Early this morning as I sat at my dining room table drinking my coffee, trying to prepare myself for the day ahead, I found myself reflecting on my days in prison. It’s been almost three years and I still feel like I’m in the initial stages of reentry. I’m looking forward to the day when this will all feel normal: waking up in the free world with a ton of choices to make and no longer being affected by my distant past in prison.
It’s lonely in prison. Adapting to that loneliness has caused me to welcome being alone out here. I have a large family, yet I live alone in my one bedroom apartment and I enjoy it to the fullest. Sometimes I long for the sound of laughter and conversation, or an exchange of energy with others. But, for the most part I relish in being alone.
In prison there are so few choices to make. You already know that you will be wearing your prison issued uniform, and three meals will be served. There are no bills to be paid and no errands to run. Consequently, irresponsibility out here comes easily.
A lot of Returning Citizens end up expecting everything to be handed to them. They become complacent in the institutional setting and later don’t have a clue about how to live life beyond prison walls. Add to that a limited education and a lack of skills, and it’s no wonder that there’s an absence of ambition and many remain unemployed. Then, there’s the stigma and guilt to contend with. We really have our work cut out.
When I came home I didn’t even understand the cost of living. I was incarcerated from 1993 until 2011. When I went on my first interview and the supervisor asked me what salary I was seeking, I was dumbfounded. She was appalled when I said, “I don’t know.” She had no clue that I was recently released.
I didn’t know what minimum wage was or what the going rate was or a one-bedroom apartment. I didn’t even know the cost of a gallon of milk, or a gallon of gas for that matter. Moments like those were enough to make me want to clam up, but I pressed on. By the time I got my second job I knew how much I wanted to earn.
My lack of experience with basic life skills was challenging in the beginning. On campus, at the University where I am enrolled, I remember needing help with the simplest tasks on the computer. Sometimes asking for help felt degrading, but I refused to recoil.
Today, still when I drive sometimes, my anxiety rears its ugly head. The District of Columbia’s drivers have to be the most aggressive, rude drivers in the U.S. My sense of direction is still distorted, but I push myself to go places when I’m invited.
I’m making an effort to experience life to the fullest. If I don’t do that, as far as I’m concerned, I might just as well still be in prison.