by Sis Marpessa on Monday, March 14, 2011
"I WANT TO LIVE EVERY DAY, because I'm afraid I might lose it all again!" - Former
DOC No. A27963
Transitioning from a prisoner number to an adult person expected to take on adult
responsibilities can be overwhelming for many ex-inmates, particularly those who
were incarcerated for long periods of time. The prison industry is flourishing
because America is locking up more people than any country in the entire world (2
million + and counting), most for non-violent convictions. The subsequent
psychological, sensory and physical impact that many of these returnees experience
often goes unaddressed and isn't discussed very often by politicians or mainstream
media, even though each day many of us will share space with someone who has spent a
significant portion of their life in a cage. Every one of us should be concerned
because these men and women are of us and will be returning to us, our communities,
and many to our own families. This is dedicated to better understanding the impact
of this system's 'corrections' from those who lived it.
FAMILY AND SUPPORTERS
Former prisoners should ideally receive counseling before release and as part of
their release plan to help move through the potentially challenging moments they may
experience upon re-entry. Likewise the family should (also ideally) be offered
counseling before the inmate is released, particularly the children of soon to be
ex-prisoners. Caretakers of the children during the incarceration need to know the
pitfalls that could occur and learn the tools to protect everyone emotionally while
remaining as supportive as possible during the readjustment period. The family
members are changed people as a result of the inmate's incarceration, just as the
inmate is, and so things will likely not ever get back to the way they once were.
Supporters should always offer encouragement and guidance geared toward smoothing
out potentially bumpy transitions and not make the returnee feel as though they owe
them something for having supported them while incarcerated nor exacerbate
negativity that only serves to further divide and cause pain within the family.
Ex-prisoners may not readily accept the advice of others because they are finally
free to not follow anyone else's orders and so may make errors in judgement when
dealing with seemingly simple situations. Opportunists may take advantage of some
of these vulnerable returnees as some can be easily manipulated and led into
situations that are detrimental to them. Former friends and dangerous influences
may arise and ex-prisoners may even fall into some old patterns. Even when mistakes
are made, the last thing returnees need to deal with is ridicule or condemnation,
breeding resentment and deterring badly needed support. Many have been terrorized
mentally and physically at the hands of guards and other inmates and have deep
scarring that no one can see from the outside looking in. Comparing one
ex-prisoner's successes to another's lack thereof is meaningless because each
individual's journey through their prison years varies greatly and so shall their
journey upon release.
"I had a family. I had a house. I had a car. I had a job.... I was making good
money. Everything was going well, and now I don’t have the patience for anything....
I have problems with my physical self. I have aches in my body and my legs.... [My]
life is a lot harder. No matter how many visits, phone calls, and letters you have
shared with people, you still don't know how much they have changed over a lengthy
period of time until you're actually around them regularly, and they feel the same
way about you."
"My son wasn't a baby any more and he hadn't seen me in 10 years. Now he was 12. He
wouldn't let me hug him. He wouldn't even shake my hand. I'm trying to understand
this. I cry every night."
"I want to prove to myself and those who stuck by me that i can make it right. i'm
so scared of letting anyone down after the burden i've been."
"Everything has been taken from me while inside, my mom had been taken from me, my
dad has been taken from me, I have no family at all out here and I am completely on
my own with $75 and nowhere to go. i was engaged when i got locked up at 18 -- now
i'm 45, the rest of my teens, all of my 20s, 30s, and most of my 40s, gone! My only
child was born while i was inside and is now himself an inmate and so we'll never be
"i live with my mother in my old neighborhood. i need a pardon in order to get paid
for wrongful imprisonment. After all they've taken from me, you'd think they'd at
least provide me with my basic needs, i'm embarrassed to depend on my family as a 45
yr old man to have to eat."
"Every night I pray and pray for the prisoners I left behind, I feel so badly for
them living under such horrible conditions and promised many of them I would help
them when I got out. My one friend is getting out of prison this week, she has been
locked up for 8 years....she was 18 when she got locked up. I want to see her, but
part of me wants to leave that part of me behind....!!! i want to help but how can
i help, i barely have my feet on the ground as it is. But I promised I would and
she is counting on me for support."
"I went into a serious depression and was put on a medication that drove me into a
prison within myself. It took the program staff several months to realize I wasn’t
talking to anyone or eating, that I had lost about 30 pounds. I was ‘gone’ even
though I was performing my required duties. After all those years of taking care of
myself, to be so strong and resourceful and get myself paroled (By God’s Grace) and
then not know how to do anything for myself was really difficult."
