Though it was almost 12 years ago, I remember that day as clearly as if it was happening right now. It was a bright, cloudless July day. The breeze was catching the spray of the Civic Center fountain and blowing over my face with a cool mist. The traffic on MLK Jr Blvd nearby was loud. Unnervingly loud. I hadn't been this close to a street in a long time. I hadn't seen cars like that in a long time. I hadn't been outside without a razor-wire fence blocking my view or a gun tower scrutinizing my every move in longer than I cared to remember.
That day in July, that warm sunny day with the cool fountain mist, that was the day I walked out of prison. In the years that have followed, I've realized there are several things I wish I had known before I stepped out of prison and into the sunlight.
1) It's never really over
I had committed a crime. It was a serious one — I was guilty of killing someone. My own father. I was 22 years old, home for the weekend to visit my dad and my little sister. With tears in her eyes, my little sister had given me some disturbing news about things that had happened while I had been away. I went to confront my father. The confrontation turned physical, and at the end of it, my father was dead.
Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of what caused it, the outcome was my fault. I blamed no one else. I turned myself in, pled guilty to the court, and eventually I ended up in prison. I was sentenced to 30 years and was fully expecting to be there for life.
But as it turned out, a little over 11 years later, I was out. It had been a long 11 years, don't get me wrong. Every day had been a struggle. As it should have been. It was, after all, prison, not summer camp. So I accepted my situation and did what I had to do. I followed the rules. And eventually, my judge decided that I had completed my sentence, and I was released. Everything was over. I had paid my debt.
But it wasn't over. Not by a long shot. It's never really over. Society wants me to know that they still want me to pay.
Getting a job is an ordeal. All of my employers want to know about my past. And I tell them. And more often than not, they hold it against me. I'm not allowed to get professional licenses and certifications. I'm not allowed to put my name on official documents. I'm not allowed to represent my company in an official capacity. Getting a place to live is the same. They all want to know about my past. And they use it against me. They deny me or add stipulations that have the same effect. It makes life more difficult, but more than that, actions like that remind me that it's not over. Once in prison, always in prison. I wish I had known that before I got out.
2) An ex-prisoner is no longer part of the democratic process
Being in prison is what's considered a civiliter mortuus, a civil death — the death of a person's civil rights. While I was in prison, I had no right to make any contribution to society, by word or by thought or by deed. As it should be. Again, that is the whole purpose of prison.
It's never really over. Society wants me to know that they still want me to pay.
But what about after I have paid my debt to society? If I am seen fit to live in society again, why can I not participate in the civil, democratic process once again? In the state where I currently live, I am barred for life from voting in any election. Still, like everyone else, I am expected to pay taxes to support the government that provides for our welfare. "No taxation without representation." From what I remember from 6th grade history, wasn't that one of the rallying cries of how our country came to be in the first place?
3) Prison is a time capsule, and not in a good way
In the outside world, time progresses. Political leaders come and go. Fads come and go. People get married, people get divorced. Families happen, kids happen, they grow up, move out, and move on. Society's norms evolve. Things that were normal a decade ago are not normal anymore, and things that were never heard of a decade ago are now commonplace.
Prison is the opposite. Nothing changes. Well, prisoners get older, but other than that, nothing changes. Partly that is by design. Prisons are set up to be routine — that is how the keepers keep order. But the routine is deadening, mentally and socially.
The influences of the outside world have little to no effect on the routine of prison life. Clothes, hairstyles, music ... all of those social trends are delayed by years as they diffuse through the prison walls.
Prison is not just a stagnant backwater for gender issues. Race relations are mired in a 1960s mentality.
Prisoners are also shielded from technological advances. The internet? What's that? I had not a clue when I got out. Cell phone? The only "cell" I knew was the cage I had been locked in. Google? What's a Google? The only way I knew how to find information was to go to the prison library, dig through the card catalog, find the relevant volume of the vintage 1990's World Book Encyclopedia, and hope the pages hadn't been ripped out. While I was on the inside, I had the opportunity to take some college classes. I wrote my term papers on paper. By hand. With a pen. That was the state of my experience with technology.
