The One Perspective on Serial You Haven’t Heard: What Prisoners Think

If this was a podcast, you’d hear the hum of animated conversation in the background, then my voice overtop: “What you are listening to are the voices of the incarcerated…”

I’d say this, placing my words strategically to drown out those men not yet approved by the office that determines if a prisoner can be seen and heard by the public. I’d explain that these men are talking about the Serial podcast — not unlike the conversations the Serial-obsessed had everywhere, over dinner and in coffee shops, except it’s in a medium security prison, there’s barbed wire, and no food and no wine; there is coffee, but it’s the kind you make out of heaping spoonfuls from a can. And the timing is different. For those on the outside, Serial’s run ended in winter. In here, the last episode ran in early spring.

This is when I’d turn up the hum just enough to hear one voice: “So if it’s not an original story, why did you find it so enthralling?”

“That’s me,” I’d say. And then explain that I’m part of the circle. While you might not think the world needs one more opinion about Serial, the perspective of prisoners is one we rarely hear, and on this topic it seemed relevant — or as a friend put it, “What do Other Adnans have to say about Serial?” So when I heard these guys were listening, I asked to be part of their conversation.

Because you may be curious about this scenario, I’ll tell you. I’m a woman inside a men’s prison. I’m in my 40s. I have kids. I’m married. I write. You know, like Sarah Koenig. But, though I have once held in my hand a press pass, I’ve never been a mideast correspondent so in that way, not at all like Sarah Koenig.

Of the eight prisoners in the room, I know half, the rest I’m meeting for the first time. At least three are in for violent crimes. The rest, I don’t know. I don’t ask.

I never do. But it comes up. I’ve been interviewing prisoners here for a couple years, mostly because they are always doing something interesting — hosting a TEDx event…a One Billion Rising event, Coding in the Clink, supplying food banks, raising money for cancer patients, skyping with classrooms at Harvard… I’ve been in this prison many times. I feel comfortable here.

And not because it’s a comfortable place. It’s stark. Concrete. Gray. Overcrowded. In the worst of winter, there’s a faint air of trapped man-fungus and, just like at any prison, people hurt each other here, but not nearly as much as at other prisons. I say all this so you’ll know that Marion Correctional is not an experimental program or a pilot project. It’s a standard 50s-era medium security state prison facility. Nonetheless, things are happening here. From what I’ve seen, what’s happening is rank-and-file, remarkably effective prison reform.

This conversation about Serial is one very small manifestation of that. Prisoners are not allowed to download podcasts. But this is not clandestine listening; it’s sanctioned. Serial aired over the official internal prison TV network. All 2,600 inmates could listen. Even this small thing would not happen without trust, and trust can only exist if prisoners have the opportunity to earn it.

So was Serial popular here, like it was on the outside? Going by the buzz in the halls and the dorms, I’m told yes, though I can’t easily verify that and they don’t do Nielsen’s here.

After listening to all twelve episodes, what do these guys have to say?

“It’s not really an original story.” That’s Dan.

“We get a 20/20, a Dateline every frickin’ week that basically illustrates a lot of the same issues.” Ryan.

I don’t like these kind of stories. Typically either they annoy me or they’re too manufactured. Ryan again.

See, in the podcast, I’m like NPR’s Nina Totenberg, throwing out quotes rapid fire, like she does for the Supreme Court Justices. And just to clarify, Dan’s ‘not-original story’ and Ryan’ s ‘same issues’ do not refer so much to Adnan Syed’s potential innocence, but to his experience within the criminal justice system.

“I know a lot of guys who are in prison without evidence,” That’s Dan. “People are getting arrested on stories and getting convicted and sent to prison for a very long time. Just on a good story.”

And this is something I wondered: If the revelations about the criminal justice system that shocked so many Serial listeners are, to these guys, same-old-same-old, would the story even be compelling?

The answer is yes, for a variety of reasons.

Dan again. “I think why I was so enthralled by it, personally, was: I had heard the story so many times throughout the years but I was hearing it told not from an inmate’s mouth. I was hearing it told through a respected reporter.”

