A Prison Journalist’s Q&A with a Justice Advocate

I am a prison journalist, and I have been incarcerated for almost sixteen years, walking down a twenty-eight-years-to-life sentence for possession of a firearm, drug distribution, and a murder I committed on a Brooklyn street in 2001. I’ve spent most of my time in Attica Correctional Facility and recently transferred to Sing Sing Correctional Facility, another maximum-security prison, but this one closer to New York City. The prison is bustling with civilians involved with several privately funded programs: music, theater, higher education. There is also a group called Voices From Within (VFW), sponsored by NBC Dateline producer Dan Slepian, that hosts events with the youth, hipping them to the warning signs of trouble and offering them better life choices.

Years ago, VFW raised $8,000 from the prison population for a gun buyback. The money was supposed to be matched by several community partners but that never happened. Enter Bianca Tylek. Formerly with the Brennan Center for Justice, she is now the director of a new initiative at the Urban Justice Center called the Corrections Accountability Project.

In December 2016, Bianca met with VFW and learned that the gun buyback money was sitting idle. She vowed to help match it and published an article about the project at Huff Post on May 21, 2017. She kept her word. In September, Bianca met with VFW and reported to them that she managed to raise $10,000. Having begun my prison journalism career with articles on gun control, I supported her efforts 100 percent. While the logistics of the project still need to be sorted out, I thought it was time to shine a light on what she was doing. An editor put me in touch with her and she was game to talk to me. Continue reading “A Prison Journalist’s Q&A with a Justice Advocate”

From Attica prisoners to Harvard Law students: a message from behind the wall

The last great book I read made me cry and grind my teeth and pace my cell. It was written by a Harvard Law School graduate. It was Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. With the best education in America, Mr. Stevenson chose to “get close to,” defend and ultimately save the lives of people on death row. People on these kind of missions—playing a bigger game in life—make murderers like me melt.

My name is John J. Lennon and I am a thirty-nine-year-old prisoner serving twenty-eight years to life at Attica Correctional Facility in western upstate New York. I was convicted of selling drugs and shooting a man to death on a Brooklyn street in 2001. I’m sorry for killing him, I’m sorry for it all.

That said, I’m not just a murderer. Today I’m also a journalist. Years ago, I fell into a couple of opportunities at Attica. In a privately-funded pilot college program, I learned how to think better. In a creative writing workshop, I learned how to write clearer. Since then, my words have appeared in publications that make them matter.

Recently, Pete Davis, a law student and online editor at the Harvard Law Record, asked me to write a piece, offering a sort of open mic to talk to you all at Harvard Law. Since my lane is journalism and not the law, I figured I would interview a few of my seasoned prisonmates and get their takes. Continue reading “From Attica prisoners to Harvard Law students: a message from behind the wall”