By Jeffrey Deskovic
“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.
Reintegration into society following imprisonment, whether one was in prison wrongfully, as I was, or as the result of having committed a crime, is a very difficult experience. As many are aware, I was incarcerated for 16 years for a crime I was proven innocent of by DNA.
In the first 14 months of my freedom, my life’s travels have brought me into contact, and discussion with both those who have been released from prison, having also been cleared of crime, as I was, as well as with people who are now free, having been paroled. Therefore, I have an awareness of both dynamics, and more understanding of the bigger picture than might have gained from merely my own experience.
In some ways the experience is the same. And yet, in others it is quite different. I have discovered in my discussions with people who have never been incarcerated that there are many aspects of reintegration that escape most people. The thrust of this article is to take what I have learned from both my personal experience and discussions with others and relate it in such a way that any reader will be better able to understand. I do not presume to speak for everybody, for I know that people are different and therefore may perceive, and experience things differently. Nonetheless, there is consensus or many going through the experience of reintegration after imprisonment.
Upon being released from prison following years of confinement, an individual often finds himself in what seems like a strange and unnatural environment which, in some ways, parallels the world that they were once in, but in many ways does not, thus producing an internal feeling that the world on the outside is a parallel universe and that they are in an environment in which they really don’t belong.
There are different aspects to this. Most strikingly, advances in technology. For example, prior to my confinement, there were no cell phones, no Internet, DVD players, iPods, GPS systems, nor the sophisticated methods of banking that I came out to discover. Being unaccustomed to the technology had the effect of making me feel everyone else was operating on a different speed than I was. To make matters worse, in my own case, trying to learn the new technology was, at first, a slow and frustrating process.
Interestingly, some things are learned by unpleasant experiences; discovering that a debit card can be overdrawn; freezing a car engine by neglecting lubrication schedules. However, after a few things go wrong, it tends to produce an internal dread that something else will go wrong, that one is powerless to prevent. Some things, having been experienced, can often, but not always, be prevented the next time around. But then there is always the possibility that something else will go wrong.
I have found that when I go to towns and neighborhoods that I once knew, there are buildings and places that I am familiar with, and many things that I am not. Initially, this feels somewhat disorienting. It often takes a lot of time understanding where different stores are at in the new town in which one lives, including which products can be found where.
In my personal experience, when I need a particular item, the first obstacle is figuring out which store sells it, and then next is its location. In stores, there are very many different prices for similar products, and different quantities. I have no frame of reference with which to compare the products so as to know which product is superior, or which is a better buy. Of course, in addition, when it comes to purchasing things that I used to use, prices often seem very high as compared to when I used to buy them.
There are some situations in which I find myself uncertain as to social customs. For example, I never knew that using capital letters in emails is tantamount to shouting and therefore considered rude, or that when one is out with others, it is sometimes considered rude to answer your cell phone. I have discovered while out in restaurants that one should not cut up all of the meat before eating, that this is only done with children.
Then, again, simply getting used to freedom takes some adjustment, and even recognizing what one is allowed to do, and not allowed to do takes some doing.
Upon release from prison, family ties, if there are any, need to be reestablished. It is no way like seeing somebody one hasn’t seen in several months, and catching up with each other in 15-20 minutes of conversation. The experience is more like a time warp, where everybody else moved ahead while you remained frozen in time. My younger brother, who I saw a total of three times in 16 years, not only changed in appearance, but matured. We know who we are intellectually, but I don’t know who he is as a person, and vice versa. As he recently said, “When I see you, I act like we used to when we were kids, because I don’t know you. I don’t know what to talk about, and what not to talk about.”
I feel similarly weird after seeing cousins who were merely babies when I was last free, but who are now adults. Putting the pieces back together, and relearning who people have become is very hard even when there are good intentions. Often there are issues that have arisen, however, in the form of resentment and anger. Sometimes family members feel betrayed by the person having done something that caused them to be sent away. Sometimes the former inmate feels angry at family for having abandoned him while he was wrongfully incarcerated, having not looked out for him.
When one is incarcerated, they are in a most powerless position. The people who are free become your lifeline. When they don’t help, it often produces resentment. There is a readjustment that all family members must make, not only in terms of getting used to the new person and how to interact with him, but also in figuring out whether they will be a part of his life or not.
When I was first released, many family members came around, happy to see me. But, shortly thereafter they faded from sight, receding back into their own lives.
Making new friends can be very difficult. I am free now. But free to hang out with whom? Free to do what? In prison, there was a designated time for recreation, and each activity could be found in a certain place. Getting someone to play a game with was easy. From that, albeit through a cautious dance of getting to know people, associations from a distance were formed in which guarded, to a varying degree, conversations could be had.
In the outside world, obviously there is no such designated time and place, nor is it so easy. Most people make friends through work, college, a friend or two left over from high school, and friends of friends. I earn money from doing lectures at colleges, high schools, and other community organizations. I am never at the same place twice, unless an organization brings me back six months later. At college, I was 34 when most other students were eighteen through twenty two, the wrong age group for me.
Their idea of being friendly was saying “Hi” and “Bye.” To them I was a figure somewhat reminiscent of a parent, someone old and square. The idea that I could be fun was far removed from their minds. The few times I did things with a couple of them, it did not feel natural. Rather than being able to interact on a peer-to-peer basis, I felt more like I was babysitting.
Night school wasn’t much better. Although the students there were older, many were working 40-50 hours a week, going to college, and involved with a wife or serious girlfriend, possibly kids. They all had pre-established friends who they didn’t get to see as often as they wished. That left little or no opportunity for me.
