This article was first published in the blog Three Hots One Cot . The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.
This is my first post from outside the walls. This was written on a real laptop from a real house (and a coffee shop and a hotel patio and so on) in the real world.
Everything in my life changed all at once on October 28 when I was released from prison. No more razor wire everywhere you look, no more count times, drab clothes, barked orders, crummy chow hall food, or jockeying over phones. No more of the daily dysfunction and endless negotiation that comes with warehousing too many human beings without regard to the terrible consequences.
My current experience is helping me understand how this reentry business gets the best of many returnees too. It occurs to me that while normal, free people might go through some big life changes — moving, getting divorced, losing a parent or loved one, COVID-19 lockdowns — it’s rare in the real world for everything in your life to change all at once.
Your home, your associates, your job, the rules, all change instantly when one re-enters society. That’s where I find myself now, along with the estimated 650,000 others who walked out of prisons this year, according to the Department of Justice.
It’s a lot. It’s a little overwhelming, if I’m being honest. I’ve told friends that I’m trying to relearn how to be a functioning human adult, and that’s only somewhat of a joke. “Well, you’ve been human the whole time,” one friend noted. But it definitely didn’t always feel that way; many days you feel more like a number to be counted, fed, and caged.
Please don’t misunderstand, these are good problems to have now; the alternative — still being in prison — is obviously much worse. I feel some survivor’s guilt associated with being out here, while friends are still locked up in there, for sure. But I’ll deal with that by helping them with little favors — passing messages, looking up information online, sending mail. And I can write, advocate, and agitate about reentry now based on my lived experience instead of just based on my conversations with those who’ve failed at it.
I can also give readers a small taste of what we deal with when we walk out those doors and back into the free world, so you understand what it means when you encounter returnees who may be bewildered by all the change.
We need a place to stay or live, yes. We need a job and an income and the dignity that comes with that, yes. We may also need some help navigating the social safety nets that exist to ease our transition back into society.
It’s confusing dealing with probation, health coverage and medication, identification documents, finances and other benefits like food stamps or disability assistance when you’re not used to the world and its bureaucracy. It’s confusing being told to sign up or apply online for every single thing you want to accomplish in the community. Endless websites, logins, passwords, and similar-sounding requirements can make your eyes glaze over after a while, and it’s a lot of information to process at once. The lack of real responsibility you likely had in prison doesn’t prepare you well to handle it all.
I’m fortunate to live in a city – Washington, D.C. – where there’s endless support for returnees, and many resources to soften the landing. City agencies and private ones funded by tax dollars will find you a job, an apartment and help ensure you get all the assistance you’re entitled to. But from what I’ve seen, the clients who need the most help aren’t always connected with that assistance.
I luckily found housing with a private organization that heard my plea — I had nowhere else viable to go. The accommodations are clean and well-maintained and located centrally in my old neighborhood, so I know how to navigate around. I’ll pay a small portion of my income to stay here once I get a job, but nothing even close to what rents usually cost around here.
I also feel lucky to have been released from prison into perhaps the best job market in decades. Job hunting is pretty easy when half the businesses have a “Help Wanted” sign out front. Sure, many of those applications will be dropped in the trash when I tell them that I’m a felon. But DC is a pretty progressive place, and when dealt with honestly, some employers will give returnees a chance.
Others are desperate enough for labor that they can’t afford to be as choosy as they normally would. It’s certainly a new world, though — I’ve walked in to see potential employers dressed appropriately with a resume in hand and be told, “Please fill out an online application first.” So I thank them, and that’s what I do, with a promise to return and follow up on my submission with yet another application platform.
I had one initial meeting with my probation officer — but it was their first day back in the office in a year and a half, since the pandemic started. She hardly had time to have me sign some forms and run down some basic instructions before she told me she’d be in touch. Text her if I need anything in the meanwhile.
I take probation rules seriously, since a wanton disregard for rules and the notion that I was smart enough to pick and choose those I’d follow greatly contributed to my being locked up in the first place.
I’ve been particularly gratified that friends have gone out of their way to welcome me home. Many have taken me to lunch (a curfew where I’m staying precludes dinners) and let me know they’re in my corner and willing to give me a chance to move forward with our friendship. I definitely appreciate eating well and have been served some dishes these past couple weeks that brought a tear to my eye.
More importantly, some friends have used that time to let me know just how upset they were with me for disappearing on them, for the destructiveness of my actions, for not being there as they celebrated good times or suffered through life’s travails. They feel justifiably let down, and they have every right to. And I need to hear it, because it’s a valuable reminder that my actions all those years ago didn’t just affect me, my life and family. It had a wide ripple effect across the universe of people that cared about me, trusted me, and relied on me.
Doing the right thing is hard for many returnees during this stressful time when everything has changed on them overnight. Many of them break the rules as the stressors overwhelm them. For me, doing the right thing now is the best way I have to show my friends and loved ones that I’ve heard them and want to make amends for disappointing them back then.
As far as I can figure it, living my life differently now is the only apology I have that means anything.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.