And Ryan, who said he usually doesn’t like these kind of stories: “I think she did a good job of looking into it. That came across in the evidence she had… what it was, it meant, how she felt… this could mean this or that…”

Dan: “And people who have her voice are usually saying stuff like, “We got our man. He’s locked up.” It’s surface. I felt like she was digging into it from every angle…Seeing behind the curtain can help us see how stuff like this can happen. There was no actual evidence and we know guys who are in prison without evidence. Guilty guys.”

Walt: “Honestly, we all accepted a long time ago that we make up evidence to convict the guilty.”

“It’s okay if we bend the rules a little bit to make sure the guilty go to prison, but when you do that for the guilty, that’s how innocent people go to jail.”

Ryan: “Even if you validly committed a crime you know when you walk through that [courtroom] door, nothing really matters. Everyone’s already made their assumption [about you].”

William: “That’s what makes it more necessary to lay out the truth and not put the prosecutorial spin on it.”

Justin: “But the truth can always be slanted…”

Serial is a rare moment when popular media reflects the reality these guys know. Sarah Koenig’s story unveils “the disconnect between the justice system and the truth” (Ryan’s words). It’s interesting that this “disconnect” is experienced, not just by the potentially wrongly convicted — Adnan — but also by the “rightly” convicted — these men who take full responsibility for their crime.

Walt: “That whole Joe Friday “just the facts mam” that’s never been the case. They don’t search for facts; they find evidence to support a story.”

William:This isn’t new. After WWII, who’s that woman who said, ‘the justice system is theater.’”

Andrew: “…what “Chicago” was written about basically.”

William: “Justice does not require an emotional response. In fact, it should be devoid of emotional response.”

Andrew: “…That’s why she’s blind.”

William: “Revenge is based on emotion. Once there is a victim involved we forget that any further lashing out is just further revenge. “Justice serves all parties: those who harm, those who have been harmed and the society that we’re a part of…That’s not what we have.”

JT: “And never will we have…”

Andrew: (incredulous) “The prosecutor gave him [Jay] a lawyer!”

JT: “I don’t know how they can breeze over that.”

Andrew: “But they do it all the time: ‘You’re a witness for us. This is somebody who happens to be in my office at the same time maybe you two should…maybe talk to each other, I don’t know….’”

Ryan: “That his lawyer got cited should have had an effect.”

Dan: “They don’t care about that. My lawyer got busted with a trunkful of coke while he was doing my case and they still did my trial, so it doesn’t matter.”

Walt: “Listen, we can rail against the system all day long. So what else…”

Justin: “Wait, I hear you saying ‘it’s another example of how the justice system doesn’t work” and I cringe…I do…Literally, a show of hands, how many of us are guilty of our crimes no matter how much time we got? I think, for the most part, this isn’t a sign of the miscarriage of the justice system. This is just one particular case.”

Lamar (disagreeing): “This is a systemic problem.”

Andrew: “Canary in the coalmine.”

Walt: “This case illustrates some of the realities of the system that people don’t understand about the system. People were getting to see the inside. The prison system — the whole justice system — is a huge thing that affects society greatly and no one knows anything about it. It shows the system for all its strengths and weaknesses in one neat little story.”

For Walt, the story is also personal.
“So imagine Adnan is guilty, right? That’s my story. The facts of my case, everything that happened was very, very similar… that level of evidence, testimony of a co-defendant, arrested one month after, the phone calls…with the exception…”

Dan: …except Adnan’s probably not guilty, however, Wade is.”

For everyone, it’s personal in some way.
“I first started listening, I’m bored. This is JT. I don’t want to hear this shit. Adnan came on… when I heard him, I was IN. I felt his pain, felt where he was coming from, his not understanding…”

Andrew: “…his whole life, everything he’s going through…”

JT: “His having to adapt to a new environment…How psychologically hard it was for him to deal with being thought of as an evil genius. We could identify with some of that stuff.”

