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Coming home: Revelations from former prisoners

April 12, 2011

by Sis. Marpessa Kupendua

“I want to live every day, because I’m afraid I might lose it all again!” – Former DOC No. A27963

What happens when the gate finally swings open … for you or your loved one? – Photo: Kimberly White, Reuters
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-plus and counting – most convicted of non-violent offenses.

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 his 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, 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 judgment 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.

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 judgment when dealing with seemingly simple situations.

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 anymore 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 together.”

“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-year-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 eight 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. is very difficult and yet very urgent in order to become recognized as a person in this system. Learning bus and 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.

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 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,” writes Craig Haney of the University of California, Santa Cruz, in “From Prison to Home: The Effect of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities.”

“(W)hen 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,” predicts Haney.

“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 on it.”

“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 remember.”

“Once you get outside those gates, you lose those same independent, ambitious thoughts you had; you feel lost and very dependent on others’ guidance. I felt thrust into solitude after the active, super-responsible lifestyle 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 three 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. Every time 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 five years and I still jump at the sound of keys or two-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 and 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. “

Employment, survival

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 and 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 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.

Most prisoners are 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 doesn’t work!”

“I wish I never had to talk about why I went to jail again. Every time 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 was 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 through in my time of need, I am growing soul weary of taking handouts at my age. I feel like I should be able to take care of myself and not feel as dependent as I was when I was incarcerated.”

“The biggest psychological effect that incarceration had on me when I came out after 12 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 social security 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 community.”

“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 and supporters from Day One.

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.

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 or 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 (returningcitizensunited@verizon.net) of Washington, D.C. They 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 lived 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 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’d 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 families 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 the 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.

“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!

Resources

California 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,” American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, November, 2010, http://www.prisonpolicy.org/research/prison_programs_recidivism_reentry/ – “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 intersectionality.”

“Exonerees Speak About Life After Prison,” http://innocenceprojectpa.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/exonerees-speak-about-life-after-prison-2/

The Jericho Movement, 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 U.S. government’s continued denial … and winning amnesty and freedom for these political prisoners.

“Finding Solace After Wrongful Conviction,” http://truthinjustice.org/finding-solace.htm

“Returning Home,” http://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/IHRLC/ReturningHomeDownloadable.pdf

Sis. Marpessa Kupendua
“Life After Prison,” http://www.scribd.com/doc/11210655/Life-After-Prison-Steps-to-Making-it-on-the-Outside – Cons Helping Cons was not specifically excerpted in this piece but has great suggestions for ex-prisoners; it’s well worth checking out.

Marpessa Kupendua is a political and human rights activist and writer. She can be reached at nattyreb@gmail.com. She thanks Bilal, Deirdre, Diana, Karima, Lee, Mary Ellen, Misty, Mustafa, Nikki, Robin, Vonda and Yango for their assistance and advice.


5 thoughts on “Coming home: Revelations from former prisoners

  1. K Williams

    Thank you so much for publishing this information – it is so right on target!!
    Public minds must be educated in this area to break the chains of apathy. So many still believe that prison is a good thing and they couldn’t be more deceived. Prison is perilous; not only to those it holds physically and mentally captive, but also to those who run it and to each and every community. It is a crippling methodology that saves no one.
    Please continue to share with us all, the after-effects of our Retributive ‘justice’ system. What affects my brother, affects me as well.

    Reply
  2. W.W.

    Thank you for an amazing, raw, honest, thoughtful, empathetic and comprehensive narrative regarding the "full cirlce of experience" in the context of returning home from prison. Each story and experience, as you mention will be uniquely challenging to varying degrees for both the former inmate and his or her family. My daughter, the mother of two (now three children) worked hard on her re-entry and is still successfully moving forward after three years. My son will be released at the end of this month, and I am hoping for the same outcome, but am scared for all of the reasons mentioned above. Again, thank you for your really helpful narrative! Your writing is compelling and your voice is much needed. Sincerely, a mother and a college professor committed to this issue.

    Reply
  3. Jmosk

    This is the type of discussion that needs to happen more, and ultimately must happen more, as more and more of us are released…
    One thing that really strikes me is that America is willing to pay for keeping all these non-violent criminals for years and decades (at great cost) but then we release them with…a hundred dollars?!

    If I was in charge, I’d put all new releases on three months of unemployment benefits. The cost would be small, compared to the benefit of letting us felons land on our feet, while we were looking for jobs!

    Instead, our major option is halfway houses? Really, the First Country ought to be doing a.little.better. It’s not easy to stay out, and stay out of trouble when you have no resources. BUT. It IS possible, and if you’re just getting back, stay strong. The discomfort eventually is replaced by…well, something less, and eventually we get the hang of things!

    Reply
  4. Karen

    Yes this is so true. As the mother our family has been supportive, loving and there every step of the way. Space provided for privacy yet open home for companionship, meals, social time. We have worked together to get all the needed papers and help. My son on the other hand continues to demand our help, requireing us to do it for him. Outrage in public, outrage toward those helping him and constant "you have no idea what my days are like, what goes thru my mind day after day." Verbal threats if we, as he thinks, cross his line. We are at what point do we not be there day after day and stop providing everything so he does not have to look for a job, make choices to help himself? My heart aches every day as he refuses to talk to me for what ever reason the day offers him.Our home and family wants him to feel loved and successful. He refuses any outside help or direction. He knows it all!

    Reply

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