Arts & Entertainment

In True Crime’s Shadow

New York Review of Books

“What are the consequences of illuminating human darkness for entertainment?” asks John J. Lennon in our March 9 issue. “When we do this, do we hinder the progress of writers who focus on criminal justice reform?” He is writing about Sarah Weinman’s book Scoundrel, a true crime account of the murderer Edgar Smith—who was released from prison after convincing William F. Buckley of his innocence, only to commit another crime and confess to his original one—but Lennon is also writing about his own experiences. Since 2013 he has written extensively on the conditions of prisons and the lives of convicts in the United States; since 2002 he has been a prisoner in New York state, after murdering a man in Brooklyn.

“Reading Weinman’s book today, as our country continues to execute people,” Lennon notes, “I wanted to hear more about what Buckley discovered in Smith, a man waiting to be electrocuted to death.” Something often obscured in works of true crime, be they lurid TV shows or well-researched books, is consideration for the lives of the people, guilty and innocent, locked behind bars. “Today we’re experiencing a renaissance of prison writing,” he continues, and the work of true crime writers “casts a dark cloud over these emerging voices.”

Below, alongside Lennon’s essay, we’ve collected a selection of articles from our archives about the effects of prisons on incarcerated people and their families.

John J. Lennon
Peddling Darkness

True crime stories, like Sarah Weinman’s Scoundrel, make for suspenseful reading. But do they exploit the criminal, and deepen a thirst for punishment?

John J. Lennon
The Murderer, the Writer, the Reckoning

“When I started my stretch behind bars in 2002, I had never heard of Jack Abbott. After I read his work, I came to identify with parts of his conflicted character, and I have at times taken inspiration from his writing. But I also resented how Abbott’s actions after he was paroled cemented a mistrust of prison writers and prison writing programs at a time when public opinion was swinging away from the prevailing liberal consensus in favor of rehabilitation.”

Jack Henry Abbott
In Prison

“It’s the prison system in America that drives us to outrages on one another. We are not animals but we are herded like animals. We are torn by the system of parole that rewards everything base and vile in a man. If we betray our poor comrades we are rewarded. If we compete for the good graces of our jailors we are rewarded. If we refuse to defend ourselves we are rewarded. If a man lets himself be used by the prison staff to catch another prisoner, he is rewarded.”

Sarah Lustbader
‘How Can I Keep My Family Safe?’: Worrying for My Clients on Rikers

“By prison administrator logic, preventing incarcerated people from drinking hand-sanitizer is more important than preventing them from dying in a pandemic.”

Nicole R. Fleetwood
Creation in Confinement: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

“The nonincarcerated public comes to recognize prison and the people in prison almost exclusively through a set of rehearsed images created by the state and by nonincarcerated image-makers—images like arrest photos, mug shots, the minimal furnishings of the prison cell, fortress-like walls, barbed wire, bars, metal doors, and the executioner’s chair.”

John J. Lennon, a conversation with Reginald Dwayne Betts
A Canon for the American Prisoner

“There’s something that books do for us that we just can’t get anywhere else. This is critically important for people in prison because so much of prison is trying to master the art of becoming: Who do you want to become?”

Categories: Arts & Entertainment

Leave a Reply