Andrew: “Not some, all.”

Todd: The other part I find relatable is the amount of time that’s lost — guilty or innocent — the time you lose and can never get back. That’s a heavy weight thing. He’s lost 15, 16 years of his life.”

Ryan: “Whatever it is if it’s about inmates, it’s about fear. Can’t let us out cause were gonna kill you, rape you, rob your banks. She presented us as human beings.”

Lamar: “Gives him a voice.”

Todd: “His life wasn’t reduced to a sound bite…”

Lamar: “Our side is very rarely heard by the public. They read the paper ‘Oh yeah, he’s guilty.’”

Todd: “Myself and my family were plastered all over the paper. It was true. But it was sensationalized. What I did was bad… We never felt like we could speak. They spray-painted the side of our house. TV crew attacked my 2-year-old brother. We never felt like we had a forum. He does. I thought he used it well to not only present himself and present a defense for him…For him and his family, I’m glad he got that…guilt or innocence, he’s a good representation of who we are.”

That question of guilt or innocence…the whodunnit question that hooked so many… in this conversation there’s consensus only on the trial itself. Justin says, and everyone agrees, “If all things were fair and equal and our system is supposed to work on this presumption of innocence and an accumulation of evidence, then I don’t think he should have been convicted.”

But like Koenig, Justin’s not going to say call Adnan innocent. The conversation suggests a strong lean in the room towards innocence, but put it to them directly, “it doesn’t matter,” most say, meaning it’s just personal opinion.

They talk more about their own bias. Either because they’re skeptical about the system or because they identify with Adnan, they know they’re biased — most of the time towards innocence, but not always.

For Justin, it’s a matter of probability: “I’ve been locked up with a lot of guys…had guys as cellmates…talked about their cases and typically guys do kill their old ladies for a various number of reasons.”

“How he acted in the courtroom threw me for a loop.” This is JT. “He let his lawyer say things that he didn’t want her to say. He didn’t say clearly what he had an opportunity to say. That, in itself, had me thinking: That’s what I did. I can’t speak from an innocent perspective, because I am not. He reminded me of myself, and I did it.”

“You identify with him. You’re guilty, so maybe he’s guilty?” That’s me.

JT: “You asked for a feeling… That weighs on me — my identification with him as a young cat — I’m biased.”

This unleashes a bit of cacophony about their shared naiveté at trial. Again, if this were a podcast, I’d play a sample and pull out some of the more discernible words and phrases: “Hell, I didn’t know if I could say anything at trial…”; “They tell you don’t piss the judge off…”; “You don’t know what’s going on…guilty or innocent, why would he [Adnan] be any different?”

This conversational free-for-all happens a few times. It surprises me. I’ve been in a lot of group discussions here. These guys have the art of conversation down. Some are trained facilitators. Everyone gets heard. There’s not much interrupting. Not so today. When things do break loose, it’s when they’re talking about the justice system. Or, they’re talking about Jay.

JT: “It just came to me, You guys are Jay-haters.”

Dan: (laughing) “I am a Jay-hater.”

Turns out, in some ways, it’s not so different here on the inside as on the outside. Sure, the guys critique the system, and talk about the concept of justice and the realities of prison life, but again and again this Serial conversation circles back…to The Deal with Jay…to The Nisha Call…to those same hard-to-resolve details that we all obsessed on. These guys listened because it was intriguing. It’s a good story unraveled bit-by-bit, just beckoning us to figure it out. Lamar took notes as if he were a prosecutor and then as if he were a defense attorney.

“They know how to tell a story.” That’s Andrew.

Dan: “Simple music. Great voice. Played both sides. Those are all produced seconds.”

Justin: “Her obsession. This is what is consuming her. Her obsession is also a big part of the story.”

Dan: “It’s everything you want from a story. That’s why episode 12 sucks for so many people. We learned a lot of stuff. But nothing is answered. Nothing is changed.”

