Changes: The Nuts and Bolts of Prisoner Re-Entry

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.

10 thoughts on “Changes: The Nuts and Bolts of Prisoner Re-Entry

    1. SHG Post author

      Not that there is something I think people should have said in the comments, but it’s always interesting to me when a post like gets few or no comments. Is that because no one has anything worthwhile to say, or no one cares. I really don’t know.

      1. Chris Ryan

        The honest answer for me is that you have a rule that we should always think about whether what we say would hold any interest to a CDL. As I am not a lawyer, I have little in the way that I could offer to the conversation from a legal perspective, so I try to limit my comments to either non-law topics (fathers day comes to mind) or topics specifically discussing the public impact of law related issues (making grand jury deliberations public comes to mind).

        I also know you dont like tummy-rubs, so I dont give them out either. I figure that even thou I do not hide behind an anonymous name, no one here really knows who I am, nor do they care what I really think.

        1. SHG Post author

          I appreciate that, and please don’t mistake what I said as suggesting that I want either empty comments, tummy rubs, “I agrees” or war stories. Sometimes, there just isn’t anything illuminating to say.

          My only point is that sometimes, people just don’t care about the topic of a post. Just because I do doesn’t mean anyone else has to give a damn. And from where I sit, it can all look the same so that I really don’t know what people are thinking.

          1. John Barleycorn

            “Sometimes people just don’t care.” Tie me to the length of that thought.

            It’s good to know that prison hasn’t fallen out of the top ten granite mountains in need of an excavator and some dynamite when you take score. Very pleasant to see you taking a prison run again lately.

            Queen? That selection would get you set up for five to ten lashes in some quarters, even with Bowie.

            Pardons are hard to come by. Walking through the gate is! Both ways a trip…

            You should spend more time with that while you continue on your quest to find simple justice. You might not be able to save them all, but one day all your efforts might balance it out and make sure even the guilty don’t lose their minds.

      2. Mort

        For me, it is because I know that I have nothing of any value that I could possibly add. Usually it is a post on a subject I know little about, and the information presented leaves me feeling more than a little ashamed that I’d never even considered it.

        These are also posts that I personally consider far, far to important for any flippant or irreverent comments. Some posts invite irreverence (like the folks at Netroots eating their own) while for other it would clearly do a disservice.

        And you make enough fuck of me for being an idiot, I don’t feel a burning desire to add to your workload by saying something *I* think is deep but you consider to be pablum.

      3. The Real Peterman

        The reason for my somewhat weak comment is that there is so much to say about this subject compared to what is actually said that I don’t know where to start. Convicts are people, and we.shouldn’t just throw people away.

  1. Ken Mackenzie

    Even without all the pressures you describe, most prisoners are released into an ugly part of the world. There is a thoughtful article on the IFLScience site about why many people take drugs but only a relative few become addicts. Crime often arises from drug and alcohol use, but the same point can be made about crime more widely:
    “In contrast the most vulnerable individuals in our poorest communities lack life skills and have networks that entrench their problems rather than offering solutions. Their decision making will tend to prioritise immediate benefit rather than long-term consequences. The multiplicity of overlapping challenges they face gives them little incentive to avoid high risk behaviours.”
    Or, as a friend of mine put it:
    “It’s like a rat in a cage. Give the rat nothing else good to do, and it kills itself with available drugs. Make it a little rat playground, and generally it can’t be bothered with the drugs.”
    The solution: Giving convicts opportunities most of them don’t deserve.

  2. Ken Mackenzie

    The Prisoners’ Aid Association in New South Wales collects and stores personal belongings for the term of the sentence. It is a small but effective aid to starting over.

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