6 Brutal Things You Experience As An Ex-Convict
Our prisons seem to be less concerned with such goals as "preventing crime" or "fixing criminals" and more with "punishing those sumbitches like a naughty schoolgirl in a titty-flick." We spoke about life after jail with Wayne Giles, who spent time in military and federal prison, and Chris Cash, who spent his full sentence in a maximum-security facility. They told us that once you've been in jail ...
Even The Most Basic Things Feel Like Luxuries
Wayne wasn't able to turn a single light on or off during his time in prison, so once he got out, switches suddenly fascinated him. In his bedroom, he'd sit by the lamp and keep hitting the button, alternating between light and dark and reveling in his newfound power. "You'd be surprised how much you miss the little things like that," he says. He also hadn't seen carpet throughout his time inside, so he now kicked off his shoes and walked back and forth over it, the strange fuzz wonderful to his bare feet.
Step on the fuzz in prison, and you get thrown in solitary.
Even better than soft carpet on your toes is soft tissue on your ass, as Chris found during his reunion with non-prison bathrooms. Plus, proper bathrooms offer another luxury: privacy. In prison, the inmates improvised toilet barriers using sheets stuck to the wall with hardened toothpaste; this didn't work too well and never blocked the stink. Now, Chris loves pooping in solitude so much that he refuses to enter any public restroom. "I don't have to shit with other people anymore, and I choose to never do it," he says. "I will hold it all day long. It's a principle thing."
Besides, have you seen Taco Bell bathrooms?
But such glorious decadence isn't always a pleasure. In prison, Chris slept on a mattress just one inch thick. It was almost like sleeping on concrete. Once he was out, he returned to a huge, springy bed -- and found he couldn't fall asleep. So he slipped off and went to sleep on the ground, which seemed more comfortable to him. He repeated this, night after night, right up until he started dating. "Probably would have weirded her out," he explains, "if I got up after sex and slept on the floor."
Job Restrictions Suck For Everybody, Not Just Criminals
When applying for jobs "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" is the only question we're at all confident about. Especially because if you answer yes, you may as well fold the application into an airplane and launch it into the furnace.
"I'm sorry; we can't trust just anyone with the secret sauce recipe."
Chris has been turned down from a bunch of jobs because of the restriction against felons. Same story with Wayne, who finally had to turn to family connections to get him menial work in the back of a shop. Finding a place to live can be similarly hard: Wayne kept getting rejected until he finally turned to shitty alternatives that just happened to be populated by other former criminals. "Trying to stay on the right side of the law is hard," he says, "when everyone around you wants to keep breaking it."
"Welcome to Delinquent Estates! Lease includes firearm and mandatory gang affiliation."
An increasingly popular campaign is attacking these restrictions, and others are petitioning to get the White House involved. When millions of felons work worse jobs than they're qualified for, everyone suffers -- it costs the economy $60 billion a year in lost output, by some estimates. Wayne has experience as a military communications specialist. Coming out of prison, the only job he could get was cleaning toilets.
Being Released Is Like Emerging Into A Bizarre Future World
Prisoners have TV. They follow the news (along with soap operas and wrestling -- there are just so many episodes, so it's a great way to pass time). They learn about the world through a screen instead of firsthand, but hey, so do you.
Netflix, tragically, is still unavailable.
Still, some changes have to be seen to be believed. Wayne wasn't in jail that long and dutifully maintained a Wired subscription while inside, but he still walked out thinking razor-thin flip-phones were technological marvels. Then someone plopped an iPhone in his lap, and that was the end of that idea.
With Chris, he basically missed the '90s, so he walked out to learn cassettes (still popular in prison) had vanished from the civilized world. Plus, there was something called the Internet around. And other innovations, which you probably don't even think about: It was now possible to pay for your gas right at the pump. The fuuutuuuure!
Which was probably still less jarring than how much a gallon now costs.
Not Allowing Ex-Cons To Vote Could Be Affecting Our Elections
Last year, at age 40, Chris was legally allowed to vote for the first time. That's kind of weird for someone born and raised in the United States. But Chris went into prison in Virginia at 18, then came out to find you can't vote as an ex-con. Then in 2014, he moved to New York, where the law's different. "That simple act of voting made me feel a little more human," he says. "I was pissed for years that I couldn't vote."
