Realities Of Returning To Society After A Long Prison Stint
Imagine you woke up one day to find several years had gone by in a blink. Maybe you were in a coma. Maybe you were in cryo-sleep. Maybe you angered a witch (it's probably that one). Whatever: If you had a job and a place to live, you don't anymore. Your friends have probably moved on. You feel out of place in the world. Oh, also, you have a giant tattoo on your forehead that says "desk-shitter," because you shit on a witch's desk, buddy -- not a good move. That's pretty much the same situation inmates are in, right after they're released from prison: Not only adrift, but with stigma attached. Luckily, there are people who help. We spoke to "Carla," who used to work at a correctional facility designed to assist inmates preparing for life on the outside ...
Inmates Are Let Out To Work In Public, And Return To Lock-Up After Their Shifts
"The federal government is fully aware that people who have been incarcerated for 10 years or more are not going to be able to walk out of the prison, hop online, and start filling out job and apartment applications," Carla says. That's why facilities like the one where she worked exist: "to slowly ease people out of prison life and back into the daily grind."
Otherwise, it'd be a straightforward transition from prison gang to regular gang.
Basically, in these facilities, inmates are allowed to leave to look for jobs, go to work, and generally pretend to be people again for a while. The idea is to avoid the all-too-common scenario where a former inmate gets released, can't find a job, and walks straight back into the meth lab. But there were a lot of hoops companies had to jump through to hire Carla's people.
"They had to sign contracts with the state submitting to searches (if called for), the supervisors had to agree to cooperate with DOC and DEA (the supervisor at a construction site ended up being prosecuted for harboring a felon and assisting in an escape attempt after lying to us about an inmate's whereabouts), and it was a pain in the ass in general," Carla says. "Hardee's employed three of our guys but they couldn't work the same shifts, they couldn't take their breaks at the same time, [and] Hardee's wasn't allowed to hire any other felons."
There goes our fantasy of Hardee's: Lawless Paradise.
Most fast food managers don't want to deal with a game of musical cons. So the government appeals to their greed and offers companies tax incentives to hire inmates.
"The program specifics may vary but trust me, most people don't realize that their cook at Red Lobster is leaving his shift at the end of the night to be patted down, UA'd, and locked in his cell for bed. The next day, he'll be released with his allowance to go to a movie or the library and he'll be searched, breathalyzed and sent to mess hall for lunch before his next shift."
"UA" stands for "Urine Analysis." It detects drugs and
that the guy that peed these is clearly not drinking enough water.
Oh, but that's not all free:
"Our financial counselor received their paychecks and disbursed the money to the facility (it cost about $350/month to go through the program for each inmate so 'rent' was paid first), child support, probation/parole, victims restitution, and court costs," Carla says. "IF there was anything left over, she would call a meeting with management and counselors and they would discuss a possible allowance for the inmate."
In other words, if the government wasn't too put out by you, you could maybe get a Snickers*.
There Are Pseudo-Prisons Right In Front Of You
These facilities are "usually nestled right in the thriving downtown shopping/entertainment districts of our cities," Carla says. "Our facility was in the middle of downtown in the historic district. It was initially an apartment building with a department store on the ground level."
Just don't tell the old ladies shopping down below,
lest they fall victim to severe pearl-clutching.
That prime location was necessary because "very few of these people had any kind of personal transportation and [our city] doesn't really have a bus system, so they needed to be in an area where they could find jobs they could walk to," Carla says.
It should be noted that they were, in fact, "allowed to have cars if they could afford them." That was occasionally a problem. See, there's a reason prisons are typically in the middle of nowhere, and inmates aren't issued go-karts: There were escapes, just ... constantly.
They did build a wall around the place, but they added a front door, and left it open
"A young psychopath broke into the accountant's office, stole the contact sheet with all our home addresses on it, and then disappeared," Carla says. "My supervisor drove straight out to my place because I lived alone and told me 'If he comes into your yard just shoot him. I'll be right there.' I don't know if he ever came to my place because I spent that week at my supervisor's house with his family."
Every one of whom we assume kept a gun under the pillow.
They took measures to mitigate the risk to public safety by making sure "there were no schools or residential neighborhoods nearby so sex offenders could live there" and asking local businesses that could prove to be a problem (mostly bars) not to serve the inmates. Still ...
"One of our worst pedophiles [was caught] in the grocery store two blocks from my house with two little boys [who] fit his victim profile exactly."
You're right to be skeeved out. If anything, slap on a few more skeeve-pelts.
These Places Can Contain Very Dangerous People
Although many transitional programs have rules barring violent criminals and sex offenders from participating, pedophiles were a constant problem at Carla's facility, comprising a huge chunk of its inmates. This was by design -- they were often moved to the transitional facility simply because they weren't safe in the general prison population. They were put on a floor with nothing but other pedophiles, women, and gay men, because ... those are basically all the same thing?
"I'm none of those things. Why was I assigned here?"
"It says here you're a My Little Pony fan."
Another popular way to end up at Carla's facility was to "serve more than 10 years in a state correctional facility and apply or be recommended to transition and finish your sentence early," Carla told us. That includes legitimate murderers and psychopaths, who were absolutely not ready to re-enter society.
"When there's a psychopathic rapist on the second floor and his file says 'episodes triggered by ponytail hairstyle,' don't forget to bun your hair before bed check because he's a fast motherfucker," Carla says. "Some of them tried to kill me, [including a] neo-Nazi who constantly threatened to kill me until he knocked up a black stripper with twins and I helped her sign up for public assistance."
