Photo illustration of the inside of a prison.

When Dashka Slater looked at California’s parole system, she saw more than a sprawling bureaucracy; she saw a place where people struggled toward redemption. When she followed those seeking parole, the journalist and author found more than crimes and court hearings; she discovered a story about the power — and limits — of storytelling.

The result was her story, published Jan. 1, 2020, in The New York Times Magazine, “Can You Talk Your Way Out of a Life Sentence?”

At its heart the story is about storytelling — which stories are heard and which aren’t, which are rewarded with freedom and which lead back to a cell and an unaltered sentence.

Dashka Slater

Dashka Slater

Slater is no newcomer to reporting on the criminal-justice system. She was a reporter for the weekly East Bay Express when Oakland had one of the highest murder rates in the nation; reported for Mother Jones, including a story on a dramatically different approach to incarceration; and wrote a nonfiction book, “The 57 Bus,” that takes a nuanced look at a high-profile crime.

…one of the great gifts of a career spent listening to people’s stories is the optimism it bestows.

For the story on California’s parole system, Slater follows two prisoners, James Morgan and Johnny Smith. One earns parole, and one doesn’t. Storytelling plays a role in how both their hearings turn out.

Like most reporting on the criminal justice system, Slater’s story required patience. She could only conduct phone interviews with incarcerated sources in 15-minute chunks, and one in-person interview was delayed by a lockdown at San Quentin. When she wasn’t reporting directly, she was combing through the history of the legal system, eagerly searching out primary sources.

This interview with Slater has been edited for length and clarity.

Behind the scenes of a story behind bars

You’ve written before about criminal justice issues, such as your piece for Mother Jones on an experimental prison program in North Dakota. How did the idea for this particular story come about?
I was expressly not looking for a story at the time. My book “The 57 Bus,” which is about two teenagers on either side of a high profile crime, includes a short section on restorative justice, which is an alternative framework for responding to crime that is less about punishment and more about healing. A woman I swim with at my neighborhood pool had read the book and invited me to attend the first meeting of a restorative justice circle, now called the Citizen’s Circle, that would include both formerly incarcerated and never incarcerated people. I was already getting a lot of questions at my public appearances about restorative justice, and my plan was to attend this group once or twice, gain some additional insight into the restorative justice process that would allow me to speak more knowledgeably on the subject, and move on.

Read how The New York Times Magazine shot the cover of “How to Get Out of Prison”

Instead what happened was that I met a number of former lifers who had just been released after serving decades in prison, and they were remarkable people who had been through personal transformations that most Americans don’t believe possible for people who have committed violent crimes. As I listened to their stories, I found that many kept returning to this pivotal moment when they’d been “found suitable” for parole. I began to feel that for many former lifers, the parole hearing was the final ordeal in a kind of heroic journey toward redemption. What writer could resist?

Please describe the overall reporting and writing process.
I still attend the Citizen’s Circle on a weekly basis. In that circle, I’m a citizen, not a reporter. Because of my personal relationships within the group, and my expressly non-professional role in it, I did not want to write about anyone who I knew in that context. I also knew that I wanted to follow someone who was still incarcerated as they went through their parole hearing, so I started scanning the lists of upcoming hearings. In looking for people to follow, my criteria was ordinariness — I didn’t want someone whose story might typically attract attention from the media, which ruled out cop-killers or leaders of gangs, or people who proclaimed their innocence. I wanted people whose stories were more typical of the nearly 40,000 inmates serving life sentences in California.

In looking for people to follow, my criteria was ordinariness…

I attended both Morgan and Smith’s hearings and also had many phone calls with them, calls that occurred in 15 minute segments because that’s how long you can use the phone in prison. And there were interviews with as many people as I could find who were involved in the parole process in different ways and in different places, plus a ridiculous amount of reading of old court cases and law review articles and various kinds of studies to get a sense of how the thinking about parole had changed over time and what it looked like across the country.

By the time I was ready to write, I had two fat binders worth of interviews and documents and I was immediately confronted with the problem of all magazine writers — way too much good material. Plus, there was the problem of needing to educate readers on a lot of fairly arcane legal and policy stuff if they were going to be able to follow the story. Sometimes writing is fun, but I moaned and complained throughout every draft of this piece.

I was struck by the emphasis on storytelling — the idea that prisoners must craft a compelling and specific type of narrative to win parole. Was this idea present from the beginning, or did it emerge during reporting?
My interest in the storytelling piece was there from the beginning. But my awareness of what a double-edged sword it is began to grow as I was reporting. I was very attracted to the idea that we can tame our pasts and shape our future through the act of telling stories, and by the notion that the parole board was something like a State Board of Storytelling, with commissioners who were giving inmates editorial feedback on their narratives in real time. In the Citizen’s Circle, I could see how the telling of personal stories was part of the healing process. At the same time, I was aware that by definition, I was only seeing the people for whom this process worked; if it didnt work for them, they would still be in prison.

