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Lingerie float in a green garden outside prison gates
Illustration by Inez Martinez

The closer I get to getting out, the more I am asked, “Are you ready to go home?”

How prepared for reentry can an incarcerated individual really get? I have been incarcerated for almost nine years. I read every reentry book I can get my hands on. I have taken relapse prevention, I’ve practiced life skills and I’ve joined numerous groups to prepare. I think I’ve created a solid plan for my reintegration to society. 

I have worked hard to develop job skills, put together a resume and obtain a college degree. I successfully navigated the chaotic society inside these fences and my own rehabilitation. Staff would tell you I am a model inmate, but will I be a model citizen? 

I know a lot about what to expect on the outside. I know what fines and court costs I owe. I know where to find resources. I know I will be denied job and housing opportunities. I know I will have to prove myself over and over again. I know things I want to eat, places I want to go and even organizations I want to get involved in. 

But I am starting over, crawling my way out of the wreckage of my mistakes. There’s so much I don’t know. Where will I work? How will I get around? How will I pay for food? What will I wear?

My best friend Vanessa indulges me in my daydreaming.

“You will be fine,” she told me over the phone. She’s a polished blond who has navigated this journey herself. She swears I will wear biker shorts, high socks and platform sneakers. I’m skeptical.

Vanessa sent me pictures of outfits, which was interesting. Vanessa’s perfect build seems to make it impossible for her to comprehend I’m lugging around nine years of ramen noodle residue.

“I am thick now!” I told her.

“Girl, I’m telling you big girls are it right now! Trust me, you’re gonna want a crop top. High-waisted pants will hold it all in.”

“Uhhh…” I stammered. “I don’t know, we will see. Let’s just see how much bras and underwear are, we can’t go wrong with that.” Or so I thought.

I listened as Vanessa navigated a web page and fired questions at me. “Okay, so what kind are you wanting — cheeky, bikini, boyshorts, briefs or a thong?”

A thong? 

My heart began to race. I got nervous, my face got hot and I got this terrible feeling: I can’t do this. I am not going to make it, it is going to be too much. After nine years of not having choices, I don’t even know what kind of underwear I want.

“Aww, these are cute, they’re lacy,” my friend continued.

I interrupted her, hiding my panic with a laugh. “I’m getting overwhelmed,” I pretended to joke.

The thing is, reentry is not a joke. My moment is coming fast. Nobody can explain to me what triggers my mood swings. First there’s excitement, then despair — then happiness, hope, grief and anger. 

What will the culture shock of the transition feel like? How will I overcome the assumptions about who I am now? Will people like the new me? How will I get to know my family again? How will I explain to a bunch of new little nieces and nephews I have never met who I am and where I have been? 

It is exhausting to think about because I don’t know the answers — nobody does. It is my broken life and I have to put it back together.

Even though I’m as prepared as I can be, it feels like I’m not ready for anything. But I’ve got to start somewhere. So today, I’m thinking about underwear.

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.

Heather C. Jarvis is a writer incarcerated in Ohio. A winner of the PEN America annual prison writing contest, her work has appeared in the Iowa Review PWP, The Crime Report and The Journal of Woman and Criminal Justice.