When you get locked up, you’re not thinking about regret or remorse. You try to work out a good plea deal or beat the rap. In early 2002, at 24, I was in jail on Rikers Island in New York after copping to two plea deals — one for selling heroin, and the other for possessing a gun. I should have already been bused upstate to prison, but I was still in holding. I had an idea why. A body had washed ashore on a Brooklyn beach, and I was a suspect. They were investigating. I told my mother. She knew I did it, and she hired a good trial lawyer.
My attorney wanted it straight. What happened? Who saw me? Whom did I tell? I told him how I killed Alex Lawson, a former friend with whom I had grown up in the Brooklyn housing projects. I shot him while he was sitting in a car, put him in a truck, then a laundry bag, then the ocean. “Look, you must not talk about this on the phone or with your friends back on Rikers,” the lawyer said. “No bragging. If you’re feeling guilty, go talk to the priest.”
I did talk to a priest and told him what I did. By that point, I’d gone to trial; the jury deadlocked, split down the middle. The priest told me to take the plea deal — 15 years to life — and Christ would forgive me. I didn’t listen, and at my second trial, I was convicted. At one point, the prosecutor showed the jury a blown-up picture of Alex’s body, and I heard a wail from the audience that echoed throughout the courtroom. It was Alex’s mother. In that moment — for the first time — I felt guilt, and shame. I was responsible for her pain. But I couldn’t say I was sorry, my attorney warned: If the appeals court granted a new trial, an acknowledgment like that could hurt me. The judge sentenced me to the max, consecutive to the time I was already serving. I wound up with an aggregate term of 28 years to life.
I killed a criminal, not an innocent, and in prison that was respected. Walled off from society, we create our own social hierarchies here. Those of us at the top of the pecking order — gangsters, drug dealers, stick-up kids (all of whom also may be killers) — rationalized that our crimes were merely the predictable result of “the life.” The predators and sexual deviants who preyed on women and children were the miscreants at the bottom.
When my appellate attorney informed me that my appeal had been denied, I told the other inmates studying their cases in the law library. They told me to never admit guilt, to stay in the law books. There was always a way out.
I first began to think about making amends around 2012, in a 12-step group at Attica Correctional Facility, a New York prison infamous for a 1971 uprising in which state troopers, local police and guards fired more than 400 rounds in the yard, hitting 128 people and killing 39. My sponsor was a 60-something Jewish banker who was NBA tall and had been volunteering in prisons for more than 20 years. He knew my ego, knew it cloaked my shame, knew that I wanted to be better. He’d say, “John, to thine own self be true.” A jailhouse tattoo artist inked the quote from “Hamlet” on my arm.
My sponsor urged me to list my resentments and fears and the people I had harmed. When I asked him about getting right with my guilt about the murder and contacting Alex’s family, he advised against it. Some wrongs we could never fully make right, he told me. I could make indirect amends, by “mending my ways”: Stay sober. Help others. One day, maybe write the family a letter.
I’d started to do some work on myself, following my sponsor’s advice. I read the 12-step literature and listed my resentments (my father, for killing himself when I was 10; the system, for judging me so harshly); my fears (not being good enough; never making something of myself); the harm I’d done to others (the psychotic cocaine binges with a lady friend who used to sell drugs for me, and the times I hit her; that time my girlfriend and I were fighting and I caught her with a closed fist, and how her then-14-year-old son saw her black eye the next morning, and how I couldn’t look him in the eye when I told him I was sorry; flaunting the drug-dealing lifestyle to her younger son, an impressionable 13-year-old who idolized me, who eventually followed my path and today sits in federal prison; how I killed Alex and devastated his whole family). But just because I was doing step work didn’t mean Alex’s family wanted to hear from me.