THE REAL WORLD
A study of the attitudes of released prisoners in the United States revealed that
most expected to be labeled “ex-cons” and treated as failures and pariahs. Getting
paperwork together to apply for services such as a birth certificate, social
security card, driver's license, etc., are very difficult to obtain and yet are very
necessary to acquire quickly in order to become recognized as a person in this
system. Learning bus/subway systems or even walking routes may be difficult because
of the changes that have taken place in the landscape. A steady diet of
encouragement is necessary in order to try and help them find a new 'normal' in
their life and set and achieve goals. The feelings of alienation may still be
present, no matter how many people may feel that they are close to the inmate.
"The dysfunctional consequences of institutionalization are not always immediately
obvious once the institutional structure and procedural imperatives have been
removed. This is especially true in cases where persons retain a minimum of
structure wherever they re-enter free society. Moreover, the most negative
consequences of institutionalization may first occur in the form of internal chaos,
disorganization, stress, and fear. Yet, institutionalization has taught most people
to cover their internal states, and not to openly or easily reveal intimate feelings
or reactions. So, the outward appearance of normality and adjustment may mask a
range of serious problems in adapting to the freeworld. ... when severely
institutionalized persons confront complicated problems or conflicts, especially in
the form of unexpected events that cannot be planned for in advance, the myriad of
challenges that the non-institutionalized confront in their everyday lives outside
the institution may become overwhelming. The facade of normality begins to
deteriorate, and persons may behave in dysfunctional or even destructive ways
because all of the external structure and supports upon which they relied to keep
themselves controlled, directed, and balanced have been removed. ... Parents who
return from periods of incarceration still dependent on institutional structures and
routines cannot be expected to effectively organize the lives of their children or
exercise the initiative and autonomous decisionmaking that parenting requires. ...
Those who remain emotionally over-controlled and alienated from others will
experience problems being psychologically available and nurturant."--
"It felt like I was walking into another world again, I couldn't believe it. Because
I've been fighting so long, when (my release) eventually came I didn't know whether
to take it or run back inside."
"I was very frightened to walk across a street. I couldn't judge the time, distance,
and speed of on-coming traffic. I had a problem with my sensory depth perception
from bars being right in front of my face. I realized it was a problem after wildly
running in an almost panic across the street, only to see the on-rushing traffic to
remain still considerable distances down the street. I told myself, 'you've got a
problem, so get over it - fast.' And that's exactly what I did. I worked and worked
"DO NOT walk up behind me without saying something or making noise of some kind
BEFORE you get near me..."
"It takes a long time to adjust to basic things, like knowing you can open the
bedroom door and go out. One man I know of couldn't leave his bedroom without
someone coming to get him. I'm a lot more claustrophobic now -- even the shower
curtain bothers me. Many of us suffer from sleep disorders, paranoia, pervasive
anxiety, depression, nightmares, night sweats and many symptoms of post-traumatic
stress disorder. "
""The first few days are the hardest, just getting your senses used to not being in
an institution can be overwhelming. The smells of urban life, the sounds, eyes
adjusting to home lighting. Feet hardly know how to walk on wood floors and
carpeting (vs. concrete). Being able to close a door and not be watched, the
softness of cushions and blankets and people, lights that can be turned on and off
when you want."
"Last I checked life doesn’t come with instructions. You just got to take it how it
comes sometimes. I wish I knew how to make it through a trip to the grocery store
without becoming overwhelmed and traumatized by the experience of too many choices.
Ice cream was a 30 minute decision making event for me. I have not yet adjusted to
thinking for myself completely."
"It is all a lot faster, people are different, more hostile and pushy than I
"Once you get outside those gates, you lose those same independent, ambitious
thoughts you had, you feel lost and very dependent on other's guidance. I felt
thrust into solitude after the active, super-responsible life-style I had in prison.
I had a job, a routine, and had earned my respect. I sat in my room at the halfway
house, where there was a small TV. For 3 days, I never turned it on because I didn't
know how to, and I was too ashamed to ask anyone for help."
"I worry about violating parole every time I step outside, by resembling someone or
just by talking to the wrong person. Everytime i see the police go by, even though
i'm not breaking any law, makes my heart skip a beat because they love to harass
Blacks and Latinos, it's a game to them. I only did 5 years and I still jump at the
sound of keys or 2 way radio."