4) Prison is a backwater on social issues like race and gender
Technology and pop culture are relatively trivial issues, though. Of greater consequence is the loss of social evolution inside the walls that is the hallmark of a progressive society on the outside.
For example, when I went into prison, being gay was considered a weakness at best and a moral failing at worst. By the time I set foot in the real world on that sunny July day, these misguided notions were beginning to be seen as what they truly are: repressive, small-minded ideas based upon fear, misunderstanding, and an artificially generated sense of self-superiority.
But in my 11 years on the inside, there was no progression, no evolution. Inside the walls, though gay relationships are widespread, both consensually and non-consensually, there is no acceptance. There is no acknowledgement that same-sex relationships are as normal as any other relationship. On the inside, open acceptance of same-sex unions is grounds for mockery as a sign of weakness and of an unbalanced mind.
Gender fluidity as a normalized concept? On the inside, the very concept of gender identity — that there is more to gender than just physical equipment — is something that is far beyond the realm of consideration.
Prison is not just a stagnant backwater for gender issues. Race relations are mired in a 1960s mentality. Prisons are one of the last bastions of widespread, openly accepted racial segregation. In my time in the criminal justice system, in every jail and in every prison I was transferred to, there was a white population and a black population, and in my later years, a sizable Hispanic population. And in all of those years, never did those populations mix. Of course, that sort of segregation happens in outside society. But inside prison society, there is the expectation of segregation. There is the pervasive mindset that it is right, that it is necessary, that it is justified, for populations to be segregated along lines of race or ethnicity.
In my conscience, even while I was on the inside, I knew that all types of discrimination were wrong on a fundamental level. I was raised to see people as people. And because I myself am neither white nor black nor Hispanic, I was able to coexist with all of the populations without becoming trapped in the discriminatory mindset. Nevertheless, the mindset of us versus them is very much prevalent behind those walls.
From social issues to technology and everything in between, prison had turned me into a Luddite. I wish I had known how backward and misinformed I was going to feel before I got out.
Not long after I got out, a friend of mine asked me to chaperone his teenaged son and a group of his young friends at the local mall. As we were walking, my friend's son spied a young adult couple that caught his attention. They were walking hand-in-hand, arms swinging, admiring the latest offerings of the urban fashion world. They both also happened to be men. My friend's son rolled his eyes up at me with a "Jeez, will ya look at that?" look on his face.
There I was, fresh from a decade of being immersed in an environment that ridiculed and exploited gay people as a matter of everyday routine. On the other hand, here was an impressionable young person learning how to view the world through the lens of what his elders and role models said was right and wrong. Was I going to pass along the bigoted worldview that I had been forced to exist in? Or was I going to show this young man that people are people and that diversity makes our world infinitely richer?
The very fact that I had to even consider my response brings me shame. Not only had I been raised in a red state, but here I was coming off a stint of living in a community where gay people were at the bottom of the food chain. So, yeah, it took me a minute. But I recovered my senses, and I reassured my young friend that there was no shame in those two people expressing their love. He cocked his head, thought that through for a minute, and then nodded in agreement. And as he ran on up ahead in that goofy, clumsy way that teenagers run to be with the rest of his goofy, clumsy, teenager friends, I thought to myself how much my prison experience would continue to affect every aspect of the rest of my life.
It has now been almost 12 years since the day I stepped out of prison, and like the caption said in those cigarette ads from long ago, I've come a long way, baby. I applaud the social and moral changes in society. I live in a comfortable home, have a decent job, and commiserate with a good group of friends. I am blessed with a beautiful and talented wife and loving children who know my past, and have the grace and benevolence to see me as the man I am now. I drive the speed limit (when my kids are in the car), and I pay my bills and I pay my taxes, and when I have a little extra left over, I put it back to save up for trips to explore this varied and wondrous nation that I am fortunate to live in.
I have learned a lot since I got out of prison. One of the most important lessons that I wish I had learned before I got out is something that my family now reminds me of every day: that my priority is not on what I've missed or what I wish I would have known, but on building a future of hope and promise for them, for me, for us.
Vinu Julius lives with his family in Tennessee. Learn more about his story at vinujulius.com.