Photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash

Reentry after almost two decades isn’t easy especially when I went in as a 17-year-old juvenile and paroled as a 36-year-old man. 

I hadn’t thought much about the social, technological and economic gaps I would encounter until I had to face them in May of 2019.

During my first month out, I learned just how much I had missed and how much I needed to learn and grow in order to fit in.

In prison, I had grown accustomed to socializing with only men, and eventually transgender individuals. I developed habits that were perfectly normal in prison such as taking food off of my friends’ trays in the dining hall.

About three months after I got out, I remember taking one of those classy finger foods on a cracker off of an acquaintance’s plate at a gathering for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. I had done it without thinking about it, but I knew I had made a faux pas when people around me frowned and gave me an awkward smile. I didn’t realize that was something you don’t do in public.

In the past year and a half, I have worked with reentry programs providing transitional and emergency housing for formerly incarcerated individuals, and I have learned that reentry is as nuanced as the hues of colors.

Some of the challenges of reentry are obvious: employment is hard to get because references and resumes are nonexistent or have decade-long gaps. Renting, leasing or buying a car or property is complicated because long-term offenders have little or no credit history. Family reunions, socializing and networking is limited by parole conditions that restrict movement to a 50-mile radius without a travel pass.

Then there are the individuals’ personal limitations and preferences. After decades of incarceration, some people parole with physical disabilities, allergies and mental barriers. Some individuals find it hard to work in supermarkets because of the crowds. Others experience anxiety in close quarters, and some experience motion sickness because they haven’t been in a car for decades.

I didn’t know I needed glasses until I went to get my license for the first time. When I failed the eye exam, I told the DMV lady, “You better double check that line. I know what I saw.” She came right back at me. “You better have your eyes checked because you were nowhere near the alphabet,” she said.

When I had my eye examined, the doctor told me that my poor long-distance vision could be because my muscles in the area atrophied. I had been confined to close quarters and short distances for so long that I had developed depth-perception issues.

While working with reentry projects I’ve noticed that they often take a cookie cutter  “best-practices” approach. Most programs are designed and implemented around grant objectives, and the services provided to the individual have to check off some, if not all, of the boxes.

The downside to that approach is that there are few case managers who go the extra mile to tailor a program to fit the needs of the individual.

For example, the needs of a person, who had been incarcerated for three to four decades is different than a younger person’s. They have “aged out of crime” as politicians say, but they have also aged out of the workforce and have become a liability to employers. Eighty-four-year-old formerly incarcerated individuals aren’t a high hit on LinkedIn.

Yet they are subject to the same rule that the board of prison terms in California has set. In order to discharge from parole, one has to demonstrate permanent housing, consistent employment and stable social and familial relations.

I’ve also noticed that the prison a person paroles from and the county they are paroling to can make a significant difference in the reentry process. The vast rehabilitation and education programs at institutions like San Quentin, where I was, streamline the reentry process for those paroling to the Bay Area. 

However, individuals at institutions like High Desert, Pelican Bay or the Central California Institution for Women have minimal exposure to reentry programs. In fact, most in-prison self-help programs don’t prepare you for survival in society, they facilitate self-cultivation and contentment to help you cope with your situation.

I was lucky to have been paroled in Alameda County, which has an abundance of reentry programs and services sponsored and operated by community-based organizations. Just like San Quentin is an anomaly in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation so is Alameda County in the criminal justice landscape. 

All of the agents that I have had from the Oakland office for the Division of Adult Parole provided well-informed advice, and they wanted to see me and others succeed. The Alameda County District Attorney’s office even has proactive programs such as Developing Impacted Lives (DIL) and Alameda County Justice Restoration Project (ACJRP), which are developed around the lived experience of system-impacted individuals, so that we can mentor and support one another.

I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to participate in the Homecoming Project through the Bay Area-based non-profit group Impact Justice. I had a great host, Candi Thornton, who also happens to be the executive director at Arsola’s Distribution and Community Services where I volunteer and work. I also had a patient community navigator, Sam Johnson, and a supportive program coordinator, Terah Lawyer, who helped me adjust those first few months when I felt like a fawn trying to find its footing in the world.

My reintegration into society was helped by my volunteer work, and now employment in the most impoverished, system-impacted communities in Oakland. I found purpose in addressing the systemic issues: poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence and the school-to-prison pipeline. I was able to connect with people because of our basic human needs: shelter, food and belonging.

After decades of incarceration, the shock of entering a whole new world than the one I had left was softened by the presence of caring people in my community, and the hurdles were easier to overcome when someone else was there to lay them down for me, so I could step over them instead of having to jump.

I wish more people had the opportunities and support I had.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Jesse Vasquez

Jesse Vasquez is the former editor-in-chief of the San Quentin News. He was paroled from San Quentin State Prison in 2019.