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Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons

Gustavo Alvarez

October 14, 2020

Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez and I were in prison at the same time during the 1990s, though our stories are remarkably different. His first conviction was the natural result of the gang life he’d been leading for most of his teenage years—born to hard-working Mexican parents in a tough part of LA, carjacking and shootings by fifteen. I was in a Catholic high school at that age, later messing around with hashish overseas while teaching English after college. I am white and from the suburbs. Growing up a Hispanic male in West LA, Goose has seen America’s fault lines like I never could: the country’s gang life and racial lines, the Rodney King riots in ‘92, California’s juvenile halls and county jails, federal prison, the southern border. He has seen America’s underbelly.

Samuel Barlow

December 2, 2019

Sam is sweating in the folding chair next to me in this crumbling cell. We’re on the third floor of block 12 of America’s most historic prison, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, ground zero in our country’s story of punishment.

Eastern State is now a museum and significant tourist attraction, and Sam, incredibly, is a free man. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf commuted his sentence just four months ago, in May of 2019, after Sam had spent fifty years in prison, including a stretch right here on death row at Eastern State in 1968 as an eighteen-year-old.

Billy Sinclair

May 3, 2017

On the cold rainy night that Billy Sinclair attempted his first armed robbery, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1965, he was just another abused, reckless twenty-year-old punk. He had no intention of hurting anyone, he says, but as he fled from the Pak-A-Sak convenience store he shot and killed clerk James C. Bodden, who was chasing Sinclair with a broom raised over his head.

Vickie Stringer

January 25, 2016

Vickie Stringer's voice is soothingly sweet and smooth over the line. I notice she keeps using my name, drawing me in—"Don't you think so, Cullen?" and "Cullen, isn't it true…" I could have listened to her for a few more hours.
Stringer has made sharp choices and paid for them: running an escort service, dealing cocaine with her ex-boyfriend, spending seven years in prison in the 90s, growing a publishing company. She's a hustler, an ex-con, a mogul, and a mother.

Jack Gantos

June 1, 2015

In 1971, Jack Gantos, a twenty-year-old, good-kid criminal, dodged the Feds at the Chelsea Hotel. They knew of his role in the smuggling of 2,000 pounds of hashish into New York City, on a boat he'd helped sail up from the Virgin Islands. The authorities knew who he was, where his family lived, that he'd been selling the hash around town out of a shopping cart he freewheeled down the streets.
So he turned himself in...

Mitchell S. Jackson

March 31, 2014

Mitchell S. Jackson has written a fine one. His acclaimed novel The Residue Years (a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction) is the story of a young mother and son plagued by love and drugs, heartbreak and hard wisdom. A fiction of truth, told with compression and velocity.
I sat down with Mitch at the Center for Fiction in the old Mercantile Library in midtown Manhattan.

Billy Hayes

December 31, 2013

Billy Hayes is restless. I'm sitting across from him in the Hudson Diner, on a balmy fall afternoon in the West Village. He's a child of the '60s, a seeker, an experimenter. Not many realize the role writing played in his Turkish adventure, described in his 1977 internationally-bestselling book Midnight Express and depicted in the Academy Award–winning movie of the same name. (Oliver Stone won his first Oscar for the script, the movie's fictionalized, harrowing version of Hayes's experience seared into the memories of many who've seen it.) For years, Hayes wanted to be a writer, and believed he needed to go out and seek stories, to light after inspiration with a club—or, less favorably if you're caught, with bricks of hashish.

Patricia McConnel

October 3, 2013

On her Goodreads page, Patricia McConnel describes her life arc as "vagrant, drug mule, and dilettante hooker to award-winning author in a mere forty years."
She writes boldly and shoots straight. I loved her book Sing Soft, Sing Loud, which contains short stories of prison and survival among hard-living women, with a young narrator who thinks, observes, and feels through the scrabble. Writing in The Los Angeles Times, Carolyn See called Sing Soft, Sing Loud: "Extraordinary, heartbreaking….The tales here range from grizzly to harrowing and back again….But there is some good news. You can write your way through the bars, through space, through time."

Matthew Parker

February 13, 2013

You know what struck me about Matthew Parker, one-time homeless wanderer, former drug addict with more than ten years of prison under his belt, between his ears, now a writer and graphic author?
A basic decency.
We met in the New York Botanical Garden in mid-January. The Bronx River was frozen with rich swaths of emerald in it. At times, Matt looked carefully out into the main space of the café where we finally sat. We were safe, against a brick wall and with a full view of the room. But I wondered if it wasn't the ex-con in him warily peering out at the world.

Piper Kerman

October 23, 2012

I took a tall seat at the Old Town Bar, next to the front doors, opened on that sunny fall day to the street. Old Town, been here forever almost, on New York City's 18th Street, just above Union Square. It's proud and lived in. You can feel it. No doubt many a lost soul or saved woman has sat here amidst the drink and the story-soaked wood.
In walked Piper Kerman to join me. She is the author of the 2010 memoir Orange is the New Black, a catchy title for her story of how, years after briefly running money for an international heroin gang, she was indicted, convicted, and served roughly a year in the federal women's prison in Danbury, Connecticut.

J.M. Benjamin

September 12, 2012

Back in 2007, I read a New York Times article that told the unlikely story of a recent ex-con who had given up the drug game and was now hustling his own books. The story struck me.
J.M. Benjamin grew up on the streets of Plainfield, New Jersey. He spent more than twelve years—most of his adult life—in state and federal prisons in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Neil White

August 8, 2012

Here is Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (2010), a vivid and popular account of the year he spent, in the early 1990s, in the federal prison in Carville, Louisiana, which also held within its walls one of the last leper colonies in the United States.
I spoke to Neil by phone as he whipped through the back woods of Alabama.

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