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Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption, by Nancy Mullane (Public Affairs Books, 2012). 384 pages, $26.99 (hard-cover)

Book review by John E. Dannenberg

With a gripping meld of investigative journalism and personal involvement, author Nancy Mullane digs into the true meaning of “life with the possibility of parole” for California murderers. Tracking the cases of five lifers who have done much more time than their minimum sentences, and whose families unswervingly supported them for decades in hope of their eventual release, Mullane learns what it takes to get paroled from a life sentence in California. Visiting the men weekly at San Quentin State Prison, she earns the respect of prison staff and the trust of the lifers, and is allowed to conduct meetings in cell blocks, the chapel and the prison yard.

None of the five life-sentenced prisoners is certain that the Board of Parole Hearings will ever find him “suitable” and fix a parole release date, much less that the governor will not reverse the Board’s decision. Delving into the difficult story of each man’s crime; getting to know their family members on the streets; interviewing their attorneys; querying staff – from guards to seasoned prison administrators – Mullane takes the pulse of every facet of the parole process.

More than just reporting on the status of parole hearings, Mullane learns the intimate details of self-help programs the men depend on for rehabilitation, how prison disciplinary reports can ruin one’s hopes for a parole hearing, and how the prisoners and their families deal with the repeated disappointments of parole denials and reversals.

Mullane makes effective use of the “flashback” writing style, adding an element of suspense to her book that mirrors what the lifers and their families go through. All are eventually paroled (a rarity for California lifers), and Mullane follows them home to chronicle the moments of joy of the families and the men as they first taste freedom following decades of confinement. Importantly, Mullane continues to follow their lives as the five struggle to reintegrate into society.

Life After Murder serves a need for public understanding of what California’s lifer parole process really involves. It also serves the dual purpose of reporting that the recidivism rate of such paroled lifers is less than 1%, which in turn informs readers that releasing the “worst of the worst” prisoners – murderers – is an important win-win solution for California’s financially strapped prison system and the state’s 10,000 parole-eligible lifers and their families.

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