From Reentry to Reintegration


The following is by a formerly incarcerated man in New York, NY, who writes about his struggle to build a life on the outside after more than 30 years in prison.

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

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

to belong.

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

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