"I am in awe of all of you as I watch you scurrying around, maneuvering so
nonchalantly, effortlessly, while I stumble around like I'm deaf/blind, not knowing
which way to go, too prideful to ask many times. I watch people's conversations but
have little to offer outside of prison stories, so I have no conversational
chit-chat. I watch people hop on and off buses, read confusing street signs and
symbols, while i'm still getting lost in these huge stores or feel nervous sitting
in a waiting room where it seems that everyone is watching me. "
Statistically more than half of all inmates are re-arrested at some point, so
setting small goals and working towards accomplishing them soon after release is key
to getting on the good foot towards staying out. The basic requirements are just
what anyone would expect them to be: information on where to obtain temporary
shelter, food, clothing, health care/medicines, and the legal documents necessary
to apply for employment and services. Instead of prisons providing some semblance
of these basic requirements for inmates upon release, most are instead sent home
with less than $100, the clothes on their backs, and no support system. They are
programmed to fail so that this system can continue to keep its well-oiled, prison
money-making machine humming.
"There had been no help from inside to prepare me to be successful getting out. At
the core of being successful outside is how you can make decisions. I felt
inadequate, stupid, less than other people when I first got out, and that made it
harder to feel able to make any of the decisions. We think we have a plan and think
we have an idea of what it will be, hour by hour, minute by minute. We just get a
Plan A together, but we are not prepared with Plan B, C, or D for when Plan A
"I wish I never had to talk about why I went to jail again. Everytime I have to tell
someone I've been to jail, I have to go through the entire story. I just want to put
it all behind me, but no one will let me. I just want to work."
"I am out of a job, so I need a job and services to help are limited. Because all my
adult life has been inside, I have no work history before 2009 and didn’t make
enough to pay into UE (unemployment) benefits and only paid less than a year.
Because of unemployment’s structure (like the rest of the gov) I only received
benefits for four months and have no more money. Also as grateful as I am for
friends who come thru in my time of need, I am growing soul weary of taking hand
outs at my age. I feel like I should be able to take care of myself and not feel as
dependant as I was when I was incarcerated."
"The biggest psychological effect that incarceration had on me when I came out after
twelve years was not being able to move about as freely as I imagined I would. It
isn't that I am not learning some of the things I need to, but that I am not
learning all the things I want to and it comes down to time. Often people who come
out come to realize that the help they thought they would easily find isn't
available and they must do things on their own and that takes time and often just
living day to day is hard enough. Now a person can either take their time, manage
their time and eventually get to it or get caught up again and be back on the prison
plantation. Basic things like how to use cell phones, developing resumes, getting
legal documents like ss cards, birth certificates and such are difficult tasks and
when people don't plan on how to do some of these things before they come out it
will be an even harder task when they are released."
"It is frustrating to lay awake and think 'Well if I go back to prison at least my
life will be assigned to me: job, clothes, bed, and food, will all be handed to me
and I don’t have to worry.' Don’t get me wrong I have no intention (for now) of
committing a crime, however I wonder what I will do if push comes to shove and I’m
truly out of cash and have no way to eat or support myself at all."
"Sent home with no money, job, or place to live. Red tape keeps me from collecting
anything from the state for my wrongful imprisonment. Even though i've been
exonerated, the record hasn't shown it and so the charges are still on my record and
I can't get a job!"
"We’re not seen as community members when we get out, and we face discrimination in
employment, housing, etc. People don’t necessarily see the value of former
prisoners, or understand that we have a right to be part of the community and have
something to contribute. We need to get that sense of self and value as part of
"One of the things that happens is we don’t know the questions to ask because we
don’t know the answers we need."
GOD BLESS THE CHILD
Information is power. Boston's 'Coming Home' Directory is an excellent example of
the type of resource that ex-offenders need upon release from prison, listing
providers of emergency assistance, health care, housing help, legal assistance,
support groups, veterans and women's groups, plus much more, check it out at
http://www.cominghomedirectory.org/index.php. This directory is exactly the type of
information that needs to be in the hands of ex-offenders and their
families/supporters from day one. Residents of cities that don't provide a
directory along these same lines should get together and create one and make it
widely available. This would be a really excellent project for prison activists or
any group/church/club to take on. Ex-offenders need assistance applying for and
receiving services for some period of time following release, this is basic and
should not even be an issue anywhere in this country!
