Opinion

Bill Packard: Challenges faced after years of incarceration, one example

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 9:00am

I met Carlos at a personal development event in California several years ago.  We broke out into small groups sitting around tables and sharing challenges and goals.  When it came to Carlos, he stated that he really wasn’t prepared for this question as he “just got out in February.” 

We moved on to the next person, but there was something about Carlos, so I asked if I could join him for lunch.  I found out at lunch that in February, he got out to prison after 22 years.  He went to prison for murder at age 16.  Carlos didn’t actually murder anyone but was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Nevertheless, there he was.

Carlos’ time in prison was pretty tough for him for a while.  Always challenging the system.  Solitary confinement.  Eventually, he found some support and guidance, took responsibility for what he had done and where he was, and went to work.  Carlos and I have stayed in touch. The recent news articles about the reentry house in Rockland prompted me to share Carlos story.  Not the story of how he got to prison, but what it was like when he got out.

They let him out the gate with some money and his personal belongings.  He was a teenager when he went in and now he was approaching middle age. Fortunately for him, there was a reentry house operated by former inmates that offered him affordable housing. He settled into his room and that evening as he started to get hungry, it hit him that for the first time in 22 years, nobody was going to cook his meal.  The residents of the home were supportive so while he hadn’t paid into the food kitty yet, he had burgers with them that evening.

The next day, he needed to go shopping for some essentials so down to the local store he goes. When you’re in prison, the prison store is open certain hours, but if the prison is on lockdown or you’re in solitary, you need to have extra essentials to get you through.  Toothpaste.  When Carlos went down the toothpaste aisle, it was the most toothpaste he had ever seen in his life and he started filling the cart.  That’s when he realized that he could go buy toothpaste anytime he wanted. He put all the extra toothpaste back.

After Carlos got a grip on things in prison, he acquired valuable skills and contributed a lot to the record keeping in the deputy warden’s office, but he was on the outside now and with the help of a supporter, got a lead on a job, so he got an application.  There are questions on a job application that most don’t think about but were a challenge for Carlos.  They asked for work history and references.  Just let that sink in for a minute.  I’ll wait.

Carlos listed his job in the deputy warden’s office but didn’t mention that he was an inmate.  He also used the deputy warden as a professional reference along with some other guards he worked for.  Again, he didn’t mention that he was an inmate.  He didn’t lie.  They didn’t ask, and he didn’t offer.

He was scheduled for an interview and told to bring his driver’s license or another photo ID.  He had neither.  Just go to DMV and you can get an ID.  He had no idea where DMV was.  No license and no car, so he has to figure out what bus routes to take to get to where he needs to be. 

He got his ID and got the job. 

After a little while on the job, he shared his frustration with me that he had some great suggestions to improve the way they did things, but his superiors were not responsive.  I had to share with him that while he was 38 years old, he still had the impatience of a 16-year-old, and he needed to gain his superior’s confidence before they would be responsive to his ideas.

Carlos not only got his license, he got a great job, got married, had a child, and recently became the dad of twin boys. 

I’m not certain he could have done it on his own, because there was no official support for him when he was released. As people look at the proposed reentry house in Rockland and perhaps others, I would hope that they would think about Carlos and the challenges one faces when they are integrated back into society after years of incarceration. Small things in our minds, but huge challenges to someone in Carlos’ situation. Challenges large enough to make them give up and go back to the life they’ve known on the inside where everything is provided for them. 

It’s not what they want and it’s not what we want, but without support and alternatives, it may be the choice they make. If people feel wanted, and find reward in what they do every day, they usually succeed. 

I’m not taking sides or advocating for anything in Rockland. That’s not my business, but I hope that by sharing some of Carlos’ challenges, people will realize that support is needed and that support will likely bring success to all. I shared this with Carlos and replied that he didn’t know if he would have made it without of the halfway house that supported him.