Back in the World Again: After 27 Years Behind Bars, Frustration and Joy

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Photo by VenusPetrov via Flickr

Once upon a time, the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB)–which has jurisdiction over a small subset of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences—had a joint policy whereby prisoners who have spent over 20 years confined for crimes they committed as minors were required to transition into the community in order to be freed.

Upon being found releasable, these prisoners had to agree to spend an additional year or more confined, beyond their minimum terms, moving through lower levels of custody—from Medium Security to Minimum Security to Camp to, finally, partial confinement for six months at a Work Release facility.

Through this entire time, they had to remain disciplinary-infraction free, following the dictates of correctional administrators with respect to reentry programming.

The policy governing this transition period is referred to as a Mutual Reentry Plan. It is better known as the Mutual Agreement Plan, or MAP, which originated in Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections in the 1970s.

Whatever the name or where it came from, the idea that prisoners who were confined as minors needed to ease back into society was offensive to me. Nobody slowly transitioned me to prison. I was thrown unceremoniously into an adult facility when I was a child, and prison officials were not bothered in the least.

As for release preparation, the statute that served as the putative basis for implementing this policy required that the DOC provide the programs and services necessary to prepare us for release—no later than five years prior to the expiration of the minimum sentence.

So, there seemed to be no legitimate bases to transition prisoners after they had already experienced five years of release preparation.

When I learned that I might have to transition after being found releasable by the ISRB I was aghast, quite frankly. Aside from the extra time that I would have to spend confined, I was convinced that the clauses contained in the MAP were little more than claw-back provisions empowering the ISRB to rescind a favorable parole decision—especially the proscription against receiving any disciplinary violation.

I had good reason to be wary.

When it comes to prison discipline, the US Supreme Court has made clear that “any evidence” is constitutionally sufficient to support a guilty finding. Therefore, were I to transition in accordance with a MAP, “any officer” could derail my release simply by lodging a disciplinary violation against me because innocence—in this world—is not synonymous with not guilty.

Furthermore, any fool who was imprisoned with me might feel emboldened to try something stupid since I would be deterred from delivering a situationally appropriate response. Chastising can readily be perceived as threatening behavior and could lead the ISRB to reverse course and decide to keep me confined.

Through a prisoner’s eyes, it is easy to see why the MAP is a dangerous thing.

Had the ISRB ordered my release in 2017 when I finished serving my 25-year minimum term, I probably would have gone along with a MAP out of jubilation and wariness. But an unfavorable decision led to outrage and incautiousness.

To channel my anger and focus my mind I made it my mission to destroy this policy.

The Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law was the forum in which I weaponized my pen by arguing that the MAP was leading to the unlawful confinement of prisoners who were similarly situated to me.

A year later, the Washington State Court of Appeals adopted my legal analysis and the MAP policy was invalidated.

The judge who sentenced me to life without parole when I was 14 years old wrote to congratulate me, saying, “You are already proving your future value to society. The Court of Appeals benefited significantly from your analysis.”

Months later, I was found releasable by the ISRB.

Confined since the age of 14—and now age 42—I would go straight to the streets in 60 days when my release address was approved. Had an observer who could read minds observed me during the period prior to my release she would have found my thoughts and actions curious, or alarming, depending on her understanding of the effects of stress, anxiety, and trauma.

My chest would get tight. My face would get tense.

Alone in the cell at night, I furiously dug in my nose, sometimes until it bled, obsessing over taking the Law School Admission Test.

I was plagued by involuntary muscle twitches as I worried about employment.

I experienced vertigo as I lay in bed trying to sleep.

It is noteworthy that I had a supportive family and loving fiancée waiting for me, money to get on my feet, marketable legal and writing skills, and a college degree. Nevertheless, I was still sleeping too much and disassociating.

I can only imagine what those who lack outside support or marketable skills will be experiencing during this 60-day waiting period—as they face being released after spending their teens, 20s, and 30s in penitentiaries.

One of the purposes of the MAP was to gradually reduce supervision and control over a prisoner’s environment and expose them to increased stressors so they can learn appropriate skills and behaviors to utilize once freed. The last thing officials want is for a prisoner—who has possibly been secretly anesthetizing the traumatic effects of long-term confinement—to snatch up a dope bag of bottles of booze when life on the outside becomes too difficult.

Mind-altering substances ingested by men with violent histories is a recipe for reoffending. Yet the nightmare scenario would be for one of us to grow frustrated, then angry, and then commit another violent offense.

I have felt these and other emotions since my release on October 28, 2019.

I grow frustrated doing simple things like packing bags for a weekend trip. I can suddenly cycle from crying silently on a bus—out of elation that I am free—to being consumed by rage when I think about prison.

When Transition is a Safety Valve

In retrospect, I realize that there was more to the MAP than a claw-back provision for rescinding favorable parole decisions. Transitioning prisoners under these circumstances gave them time to get their minds right, save some money in partial confinement at work release facilities (where they do not have to worry about paying rent), and to deal with reentry (from navigating the demands of competing family members and friends to applying newfound skills) at a measured pace.

But any prisoner who agreed to spend extra time confined for those purposes is a fool, if you ask me. The mission of any prisoner with sense is to get free—the sooner the better.

There is a solution that could satisfy the competing interests between a prisoner’s quest to obtain his liberty and enhancing public safety.

Prisoners who have been confined since they were teens could be found conditionally releasable a year or more before becoming eligible for release, then required to successfully transition to the community for the remainder of their minimum terms. This would address the ISRB and DOC’s duty to “ensure the public safety.”

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

It would also ensure that prisoners are not unlawfully confined because the transition would occur before they had a legal right to be freed—and thereby would not run afoul of the judicial decision that invalidated these agency’s first attempt to institute a MAP for prisoners who are subject to the Miller fix.

It is a mystery why neither the ISRB or DOC has lobbied to put this into practice.

Oh well.

I’m free.

We will now see if enduring 60 days of unremitting stress and anxiety while awaiting my release was enough time for me to hone the skills and behaviors to appropriately respond to the psychological pressure that is a natural component of reentry.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to The Crime Report and a paralegal in Everett, Wash. Originally sentenced to life without parole at age fourteen, he was released after 27 years of confinement. He welcomes comments from readers.

5 thoughts on “Back in the World Again: After 27 Years Behind Bars, Frustration and Joy

  1. Brilliant article with so much insight! Your writing ever changes the course of justice and society. Your transparency allows others to feel understood and not alone.

  2. Brilliant piece with so much insight. Your writing is changing the course of justice and society. Your transparency allows for others to feel understood. Thank you for sharing.

  3. My son has been down 33 years and with the passing of SB1437 he now has the chance to be a free man. I am anxious and elated at the same time wondering what it’s going to be like for him to re enter society w all the changes and more.

  4. It is widely believed among psychologists and criminologists that prisoners adapt over time to their environment. This, according to experts, is the reason for “adaptation” – a kind of withdrawal syndrome that the ex-prisoner faces when he returns home and as if does not understand how to live in complete freedom now. Any experienced prisoner knows that if people placed together in a confined space start to conflict, then absolutely everyone will suffer, therefore, conflicts are stopped at the root, and politeness and calm are in use. Good luck! [this comment has been condensed for space]

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