Imagine what it must be like to be Rip Van Winkle, waking up after a 20 year snooze to find a different world than the one you knew when you closed your eyes. That’s what someone coming out of prison after serving a lengthy sentence finds, as ably shown in the New York Times Magazine story about Carlos Cervantes and Roby So.
Carlos and Roby are two ex-cons whose job it is to pick up prisoners on their way out. Even so, they haven’t quite left prison behind.
He was hungry. He wanted biscuits and gravy and was still laughing about how, earlier, he caught himself telling Carlos that, unfortunately, he’d have to wait until tomorrow for biscuits and gravy, because today was Monday, and Monday was pancakes day. Part of his brain still tracked his old prison breakfast menu. ‘‘Why do I still know these things, man?’’ Roby said. ‘‘It’s been four years. I was supposed to. … ’’ His voice trailed off, so Carlos finished his sentence: ‘‘Delete.’’
The story tracks Carlos and Roby picking up newly released 65-year-old Dale Hammock’s first few hours of freedom, who just awoke from a 21 year nap.
Carlos shouted, ‘‘Welcome home, Mr. Hammock!’’ Roby shouted, ‘‘How are you feeling, Mr. Hammock?’’ They introduced themselves and hurried to collect his few possessions — a brown paper bag and a pair of work boots — moving as if they’d done this exchange dozens of times, which they had, while Hammock stood between them, looking stunned.
For Hammock, there were two guys, polite and understanding, there for him. For the record, Carlos and Roby can’t pick up every new releasee. And the impact of change starts almost immediately:
Carlos handed Hammock the key and asked if he wanted to pop the trunk. But the key wasn’t a key; it was a button. After squinting at it for a second, Hammock handed it back and said, ‘‘I wouldn’t know what to do with that.’’
It’s a car key. A simple car key. But when Hammock went into prison in 1994, keys were metal things you stuck into locks and turned. And this is just a key.
Often, the psychological turbulence of those first days or weeks is so debilitating that recently incarcerated people can’t even navigate public transportation; they’re too frightened of crowds, too intimidated or mystified by the transit cards that have replaced cash and tokens. In a recent study, the Harvard sociologist Bruce Western describes a woman who ‘‘frequently forgot to eat breakfast or lunch for several months because she was used to being called to meals in prison.’’
This sounds difficult, and debilitating enough, but dump on top the demands placed on the newly released and it becomes easy to understand why problems can be insurmountable.
They’re usually sent out the door with $200, a not-insubstantial share of which they often pay back to the prison for a lift to the nearest Greyhound station: An inmate might be released from a prison outside Sacramento and expected to find his way to a parole officer in San Diego, 500 miles away, within 48 hours.
You try it, and there’s a better than even chance you won’t make it. Require someone who has no clue how to navigate society to do this, and then, should he fail to appear at his parole office on time, smack him for the violation, send him back and proclaim that these criminals just can’t be rehabilitated.
Most of us have a passing familiarity with the prisoner re-entry problem, the inadequacy, or total absence, of transitional programs to help a newly released inmate navigate, become familiar with and survive massive changes in society that happened while he was paying his dues to society. But the scope and depth of the inadequacy is rarely felt by those who don’t have to go through it.
It’s everything. Simply everything. Add to it the experience of surviving prison, the raw material that went into prison, with its lack of education and social skills, and that only applies to the prisoners who didn’t suffer from mental illness. Kinda makes it look like they never had a chance, right?
But then they need to eat. And live. For those who are fortunate enough to find a program with room to take them in and put a roof over their heads, they still need to find a job. This probably wasn’t a strength of their going into prison, and things don’t improve on the way out. For one thing, they’re now ex-cons, and society hates them. If they’re on a registry, they might as well kiss their chances of ever gaining lawful employment good-bye.
Even those who are just your run-of-the-mill ex-cons have few places to turn. They can’t stay in programs forever, as they need the beds for the never-ending stream of new ex-cons coming out. But finding a job is hard today for a college grad. And they’re a prison grad.
In discussions of sentencing and recidivism, particularly when they rely on empirical analysis for support, the focus is on the nature of the crime for which a defendant is sentenced, and the likelihood that, after release 20 or 30 years later, the now ex-con will find a decent job to live out the rest of his life as a law-abiding citizen.
Nowhere in the numbers is there a place to note whether they turned a car key into a button. If we’re going to expect a lot from ex-cons, maybe we need to give them at least a fighting chance.