The old strip mall across the street from Lorenzo Brooks’ childhood home in Norfolk, Va. was torn down long ago and replaced by a modern shopping complex. Nearby, Booker T. Washington High School, where he played football and basketball, has been leveled and rebuilt into a bigger version of itself.
Along the waterfront of the port city, tall buildings form a skyline that Lorenzo—returning to his hometown after 30 years in prison—had never seen before.
Amid the unfamiliar surroundings that awaited Lorenzo at the end of a recent seven-hour bus ride from New York City, his brother, sister and aunt welcomed him into their homes and helped him reconnect with his roots. They shared meals, leafed through photo albums and remembered old times.
“It’ll humble you,” says Lorenzo, 60, reflecting on the three-day trip that included tending to his mother’s grave with his siblings and his aunt, and showing up unexpectedly to surprise a niece and nephew he had never met at their work places.
He added, “It makes a big difference when you’ve got a support system coming out.”
Lorenzo, who lives at the Fortune Society in Harlem and works at a nearby homeless shelter for mentally ill men, said he had felt the pull of his hometown since he was released from Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York in September.
About two weeks ago—remembering that his late mother’s birthday was coming up on April 1—he decided on a whim to visit her grave and reconnect with family.
He discovered, to his disappointment, that not everyone was as eager to reconnect with him—at least not yet. Although he met with a brother, sister and aunt, two other sisters who live in the area and knew Lorenzo was in town did not make an effort to see him.
A third sister had made plans to see him, but went out of town at the last minute.
As Lorenzo begins to rebuild a life he left behind 30 years ago—when he was convicted of second-degree murder—he has agreed to let The Crime Report document his journey. In Part One of our series, Lorenzo meets with a job coach at the Center for Economic Opportunities. In Part Two he reflects on starting a new job.
Studies suggest that strong family bonds play an important role in helping former inmates successfully reenter society: Families can ease the transition from prison by helping people avoid homelessness and financial difficulties immediately after release.
But the extent to which the support of relatives influences someone’s successful reentry has not been widely studied, said Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“A family can be really pivotal”—not only in helping someone with the immediate, tangible needs of food and shelter, but also by helping them regain their identity and sense of self-worth, Jacobs said.
People coming out of prison tend to feel the stigma of incarceration as they begin reentering society, Jacobs continued, but that sense of shame can be lessened “if you are around people who can see your potential, your talents, who are encouraging.”
Nevertheless, family situations are complicated, and in many cases the relationships have been strained by distance and a prison system that makes visiting difficult, Jacobs said.
Sometimes, people coming out of prison find that the most important people in their support network are not close relatives—or perhaps not family at all.
A Changed Landscape
Ruby Coker, the sister who welcomed Lorenzo home, said each of the sisters who did not to see Lorenzo during his visit had her own reasons for making that decision—ranging from lack of transportation to feelings of embarrassment that a family member had been in prison.
But she told her brother that he should not let it bother him.
“I told him, ‘You don’t walk around feeling guilty about what people put on you,’” explained Coker, 69, a retired nurse.
Instead, she wanted to encourage Lorenzo to focus on people who accept him and could help him grow.
That included showing him the professional opportunities that are available to African-American men today, compared to 30 years ago, when he was in the workforce. She introduced him via Facebook to one of her friends, a professor at Norfolk State University—who in turn provided Lorenzo with links to people who might help him further.
“What I wanted Lorenzo to see is what black males are doing today,” said Coker. “He needs to wake up every morning with a positive attitude,” she said.
Lorenzo said he feels “a little disappointed” at the fact some relatives did not welcome him back home. “It caused a little tension in the family, too,” he added.
But the visit to Norfolk gave him, Coker, their brother Wesley “Lee” Brooks and their aunt, Willie “Francis” Savage, an opportunity to create new memories as they cleaned up the grave shared by Lorenzo’s mother and younger brother. They pulled weeds and raked, built a drainage system, and planted flowers.
Wesley, 59, could empathize with his brother, having been formerly incarcerated himself. One of the first things that stumped him after he got out of prison, he recalled, was the “new technology.”
So, when Lorenzo was released in September, Wesley set up a new Facebook account for his brother; and he and Coker added a cellphone to the package of clothes they sent to an aunt’s address in Queens, NY.
The highlight of Lorenzo’s trip was meeting a niece and nephew—both in their 30s—whom he knew only from Facebook pictures and letters. He knew from family that his niece works at the Olive Garden restaurant chain and his nephew at Sears, so he decided to surprise them at work.
He said the visits went well.
“I feel accepted by them, and it’s a good feeling being accepted by them,” he said. “That I’m not a stranger to them no more.”
Coker and Wesley had previously reunited with Lorenzo in December, when they both visited New York. It was the first time Coker had seen Lorenzo since she visited him in prison in the 1990s.
For Wesley, that had been the first face-to-face encounter with his brother in 32 years.
Both siblings, along with a pastor Coker knows in Norfolk, were among those who wrote letters to the parole board on Lorenzo’s behalf, lobbying for his release. But in spite of all the effort she, Wesley, and other family members have made, Coker said their family is not very close.
The siblings grew up in a family of eight children (six are still living), in a garden-style apartment in a public housing project on Fenchurch Street in Norfolk. Their father was an electrician and their mother was a nurse.
Lorenzo, named after a character in a 1950s radio soap opera, was seven years old when his mother died of cancer and the siblings went to live in different homes. That’s when he and his three younger siblings moved in with their aunt, Francis Savage, in North Carolina.
When they returned to Norfolk four years later, they lived with Lorenzo’s s father and his father’s girlfriend briefly, until authorities called in for a domestic dispute placed the children in foster care.
Lorenzo said he and his two younger brothers lived with one family for four years—then Lorenzo moved in with Coker and her family while his brothers remained in the foster home. He lived with Coker until he was about 18, when he left for New York.
Although Lorenzo has one aunt who lives in Queens, most of his family stayed behind, in Virginia—making it difficult to for them to visit and stay in contact during the 30 years he was incarcerated in New York correctional institutions.
When he was released from prison, he went straight to a homeless shelter, then set about beginning his life after prison—with little help from others.
Lorenzo said he sometimes feels that he is making more effort than others in his family, but “there is that eagerness to connect with them regardless of the circumstances.”
Coker said she wants her brother to keep things in perspective so that he’s not disappointed. She was happy to see, when she visited him in New York, that he had surrounded himself with people who seem to be a positive influence.
Although they are not blood relatives, they are a support system as well, she said.
“There’s no great family that’s sitting around waiting with a rainbow at the end,” she said. “I want him to be realistic.”
We’ll be carrying periodic reports about Lorenzo’s journey over the next several months. Next up, we’ll take a look at how Lorenzo has settled into his new community at Fortune Society. Alice Popovici is deputy editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.