A man in a white t-shirt holds a cardboard box filled with clothes.
Photo by makidotvn on Depositphotos

When a person enters the prison system, they are stripped of many things: property, money, employment, relationships, respect and a home. One of the biggest losses is their sense of dignity. 

When people are treated like a piece of trash every day for years, they internalize it. They begin to feel that they aren’t worthy of love, support or time. If offenders are programmed to feel this way, then recidivism and other failures in rehabilitation and re-entry should come as no surprise.

However, a small act of kindness can affect a person’s reentry in monumental ways. The congregation at Family Life Fellowship (FLF) in Moberly, Missouri, is positively impacting newly released veterans by donating clothing and other personal items.

Kindred Spirit

I met John, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, in January 2017. We were both selected to participate in the prison’s first PTSD group. John was a Marine who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, fought in the Battle for Ramadi and was awarded a Purple Heart during that deployment. 

We experienced some of the same horrors and both lost friends to terrorist acts in Iraq. At the post-traumatic stress disorder group graduation ceremony, we each spoke about our struggles and how we were coping with PTSD inside prison. 

Even as a decorated combat veteran, John was dealing with issues common to all incarcerated veterans. He had no place to call home in Missouri, and applied to various re-entry establishments before his anticipated release date. 

With each response, John experienced the same emotional cycle: He was initially accepted and then later rejected due to his mental health rating, which was elevated due to his prescription for antidepressants. Each rejection crushed both of us. 

Finally, a veteran-specific release center accepted him. Mission accomplished, or so I thought.

About 10 days after John’s release, I contacted him by phone. He told me great things about his new living arrangements, his cell phone options and a job interview. 

However, when I asked how it felt to walk through the door to freedom, he became quiet. John said the prison gave him some mismatched clothes to wear and the pants were too big. He felt embarrassed when he arrived at the re-entry center for his new lease on life.

I felt rage, sadness, worry and finally annoyance at the system in place. That irritation was one heck of a motivator to this former non-commissioned officer.

There’s a line in the Soldier’s Creed that reads, “I will never accept defeat.” John’s experience gave me a mission and a purpose: I vowed that if it was in my power, I would not let another veteran feel defeated nor leave this institution without a respectable set of dress outs (the set of clothing one wears when they are released).

Answering the call

I wrote to various local churches and on July 26, 2017, Family Life Fellowship answered my prayer. I was ecstatic to see their letter in the mail. 

Not only did they respond, they went above and beyond and offered multiple sets of clothing and other personal items to set incarcerated veterans up for a successful re-entry.

The kinds of letters that normally make a man weep in prison are death notifications, Dear John letters or release papers. But as I read those golden words from Family Life Fellowship, tears streamed down my face.

I was moved by this letter from people who cared about men in prison, who had no relationship to us, yet volunteered to give what I requested and more. It rekindled my faith in humanity and in God’s unconditional love.

Hope in a bag

We needed a clear strategy for implementing the donation program in a way that would be approved by the corrections department, so I shared the letter with various staff members until I found a director to support our work. 

We got most of the red tape worked out by January 2018, when our first Bag of Hope reached a newly released veteran.

I chose the name Bag of Hope because that is what it was. It’s a struggle to rid yourself of the feeling that everyone knows you were just released from prison. Looking presentable, however, is one way to shift a man’s view of himself as a lowly criminal. 

It’s comforting to be dressed like everyone else when you reunite with your mom or children after a decade, see your new living arrangements or walk into a store to buy a candy bar. 

Having your own hygiene products and not being dependent on your parents’ toothpaste, your children’s shampoo or your friend’s deodorant can bolster your confidence and self-sufficiency. 

The Bag of Hope program continues to improve. I spoke to another veteran about his struggles on the outside and asked him what else would help. 

He said that a wallet would be beneficial to a newly released vet. Most newly released individuals don’t have a cell phone, but they have identification such as their state ID, social security card, birth certificate and military IDs. They also have their parole officer’s card, a bank card for any funds that may be on their inmate account and various other contact information. 

A wallet would provide a place to store all of these required documents. I wrote to FLF with this request, and one of their Vietnam veterans stepped up and pledged to purchase a new wallet to go with each Bag of Hope. 

To witness a community come together to support veterans who are scared to death of failing — again — moves not only a man’s soul, but also changes his outlook on life and restores his faith in humanity.

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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Shon Pernice

Shon Pernice is a contributing writer, a veteran and a Kansas City native, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a combat medic and came home with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. He has been published in Veterans Voices, The Beat Within and Military Magazine, and he is a contributing author to the book, "Helping Ourselves By Helping Others: An Incarcerated Men's Survival Guide." He is incarcerated in Missouri.