder of their time. This is an opportunity to visit the infamous San Quentin prison, equipped with the Big Yard and North Block, and to meet the “lifers”—family members, friends, program volunteers, and employees of the prison. Ms. Mullane has vast, though monitored, access throughout the maximum-security confines with a tape recorder and constantly requests permission before activating the machine.

The lives of five men are exposed thoroughly, as individuals who endured varying degrees of chaos in their early life and continued to struggle into adulthood to break the weight of captivity. It’s a major effort to navigate in a 4 ½ by 10 ¾ container with a cellmate, whose standards of personal hygiene may fall short of the norm. The high walls with barbed wire across the top are alarmed to prevent captives from returning to society until the prison sentence expires, via parole, wrap-up, or death. In retrospect, citizens are so intimidated by the intensive structure with the gun towers that there is reluctance to offer volunteer services at the site.

Lifers in California prisons are usually eligible for parole after 15 years. If the hearing results in a favorable vote, the paperwork must go to the governor for approval, due to a law known as Proposition 89. The Office of the Governor, whether Democratic or Republican, continues to reject the vast majority of Parole Board votes, even though lifers tend to be better prepared for release and thus more successful than other prisoners upon returning to the community. Nevertheless, another hearing must be held to determine suitability for transitional parole.

The process of seeking redemption must begin early during the incarceration period by accepting personal responsibility, making behavior changes, and undertaking a commitment to helping others. We don’t need any more victims! Prisoners may be guided through religion, faith, or quite simply another way of life, which encourages accountability, maturity and service work in the cellblock community and beyond the perimeter. Academic and vocational projects may offer insight and skills to function at an elevated level, while the wisdom of the elder guides the student, when politics won’t allow the prison gate to open.

Life After Murder is a must-read for family members and friends of victims, who may never appreciate the transformation of a teenage killer into a positive human being; for parole board members who refuse to jeopardize job security to consider that the lifer has a chance of success upon release; for the household, significant other or extended family who becomes weary of many lonely nights and may find comfort with a document about surviving the turmoil of lengthy incarceration; for the educators, counselors and program volunteers to acknowledge that the daily grind is well worth the effort; and for those called to encourage the other lifers to continue to pursue change, growth and fresh air. 

— Arnie KIng







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