"No, that's not the weirdest sentence I've ever uttered. That was Tuesday."
But not even he was as memorable as the honest-to-God axe-murderer.
"[He] was a bit of a mystery to me," Carla says. "I know he'd been in prison for murdering his best friend and girlfriend in 1979. He was young at the time, drunk and high. I'm not sure if he was initially sentenced 25 to life with a chance at parole or if an appeal got him a chance at parole, but he was eventually given a chance to go to our facility to get a chance at an outside life. His boss spoke very highly of him and the only real problems we had with him was a snap temper. He would very quickly become defensive and threatening with little or no provocation."
He had a bit of an axe to grind.
Incidentally, that guy totally escaped. Go-karts! Just a bad idea. (No, an axe-wielding maniac didn't actually giggle away in a funny-car. That was a metaphor; we'll get into this whole incident later.)
The Rules Are Nearly Impossible To Enforce
In the case of attacks and credible death threats, guards at Carla's facility could call 911 -- nobody working there had any actual legal authority -- and the inmate might be sent back to the pen. Major but non-violent infractions, like escaping, could mean more time on your sentence, but mostly staff used mom tactics on the inmates:
"Our axe murderer [who escaped] would have gotten two months of janitorial work and had his driving privileges revoked," Carla says. That seems hilariously petty and ineffective. Especially since minor infractions also "usually resulted in some kind of janitorial duty like cleaning the kitchen or shoveling the entire block."
The average hour, they had 47 janitors on duty.
Yep. Escaping axe murderers and chronic masturbators faced pretty much identical penalties. Obviously this did not stop them from masturbating:
"I would walk into a room where one guy was reading a book, one guy was listening to music, the guy from the wrong room would just be sitting on a bed and another guy would just be standing there stroking his pole, facing the door and grinning at me, all of them would just be taking in my reaction."
"Ugh. I'm going back to the pedophiles floor, where folks at least have some decorum!"
Just Getting Inmates An Education Can Backfire Spectacularly
In theory, "the counselors were there to provide individual counseling and work as a facilitator to get [the inmates] into college, help them with applications, help them navigate the washer and dryer (seriously), and make things easier for them if possible." However, "we had two counselors and 112 inmates in the facility ... so they had approximately two hours a month average with each inmate."
Wait, so they don't forge lifelong bonds with every prisoner?
It's almost like TV can't always be trusted after all.
When opportunities do present themselves, they often backfired.
"Only one of our inmates was ever enrolled in college courses," Carla says. "He was a con man and had scammed dozens of old people out of millions of dollars since he was in high school. He was polite, well-spoken, and well-mannered, and gave us zero trouble. When the school called to tell us he'd been caught in the computer lab communicating with unauthorized people online, we assumed he had a girlfriend (they ALL had girlfriends or boyfriends), but we looked into it. He was scamming old ladies out of their retirement money, telling them sob stories and having them 'help' him with college after his family had passed away. They'd wire him money to the Western Union on campus, he'd pick it up, I'm sure it all seemed legit. But he was going to school for free as part of an educational program to help convicted felons, so he had no school expenses and never did account for the money. The school later determined that he was also running a successful side business selling papers and test answers. [He] was definitely a business-minded man."
Today, he has a cabinet position in Washington.
If you're sensing a pattern here, you're not alone.
Most Inmates Come Right Back To Prison -- Sometimes On Purpose
"Less than 11 percent of our residents made it through the two-and-a-half-year program, not counting those that killed their final numbers [finished their sentence]," Carla says. The biggest problem was that people underestimated how hard it was "to get these inmates out of their roles as inmates and back into a role of being a community member."
Inmates often got out, only to realize they still didn't know how to live outside prison without committing crimes, so they turned back to crime, and -- sometimes intentionally -- back to prison.
"Ah ... Home sweet home."
"That axe murderer who made it out was picked up on a DUI," Carla says. "He was one of those guys our program was developed for, and one it was woefully unprepared to help. He was the textbook definition of institutionalized. When it came to operating in the world at large, he only had the experience of a 19-year-old before he was incarcerated. I wasn't capable of making solid life decisions at that age, it was only through experience and trial and error that I figured out how to pay my bills and not to eat spoiled food and how to use a cell phone; experiences he never had the chance to learn from once he was inside. I can't imagine how overwhelming the outside world was to him."
In the end, "when they found him, he was at the same bar he used to hang out in in his tiny hometown. He didn't know anyone and he had nowhere else to go. He didn't have any idea how to live a life outside so he just waited for them to take him back."
And even for a model inmate, old habits can die hard: "One man who had worked in the prison kitchen before coming to our program [also] worked in the restaurant at Red Lobster, and was accepted as an apprentice under a chef at a local convention center," Carla says. "He really loved his work and was actually a very good chef. He went on to run the kitchen at a historic hotel -- until he was caught with heroin in a flophouse."
It was cooked perfectly though.
"I heard they sent him back to prison for it, but that was after I quit."
We know this all sounds intensely disheartening. But there's good news: These programs can work! Just not without proper funding and implementation. Which is the bad news, since literally everything we just talked about here implies we have neither.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Brutal Things You Experience As An Ex-Convict and 6 Ugly Things I Learned About American Prisons (As A Guard).
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