Justin: “I see that played out in here. I see a guy and ask, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Oh I’m appealing my case.’ One year later: ‘Oh well, we’re in the 4th district.’ Eight years down the line, ‘It’s looking really good…’”

And those details that weren’t resolved, they have their theories. The Nisha Call…

Dan: “It’s programmed into the phone. You don’t have to be there to make that call.”

Andrew: “In ’99 phones rang forever.”

Walt: “I think she had an answering machine. I see this all the time at trials. People get temporal confusion. It doesn’t have an answering machine now. That’s the question she answered. He asked: did it have an answering machine a year and a half ago?”

And Jay, how does he know where the car is?

Dan: “That’s easy.”

In this room, are all the going theories: Jay’s telling the truth; Jay’s the one that did it; Jay’s covering up for someone he’s scared of who did it. Or…

Walt: “…it’s the easiest resolution in the world. All the dope boys know…You’re a dope boy. There’s a car parked in your neighborhood for two months. You saying you don’t know it’s there? You guys know where everything in your neighborhood is at.”

One question that bothered a lot of listeners — Why would an innocent person request a plea deal? — is not a question here.

Dan: “I see guys saying ‘Oh man, I’m taking it to the box.’ [the jury box] I said, ‘No, stop, listen to me. I’m down doing time right now. Plead guilty. Get the best deal you can, walk away with it, cause they’re going to knock sparks off your ass [25 years or more] if you get convicted.’ ”

“It’s math.” This is Walt. “Take Cuyahoga county. They have 20 judges. If you can do one trial a week that judge can do 52 a year. So 52 x 20…1,040 is the number of trials you can have a year in Cuyahoga county. There are 3,000 people in the Cuyahoga county jail at all times. To force people to plead guilty…”

Dan: “…to dissuade them, not force, but to encourage them not to go to trial…”

Walt: “…you over-indict the crap out of them… You charge them with 23 felonies and say we’ll drop all of these and you’ll only do this amount of time if you plead guilty and you’re like…crap.”

“It’s the way the system is set up because it has to be. If today everyone in the county jails said ‘I’m going to exercise my constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial by a jury of my peers,’ the justice system would screech to a halt.”

Dan: “I was offered four. I went to trial. I got 31. You’re penalized for exercising your constitutional right.”

I asked what they thought about Sarah Koenig. As a journalist, a former crime reporter, should she have known more than she did? They were far nicer to her than, for example, me and plenty of other listeners.

Dan drew a parallel between himself as a criminal and Koenig as a crime reporter. Both of them “worked” on just one side of the system, but trials, courts, sentencing, that’s another side altogether: “Even though I was a criminal from age 14 to 21 and did criminal things every day, I had no idea what the justice system was like. I had no idea what to expect from the public defender…or evidence…and what would happen at trial. I wasn’t really discouraged or surprised by her lack of knowledge of the investigative process and court system even though she’d worked the crime beat. The story is the crime, usually not the sentencing months later.”

Dan again: “She had to ask naive questions to create distance and dissonance between reporter and subject. I appreciated her level of questioning because she was trying to get in the minds of her listeners. Like ‘Is he a sociopath?’ Well, that’s a valid question just because the listeners, a certain percentage of them, are going to ask it themselves. Is this guy just gaming the system? Is he just playing her? Okay, let’s go down that hole and see where it takes us. I don’t mind those types of inquiries. Ask the question. See where the answer takes you.”

Andrew: “Though it’s offensive that so many people think there’s a plethora of psychopaths, like we’re all just the most craziest people ever.”

Dan: “Cause most of them are running companies…”

Andrew: “They are. That’s how you succeed in life.”

William: “There are markers for sociopaths…”

A mix of voices: “Like …a ponytail…a soul patch…”

William (who has a soul patch): “yeah, yeah…”

Justin: “…There was something he said…She said ‘you’re such a nice guy’ and he says, ‘You don’t even know me’ ”

Andrew: “Oh, that was great!”

JT, Dan (in unison): “… Don’t find me not guilty because I’m a nice guy, find me not guilty because of the evidence…”

From the reaction in the room it’s clear that, with this line, Adnan has hit a slam dunk.