I was very attracted to the idea that we can tame our pasts and shape our future through the act of telling stories, and by the notion that the parole board was something like a State Board of Storytelling…

You contrast two potential parolees in James Morgan and Johnny Smith — one who earns parole, one who doesn’t. What do you think the story gains from delving into both men’s experience?
I didn’t set out to find two contrasting examples. My plan was to follow two people and write about one of them — which would certainly have been more straightforward than what I did. But after attending their two hearings back-to-back, I was struck by the ways Morgan and Smith were similar — both had been low level gang-members involved in revenge shootings — and the ways they were different. Morgan is very psychological by nature — the language of emotions is mother’s milk to him and he has an innate drive to understand his past and make sense of it. Smith is far more interested in the concrete and the tangible — what happened, rather than why it happened. And yet both seemed to me to be “reformed” in the sense that neither was likely to go back to their old lives or habits. For me the contrast between their stories let me zero in on the ways in which the emphasis on insight and narrative is and isn’t useful as a rubric for determining whether an inmate is suitable for release.

You present quite a bit of history, both on the idea of penal rehabilitation and the specific history of sentencing in California. How did you research those sections of the story?
I started my reporting career in Oakland, Calif., in 1990 and spent 10 years reporting there when it had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation. So some of the history I recounted was history that I watched unfold — an epidemic of urban violence and a tough-on-crime response that led to an incarceration explosion. That’s one of the things that fascinated me about writing the piece — it was like seeing the end of a movie I’d started watching 30 years before.

Having spent three decades writing about criminal justice, I knew the broad outlines of sentencing history, but I had to go back and read a lot of law and policy to really understand the specifics. I am a big fan of primary source materials so I’m always looking for things that were written at the time that major policy changes took place, that capture how people were thinking when they were in the middle of it, before they knew how the story was going to end. So while I read criminal justice history and interviewed people who could talk about the history of parole, I felt most excited when I discovered that 1981 law review article that laid out the argument for why rehabilitation shouldn’t be the goal of California prisons.

I love the ending, especially the last line, because it returns to the idea of stories. Was it always your intended ending, or did it change during writing or editing?
My first draft ended with an image of Morgan walking around San Francisco a couple days after his release — a kind of Rip Van Winkle moment as he reentered the present tense after his decades in suspended animation. But that ending didn’t feel right to me; it felt too pat, too much of a predictable “happy ending.”

First drafts for me are all about getting the basics down on paper — facts, characters, events. The finer shadings come later and so I spent a couple of drafts trying to bring the nuances to the surface, tease out the contradictions. When I wrote that last line, I knew it was the right one immediately because it captured the slipperiness of the task of making sense of an interrupted life and the ambivalence that I felt myself about how to tell the story of parole.

 What was the biggest challenge in working on the story?
Any time you’re working with the correctional system, there are a lot of built-in challenges around communication. At one point early in the reporting process, I left my phone in a Lyft and couldn’t get it back until the next day. I had a full-scale anxiety attack that night because I was just starting to get to know Morgan and Smith and they were both supposed to call me at an appointed time the next morning. If I missed their calls, there was no easy way for me to explain why I wasn’t answering or to set another time for them to call. (Luckily, I managed to get my phone back before the appointed hour.) Similarly, visiting someone in prison is far more difficult than it should be. There were a couple months when San Quentin was on lockdown and so I couldn’t visit Smith. Then the lockdown was lifted but when I drove out to see him I discovered he’d been transferred to another prison.

It’s a long story, with two different protagonists, and it took a while to find a structure that allowed me to jump between the two of them and the historical and policy segments without feeling choppy or losing the sense of forward motion.

But aside from these logistical issues, the biggest challenge was figuring out how to tell a story that required so much explanation of law and policy without losing the narrative energy and emotional engagement that had first drawn me to the topic and that I knew would keep a reader turning pages. It’s a long story, with two different protagonists, and it took a while to find a structure that allowed me to jump between the two of them and the historical and policy segments without feeling choppy or losing the sense of forward motion.

Is there anything you learned about writing or reporting you think would be helpful for other journalists?
Articles about bureaucratic processes, about the way policies are administered, are often a hard sell; they don’t sound sexy in a pitch letter. But the complexity of any issue emerges at the point when you start implementing the law or policy that seemed so clear-cut during the legislative debate. Locking people up seems simple enough; figuring out how to let them out is a lot more complicated. I think there’s a lot of good reporting to be done in these less-visited bureaucratic realms, and a lot of compelling stories to be told.

What kind of response have you received?
Most of the responses that have come directly to me are from people who are involved in the criminal justice system or work in criminal justice policy — the people who know this world already. In the online comments, of course, there was a lot of skepticism that “criminals” can undergo genuine change and a certainty that any incarcerated person who appears sympathetic is actually a manipulative psychopath. This line of thinking runs so deep in American culture that I find it unsurprising but incredibly sad. It reflects such a deep cynicism about human beings as a species. I know reporters are supposed to be jaded and cynical, but for me one of the great gifts of a career spent listening to people’s stories is the optimism it bestows — an optimism born of seeing human resilience and grace in the face of adversity.

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