Everybody who's sent to prison — unless he's given a life sentence or dies behind bars — is eventually going to get released. And the people who are sent to prison the longest, who've committed serious crimes or lots of minor ones, end up being the least ready to adjust to the real world: Someone who's been in prison for 20 years doesn't even understand how to open the trunk of a car with a button on a key, much less how to use a smartphone.
As states and the federal government continue to make reforms that allow current prisoners to reduce their sentences and get released early, more and more people are getting sent back into the real world. And while some policymakers are paying attention to the big questions in their lives — how they'll get jobs, where they'll sleep — sometimes people can get too overwhelmed simply to make it from the prison to the parole office in their first week of freedom.
A moving feature by Jon Mooallem for the New York Times Magazine follows a pair of ex-prisoners in California who work as a pickup service for newly released prisoners, guiding them through their first day of freedom, from IHOP to Target. It's an important reminder of just how hard it is to return to regular life after prison, when even the little things are hard.
‘‘The first day is everything,’’ Carlos [one of the drivers] says — a barrage of insignificant-seeming experiences with potentially big consequences. Consider, for example, a friend of his and Roby’s: Julio Acosta, who was paroled in 2013 after 23 years inside. Acosta describes stopping for breakfast near the prison that first morning as if it were a horrifying fever dream: He kept looking around the restaurant for a sniper, as in the chow hall in prison, and couldn’t stop gawking at the metal knives and forks, ‘‘like an Aztec looking at Cortez’s helmet,’’ he says. It wasn’t until he got up from the booth and walked to the men’s room, and a man came out the door and said, ‘‘How you doin’?’’ and Acosta said, ‘‘Fine,’’ that Acosta began to feel, even slightly, like a legitimate part of the environment around him. He’d accomplished something. He’d made a treacherous trip across an International House of Pancakes. He’d peed.
But what if Acosta had accidentally bumped into a waitress, knocking over her tray and shattering dishes? What if that man had glared at him, instead of greeting him, or snapped at him to get the hell out of the way? Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Re-entry Institute at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told me that even the smallest bungled interactions on the outside leave recently incarcerated people feeling ‘‘like they’re being exposed, like they’re incompetent. It’s feeding into their worst fear, their perception of themselves as an impostor who’s incapable of living a normal life.’’
The article — which you should definitely read in its entirety — makes it clear that Carlos and Roby are very good at what they do; they help newly released prisoners feel a little less lost when they're navigating the everyday world. (If you're so inclined, you can donate to the organization that supports them, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.) But while not knowing how to use a phone or navigate a superstore is one obstacle keeping ex-prisoners from getting a job, it's hardly the only one. As the article shows, an ex-prisoner can do everything he's supposed to do — not just following instructions, but taking his own initiative to seek out a new career — and still end up with nothing to show for it:
The truth was, Bailey was struggling and frustrated; he was being held up as a re-entry success story, but his situation was precarious. He seemed to be hustling in all the right ways, volunteering at several nonprofits and now at a trucking company down the street too — sweeping up, or doing odd chores, just so he could sit in their truck cabs with his driver’s manual and study. But things still weren’t coming together. He’d gotten stalled for months, trying to track down a copy of his birth certificate, without which he couldn’t get other forms of ID, access to government aid or his learner’s permit. All the celebrated speaking gigs he did were unpaid, and his funding to stay at Amity was almost up. He wasn’t sure where he’d go. Though he’d reconnected with a woman in Colorado, one condition of his release was that he wasn’t allowed to leave the state. It was as if Bailey were swimming determinedly away from some monstrous undertow, trying to keep the distance he’d put between himself and his past from closing. ‘‘To be honest, I’m not looking for a big, big life,’’ he said. ‘‘I just want to be remembered for more than what I was.’’
The institutional barriers that make ex-prisoners jump through hoop after hoop to get what they need, plus the widespread discrimination against them in the job market, are problems that still need to be addressed if policymakers want the people they're letting out of prison early to stay out for good.