After 44 years in prison, Otis Johnson was released at the age of 69 in August 2014 — rejoining a world that now seems almost alien to him.
In the video above by Al Jazeera, Johnson, who was in prison for attempted murder of a police officer, marvels at many of the things people take for granted — smartphones, texting while walking in public, portable music, all the new types of food in stores, and even those giant television screens mounted on storefronts to advertise what's in the store.
"I stand out here for a long time watching this crazy stuff," he said.
But it's not just technology that changed. Johnson has now been cut off from his family — a fact that clearly pains him, as he recalls the simple, good moments he shared with his nieces in the past.
"Coming out of prison, I was mainly alone," he said. "I really miss my family, you know? … I remember I had two nieces, and they were twins. Every time I'd come over, they'd run to me and one of them used to get behind me and hide. And the other would be looking for the other twin, right? And so sometimes I'd just move to the side so the twin could see the other twin. And she'd say, 'You crossed me!' So I remember that still."
The video is a hopeful but heartbreaking reminder of just how hard it is for ex-inmates to reintegrate into society.
Although Johnson now seems to be doing well for himself, it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which — bewildered by technological, cultural, and personal changes — ex-prisoners turn back to the type of lifestyle that got them put in prison in the first place. It's a potentially vicious cycle that leads to more crime and incarceration.
What's worse, inmates don't just have to deal with cultural and technological changes once they're released from prison — they also have to deal with enormous barriers imposed by policy that make it much harder to get a job, education, and even a home. The result: Anywhere from one in three to as many as half of former inmates end up back in prison within a few years.
The many legal barriers to a prisoner reentering society
For example, it's legal for employers to ask in job applications about someone's criminal record and not hire someone for a prior crime — even for something as minor as a marijuana possession offense. This can make it much more difficult for inmates to reintegrate into society: If they can't get a legitimate job, they're much more likely to turn to criminal activities to make ends meet.
So reformers started "ban the box," which seeks to stop employers from asking about criminal records in job applications — although they can do criminal background checks later on in the hiring process. (In reformers' latest victory, President Barack Obama instituted ban-the-box policies for federal agencies.)
Collateral consequences apply to all sorts of other issues, as well. Some states ban ex-prisoners from working in a wide range of occupations, from nursing to alligator ranching. People who have served out felony convictions often can't apply for public housing or Pell Grants. They can't vote in some states. They can't receive welfare benefits. All of these things can make it more difficult for a former inmate to get a job and legally make a living, or at the very least signal to him that society will never accept him, making him much more likely to turn to a life of crime.
Dismantling the collateral consequences of prison is, of course, not an idea without controversy. Many people genuinely believe that prisoners, especially those convicted of violent crimes, should face lifelong punishments for their misdeeds.
But most prisoners are going to be let out at some point. If they face enormous barriers once they're out, they're going to be more likely to reoffend. Not only does that cost taxpayers even more money as they pay for that inmate's incarceration, it also defeats one of the purposes of prison in the first place — to stop and deter crime.