During the time when I was supposed to be in high school, I was incarcerated. Friends of friends didn’t work for me either, because I was starting out with no friends. Because I feel younger than my 34 years, I tend to have a lot of pent up energy that I would like to let out through sports and other physical activities, but have few friends to do them with.
In some respects, some of the problems that I have encountered upon gaining my freedom are more severe than others may have experienced. In part, because of the fact that I entered prison in my young adolescence and emerged into a world in which I had no waiting former adult contacts. To some who did not serve nearly so many years in prison and who were adults upon entering, the reintegration process, understandably, may be substantially easier. In no case, however, is it a simple walk in the park.
Socializing with those who either do not have many of the same interests as I, or with individuals who were much older than I doesn’t work either. In the course of the last year and a half there have been many kind people who I have encountered along the way who at one point or another have invited me to dinner. While I appreciated it, I knew very well while I was with them that they were not people with whom I could repeatedly socialize.
Others with whom I have spoken, who share my circumstances, have identified with my experience of generally having no idea where to go to meet people. Being the nameless teammate or faceless opponent at a YMCA or other recreational activity just hasn’t done it for me, and although an activity may be fun and enjoyable, it usually lacks the human element. Thus, I find that I am by myself most of the time, free, but largely unable to enjoy that freedom.
As with many former inmates who emerge without a waiting relationship, finding a woman to know or possibly be serious with, is also a big challenge. When someone starts a conversation with me, I am fine. But I have no clue how to start a conversation myself, nor am I able to tell when someone is really interested in me or simply being friendly.
It is one thing for someone to talk to me, as when they are curious when they see me, perhaps during the meet-and-greet portion of a speaking engagement; it is quite another for them to want to be involved with me outside of that. Despite the fact that I have been fully exonerated, in many ways, I am perceived as an ex-con, and therefore someone to be leery of. I have had several people tell me that others told them to be careful of me, for although I was wrongfully imprisoned, some of the criminal ways had to rub off on me.
I have had others who viewed me as a social outcast. In this respect, despite my innocence, I have been made to share what paroled individuals must go through. Of course, a person on parole not only faces the same challenges, but may, in fact, have been innocent but not exonerated.
People, in some cases, thus have reason to be cautious. However, I know first-hand from my prison experience with people who made no bones about the fact that they were guilty, that there are many who have undergone transformations and truly wish to lead crime-free lives. The importance to these people, and all former inmates, of having people with whom to interact and socialize, cannot be overestimated.
As an exoneree, I was released, quite literally, with nothing. I was not even given the $40 that parolees are given upon release. There is no provision in the law to immediately help those who are cleared, establishing such basic needs as housing, cost of living expenses, education, mental health services, or health insurance. And while it is true that I am able to sue, civilly, and have, the litigation process is long, and the probable time table is between two and seven years.
I do not have work experience anywhere comparable to others my age, and cannot compete, at this point, for good paying or even decent jobs. And although I earn money doing lectures, that does not represent a steady source of income. It will be some time before I am able to achieve financial stability. Consequently, I have little disposable income with which to seek fun and recreation. Most persons on parole encounter that same problem, in addition to which they also have a criminal record to explain. Of course, holding dead-end jobs that pay very little money increases the temptation to return to crime in order to make ends meet. Needless to say, financial instability hinders the possibility of marriage and establishing a family.
It takes a lot of mental toughness and determination to forward with one’s life and not become consumed with prior incarceration, particularly in a case like mine where 16 years were wasted for nothing. Like many with whom I have spoken, I possess a determination to live life to the fullest extent, as many who have emerged have expressed, I need to look forward; and, in my case, attempt to change the system for the better so that others won’t have to go through what I did.
Yet it is not easy. In some respects it is harder for an exoneree than someone who was incarcerated for a crime they actually committed. I discovered many in prison were able to work themselves mentally into a place where they said, “I did this to myself, committing a crime, so I am not going to cry about it now. I have no one but myself to blame.”
Exonerees are not able to take solace in that philosophy because they know they don’t belong in prison.
For some parolees, particularly those who have been incarcerated for a long time, it becomes a challenge to make something of their lives, particularly in light of carrying a criminal record, which will pop up periodically in their face, requiring an explanation. Many others have said it is as though they were never able to put it behind them and able to move on, no matter how much time had passed.
I believe that, as a society, we need do more to assist those returning from prison to successfully re-integrate into society. For those who have been exonerated, there should be a sum of $15,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration to be immediately paid, independent of any monies awarded as a result of a legal action, to cover cost of living, housing, insurance, education, and mental health services. Furthermore, compensation by way of lawsuits should be fast-tracked and given priority on court dockets, because of the financial struggles the wrongfully convicted must face.
For both exonerees and parolees, there needs to be a system in place that helps those who need assistance learning current technology, as well as affording them access to education that will enable them to get meaningful employment. With regard to mental health services, assistance with readjustment, and recreational and social opportunities there need to be private foundations willing to provide such assistance in a clubhouse environment, similar to those available to individuals formerly hospitalized with emotional illness or addiction.
I think that society must be more opened-minded towards those who are either parolees or exonerees struggling to regain a productive position in society. Those on parole should be allowed to earn trust and prove themselves on a case by case basis and should not be stereotyped. Those who are exonerated should not be viewed through the lens of suspicion or treated as an ex-convict, for to do that is to make their already unfortunate situation even worse, in effect, re-victimizing the victim.
Jeffrey Deskovic, JD, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 7 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.
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