I joined a creative writing workshop taught by a volunteer who was an English professor. Getting thoughts out of my head and onto the page was a cathartic process that helped me better understand myself. It also strengthened my sobriety, at least at first. In 2014, a story of mine was published in a recovery journal, but I wrote only one sentence about amends. Echoing my sponsor, I wrote: “I made the amends I could make, but realized I had to make many amends indirectly, through service.”
My mother, who had been going to recovery meetings and reading the journal much of her life, was proud of me. I was proud of me. That pride fueled a writing career from prison that has reached even further than my own ample delusions of grandeur. I took to journalism and wrote about social justice issues: gun control, college in prison, aging in prison. The more I published, the more I felt like I was earning a new identity. I no longer wanted to be the killer, I wanted to be the writer.
In virtually every one of my published pieces, I have offered a sort of “by the way” paragraph telling the reader why I’m in prison. The story goes something like this: Back in 2001, immersed in the drug-dealing lifestyle, I shot and killed a friend-turned-foe on a Brooklyn street. He’d already beaten a murder rap and had shaken down one of my street dealers. I couldn’t let this stand. I’d follow this up with an apology, a variation of this glum line: “I’m sorry for killing him and taking all the life he could have had.” (The Washington Post attempted to contact the Lawson family for comment, but did not hear back.)
Around the time I started publishing, I read an ad about New York’s apology letter bank in Pro Se, a legal newsletter distributed to prisoners in the state. Because prisoners are prohibited from corresponding directly with the victim, or members of the victim’s family, without permission from the facility’s superintendent, the state Office of Victim Assistance (OVA) created a venue for communication called the apology letter bank, a “safe system for the victim to either receive a copy of the letter of apology that was written by the incarcerated individual; or be advised orally of its contents, when and if the victim wishes to take that step.” The directive states that the OVA will contact only victims or families who are registered with the office, and the prisoner will not be informed about whether the victim or family has read the letter.
Most inmates don’t know about the bank — out of 20 random prisoners I asked in the yard, only four knew what it was exactly. New York is one of 12 states that have apology letter banks, according to an informal survey by the Washington State Department of Corrections. Retrieval rates are sparse: As of 2017, in Colorado, of the 400 letters that prisoners had submitted since the bank was established in 2012, only 15 were delivered. Pennsylvania’s bank, also established in 2012, had received 3,709 letters, with 250 delivered in the same time period. (Data for New York is not available.)
The OVA’s directive offers guidelines for how a prisoner should approach writing an apology letter — that expecting forgiveness, for instance, is self-serving, and means you probably aren’t ready to write the letter. Reading this, I wondered: Was it selfish to hope for forgiveness?
I started to think that maybe the apology bank could be an opportunity to try my hand at that letter my sponsor suggested I write one day. On some level, of course, it seemed like a futile exercise, because the family would probably never read my words. But when you find yourself thinking about writing an apology to the family of the man you murdered, you tend to make all kinds of excuses.
In 2016, I was transferred from Attica to Sing Sing Correctional Facility, another notorious New York maximum-security prison, 40 miles north of New York City, where I met Javier Miranda. He has been in prison for 26 years. In 1994, a 26-year-old police officer named Sean McDonald caught Javier and another man, Rodolfo Rodriguez, robbing a New York City tailor. McDonald told Javier to get against a wall, and Rodriguez shot and killed the officer. Javier pleaded guilty and received 25 years to life. “There was a picture in the paper of his wife sitting on a cemetery bench, holding her child’s hand,” Javier told me. “And I’ve always remembered it. It still haunts me.”
Today, Javier is 51, with a square jaw, a soft smile and a sort of self-help guru vibe, which irked me at first. I soon came to see his decency: He had God in his life, talked about ideas, not people, and his generous nature often meant an unexpected bowl of rice and beans showing up on the tray slot in my cell bars. Javier came to prison speaking no English, then earned undergraduate and graduate degrees and published “Out of the Wilderness,” a two-pound paperback manual of tips on how to do positive time in the American prison system. He writes about the apology letter bank in the book, describing two types of guilt: fixated (shame-based) and constructive. The latter, he says, is the kind that allows prisoners to make amends. He suggests a three-step plan well known to anyone in recovery: Make a list of people you have harmed; develop a contrite attitude and empathy; and find the right words to express your remorse with a trusted friend. Then he offers some sample letters.
