Out there in the real world, time is the one thing no one has enough of. You can’t buy or create more. Here in prison, time is all you have. It’s considered the enemy, the thing you dread, the commodity you find ways to kill, to waste, to purposefully squander. People play cards, or sleep, or watch TV, or get high – anything to make the hours pass.
This experience is painful precisely because it’s time away from everyone and everything you love. You just want it to be over so you can return to those things, whoever or whatever they are. I guess I want to do more than that, though – I want to also look back on these last years and know they weren’t wasted, know it was time well-spent. Six years – or, to be exact, 2184 days and nights, close as i can figure it – is a lot of time to squander, after all. Only 60 of those days remain now, and that’s an indescribable feeling.
When I had about 10 weeks left, I was quarantined for unspecified Covid-19 exposure. They don’t tell you the suspected source. It was a good reminder that things can change fast. It’s no fun getting called to the control booth, being handed a trash bag and told, “Pack your stuff.” Unless it’s to pack up and go home, that is.
Disruption to often hard-won routines and dislocation like this quarantine are unwelcome, but I ended up being grateful for it. I realize that in just about 8 weeks, an even bigger change is coming in the form of reentering the real world, and this little disruption was good practice. You get comfortable in your habits and patterns, especially here where there’s little else to take comfort in, and adapting to new circumstances can be tough. So, practicing change is actually welcome right now.
I heard about a podcast called “A Slight Change of Plans” and thought: “Yeah, that sounds familiar.” It’s hosted by a former classical violinist who studied with Itzhak Perlman, until a hand injury ended her music career at just 15. She realized she’d been defined solely by her instrument and with it gone she’d need to find a new identity.
It’s really hard to see the opportunity in that kind of unplanned, unwanted change, but once you do it’s powerful. I can honestly say that as brutal as the past six years have been, I’ve finally come to see the opportunity in it – the potential now to be the man I want, to do what truly fulfills me, and to see myself more honestly as well. The point, maybe, is that it’s not about what’s lost but rather what’s gained, when your original plans go sideways.
I’ve seen a lot of people get squirrelly in their last months, which results from fear and failure to see any promise in their future. They know it’s harder to make it out there than here in this artificial bubble we prisoners live in. And the system isn’t going to help much, even as it pays extensive lip service to the notion of reentry.
I’ve come to see after these six years that there are foundational flaws in our prison systems. There are innumerable smaller (and serious) flaws, of course, but the foundational ones fundamentally undermine the entire notion of justice and “corrections.” There are, first, far too many people – especially people of color – behind bars. At least half don’t belong there, and their presence makes it impossible for those who do belong there to get help.
Second, there’s far too much profit motive built into the system, often related to indifference about the conditions of confinement. (See my story “The Punishment Economy.”) Third, our recidivism rates are shameful and deserve serious attention. Sadly, coming back to points number one and two, there’s profit in recidivism.
The rest of my career will be devoted to addressing these three issues, but in the near term, working on recidivism is the low-hanging fruit. I can’t call myself an expert on reentry as I’m about to experience it myself for the first time. But I’ve heard countless stories about how easily it happens from fellow inmates caught in the revolving door of recidivism.
Over three-quarters of released citizens end up back behind bars. That’s an astonishing rate of failure and it shows we don’t really care much as a society about successful reentry. Most fail because they don’t have a stable living situation or a secure and well-paying job.
So, I’m planning to focus my energy on what’s likely the easiest aspect of this problem: steady employment. (Also see “Short Handed? Have I Got A Guy for You.“) We can do much better – especially with so many jobs open now – to provide returning citizens with stability in the form of a paycheck.
I’m launching Prison2Work.org in the coming months to help build a more effective prison-to-work pipeline. We’ll be like recruiters for returnees, finding them jobs where they can put existing skills to use or learn new ones. We’ll give businesses that understand that hiring returnees strengthens communities and our economy a direct avenue to find motivated employees who appreciate a second chance. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or see facebook.com/prison2work for more information.
This is my vision and I’m already working to realize it. I look forward to seeing you, and telling you more about it, from the other side.
[Note: This lightly edited story originally ran at Three Hots One Cot, a website written and run by federal prisoner Daniel Rosen.]