Justin: “Some of the nicest guys I know in prison have committed some of the most horrible crimes that I can speak of.”

Lamar: “Same way — If you’re gonna find me guilty, don’t find me guilty because I cuss, because you don’t like me, find me guilty because of the evidence.”

I told them how on the outside people would sometimes draw a romantic connection between Sarah Koenig and Adnan Syed. I quoted an internet listicle “10 things to ask about Serial: Does Sarah Koenig’s husband know his wife has a crush on Adnan?” They were mystified and incredulous. I’d say, even a bit disappointed in us for this behavior.

Andrew: “She kind of looked on him as if he was a person…I mean shame on her for actually treating him like somebody who’s a human being.”

JT: “She just cared about the cat. She cared about his life.”

Dan: “I liken it to back in the day if someone’s too nice to a black guy you’re in love with him if you’re too nice to an inmate you’re an inmate lover, let’s just use that word — you’re an inmate lover, you’ve got a crush on an inmate. Why? Because I’m civil to a human being?!”

Walt: “People [non-prisoners] come in [to prison] with preconceived notions about what they are going to see and experience. The reality is so far different you get knocked back on your heels. Those two together really explored his life in detail. You can’t go through something like that and not develop some sort of friendship. Platonic and passionate intimacy are two different things — people don’t always understand that.”

I asked if they thought Serial and the fact that so many listened to it and even Adnan’s guilt or innocence (if ever determined) will have any effect on the lives of other prisoners, on their lives. Their answers expressed a mix of indignation, resignation, and maybe some hope — sometimes all three at once.

Ryan: “Tons of innocent people get released every year. If that’s not creating an uproar, how is a podcast?”

William: “Stalin said, ‘One person’s a tragedy. A million people are a statistic.’ ”

Dan: “All of us are screwed anyway. I’m getting out when I get out. This guy’s not getting out when he doesn’t get out, I mean, we’re here….you know what I mean… We’re all screwed here because we’re too far down the rabbit hole to fix the criminal justice system. It’s not like the earth. We’re not going to go into an Ice Age and it’s going to fix itself. There’s going to be an implosion and when the U.S. falls, the prison system falls.”

Walt: “The simple fact that people believe he might be innocent even though he is convicted is a great fact already. That they question it — that’s a victory in itself…”

Yet there’s concern that if Adnan is exonerated people will believe justice has prevailed. Walt again: “The system is off-kilter, and this case illustrates it to the people that believe ‘oh this system works just fine.’ Which is why if his conviction is overturned people can still believe ‘oh the system works, we don’t have to change the system anymore.’ And holy crap it doesn’t work.”

Most of us would agree that the system doesn’t work if it unjustly convicts the innocent. But do we agree that the system doesn’t work if it is unjust in how it convicts and sentences the guilty? In the case of Adnan Syed, there is a huge divide between the prosecutor’s story of guilt and Adnan’s story of innocence. But even when the prosecutor and the defendant agree — GUILTY — as is the case with all but one of these guys, there is still a huge divide between the prosecutor’s story of guilt and their own.

The prosecutorial side is aided by the image of the monstrous “criminal” that lives in the public mind. When Koenig asked if Adnan is a sociopath, when she struggled to reconcile “nice guy” with “prisoner, Serial exposed just how hard it is for us to see past the cardboard cutout version of “criminal” and see a human being.

Sarah Koenig went into the Serial story thinking she’d piece a few things together and figure out the case, cut and dry. What I’ve learned from talking to these guys in prison, is that even in the case of clear guilt, there is always a very complicated, very human story. It doesn’t in any way erase culpability; it’s just closer to true.

If you like this story, please click the ‘Recommend’ button below, so that other readers are able to find it.

To hear what prisoners had to say after listening to Undisclosed: the State v. Adnan you can listen to our conversation here: http://undisclosed-podcast.com/episodes/episode-12-prisoners-dilema.html

You may also like to read my Medium story “Can Prison Free the Arts