So for those who don't vote because you won't walk five blocks: Fuck you.
These rules are arbitrary and vary from state to state. In Virginia, some felons can apply to get their vote back; in Florida and Iowa, all felons lose the vote permanently; in Maine, no criminals lose the vote, and they can even vote while still in jail.
These restrictions first popped up back in the 1860s and '70s. This was a time when the country was deciding how to handle 4 million newly freed slaves, and when the 15th Amendment gave them the vote (men, at least), legislators suggested taking it right back by denying the vote to felons, since ex-slaves kept being arrested for bullshit reasons. Today, the restriction keeps more than one in eight black men from voting nationwide (one in five black adults, in some states). They block 6 million people total, enough to change a whole lot of elections, including the control of the Senate throughout the '90s and definitely the 2000 presidential race.
So, in every election, someone wants to keep felons from voting.
There are campaigns to fix these bans, including a bill in the House. But it's hard to get the American public to give a shit about voting at all, much less the voting rights of criminals.
Parole Exerts Totally Random Control Over Your Life
"In some ways, being on probation is worse than being in prison," says Chris. "You have all the freedom to make your own choices, yet you answer to someone else and have to live by their rules. The [parole officer] can show up at your place of employment, drug test you whenever they want, search your home and vehicles without a warrant. It is horrible."
Picture everything you hated about living with your parents, but with none of the love.
Wayne recalls his year-and-a-half on parole as a series of bullshit forms he had to submit, letting authorities know about every mile he drove and every dollar he spent. He wore a drug-testing patch on his arm; this spat out a false positive when he had to take meds for a kidney stone.
He had to pass a kidney stone, but that is what he remembers. Think about that.
But maybe the weirdest part was the total ban on drinking alcohol. Alcohol is legal, he'd never had any kind of drinking problem, and his offenses hadn't involved alcohol in any way -- but the rules still said no liquor. "I might have drank all the booze when I got off parole," he recalls. "My liver cried a lot that night."
Your Relationships And Social Skills Fall Apart
People are usually surprised when they learn that Wayne's an ex-con, but most aren't judgmental. Maybe that's because he was in for drugs, and people are gradually realizing drug laws are stupid. "It's really just the most bigoted of people that take offense to it," he says. "The people who do are the same people who act shocked at people of different races marrying or at gays holding hands."
Still, most don't care at all: Wayne's grandmother came to visit recently, bearing an heirloom rifle as a gift. As a felon, Wayne couldn't accept the gun (he's a non-violent felon, but that's the law), but the news didn't shake grandma. She just said, "I don't care what he did in the past, as long as he's not in trouble now." The hunting rifle went to Wayne's mom, who'll pass it straight to his kids.
But her cookies went to him. No law against that ... yet.
The longer you spend in prison, the harder it is to get back to normal. Chris says the TV show Rectify is really good at showing how socially awkward prisoners are in the real world.
"In prison, almost everyone had a game or an angle," he says. "You become so used to it and on guard that it becomes second nature to always have that defense up. I carried that with me into the free world."
When his grandma brought cookies, Chris slammed the door in her face.
When Chris' second wife left him, she got full custody of their daughter easily. The last time he saw the girl, she was convinced that her stepdad was her father.
"I decided to back away," he says. "I figure one day, when she is older, she will understand things better, when she can think for herself and when she is not fed lies by her grandparents and mother. To them, I was and will always be someone who did bad things, did drugs, and went to prison."
Wayne's got a girlfriend now, and he's thankful for the support system he has. Chris lives next door to the town mayor, and he's on wife number three. He's at least dealing with his past with a sense of humor: "The running joke is that my wife went to Penn State and I went to the State Pen."
You can find Chris on Reddit under the username novaguy28, where he created and moderates the community /r/ExCons. Follow Menezes on Twitter for stuff cut from articles and other things no one should see.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Ways Prison Is More Horrifying Than Movies Make It Look and 6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks On TV.
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