The story was originally published in The Hard Journey Home: Real-Life Stories about Reentering Society after Incarceration, an anthology in the Think Outside the Cell Series. The publisher, Resilience Multimedia, has generously allowed The Crime Report to share. For more information, please visit www.thinkoutsidethecell.org
After thirty-two years behind prison walls, I headed for
life on the outside. I had forty state-issued dollars and
the scrapbooks I'd filled over the years with pictures of places
I dreamed of going, people I dreamed of meeting, and things
I dreamed of doing.
But once I returned to New York City, where I found myself
going most often was to a park bench. I would sit there gazing
at the Hudson River and wondering how I would ever make
it in society. I was seventy-three years old and alone. Both my
wife and mother had died while I was in prison. My son lived
in North Carolina; parole regulations barred me from visiting
him. Another relative lived in New York, but visiting her
would also have been a parole violation–I wasn't allowed near guns, and she was a police officer and kept guns in her home.
Like most long-timers, I didn't know anyone in the “legitimate
society” that I was now expected to embrace and thrive in.
All I knew was the 'hood and prison, which was an extension
of the 'hood. How would I ever be able to connect with any
of the mainstream people whom I'd been calling “squares” all
my life? How was I now to become one of them?
In those early months after coming home, I had only two
dependable companions. One was loneliness. It sets in quietly
in prison, and you accept it. But on the streets, it's palpable.
Th e other companion was fear. I was scared to death of life
on the outside.
After all, coming home had been unexpected. I'd prepared
myself to die in prison. I'd made my peace with it. I was denied
release by the parole board four times; when I would appear
at my scheduled hearings, the commissioners who held my
fate wasted little time projecting an attitude that said, “Don't
even sit down; you don't need to bother.” I concluded that
despite whatever I had accomplished in prison, I would keep
getting denied because of the nature of my crime. I had been
sentenced to twenty-fi ve years to life for a murder and robbery.
And not long after my arrest, while I was still in jail at Rikers
Island, I had attempted to escape. I was captured in the East
River. I was lucky; others who escaped with me drowned.
As I settled into years behind bars, I created a life that had
meaning. I became a scholar. I started classes and programs,
including those for men sentenced to life without the possibility
of parole. I encouraged other incarcerated men to study their situation in the context of racism and this nation's history; it
is no accident that the overwhelming majority of people in
New York prisons are black and Latino and come from only a
handful of poor neighborhoods in New York City. I organized
the men to work to change prison conditions from inside and
to stand up against disrespectful treatment at the hands of
guards and corrections administrators. I organized them to
own their power. Over time, this push for socially conscious
empowerment became a movement that spread from one correctional
facility to another in the state.
I reached a point in life where the only hard part about
growing old in prison was my concern that I would someday
be unable to protect myself against men with a predatory
nature. But one day, a corrections offi cer urged me to try for
parole one more time. He fi gured I might have a better shot
at it now that the new governor, Eliot Spitzer, was ushering in
what seemed to be a fairer approach to criminal justice than
that of his predecessor, George Pataki. So, I gave it a try. And
I was granted release.
As I whiled away hours on that park bench, I wondered if
I'd made a mistake. I actually wanted to go back to prison.
It's not that I didn't have the basics that are critically needed
upon release. I did. Th e Fortune Society, a nonprofi t organization
that promotes successful prisoner reentry, had thrown
me a lifeline with housing, employment, medical care. For
that, I was and remain deeply grateful.
But reentry is only part of the journey. Hundreds of thousands
of people in this nation leave prison and reenter society
every year, and far too many are doomed to be trapped in
recidivism's revolving door. Why? Because they don't reintegrate
into society. While they're warned against associating with
the same old people in the same old neighborhoods that led
them to prison, they are not equipped with the tools to make
new, supportive connections; they don't know how to build
new social networks and embrace a legitimate lifestyle. And
they don't know where to turn in order to learn.
I counted myself among them. Yet, I knew I needed to
reintegrate. And I wanted to–deeply. I wanted to become an
active member of a community and raise my voice on issues
that aff ected it. I wanted to participate in a range of social and
cultural activities. I wanted to become a valued member of
advocacy groups whose concerns refl ected my own. I wanted
At some point, I took a deep breath and tried to fi gure out
reintegration for myself. I tentatively dipped my toe into the
life of the city. I joined two other men who, like me, were
newly released from decades-long prison sentences and made
forays to a big supermarket not far from where we lived. We
were accustomed to prison shopping–basically checking off
items on a printed commissary list–and completely overwhelmed
by the wide array of foods spread out before us at
the supermarket. With our one cart, the three of us would
mainly just stand and gawk, so much so that a store manager
once asked us if there was a problem.
I would take the subway here and there. At fi rst, I was so
self-conscious that I thought everyone was staring at me and
thinking, “He just got out of prison.” I would look down at
the fl oor and literally break out in a cold sweat.
I started venturing to places in my scrapbooks. I love jazz,
and I began attending lectures, movies, and rap sessions at the
National Jazz Museum in Harlem. I always enjoyed myself,
but I didn't know how to strike up a conversation with anyone.
At the end of a museum event, I'd briefl y watch with envy as
others in attendance easily mingled with each other, and then
I'd leave. But as I walked down the street after one event, I
passed a woman who had been in the audience. She actually
stopped me and started talking about how she'd enjoyed the
event. It was a real conversation; it made me feel good. I began
to think of other places I might go, other people I might meet.
In prison, I attended meetings sponsored by the Quakers.
So, I found my way to the Quakers on the outside. Members
invited me to dinner; they took me out. Th ey helped me make
connections. I had also followed and admired the work of the
Prison Action Network (P.A.N.), an advocacy organization
that works on behalf of the incarcerated and their families
in New York State. I got involved with that organization and
soon became one of its leaders, lobbying legislators, meeting
with senior parole and corrections offi cials, and developing
programs for the incarcerated. I even helped to draft legislation
intended to help gain release for thousands of deserving
incarcerated men and women in New York State who keep
being denied because of the nature of their crimes.
My circle of contacts and friends grew ever wider. I created
a supportive social network. I became part of a community.
When I walked out of prison, I told the men I left behind
that I would not forget them. I told them that I'd be back.
And I have gone back, with programs, ideas, guidance, and
support. I would feel lost if I couldn't be there for them, in one
way or another. But as I head back to my new community at
the end of a prison visit, I give thanks that I made it out alive.
Think Outside the Cell Foundation! offers a wide range of programs for the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated and their loved ones–from publishing their writings and providing scholarships to sponsoring events that support successful reintegration. For more information go to www.thinkoutsidethecell.org