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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Anonymous

Until you became transparent did you get an employer to take a chance on you.

But that lesson seems lost in your belief that it was your criminal background which hindered your initial quest to reintegrate into mainstream society; not the intent to conceal and hide your past which would be an indication to any employer that you could repeat the offense believing your private behavior was distinct from a public / work related one. My humble opinion.

So in regards to preparing persons to successfully reintegrate into society, a basic understanding that background checks are routine, that self respect comes with fully owning all the parts of oneself and that the operating trait to navigating successful outcomes is within the boundaries of demonstrated integrity.

Anonymous

It's best to just ignore the trolls. As for the original subject, in the US we are hypnotized with various ideas not based in reality that serve the powers that be: anybody can be president, anybody can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get rich, we are all treated equally, the US is the most free nation in the world, the poor get that way only because of bad decisions...

Pamajama

No not a troll, a scumbags. Anyone who uses trite statements like "if you can't do the crime don't do the time" doesn't even deserve to have the brain God gave them. Prisoners are near helpless on the inside. Our culture should be ashamed.

Bre Lashae

The poor get that way because of bad decisions? Really?
I have so many questions....but, not enough time to listen to bullshit.

Anonymous 2

Anonymous, you hit the nail on the head about education and intelligence. It doesn't take a PhD to give the same, trite, rote response about doing the time. Instead of using his educarion to rid us crime, over incarceration, and other social maladies, he spends his time in what he thinks is being a provocateur. He's doing nothing else but showing an education doesn't make you intelligent and possibly not even more educated.

Angel Avina

My husband is doing a 35 to life sentence with 23 yrs served at a California prison. He's coming up for his first parole board hearing at the end of 2019. Now if laws changing for the incarceration of children. He now falls under those new laws because he was 16 yrs old at the time of his offence. Being a child charged as an adult and entering adult prison has effect him. He was CDCR rises so he fell into survival mode u can say. With numerous write ups and yrs in solitary confinement he is still on a level 4 yard. But has been write up free since he got out of shu. So 4 yrs now. He's show more effort now and signing up for self help groups and finally running a good program. My question is how can we better prepare him for an actual opportunity to be found suitable for parole? Any input would be invaluable to us. TIA just a wife wanting her husband home.

Anonymous

That's a difficult situation to be in. I also know for a fact that many of those write ups might not even have had any sort of legitimate basis to them (worked in CDCR before and saw first hand the abuses of power that took place). Is your husband mainline or SNY? He can ask for mental health services (if he's not mainline-it's usually not "ok" with the other inmates to talk to mental health if you're not SNY sadly). Anyway, mental health can help him prepare and link up with resources. Sadly the correctional counselors who are supposed to do it don't. Also if you reach out to The Prison Law Office they might have helpful info. Depending on the county he has to parole to, there will be differing levels of resources. The Bay Area is "felon friendly" in terms of helping with reintegration into the community, and Delancey Street is really good. You can look them up online for contact info.

Anonymous

The system is broken and it generates hundreds of thousands of broken people from the individuals incarcerated to their spouses and children. The damage done is often permanent and touches nearly every aspect of life. On any given day 2.3 million Americans are locked up. Only a small handful of those have any access to rehabilitation beyond a 6 week anger management class and the opportunity to earn a GED. Eventually every one of these Americans will be released with enough $$ in their pocket for a bus ticket home and very little else besides an extremely limited chance at finding gainful employment and a broken non-existent support system. Even with the best of intentions, the cards are stacked against ex-cons making it practically impossible to avoid another incarceration.

Other nations have figured this out. What's wrong with Americans? How can America claim to be the land of the "free" and pretend to stand for human rights when it alone is responsible for more than 1/5th of the world prison population and often subjects that prison population to questionable policies including long-term solitary confinement that practically guarantee an incarcerated person will be incapable of re-integration?

This needs to be fixed. It needs to be fixed now. It should have been fixed yesterday.

Anonymous

Dr. Timothy Leary.
It's inspiring to read that this person made it. Your comments are intended to hurt or damage or lecture or teach? All I learned from you, is there are true assholes, that are self righteous and begrudge anyone any credit. Pat yourself on the head and say, I am the darkness sent here to discourage people. Hope you get back all you give.

Dr. Timothy Leary

Please, have your own personal or family doctor prescribe some anti-depressants.

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