I was released from prison Oct. 4, 2013 after 21 years inside.
Many people say the prison system is broken. Others say it isn’t broken, it does exactly what it was designed to do. Either way, those of us who leave prison leave shattered. And we return to loved ones who are just as shattered as we are. I spent 21 years educating myself and preparing for my release, but I could never have prepared myself for what I experienced when I got out.
After 10 years of freedom these are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned, to help people returning from prison, and the loved ones welcoming them home.
Loved ones need to be patient with us
It doesn’t matter how much time the returning family member has served; prison is traumatizing, and freedom can be overwhelming.
I thought I knew what my freedom would be like. I had plans and I thought that society would support these plans, but freedom is different after incarceration. After my return to society, I was restricted from resources and programming that provided me with a true opportunity for a second chance.
I was devastated and discouraged.
I can remember my mom asking me, “What are you going to do?” I didn’t have an answer. The last thing I wanted to do was to disappoint my mother again. I could see her concern and uncertainty wrapped in love. She didn’t have the answer either; expect to be overwhelmed with us being overwhelmed.
We need to be patient with our loved ones
Shortly after my release, my mom and I had a disagreement about my clothes being in the dryer too long. She was so upset that I didn’t understand what the problem was.
I was thinking, “Wow, shouldn’t she be happy that I am home to wash and dry my clothes? I am.”
She began to cry and yell. I was confused, until she said, “You don’t know what it has been like to live, to work, to go to family functions, without you!”
When I thought about what she said, I cried. I realized that not only had my incarceration broken her heart, it caused her a great deal of humiliation, isolation and embarrassment.
After my conviction on October 30, 1992, my mother left the courthouse at 26th and California without me. For 21 years her only child was in prison. It didn’t matter if I was innocent or guilty. What mattered is that she felt like she had been convicted of being a bad mother.
Returning community members, leave room for that hurt, humiliation, and embarrassment to rise up upon your release. They have carried it while loving and supporting you.
Leave room for grief on both sides.
I only knew one level of grief until my release: the death of a loved one.
During my incarceration, the death of my grandmother and my favorite uncle almost caused me to stop fighting for my release. Two of my strongest supporters were gone.
It took me some time, but I realized they had poured into me everything I needed to succeed, and I owed it to them to be the success they believed I could be.
After my release, the pain of grief hit me again – this time it was different and heavier than I could explain. Some of it was that I had returned home to a world without my granny and uncle, and knowing they died without seeing me free. I was also grieving the life I had missed, the life that I could have had. My mother was 21 years older – she was retired.
I was free and heartbroken. How could I put the pieces together with this grief?
I tried to explain it, but everyone kept telling me that I should be happy to be free. I didn’t understand why they didn’t get it. I was happy to be free again, but I also had so much to mourn. My mom grieved the grandchildren that I never had and the time she missed with me.
Embrace the T-word
I was sent to prison for 21 years. That means I spent more than two decades in a place that is broken, and that tried to break me without any real rehabilitation.
I was released into a society that continues to put policies in place that limit and impede my access to successful reentry and I am supposed to be a positive contributing member in society? Um, ok!
The truth is freedom, family support, a safe place to live, food, shelter, clothing and a job isn’t the cure for all that I had experienced. I needed therapy. My mom needed therapy. My immediate family needed therapy.
Families who are system- and justice impacted need a space to exhale, cry, and clear the air. Therapy is a seven-letter bad word in black and brown communities. We have to change this.
Often, these communities are already facing intersecting oppressions. A family member being incarcerated creates another level of oppression. Therapy isn’t a bad word, and all re-entry services should include individual and family therapy.
La Tanya Jenifor-Sublett is the peer reentry program director for the Chicago Torture Justice Center. She is also a social justice advocate, a public speaker and a community organizer.
Learn more about WBEZ’s Prisoncast! project for people in prison and their loved ones at wbez.org/prisoncast. Listen to the Prisoncast! broadcast on Sunday, Sept. 17 from 2-3 p.m. CT at 91.5FM, or at wbez.org.