Finding your way in society after years in prison
There are about 1.5 million people in federal and state prisons in the United States, according to a U.S. Department of Justice 2013 count. That is more than the population of St. Louis County and city combined.
They are locked up for burglary, assault, murder or numerous other crimes. A sliver of that population will remain in prison for life. But the vast majority are released at some point. How does someone adjust to life outside after spending years behind bars?
If you look at the statistics, outcomes for released felons aren't very rosy. In Missouri, almost 32,000 people were locked up or under the supervision of the state prisons system in 2014. Chances of returning after release are substantial. For example, 5,493 people were released from Missouri prisons for the first time in 2009. Of those ex-offenders, roughly half had either returned to prison or were back on parole by 2014.
The half that does manage to reintegrate into society doesn't have an easy time of it. After all, in addition to the consequences that face people convicted of misdemeanors (which we talked about in the previous We Live Here episode), people who commit felonies are barred from public housing, public assistance and, in some cases, even acquiring a passport.
More than statistics or facts, ex-offenders themselves are the best guide for learning about the transition from convicted felon to ordinary citizen. We thought it best to let some of them speak for themselves.
The podcast has their stories in greater detail, but here is a sample of what they had to say about grappling with coming back from being a felon.
“When you first go to shipping and receiving, you know where they make you change clothes and take you through all the little stuff and get your information and all this. It’s a sign as soon as you come in there. It says, 'Welcome to MSP, Missouri State Prison. Leave all your hopes and dreams behind you.' And that sign just stayed in my mind for years. I’m, like, 19? Leave all my hopes and dreams behind me? At 19? It’s over with at 19? I could never really wrap my mind around that."
“If you think about guys that made a mistake when they are 16 or 17 and they’ve been locked up 23, 27 years you can’t tell me that’s the same person. That’s not the same person. People do change especially if they want to change and everybody ain't a lost cause. I changed my life totally. I did a whole 360 and I’m standing on it.”
“They talk about the revolving door; that was me. I remember I had a roommate in prison and she was doing a life sentence without parole and she said something to me. She said, 'You’re doing life on the installment plan.'”
“I needed change and I knew that I was either going to die in prison or I was going to die from my addiction and I wasn't willing to do that anymore. My motivator for me was my children. The relationship that I had longed for, I couldn't give to them and I wanted [it] more than anything."
When they hit the gavel and say, 'I now sentence you to this.' I said ‘Lord, I just don’t know if I can do this.’ I looked around and see people in the audience and I cry. It’s a hurting thing. It’s like your whole life goes right behind you or right in front of you. You don’t know which way it’s going, you don’t know which way is up. The first time I went to prison I was scared crapless, excuse my language, I really was. I had to go through the old MSP wall. It says, 'Welcome through the gates of hell and into the house of horror. Leave all your hopes and dreams behind.' When you walk through you just smell blood, smell death. I had a tear come out of my eye but I wouldn’t let nobody see it.”
“Where would I like to be in five years? Alive...if I can be catering in five years and still in the ministry, I can have cooking ministry. And I would love that.”
“[The training program run by ARCHS is] putting me in an environment I love to be in. It makes me feel good about myself. I used to wear fake eyelashes and hats on my head. That was my shield. But when we’re in the kitchen we can’t wear that. I just feel good that I don’t have on these lashes. I have confidence in myself. I just thought I was the ugliest person in the world because of what I’ve been through. I’m beautiful in and out, so it makes me feel good.”
“Having a criminal record is a barrier. Because it’s forgery, that’s considered stealing. People don’t want me working at their job because they think I’m a thief. They think I’m going to steal somebody’s identity, but that’s not true. So, it’s hard for me to find a good job. I’m not a murderer; I’m not a killer or anything. But it doesn’t matter. A record is a record.”