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On Leaving Prison: A Reflection on Entering and Exiting Communities

Formerly incarcerated people suffer from losing their community twice — first while entering prison and again while leaving it.

Formerly incarcerated people suffer from losing their community twice — first while entering prison and again while leaving it. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Part of the Series

This story is the sixth piece in the Truthout series, Severed Ties: The Human Toll of Prisons. This series dives deeply into the impact of incarceration on families, loved ones and communities, demonstrating how the United States’ incarceration of more than 2 million people also harms many millions more — including 2.7 million children.

Returning from prison after 20 years has been nearly as traumatizing as being in prison for that length of time. Trying to rebuild my life and reunite with my family after my long absence from their lives, and to keep my sense of self that I’d managed to reclaim while in prison, has been daunting and difficult. The community to which I returned was so different; after 16 months out of prison, I am still struck by how much changed during the time I was incarcerated.

I’m from the Uptown neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. Those of us from the north side have called it the North Pole for decades. Most of the families I knew while growing up are gone. Buildings I knew well are no longer there, and the ones that remain are largely unaffordable. My own family no longer is in Uptown; they moved out of state in 1998 just before I was sentenced to prison. A few of my favorite places are still around: It is a comfort to me that the Uptown People’s Law Center — a nonprofit legal organization that specializes in prisoners’ rights, tenant rights and Social Security benefits — is still in Uptown, and Jake’s, a restaurant I’d gone to since childhood, is right down the street from the law center. So much, however, is gone. The times when I feel home, when I feel free, are few and far between.

The Communities I’ve Lost

I’ve lost two communities. The first is the one I grew up in, sitting on the lake, walking along “the rocks” just off Montrose Beach, being a student of the long-gone Uptown People’s Learning Center, working with the Heart of Uptown Coalition and the Chicago Area Black Lung Association as a teenager, going to the movies with my friends at the Uptown Theater and the Riviera, and buying my favorite music at Topper’s, a record store in the midst of what used to be a bustling shopping district. There was Survival Day, when the whole of Uptown would gather on the mall to celebrate another year of survival of our community.

The other community I’ve lost is the one I was a part of in prison. I was part of that community for so long — almost as long as I lived in Uptown. It was a community composed of deep, abiding, loving, affectionate, mutually beneficial, supportive friendships and kinships. Our solidarity was borne of shared sorrows, grief, guilt, shame about our pasts, regrets for our failings. Together, we suffered the indignities of being in prison. Out here, I am missing my prison family as much as I missed my family while inside.

Prison is a society, a community, as much as any other that exists in the “free world.” As with any society, there are communities within the larger community. While in prison, I was in a theater troupe, Acting Out Theatre. The women in that troupe were sisters, friends and mothers to me. We laughed and cried and argued and comforted one another. This community extended outward — to cellmates and friends who weren’t in the troupe but would help me learn my lines by running lines with me on the rec yard or in the shower room after lock-up time.

One of the women in my troupe had her cell shaken down by correctional officers, and contraband was found in her cell. She and her cellmates were told that if no one claimed the contraband or told whose it was, the four of them would be taken to solitary. One of them took responsibility for the contraband, though it was not hers. She was a friend of many of us in our theatre troupe. She knew how important being in the troupe was for all us, and how the women on the grounds looked forward to the troupe’s performances, and so she decided to claim responsibility for the contraband in the hope that the troupe would not lose a member. That is community at its best: acts of solidarity and a sense of responsibility and caring for everyone in the community with you.

My membership in the theater troupe gave me more than community and meaningful relationships in prison — it also helped me to be in relationship with my youngest daughter. During my time in prison with my troupe, my youngest daughter was in high school, participating in theater. We had something in common, something to talk about in our few letters and phone calls. We’d compare experiences, talking about troupe dynamics, how we prepared for our roles, and even costuming and set design. At one point, she and I were performing in our respective troupes’ productions of Shakespeare; my daughter played Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I was Don John in “Much Ado About Nothing.” She sent me pictures of herself in full costume from a couple of the productions she had a role in, which I shared with my troupe with more love and pride than I can ever write about. My baby girl is so talented, intelligent, creative and beautiful, and our respective theater communities gave us the chance to connect. I always looked forward to our letters and conversations about theater.

