Imagine you are abducted into a cult, you wake up the next day with a whole new set of norms and rules to follow, you don’t know anyone around you, and everyone is dressed alike. You find yourself enclosed in a small community with a school and a church on the compound. What if you stayed there for years then, one day, someone opened the gate to the community you were living in and
Or, imagine you are stranded in a foreign, impoverished land, you are lacking your luggage with all of your credentials, and you are completely lost with no way out. Eventually, you find your way, you adapt to the new culture, the new patterns that are repetitive, tedious and grueling. Then, one day a ship comes in and you board it and return to your native land.
Or, imagine you wake up after a bout with amnesia and realize you are in a small remote town with so few people you can count them, one stop light and one small convenient store at the corner. There are no cars, computers, or shopping centers. You fail to recollect your past until years go by and one day it all comes back. You are able to leave the small town and return home. Imagine!
That’s sort of what being incarcerated and getting released from prison is like. Add to that the humiliation of being counted like cattle daily, being strip searched occasionally and being subjected to the most severe forms of degradation. When individuals are released from prison they often feel like foreigners in their own land. They can feel lost, abandoned and alone. On many occasions people are released with no birth certificate, social security card, or identification card. While incarcerated many people lose loved ones to death, divorce and the foster care system. Often, the life skills and development of an individual are limited and arrested. There is an inability to have experiences that foster growth and progress.
Life in prison is mundane and structured so severely that it causes psychological damage to prisoners. Many people escape the reality of prison by joining organized religion, participating in educational and therapeutic and exercise programs. Others escape through reading and watching television. In rare cases, people escape by using drugs: psychotropic and illegal.
For the first five years of my incarceration I smoked marijuana almost every day. I was overwhelmed with my present reality. I was 19 years old and serving 20-60 years in prison. I was confined with few resource and opportunities for growth. I was traumatized and depressed. Eventually, I completed some programs and stopped using drugs, I began to adapt to my circumstances; and then, I was released, 18 years later.
When I came home, I saw a cell phone for the first time. I was awe struck when someone took my picture, and posted me on the world-wide web, on Facebook, within seconds. I was stunned when I saw someone swipe their credit card on a street corner at a bike stand, extract a 10-speed bike and ride off with it. When I went into an establishment to apply for a job and the manager escorted me into a small office area and instructed me to complete the job application online, I was dumbfounded. Seeing someone pay for gas without ever talking to a gas station attendant, seeing someone use their cell phone to pay for parking rather than depositing coins into a machine… All of this was stunning. Coming from my old incarceration world where everything was archaic, stale and uniform, into this new world with tons of amazing stimuli and advancing technology, was truly something fascinating. Two years later, I find myself still being impressed everyday as I wake up with renewed energy and an excitement for life that most people may never have. I am so grateful. Imagine.