Over the years, Javier told me he’d submitted a few apology letters to the bank. He struggled with things as simple as how and to whom to address the letter. “When you write the letter,” he said, “you labor over every word, because every word could be taken as an excuse.”
Even though I had never written an apology letter, I didn’t hesitate to critique the process. With his elbows on my cell bars, Javier patiently watched and listened while I sat on my bunk and talked crap, surmising that most guys wrote apology letters to look good before the parole board. What’s more, I said, Alex’s family probably wasn’t even registered with the Office of Victim Assistance, and my research indicated that most apology letters were never delivered. What’s the point of writing one?
It’s a passive tool, I blustered, with no purpose other than allowing corrections officials to check off the box for fostering inmate rehabilitation. If the purpose was to gain insight and emotional growth, prisoners would get more of that from therapeutic group sessions with professional counselors.
I follow a somewhat unusual therapeutic route, confronting my demons through my writing — and even with the collaboration of editors, I’m still a mess, depressed and anxious. But I confidently assured Javier that Alex’s family could plainly see that I had apologized in my published work. It was the kind of thing that you know is wrong as soon as you hear yourself say it out loud. Javier jutted his chin forward and raised his eyebrows. “John,” he said, shaking his head, “look, I’m in no position to judge, but saying sorry in your articles doesn’t amount to a personal apology. How would the family feel if they learned about the apology letter bank, asked for a letter from you, and there wasn’t one there?”
I knew it was arrogant of me to suggest that my words in print equaled a personal apology. Javier and I first had this conversation almost two years ago when I was about to publish an exposé, a years-in-the-making investigative story about the culture of abuse of mentally ill inmates at Attica. I was about to be a hero. I couldn’t see the point of going through the painful experience of writing a letter that would disappear into the ether, or, if Alex’s family did see it, of having my hard-won efforts twisted in their minds. I’d be a villain. I just didn’t want to do it.
In October 2018, CNN’s HLN documentary and news unit talked to me for a series hosted by Chris Cuomo. For two hours, I sat across the table from Cuomo in a Sing Sing schoolhouse classroom, security lining the wall, and we talked about committing murder in cold blood and becoming a journalist in prison. A few months later, I received an email from one of Cuomo’s producers. The producer was letting me know that they had met with Alex’s family members, who were saying I had not contacted them to apologize or ask for forgiveness. Did I have a response?
One of my colleagues read the email to me. It was the closest thing to a direct message I’d ever received from Alex’s family. This was heavy, and I had to think. I felt fear and excitement. Would they want to meet with me? Was I ready to hear their hurt, answer their questions? Would I have to grovel? They said I hadn’t asked for forgiveness. Did they expect me to? I felt confused and scared and alone. I wanted the apology to be a private exchange. In that moment, I felt summoned to write a letter, and the apology letter bank seemed ideal.
“During this documentary, I’m sure your cameras have caught the hurt that I’ve caused, hurt that I’ve been unable to see up close, and the hurt that I still rationalize in many ways … ” Through a colleague, I dictated a response to the producer over the prison phone. “Forgiveness, I’ve read, can be transformative, especially for the victims. Yet I’m not sure how to go about asking for forgiveness. I’m not sure about a lot with all of this. … Perhaps it is best to do so in a letter.”
From the producer’s message, I couldn’t tell whether Alex’s family members really wanted to hear from me, or whether they were simply exasperated and hurt because I had made no attempt to apologize to them. The rules prohibited me from contacting them directly, this was true. But Javier said I shouldn’t get into all that in the letter. I worried that I was going to look like a phony, I told Javier, someone who fancied himself a writer but never had the decency to write an apology letter and was doing so now only to save face. Javier kindly avoided saying, “I told you so.” Instead, he advised me to focus less on my image and more on what I was going to write to the family.