Since my release from prison, we do not talk nearly as much as we did during my last few years in prison. My return to “community” has distanced me even further from my youngest daughter. This breaks my heart. I wish and hope to remedy this disconnect, but how? Outside of the context of our theater communities — and with no shared community — what route do we have to build a connection? I have told her that I am here for her whenever she wishes to try to rebuild our relationship, but want to respect her boundaries, so I will not force myself into her life.

How Prison Separated Me From My Children

My youngest daughter was one year old when I went to prison; she was 21 when I was released on parole. It was only in the first couple of years of my incarceration and my last couple of years that I had any steady communication with my family. I was in Cook County Jail from 1995 to 1998. During that time I was able to see my daughters nearly every week — from behind a plexiglass window, but still, I saw them. After my conviction, my family moved out of Illinois, and the strongest connections in my life were suddenly broken. From September 1998 to December 2015, I saw only one member of family, one time. My oldest daughter came to see me in August 2013. We’d planned visits several times before and they’d always fallen through; I had all but given up hope.

Then, she and I were in the visiting room, along with my two grandchildren, who before then I’d seen only in a few pictures. I was overjoyed and afraid at once. What if my daughter didn’t like me? What if she didn’t recognize me? After all, I hadn’t seen her since 1998 while in Cook County Jail, when she was 10 years old.

Now, my oldest daughter and I have a fairly solid relationship, though we have had to work hard for it. I am happy to say that we talk on the phone nearly every day. We have seen one another. I have spent time with my four grandchildren, and it has been frightening and beautiful. I was afraid to hold my youngest granddaughter for the first time, when she was six months old. I’d forgotten how small babies are.

My children and I have been separated by miles and years. We have been separated by my actions and my failure to act. My daughters have their own feelings about my having been absent so long, and that is their story to tell, not mine. I have never forgiven myself for being gone from my children’s lives, nor do I expect that anyone else will. I hope, but do not expect. Indeed, no one can or will ever hate me as much as I have hated myself, nor can anyone judge me more harshly than I have judged myself.

Of course, there are those who will continue to judge and condemn me, and anyone else who has been in prison. This makes the return to community even harder.

Struggling With Re-Entry in the Absence of a Caring Community

I have met hundreds of people from many different organizations purporting to be allies of incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated people in the 16 months I have been out of prison. However, the people whom I can call on for support are few in comparison to the number of people and organizations I’ve come across. I have come to believe there is a difference between ally and community. The idea of allyship to me seems to suggest a temporary connection — once a shared goal is accomplished, all the people involved go their separate ways. It is practical, yes, and necessary to have allies in any movement, but to me allyship feels very dry and dispassionate.

To me, community means something different. Within community, there is shared responsibility and accountability, caring and connection. It is understood that the health, happiness, success, security and stability of the community is directly connected to that of the individuals within it. In community, support is given where needed. Solidarity is lived, not just a word spoken.

Returning to Chicago from prison, I quickly discovered what a lack of community feels like, and what dangers it poses. I paroled to a halfway house. Ostensibly, this placement was meant to help me reintegrate into society, but in fact, it hindered me greatly. I had no sense of belonging to a community, no feeling of being supported or being able or welcome to ask for guidance to this new world to which I had come. Neither did I feel that the halfway house was an ally. The process of getting my ID and fulfilling other requirements of parole (which, if left unfulfilled, would mean a parole violation and potentially a return to prison) was overwhelming, nearly impossible to navigate. I received no help from the halfway house.

It was only through the Uptown People’s Law Center — still in my life, after all these years — and my case manager at Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities that I was able to get my ID and fulfill those other requirements. While living at the halfway house, I felt constantly under threat because I questioned some of its policies. While living there, I was constantly afraid of being sent back to prison. Other residents felt the same way. We did not feel safe or supported there, but we were stuck. Anyone familiar with how parole works knows that one cannot just leave while on parole.

