When You're in Prison No One Prepares You for Coming Home

In my memories of prison, there are no colors. It was a dark, cold, and gray place. Incarceration, for me, was defined by deprivation — not just deprivation of freedom, opportunity, and safety, but deprivation of the senses.

On the day of my release, I stepped off a bus at Port Authority and walked out into the world for the first time in 13 years. I remember feeling suddenly overwhelmed by the oranges, blues, reds, and neon greens of New York City streets. After so many years in a concrete box, I was finally free. That excitement, however, soon gave way to anxiety. What I remember most clearly from that day is the feeling of fear that I wouldn’t be able to make it.  

I spent 13 years in prison, but no one started talking to me about my release until 90 days before I finished my sentence. During those conversations, the burden of responsibility was placed on me. I was asked where I would be living, the clinics and reentry programs I would be taking part in, but at no time was I given tools to do research about my options.

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People serving time in prison were required to take part in certain rehabilitation and work programs, but the violent culture of prison completely undermined their effectiveness. If I was in a carpentry class and I had to worry about whether some guy was going to take the hammer and beat me over the head with it because I owed him two packs of cigarettes, I probably was not going to learn much.  If an anger management class was being taught by someone who I knew had gotten into a fight the previous week, the teacher was not going to fill me with confidence.

Despite the difficulties inherent in prison life, I was able to pursue my education, earning 30 college credits before my release. In the outside world, though, I had a difficult time proving my worth. No one wanted to hire someone with a criminal background, no matter my accomplishments in prison or my resolve to make a meaningful life for myself. In the six months that followed my release, I went to more than 50 job interviews. Every time, my criminal background acted as an automatic disqualifier. As a person with a record, I was constantly defined by the darkest chapter in my life. Anytime I tried to get ahead, I found myself having to answer for mistakes I made when I was teenager.

After months of job hunting, I finally landed at the Mental Health Project of the Urban Justice Center. For every other job I applied to, I had tried to hide my criminal record — it was like I was in the closet about it. But the problem with doing 13 years is that you can’t easily hide that time or shake those experiences. When I applied to the Mental Health Project, I led with the fact that I had a criminal background. I got the job right away. Now that I work with people who are going through the reentry process, my experiences trying to get back on my feet after incarceration are invaluable. Without the firsthand experience of incarceration and reentry, there’s no way I could be as effective in my work now.  

Today I am an advocate to end mass incarceration and a voice for the formerly incarcerated. It is a backwards logic that has our society investing in locking young people up instead of creating opportunities for them or preparing them for life after prison. We need more investment in education and counseling for at-risk populations, including those who are currently or formerly incarcerated. I can never get back those 13 years, but I can make sure that young people in the future have better choices than I did.

Johnny Perez advocates against mass incarceration and to end solitary confinement as the Director of U.S. Prison Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and as a member of the NY Advisory Committee to The US Civil Rights Commission and the NYC Bar Association’s Correction and Reentry Committee.

This article is part of a series on mass incarceration. Click here to see more. 

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Dr. Timothy Leary

On the subject of fairy tales, how is that LGBT rights thing coming?

Wow

Your reply to this article shows your lack of information about prisons and clearly a lack of empathy for for others. Believing that jailing and punishment is the only response to alleviate “crime” makes us all part of the problem. The resources to help people personally develop are not available to incarcerated individuals. The focus for jailers is on feeding their industry. Very few “prisoners” are ever confronted by their victims or held accountable for the action that brought them in to Jail. Humans are just recycled in a system that serves it self.

Bre Lashae

Well, aren't you just perfect.
And..a doctor? Wow...I bet you have all the answers. ;)

Anonymous

Prison severely restricts access to necessary resources to help yourself. You are an idiot Dr. Timothy Leary. Pray you never have a wreck and someone dies, or a myriad of other accidental circumstances that can land you in prison through no intent of your own. Are you prepared for a blown tire that makes you lose control of your car and have that accident? Well then, you should prepare before you open your mouth about something you know nothing about.

Anonymous

You are not a Dr. your response is a trolls feedback.

Anonymous

Your premises are all wrong!

QuidProQuo

Ppl make mistakes like drinking and driving, suicide attempts, overdoses, etc. Self inflicted wounds is what I'm trying to get at. But only in the circumstance of incarceration is one expected to fully establish themselves back in society on their own. The major gap in work history is damaging and frustrating enough all by itself. The criminal record is the nail in the coffin. IIf you havent been there good Dr. you couldnt possible begin the fathom the complexities of the reentry process.

Anonymous

Really? Dr Timothy Leary? A little "burned out" from all the acid you've been doing? And dude - seriously? Can't even spell Rapunzel correctly? What are you, 12? Gtfu with your ignorant comments.

Anonymous

And exactly what type of preparation do you expect from an indviduals in prison who was incarcerated since they were a teenager. Perhaps they grab a laptop before release? Oh no wait, they can ask the staff, lawyers or anyone else they know who works or visits behind the walls of prison on ways to prevent his own recidivism and help with reentry? Or how about using the highly resourceful inefficient or nonexistent updated tools accessible to him to have prepare for the world he hasn’t seen in over a decade. He has taken accountability by doing his time, and earning his education to help him outside of prison. What has the prison system done besides telling him 90 days before release to get it together? Can you help us out Doctor ?

Anonymous

Prison, like any other business, operates in a fashion that will best ensure repeat customers.

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