I spend most of my waking hours in my cell writing for magazines. In my stories, I’m the reliable narrator on the inside, explaining the plight of my protagonist, say, a seriously mentally ill man who encounters the complicated situation that is prison. Because I’ve intrigued the reader with this narrative, drawing him in with empathy, I hope for some forbearance when I offer the details of my crime in passing. This is the dynamic of journalism, a trick of the trade in which I like to think I have some expertise.
But that all went away when I was writing a personal letter to Alex’s family. The rhetorical situation was too complex, my carefully constructed persona now elusive. I had to state my purpose (an apology for committing murder); address an intimate audience (expecting their resentment and hurt, possibly even their hate); and overcome belated timing (my contrition was potentially compromised by the family’s perception that I was trying to save face after being grilled in a television interview).
Another close friend on the inside helped me. He’s a smart man and a deep thinker; he has read all my work. This letter, he said, would contain some of the most important words I would ever write. We sat at a metal picnic table in the cellblock yard. A TV blared a rerun of “Criminal Minds”; a man with mental illness ranted and raved; another prisoner grunted as he hit the heavy bag. My friend suggested that I humanize Alex, maybe share a vignette about our friendship, then explain what happened, and name my wrongs.
I addressed the letter to Alex’s mother and sister. When my friend read the first draft, he told me it needed less of me, and more empathy toward Alex and the family. After two more drafts, it started to take shape. Alex’s father had died, I noted in the letter, shortly before I shot Alex. When Alex went missing, I put them through a horrible time — weeks passed, then months, without hearing from him. I admitted my foul behavior at the trials: “acting innocent, hiding behind my lawyer, making outbursts, staying silent at sentencing, never accountable.” I told them I hate that I was the maker of all their hurt. “I was a criminal, empty inside — and that’s what made me capable of this,” I wrote.
I started to understand what Javier meant about overanalyzing every word and sentence, hoping to find words that don’t cause more pain. While writing to Alex’s mother and sister, I felt guilty for having written about him so dispassionately and the murder so glibly in my published articles. I couldn’t hide behind the higher calling of journalism. In that moment, all the pride I had from my work turned to shame. I suppose this was the humbling insight I was meant to get from drafting the apology letter. “As I write this right now,” I wrote, “I’m thinking about how I’ve written about him in my stories. Is there a way, going forward, that I can better represent his memory?”
I don’t know whether my letter was everything it should have been, but my friend told me it was good enough, so I mailed it to the apology letter bank. I felt relieved and reread a copy in my cell several times, wondering how they would receive it, cringing at certain parts I wished I could have reworded. I waited and wondered and hoped I would hear something.
As I sit on my bunk and type away on my typewriter, working on this essay, the guy in the cell across from me, also a murderer, is clapping and laughing at an episode of “Shameless.” This is prison: television, board games, cards, dominoes, working out, gossiping in the yard. We live on the surface. We dare not pull back the layers to investigate what lies beneath. But we’re not required to. I’ve been in prison almost 18 years, serving time in several New York state max facilities; “corrections” rarely offers a therapeutic outlet to help us see how our actions affect others.
Sing Sing, in fact, is one of the few prisons that offer a program centered on remorse: the Longtermers Responsibility Project, a 15-week workshop that helps people assess the damage they have done and learn to process it in a healthy way. The curriculum, called Coming to Terms, is taught by a restorative justice professional and sponsored by the Osborne Association, a nonprofit organization that runs family-oriented programs for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. My friend Joseph Wilson, who’s 38 and has served 12 years of a 25-years-to-life sentence for killing a man on a Brooklyn street, is the inside coordinator for Coming to Terms. (I’m on the waiting list.) He completed the program two years ago. The group journaled, reflected and met a woman whose sister was murdered. It was intense, Joe told me, when the woman recounted the conversation she had with her sister’s children, having to tell them that Mommy wasn’t coming home.