While at the halfway house, I refused to say the Serenity Prayer during Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. While I understand that AA and the Serenity Prayer may work for some people, it is not for me. I had no significant history of alcohol or drug abuse, and attending AA or any other substance abuse treatment program was not a part of my parole stipulations. I am not religious in any way. I asked why I was required to attend AA. This was not well received, either.

Meanwhile, we finally managed to persuade the halfway house to bring in a counselor to run a group for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, but it ended abruptly after the counselor refused to hand all her notes over to the halfway house staff, citing the right of therapist-patient confidentiality. Our group met three times; then it was gone.

While in prison, I was fortunate enough to participate in many groups and classes, earning certificates relating to reentry, domestic violence and healthy relationships, critical thinking and many others. My achievements were dismissed by the director of the halfway house: She told me that they meant nothing.

Rediscovering Community Through Restorative Justice

However, there were a couple of good things that happened at the halfway house. Two women, one from the restorative justice community, the other from the Unitarian Universalist Church (a nondenominational church), came to speak with me. This was not arranged by the halfway house, but through the Uptown People’s Law Center. In talking with them, I found hope, coming to believe maybe I did have a place out here. I was invited to attend restorative justice circles, eventually becoming a restorative justice “circle keeper” (a facilitator of restorative justice processes aimed at healing and repairing harms). I felt at home in these spaces, particularly since I’d taken part in a peace circle training while at Logan Correctional Center. I was also invited to a meeting with the Unitarian Universalist Prison Ministry of Illinois, where I was requested to help design the restorative justice circles that are now being held weekly in Cook County Jail and soon to be held in Logan Correctional Center. These circles are radically inclusive, welcoming to all regardless of race, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. They include readings from Starhawk to Kahlil Gibran. In the conversation around choosing readings, I was not condescended to or patronized. My contributions and input were welcomed and respected, and my being and my selfhood were never diminished. These were the spaces in which I finally felt free.

Being a part of these communities has helped me to reintegrate, to belong, to be truly free. Even though there were a few people within each community who questioned whether “violent offenders” (a label that could be applied to me) have a place within said communities, at no point was I made to feel unwelcome. Rather, when this question of “violent offenders” was raised, the larger community reassured those who were raising the question that yes, people like me belonged in their space. In arguing for my inclusion, they cited two principles of Unitarian Universalism: the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we all are a part.

The principles of restorative justice are very similar to the principles of Unitarian Universalism. As much as anything else, these principles are both about accountability and taking responsibility. Restorative justice is about caring for one another and addressing harm in such a way that the heart and humanity of both the victim and offender are affirmed so that there can be true reparation of harm.

A person who has committed a violent crime is not always a “violent person.” Too often the criminal legal system ignores the totality of a person’s life in deciding who is and is not violent. This happens even in spaces occupied by people claiming solidarity with those caught up in the criminal legal system.

Restorative justice understands these truths. Within a restorative justice framework, everyone understands that the health of a community is intricately bound to the health of all its members. And in this frame “health” is defined broadly, meaning emotional and mental well-being, social and economic stability, happiness, solid relationships within the community, a sense of pride in one’s self and in the community, and the freedom to live and learn and love without fear of judgement or recrimination.

Within months of being released, I also became involved with the LGBTQ prison abolition group Black & Pink, first through speaking at a letter-writing event held by the group along with Love & Protect and Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration. The event was a show of solidarity with Bresha Meadows and others who are incarcerated. I am proud to say I am now an organizer with Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration. To be in a space where I am welcome, where my thoughts and feelings are not dismissed but heard, and where I can engage in authentic conversation, is such a gift. Since that time, I have become friends with people in Black & Pink, the restorative justice community and the Unitarian Universalist Church. These are not just allies. They are my radically beautiful community, and I am grateful to have found them.

There are so many of us in prison who have wished and cried and prayed to undo the past, to change things and do them differently. We’ve done this wishing, crying and praying even while knowing there is no going back — and so, we’ve also wished for the chance to live our lives better, for the chance to make things right. How can we do this if we have no community to help or guide us?

In a true community, all of these concerns can be spoken and addressed and alleviated, because everyone is valued. No one is thrown away or disposed of. When we talk about the “reentry” and “reintegration” of people coming out of prison, that critical component — real community — must not be forgotten.

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