Former prisoners, their families and supporters must become involved in organizing
for serious changes in state and federal policies and within the prison hellholes
themselves. All can attest to the horrendous conditions and practices that violate
health codes and constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment.
With millions of lives being impacted in some way by the prison system, there could
be a massive prison movement happening right now if people who know the deal would
simply participate at whatever level they can, there is strength in numbers! A
great example of returnees and supporters organizing is Returning Citizens United
(firstname.lastname@example.org) of Washington, DC. who actively organize to
break the cycle of homelessness, addiction, and incarceration by coalitioning for
affordable housing, jobs, and addiction treatment services which can help address
the root causes of these issues. They also are fighting for alternatives to
incarceration. They believe that by continued recognition for those who have lost
their way, they can work together as a unit to help restore the lives of homeless,
recovering, and returning citizens (ex-offenders) by meeting their needs so that
they can regain structure and stability in society.
Helping to rebuild shattered lives is an onerous task that can be rife with
frustration and anguish, particularly when it comes to families and supporters.
Breaking old habits is more than just a notion for returnees sometimes, but they
also must not just be about themselves and recognize that their loved ones have
endured tremendous anxiety, depression and grief from missing them and worrying over
their day to day survival inside the prison. No matter the amount of joy family and
friends may have felt at any given time, that could instantly convert to that sad,
sinking feeling by just the thought of their dearly loved one locked up in a prison
far away from home. Many family members struggle with illnesses, addictions, and
other destructive behaviors as they, too, have done time right along with the
ex-prisoner as well as endured the gossiping whispers of a community, church or
workplace. Children are traumatized by the teasing of their peers because they have
a parent or sibling in prison and are devastated when visits and phone calls end,
many times having gone for years without even their human touch. Many families also
suffer financial ruin from lawyer fees, fines, the obscene price gouging of prisoner
phone calls, traveling hundreds of miles to rural areas to visit, and putting money
in prison commissary accounts. Some parolees are even asked to pay a monthly fee
for their parole before they have even secured employment, so this also falls to the
families to pay! These families truly are the forgotten victims. Supporters must
show compassion and not be judgmental or harsh when issues arise as the family and
ex-prisoner struggle to readjust around a myriad of issues. Plans may have to
change but you best believe that there is always a new day and a new way to fight
for a positive outcome for all concerned.
"What I really wish I knew back then that I know now is that no matter how well you
plan your release it won’t be anything like you plan!! Even and especially the happy
family reunions we dream about won’t be so happy. They may be at first but then the
reality of time and distance starts to show. Our family’s have a lot of unresolved
emotions that may be hidden behind the 'I just want you home' face. My kids told me
a year before I got out on Mother’s Day that they couldn’t wait to see me every day.
When I got out they had moved from LA area to near San Bernardino and will barely
speak to me. I took it hard when my plans weren’t going my way especially on the
family part. I just want women to know that even though it won't go as planned,
don’t make the mistake I made and let it stop you from taking advantage of what new
opportunities arise from life planning itself. This is not the structured world of
prison. No one ever knows how a day can begin and end. Just push on and enjoy having
a day to begin and end. There aren’t any limits out here and we stand equal to those
around us so we don’t have to bend to others will anymore. I think that was my
downfall, I forgot that someone else’s word isn’t law, that I have the power over my
life and most of all my freedom including freedom to question or challenge or change
the course of my life. My best advice: don’t plan beyond finding a place to stay.
The first week get your ID, SSI card, and GR or whatever income will sustain you
until you get a job. But let all the rest be and take it as it comes."
Keep on pushing forward, together we can make better days ahead!
Bilal, Deirdre, Diana, Karima, Lee, Mary Ellen, Misty, Mustafa, Nikki, Robin, Vonda
CA Coalition for Women Prisoners - http://www.womenprisoners.org/
Prisoners are People, Too - http://www.prp2.org/
The Intersectionality of Race, Gender, and Reentry Challenges for African-American
Women, [PDF] American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. November, 2010.
"African-American women offenders face collateral attacks on their motherhood, on
their ability to secure housing and employment, and on their ability to reintegrate.
Reentry programs must have a race and gender focus that confronts
http://thejerichomovement.com/ - Jericho is a movement with the defined goal of
gaining recognition of the fact that political prisoners and prisoners of war exist
inside of the United States despite the US government’s continued denial ... and
winning amnesty and freedom for these political prisoners.
(Cons Helping Cons was not specifically used for this piece but has great
suggestions for ex-prisoners, well worth checking out).