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Even without a global pandemic, being released from prison can be an overwhelming experience. 

Imagine for a moment living for years or decades in close proximity to other people in a cold, drab and sterile environment, surrounded by concrete and barbed wire. Whether there is a pandemic or not, social distancing is impossible.  

One must ask permission to use the restroom, walk across a yard, open a door, be given medication or have access to needed feminine hygiene products. Meals are prepared for you and only available at specific times each day. If  you miss that window, you go hungry, unless your family has put money into your inmate banking account, and you were able to purchase over-priced sodium-filled processed products from the canteen such as instant noodles or canned meals. 

You send your laundry out to be cleaned on a strict schedule, and you rarely have to clean up after yourself because there are porters assigned to clean the bathrooms and other common areas. You are assigned to a job or a program with no consideration of your preferences or skill set. You make very few choices or decisions on your own. 

But then, you are suddenly transferred to community corrections or released on parole, often with little to no warning or advanced preparation because that is seen as creating a security risk. The most urgent needs are housing, employment, transportation, clothing and food, all basic necessities required to establish a stable life.

First you need to establish your identity, which means you need to figure out where to get your birth certificate and a social security card. You have no money, so you need a job, which means you have to prepare a resume and learn how to use public transportation. You have to be presentable, which means  you need clothes, hygiene products and a haircut. Walking into a grocery store and having to decide which brand of laundry soap or peanut butter to buy can feel like a monumental decision, and you end up walking back out with nothing, because it’s just too hard. 

When you are out, you stop and wait for doors to open for you, because that is what you are used to. At night, you fall asleep with all the lights on because it never really gets dark inside prison. Quiet creeps you out because it’s unusual. It’s never quiet behind the walls.

I was transferred from prison just before Christmas 2020. I am still property of the Colorado Department of Corrections, residing in community corrections, a halfway house that is supposed to be a transition step in between prison and freedom. 

In theory, I am supposed to be receiving help in learning how to cope with the world after being incarcerated for the last four-and-a-half years. The reality is that if I were not a detail-oriented and proactive woman with an education, networking skills, and a passion to improve myself, I would be struggling even more than I already do. 

At the halfway house where I’m obligated to live, I owe $17 a day in rent. In addition to all the challenges mentioned, essential technologies like Zoom and Lyft were new to me, and I had to learn how to navigate them. 

The restrictions of COVID-19 just makes everything harder, and all the while I’m learning how to re-enter society, I’m still held accountable for the smallest of technicalities. 

Starting over from scratch at the age of 47 was and is a challenge, but I know I’m one of the lucky ones. My fiance had my employment documents and clothes ready when I got out. I had a job waiting, and I had kept up correspondence with people at organizations I had met while inside, allowing me to create a support system for myself. 

I had participated in Defy Colorado’s re-entry prep program while inside and they had a re-entry kit ready for me immediately upon my release. Donors provided funding for a cell phone, Chromebook, backpack, face masks and hand sanitizer. The University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI), let me continue a creative non-fiction writing course I had started inside. That provided me with some semblance of continuity, a small reminder that I existed as a person before hitting the streets. 

Re-Entry is a new buzzword, and many organizations provide a variety of support and resources designed to help returning citizens be more successful in society as they navigate the hurdles before them. But there are still too few of them to meet the needs of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country, most of whom will be released into a community at some point. The recidivism rate in Colorado hovers around 50% and clearly illustrates that mass incarceration does not reduce crime. 

What we have been doing as a society has not worked. It’s time to try something different. I shouldn’t be one of the lucky ones. 

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.

JoyBelle Phelan is a writer and also serves as writer relations associate at Prison Journalism Project.

She was incarcerated twice for a total of seven years and has also been in community corrections. She passionately believes that no one should be remembered for the worst decision they have ever made. She is using her lived experience to challenge the perceptions of what prison is like for women and what re-entry can look like. While inside, she was in various leadership and peer mentor positions, worked as the pre-release clerk and helped to develop and implement the re-entry unit program.

She was the first woman at La Vista Correctional Facility to be published in Colorado’s The Inside Report prison newspaper. She also has an essay published in the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition’s Go Guide about being successful on parole.