At the end of the workshop, Joe wrote an apology letter to the mother of the man he killed and sent it to the letter bank. Since he’d been incarcerated, he explained, he’d gotten married, and fathered Faith, his daughter, the result of a conjugal visit. Having a family, he wrote, helped him understand “the soul investment, the feelings of being chained to someone by the heart.” Joe feared that he didn’t deserve a daughter; that she might be murdered because of what he did. He says his fear and helplessness helped him relate to his victim’s mother, if only in a small way. “It’s the internal conflict,” Joe told me. “That’s what survivors want you to have. They want you to never imagine yourself hurting someone like that again.”
A day or so after my HLN interview aired in July, I called my brother from the phone booth on the tier. He put the phone by the TV speaker and played the show for me. I heard the prosecutor at my trial refer to me as the “embodiment of evil.” I heard Alex’s sister talking about going Christmas shopping with her mom and buying Alex a present, even though he’d been missing for days. I heard Alex’s godson describing how he looked up to Alex, and heard Cuomo describing a young Alex playing football, with his family cheering him on.
A maelstrom of complicated emotions took over as I listened to the show. I was startled and humbled by how jarring it felt to hear Alex’s family speak. It’s hard to hear the worst parts of yourself broadcast on national television. I felt like I was being retried for a crime that happened 18 years earlier and subjected, without my consent, to a narrative that mostly focused on who I had been, not who I had become. You suck it up because you have to clean up your side of the street. Most villains never conceive of themselves as morally evil. But when Cuomo interviewed the prosecutor and I heard him relate how I had called Alex’s mother after the murder, pretending to look for him, covering my tracks — well, that’s when I realized I was the villain in this story. It didn’t matter who was telling it.
Alex’s family members never had much of a voice during the criminal proceedings. The show gave them a voice, a platform to name their hurt. It was hard to hear their pain. For so long, I felt it was just Alex and me, and my narrative — that it was “the life,” as I had rationalized in my stories.
By the end of the HLN show, Cuomo showcased my writing career, and I heard my mother say, through tears, that she is proud of me today. But my articles bothered Alex’s family; I continue “to victimize Alex, even in his death,” Alex’s sister’s husband said. It hurt to hear that the thing that made me feel like I was becoming a worthwhile person, the thing that made my mother proud, was causing them more pain. It’s hard to publish from prison and avoid writing about the very thing that landed you there. But if I no longer mention Alex in my writing, does that mean that I am erasing what I did — erasing him? Whatever success I may have found as a writer, especially while in prison, will always be linked, in some butterfly effect way, to Alex.
It’s a common trope used in criminal justice circles that we are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. The idea speaks to the humanity of and potential for someone like me. When I wrote about Alex’s criminality to diminish my own culpability, that was wrong. Alex, too, was more than his worst deed. His potential has never been realized because of me. I should be the last person to disparage Alex for who he was at the time of his death.
Writing this essay, ruminating about murder and remorse, being pushed and pulled, has been emotional, dangerous writing. But it is this writing — although it sometimes torments me and, at other times, prompts a bit of false pride and arrogance — that has helped me to better understand myself in a place where there are, frankly, few outlets that push us toward introspection. Am I the writer or the murderer? I’ve come to realize, regretfully, that I will always be both.
John J. Lennon is a prison journalist, a contributing writer for the Marshall Project and a contributing editor at Esquire. He is serving a sentence of 28 years to life at Sing Sing for second-degree murder and will be eligible for parole in 2029.
Illustrator Jesse Krimes is an artist based in Philadelphia, a co-founder of Right of Return USA Fellowship and a fellow at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the Art for Justice Fund. He served six years in multiple federal prisons for drug offenses.
Design by Christian Font.