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John J. Lennon, a journalist and prisoner at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, in 2018.
Life Inside

What I Think About When I Think About Freedom

“It’s conflicting, I imagine, to hear how someone who once took a life thinks about living a good life.”

I’ve been locked up almost 18 years now. In 2001, back in Brooklyn, I shot and killed a man. I was all in selling and snorting mounds of drugs—life was fast and cheap.

This story was published in partnership with New York.

In September 2029, a little less than 10 years from now, I’ll see the parole board. I will probably appear before the commissioners on a large screen monitor, the same way they will appear before me. They’ll have the results from a computerized survey, which I’ll take weeks before, assessing my risk to the community. I’ll tell them that I am sorry and take responsibility.

Then I’ll suggest, trying not to sound too smug about it, that perhaps assessing my CV and writing career is a better way to predict my future risk—or success—in society. When I came in, I was a criminal, and prison was the next chapter. Over the years, I learned to write, went to college, and built a career as a prison journalist publishing stories in national magazines and websites, including Esquire, The Atlantic and New York.

I believe they’ll let me go. If you're a serial killer, cop killer, a person with serious mental illness and no support or the guy who killed the other John Lennon, you might not be as lucky.

I’ll be 52. Not too young, not too old.

Doing time becomes so much harder when you know you are ready to go but are unable to leave. When I am not writing, I am mostly stuck in my head. Soul-crushing depression is a constant blow from within.

The outer blows are the aerial assault-like noises in this place: Guards barking over the PA, men yelling up and down the tier, keys jingling, walkie talkies crackling, gates slamming. Your brain automatically tells you what’s to come next. A guard’s round, a cell search, chow run, med run, count clear. Anxiety squeezes my belly.

“What are you going to write about when you get out?” I hate when people ask me this, as if prison were my muse. Of course, prison provides plenty of material—wild scenes, colorful characters, compelling plots.

But once I’m out, my shifting realities and dueling identities—the murderer, the writer, the ex-con—will be packed with conflict, which is the most important element of story. Perhaps my best writing, then, is yet to come.

I mean, how else am I supposed to think about it?

I often look out my Sing Sing cell window and watch the sailboats blow by on the Hudson, the mountains turning green and brown and white. I think about getting out in 10 years.

I picture myself at work someday, maybe in the glass-walled offices of Esquire, 21 stories above my old Hell’s Kitchen Manhattan neighborhood, staring off with the 30-year prison gaze, stuck in my head at my desk, occasionally laughing and talking to myself, mildly schizophrenic, like I used to do all of those years in the solitary of my cell. I hope my colleagues won’t mind.

I think about the people who will be part of my life in the future. I have one living brother. (The other one overdosed.) He’s older and humble and hates what I did, as much as he hates Donald Trump. He loves that I turned my life around, and loves golf and David Brooks. When I get out we plan to sail by Sing Sing.

I imagine the vulnerable strangers who I will meet in church basements. Over the years I have built some powerful relationships with colleagues—writers, editors, producers—but if I don’t prioritize relationships in recovery when I get out, those other relationships won’t matter in the end.

I think about shallow shit, too. I need several teeth implanted (they tend to just pull them out in here), and I want veneers, and I want a one bedroom in Manhattan, in a high-rise building with amenities. And I want to sport Ferragamo, cashmere scarves and peacoats. It’s conflicting, I imagine, to hear how someone who once took a life thinks about living a good life. Even still, I don’t want you all to resent me for wanting these nice things for myself.

I wonder what it will be like to live in society with the narrative of my past just a few fingertip swipes away. What will the dating scene be like? Maybe I’ll meet someone, tell them my name, and they’ll stalk me out and ghost me, as if I were the bogeyman. Or they’ll be intrigued, subconsciously waiting for me to become dark and manipulative, like a true crime villain. But I’m most concerned with experiencing intimacy and joy and connection. I don’t feel close to anyone anymore. Except my mother. But she can’t be close to me.

Mom prefers to think of me in my younger, more vulnerable years. It was a dark time for her when I went away for murder, a somber, resigned state of shame. She’s 73 now, in her own prison that is Parkinson’s disease. And she swears that she will never see me free. But Mom is proud of me today, she says, and she has seen enough to know that my future will be bright.

John J. Lennon, 42, is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and a contributing editor at Esquire. His work, available on his website, has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Quartz, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Hedgehog Review and other publications. He is serving 28 years to life for second-degree murder at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York.